Nature and Nurture
Exodus 16:2-15 and Exodus 17:1-7
Rev. Dr. Donna Giver-Johnston
September 24, 2017
In both readings from Exodus, we get a close up look at the Israelites as they journey through the wilderness. What we notice immediately is that there is a whole lot of complaining going on. In the first reading, they are hungry and complain that God is not providing food for them. In the second reading, they are thirsty and complain that God is not providing water for them. It is easy to hear these passages and say, “Those Israelites are a bunch of complainers. Why would God provide for those ungrateful people anyway?”
Let’s take a closer look at the story…The people were enslaved in Egypt and cried out to God to save them—for many years. Finally, God rescued them through Moses. They left in the middle of the night, with whatever they could carry, narrowly escaped death through the waters of the Red Sea, and arrived at an oasis, where they had water and rest and could catch their breath….but not for long. They had to move on—right into the wilderness. They had no food, no water, no map, no guarantee they would survive. And so they complained.
Wouldn’t you? Truthfully, we would.
Because complaining is part of human nature. Why? Because, according to Nancy Buck, PhD and RN, our brain is set up that way. Our brain is hardwired to notice what is not right, or a mismatch between what we want and what we perceive we’re getting. This brain attribute is necessary for our survival. But it also means our brain notices almost everything that is wrong in the world, according to us: the weather, the traffic, the temperature of our morning brew, our boss, our co-workers, our spouse, our relatives, our neighbors, our politicians, and on and on it goes. When we comment on all of these things, it comes out as complaining.
Think for a minute—review your day since you woke up—what did you complain about? If we put all of our lists together, they might make up as many complaints as the Israelites! So, complaining is part of our human nature. But, as you know there is an ongoing debate within psychology called nature v. nurture. The debate is centered on which has more influence on human behavior—nature—our how we are born with genetic make-up v. nurture—how a person is shaped by the people, learning and experiences of life. While there are purists on each extreme, most recognize the contribution that both nature and nurture make to human behavior.
So what does that mean? It means that by nature, we are born with a brain that notices things that are wrong in the world—according to us—and that leads to complaints. However, we are also born into a family who can nurture gratitude for the blessings we have. We are also part of a family of faith, where we read the Scriptures, like this Exodus story, in which we see that no matter how much people insist on their own way, refuse to trust, and complain, still God responds with love. It is in the divine nature to forgive, provide, guide, and bless. God seeks to nurture us to complain less and to trust more.
When the people complained that they had no food, Moses said, “Draw near to the Lord for he has heard your complaining.” This is a God who hears us when we pray—even when our prayers are not complimentary and full of praise and thanksgiving. Even when we rant and rave, even when we doubt and despair, even when we worry and weep, even when we criticize and complain, even then, God hears our prayers.
And God answers our prayers. God doesn’t just say, “Now, now, quit your complaining.” God said to the people of Israel: “I have heard your complaining; at twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning, you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the Lord your God.”
When the people were thirsty and complained to God, God said to Moses, “Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” This is a God who answers our prayers. In his own time, in his own way, for our own good, God answers our prayers. Jesus said, “Ask and you shall receive.” And so we do.
While it may be part of our human nature to complain, studies have shown that not only do people avoid complainers, but complaining is detrimental to our mental health and happiness. But, remember, it’s not just our nature that influences our behavior, it is our nurture, too. We can nurture a different way of living.
In the article, “Turn Your Complaints Inside Out,” Nancy Buck encourages us to stop complaining for 24 hours. Here are some tips:
When you notice what is wrong start asking yourself what you want instead of complaining about what is wrong. It will sound like this “There are no more seats in this waiting room. I would like to sit down, but I’ll take this opportunity to stretch.” “There is no more cake. I would like dessert, but I will be healthy today.”
An additional strategy is, even if your first impression is a complaint, give thanks and be grateful for what you’ve noticed in the world, yourself and other people. Then add a question of how God might be at work.
*I’m grateful for the traffic that will make me late to work. I wonder if I am being called to pray?
*I’m grateful that my brother has not answered my calls or texts. I wonder if God is growing my patience?
*I’m grateful my co-worker is refusing to help me complete this project. I wonder if it is a blessing in disguise?
As I was thinking about my sermon this week, I decided to pay attention to those around me. To try to hear, among the complaints, words of gratitude. And what I found was that those who had the most reason to complain were often those who professed the most gratitude.
At the Presbytery meeting on Thursday, an elderly woman from the church in Homewood shared that they are a small church in a poor area. She had much to complain about. And yet, she rejoiced that they were able to fed 30 children breakfast and lunch for every day of the summer. The kids came on Monday hungry and left on Friday full. She said, “our church is small with not much money; but still, somehow God makes a way.”
At the funeral service on Friday, a woman shared that when her husband was in the hospital in final stages of liver failure, she finally made herself go to the grocery store. She had much to complain about. As she was about to pay, a woman came up behind her and said, “It seems as if you are going through a hard time. God told me to buy your groceries.” Despite her attempts to refuse the kind offer, the woman insisted. After packing up, she turned again to thank this angel, but she was gone.
On Wednesday, I visited a 96-year old woman who had had a stroke and had limited mobility. She had much to complain about. I said a prayer and when I was about to go, I put my hand on her shoulder and said, “God bless you.” And she responded, “He already has.”
In the grocery story on Saturday, I saw a young girl who was in the candy aisle, looking over all of the goodies and wanting them all. Her father gave her a small bag of candy corn. She held it tight to her chest and put the other hand in the air, exclaiming for all around to hear, “This is the life!”
Friends and fellow complainers, during this week ahead when you feel a complaint coming on, I invite you to give thanks to the God whose nature it is to forgive, provide, guide, and nurture. Let us learn from our sisters I encountered this week to trust that God will make a way, God will send angels when we need them most, and the God who has already blessed us will continue to bless us—with the manna we need—in the form of strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow. And just once this week, try this, as a silent prayer or as a shout of thanksgiving: put your hand on your heart and your other hand in the air, and say, “This is the life!” Thanks be to God!