Grumbling in the Desert: 5 Tips to Not Complain During the Waiting

Jeannie Ewing

Grumbling in the Desert: 5 Tips to Not Complain During the Waiting

“Think back on the days of old, reflect on the years of age upon age. Ask your father and he will inform you, ask your elders and they will tell you: He found them in a wilderness, a wasteland of howling desert. He shielded them and cared for them, guarding them as the apple of his eye.” – Deuteronomy 32: 7, 10

They didn’t know their exodus would lead them to an exile – a wandering for forty years, some of them never receiving or even observing the fruits of their trials. The Israelites are an ideal example of the drawn-out, painful process of waiting in what appears to be nothingness. It is easy for us to understand why many of them complained when their experience, year after year, was more of the same – testing and tribulation. God’s promise became more and more of a distant memory to them.

In the New Testament, we often hear the gospel passage about Jesus entering the desert for forty days to fast and pray before he began his public ministry. This is also vital information for us, because it leads to the conclusion of the Israelites’ seeming aimlessness. Jesus always fulfills in us what the Father has begun.

We can look to the number forty for its biblical significance:

  • 40 years represents the time it takes for a new generation to arise (see Numbers 32: 43);
  • 40 as a general number in Scripture appears 146 times and represents a period of trials and testing (like the Israelites’ exile) occurring before a season of fruitfulness and flourishing (as in, the onset of Jesus’s public ministry);
  • 40 can also symbolize humility and humiliation – God allowed the Israelites to be harassed and dominated by certain enemies in order to chastise and humble them for their sins;
  • The number 40 can signify new life, new growth, transition, transformation, or a change from one great task to another;

Words associated with the number 40 in scripture include: repentance, newness, preparation, self-examination, transformation, task fulfillment, nourishment, growth, personal fulfillment, redemption, salvation, new generation, and new life.

The spirituality of waiting points to the unfulfilled part of us – the longing, the pining, the hungering for God to complete the good in our lives we have hoped for. In our own spiritual deserts, we may find ourselves much like the Israelites – lamenting and doubting God’s promises and perhaps even his love.

We tend to complain when we wait, because we do not see what God is doing in and around us. He often chooses to leave us blind to this work, because we must learn to grow in virtue, particularly patience and perseverance. Both can bear significant fruit in our interior lives if we allow them to unfurl during the trials of waiting for something to move, change, or happen.

How we wait can determine whether we tend to grouse or be grateful. Nearly everyone is tempted during spiritually arid seasons of their lives. And the longer we feel stuck in the emptiness and barrenness of God’s apparent absence, the more the devil attempts to lure us with captivating lies that lead us away from fidelity to God.

There are two types of waiting in the spiritual life – active and passive. Active waiting composes very few of our experiences but tend toward the obvious anticipation and joy of what is to come. (Think Advent and the beautiful Mysteries of the Annunciation and Visitation.) Passive waiting carries the bulk of our human suffering, because we often feel helpless and lost when we cannot control our circumstances. (Think the exodus of the Israelites, Lent, and, more importantly, Jesus’s Passion and Death.)

We are quick to find a remedy or even a cure for our spiritual agony when we enter a dry spell we did not anticipate and don’t understand. But God has drawn us to the desert. It is in this poverty where we learn the gift of dependence, the value of community, and the purpose of our brokenness.

Waiting with purpose involves deliberate attention to how and when God chooses to speak and act in us. We must learn to discipline ourselves to attune to his musings. In my book, Waiting with Purpose, I discuss a five-step process on how to wait, rather than complain, when we feel stuck in our spiritual growth:

  1. Listen
  2. Ponder
  3. Pray
  4. Prepare
  5. Act

Listening is an obvious first step, because we cannot determine where God is leading us without first pausing to hear that “still, small voice” within us. Listening can only be done in silence. It is there where God speaks most clearly and profoundly.

While we listen, we turn to Our Lady as an example on how to think about God’s message. We ponder deeply and begin to ask him questions for clarification and confirmation. God does not always direct us on a clear path; many times the mysterious ways he chooses to work in our lives leads to a greater love on our part, because we are making more of an effort to stay with him.

Next, we pray. We can spend so much time repeating words, but what it means to pray here is to tend to matters of the heart: What are my deepest desires? What of these desires remains unfulfilled? Am I broken or hurting in any way? Confused? Frustrated? Overwhelmed? This is the time to bring all of those to God, relative to the ways he may be speaking to us through scripture and the sacraments.

Prepare. Over time, sometimes several years, we may determine a pattern forming. This is the point when it is prudent to seek spiritual direction. If God is asking something of us that is unusual or requires much, we should remain open and ready to act, yet cautious in that movement.

Finally, we act. Action always follows a season of waiting – the number 40 means trial and testing (the grumbling in the desert) but also fruitfulness and fulfillment (when God brings about something new in us). It’s important to remember that our spiritual lives always cycle through consolation and desolation, waiting and activity.

Suffering is currency; when given to God, it becomes a token of love. He eventually rewards us with the riches of consolation from time to time and periodic reprieve. But when we grumble and squander suffering, we lose the eternal value of its potential to compound and multiply. And what little remains of worth is quickly spent.