Complaints as Precursors to Revelation

Richard Davis is the author of The Liberal Soul:  Applying the Gospel of Jesus Christ to Politics (Greg Kofford Books, 2014) and Fathers and Sons: Lessons from the Scriptures (Cedar Fort, 2005).  He also is editor of Spiritual Gems from the Imitation of Christ (Catholic Publishing, 2016)

A recent “Come Follow Me” lesson covered the exodus from Egypt.  Even though the lesson stressed the importance of sustaining leaders, another, somewhat contrary, message emerged.  That was the value of complaint in the revelatory process.

It appears that Moses tooks actions when the people complained.  It happened when the House of Israel was attempting to escape from Pharaoh.  They chastise Moses for putting them in a position where they will be recaptured by Pharaoh and killed:  “Because there were no graves in Egypt, hast thou taken us away to die in the wilderness?” (Exodus 14: 11).  Moses reassures them that the Lord “shall fight for you.” (Exodus 14: 14) He goes back to the Lord who instructs him how to “lift though up thy rod” and part the sea so the people can cross. (Exodus 14: 16) 

It happens again when they are in the wilderness and hungry:  “And the whole congregation of the children of Israel murmured against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness.” (Exodus 16: 2)  They told Moses that he had “brought us forth into this wilderness, to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” (Exodus 16:3).  Moses then takes this to the Lord who sends manna every morning and quails in the evening.

Yet again,  the people were angry because they were thirsty.  “Wherefore the people did chide with Moses, and said, Give us water that we may drink.”(Exodus 17: 2) They complained that Moses had brought them out of Egypt only so their children would die of thirst.  Moses goes back to the Lord and pleads:  “What shall I do unto this people?  they be almost ready to stone me.” (Exodus 17: 4)  The Lord responds by telling Moses to smite a rock and water comes out for the people to drink.

I wonder whether there would have been manna, quails, and water if the people had simply suffered (and died) in silence.  These stories give the impression that complaint has its place in the process of revelation.  It is too bad that wasn’t one of the lessons pointed out in the “Come Follow Me” manual.  There are many instances where leaders may not realize the effects of their actions (or inactions) and only when members point them out can they work to do something about them. Revelation is not really uni-directional.  It requires the ask, which sometimes comes in the form of complaint.  


  1. This feels like an oblique (and sensible) rebuttal to Elder Renlund’s recent remark that “Demanding revelation from God is both arrogant and unproductive.”

  2. This seems to presuppose that the only way those things (manna, quails, water) was going to come was by complaining to trigger the result? I agree that this is one way in which to read the text. Wouldn’t another way to read the text be possible as well, one in which the revelation would have come to Moses, but the children of Israel complained before that could happen? I was discussing this with my kids the other day – what if the children of Israel hadn’t run out yet, but could see when they would, and panicked? What if this was a chance for them to have the faith of a child, that God would provide when their need actually manifested? I don’t see the text pointing us one way or the other.

    All that said, I do believe that “complaints” are ways in which revelation can come – but not because of the complaint. Rather, it would seem to most often come when there is an earnest question. I may be splitting hairs, but to me a complaint comes from a place of expectation, while an earnest question comes from a place of desiring to know. The first strikes more as “you owe me” and the second more as “please help me understand.”

  3. Good post. Thank you. Zelopehad’s daughters, the spitty floor and the Word of Wisdom, Joseph F. Smith and Section 138. Joseph’s worryings over Alvin’s soul and Section 137. Problems, questions and complaints are often catalysts for revelation. God bless the complainers and woe to them that are at ease in Zion.

  4. I get caught in distinguishing descriptive from normative. It seems pretty clear to me the Exodus story tells us, descriptively, that the children of Israel engage in dialogue, debate, discussions, murmuring, and complaint. The children of Israel argue with Moses, and by extension argue with God. I like that approach. It fits my personality, my expectations, my experience with God. But I’m not sure I can take the Exodus story as instruction that complaint is right or necessary, and I hear modern Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saint leaders saying no, not us, not the way we work. I don’t like that message and I tend to say or at least think not me and not my vision of a church or of the church, and to feel they are boxing me out. But my not liking it is not the same as saying they’re wrong or they are contradicting the Way of Heaven. That I don’t know.

  5. Kristine says:

    Christian, I think the descriptive/normative distinction is worth making, particularly in Exodus, where there’s little explication of the interaction between the complainants and Moses and God. But in the daughters of Zelophehad episode, it’s quite clear that the daughters bring a problem to Moses that he had not thought of, and that when he subsequently asks God about it, the Law is changed. That seems pretty close to prescriptive to me, a suggestion that figuring out the best ways to build a religious community is a collaboration between leaders, followers, and God.

  6. Kristine, thank you, I like that.
    (a) I don’t need to be convinced. I’m going to raise my voice anyway, no matter how we judge the normative nature of the stories.
    (b) I don’t think our modern church leaders will change their stance, no matter how we read these stories.
    In a discussion and discovery mode, there are many important differences between the Exodus stories and the Numbers stories. But to say that is more like suggesting a course of study than critiquing one entry in the Come Follow Me study guide.

  7. “What shall I do unto this people? They be almost ready to stone me.” I assume we all hope that’s not normative guidance. On the other hand, that’s what it took to get Moses’s attention. Perhaps Moses learned from this to establish the channels of communication that would later allow him to hear the daughters of Zelophehad.

  8. I don’t like how people call the lack of water as complaining. Everyone has the right the bring up the fact to leaders that they’ve run out of water. That’s a good thing. Even if you don’t want to complain, once you’ve run out of water you justifiably need your problem addressed.

  9. Mennoguy says:

    Why do you think the blacks were given the priesthood? Because people complained about how stupid the exclusion was.

  10. Southern Saint says:

    We see this all the time whenever we sustain or oppose local/general authorities. Contrary to popular belief, an opposing motion is not “apostate show and tell.” Instead, it is an intentional mechanism that allows us to express our concerns (whether it pertains to church policies or specific individuals called to leadership). We also saw this with the Manti Temple updates last year. The pushback from concerned members allowed President Nelson to reevaluate his initial plans and then adjust them to allow for greater preservation (along with an additional modern temple in Ephraim). Even in the early days of the Church, the Word of Wisdom came about because of Emma Smith, who complained to Joseph about cleaning chewing tobacco from the floor after every Church meeting.

    We play a vital role in the revelatory process of the Church. This is not to say that “if I yell loud enough, the Church will change.” Instead, when we direct our earnest petitions to the Lord’s Prophet, he will respond. President Nelson’s actions with Manti Temple show that he at least tries to understand members’ concerns.

  11. “I wonder whether there would have been manna, quails, and water if the people had simply suffered (and died) in silence.”
    This touched me deeply.
    This is happening.
    People are suffering.
    People are dying
    I almost did.
    They won’t listen.
    It seems they would rather I have died.
    I have received manna, quails, and water,
    For this I am grateful.
    But they did not come within the camps of Israel,
    For this I am grieved.

  12. It helps to consider whether the issue is a problem in life such as lack of water or the preservation of paintings in a temple; or whether the complaint concerns a policy versus doctrine. Even the priesthood restriction was a policy and not a doctrine. When the children of Israel rejected the law, it did not change the law. A lower law was given, but blessings were also taken away. Bottom line- Some issues are changeable, and some are not.

  13. eastofthemississippi says:

    I always tell myself that it’s The Church of Jesus Christ… of Latter-day Saints. It’s the Lords church… and ours as well, and we need to speak up when it’s not working for us.

  14. Something I’ve learned in my life is that no one will advocate for your the way you will advocate for you.

    My kids have some rock star teachers, but they are stretched thin. Sometimes I have to step in and advocate for my kids. That doesn’t mean I don’t support these teachers; to the contrary, it means I care enough to help them out.

    My second mission president was a good man. But I was miserable and waiting for him wasn’t working for me so I set up an appointment and told him the problem and what I thought was a reasonable solution. He prayed about it, took my advice, and the last four months of my mission were the best of all. Because I took ownership for my own mission experience.

    I now lead a team of thirty in the company where I work. While I sincerely try to know my team members as individuals, I have blinds spots. I truly welcome their feedback on how I can do better.

    Yes there have been times when upward feedback was extremely difficult to hear initially. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t worth hearing in the end.

    This all seems common sense to me. Why some church leaders seem unwilling to listen to others, and why some members feel the need to shame those that speak up, truly muddles me.

    Thank you Lona Gynt for your touching comment.

  15. Roy, I don’t know if you remember back before 1978, but the general authorities were insisting that they could not change doctrine and they were sure that the priesthood/temple ban was doctrine. Then they started seeing people in Brazil that had been ordained, gone through the temple, and currently serving as bishop discover they had a black ancestor back 5 generations. They started seeing BYU suffering because other school’s basketball teams refused to play them because the other teams judged BYU as racist. Then suddenly doctrine was no longer doctrine and could change. So, when people insist that the, say, priesthood ban on women is doctrine, I say “are you sure?”

    What is more, there is doctrine that we have a Mother in Heaven, so the fact that women are complaining about the lack of information about her and her role means the brethren do not have to change doctrine, just expand what is available. But they would rather criticize the women for complying and tell us not to demand revelation. Well, my attitude is that if they don’t care about the needs of the women in the church, that we can get our own revelation about our Mother because She loves us enough to let us know what we need to know even when the brethren don’t.

  16. Kristine says:

    “When the children of Israel rejected the law, it did not change the law.”

    This is inaccurate. When the daughters of Zelophehad petitioned Moses, he in turn petitioned the Lord and the law changed. The policy/doctrine distinction does not hold up to any serious scrutiny in most cases, and it won’t work to distinguish the kinds of things about which complaining is licit. I guarantee you that no one said it was fine for people to complain about the Priesthood restriction in the 1970s because it was a policy. Likewise, if you were a Black Latter-day Saint at that time, not being allowed to receive your endowment or be sealed to your loved ones would have seemed like a pretty serious matter, a lot like needing water in the desert. Any distinction between doctrine and policy is almost always dependent on perspective.

  17. Chadwick, no, thank YOU!
    Anna- zactly!
    Kristine, I know, right?!

    I think an important way to judge in these matters is to assess the relative proportion of convoluted explanations and lawyer-like perambulations and oratorical flourishes it takes to connect a given outlook/policy/?doctrine between the obvious consequences of said position to some semblance or percieved approximation to actual love.

    For example, the restriction on priesthood based on race just OBVIOUSLY excluded people for no good reason, and no amount of WC Skousen or JFieldingS Story telling could alleviate the hurt.
    In the case of women excluded from the priesthood or top leadership (even on the ward level), there is the obvious fact that they are capable, and spiritual and worthy, compared to all of the legion and usually farcical explanations as to why that exclusion is there. The most honest and simple explanation would just be “Thus sayeth the Lord” but Anna was right, that was even held up as an explanation for the racial priesthood ban, and well, you know what happened there.
    Consider these words of BY in regards to the race restriction:

    “because these are the true eternal principles the lord almighty has ordained and who can help it men cannot the angels cannot and all the powers of earth and hell cannot take it off but thus saith the eternal.”

    referenced in the following link

    Also compare the POTF (lots of words) compared to the simple, and I think true- Love is Love. Or even better: Love Wins.

    Compare the convoluted explanation of gender, like the POTF even purports to even know what it is talking about there, and one of the authors has told us basically that it has to do merely with the external bits, to the truth that a person knows in their brain and in their Spirit who they are, and when this is suppressed it often leads to, well let’s be frank, suicide – and when it is affirmed leads to healing and growth (raising my hand here).

    How long will we plant our flag and die on the hill for positions that frankly in my view, “make reason stare.” And oh, there is this, I do pray to both Father in Heaven and Mother in Heaven, and both prayers are answered for me. I love them both, and they both love me. I do believe there is enough grace for all of this in the long run. Until then though, even having been removed from the Church won’t stop me from complaining, I love it too much.

    I believe one day the keys will be used to open the doors for all, rather than just for the most, and that they won’t be used just to rattle the cages.

  18. Angela C says:

    In my mission memoir The Legend of Hermana Plunge, I share the story of a terrible mission policy that caused a large percentage of missionaries to be inactive, members to be suspicious, and general misery all around. Despite praying for this policy to change for months, it didn’t. When I complained about it in my weekly letter to the President, suddenly it changed! It wasn’t just complaining, though. I pointed out all the unintended consequences of the policy. Is that complaining or participating? It’s in the eye of the beholder, I guess.

    Here’s another thing I see in these Moses vignettes. He calls the Israelites complainers and really casts them in a bad light, but he’s their leader! He’s supposed to listen to their issues and respond! It’s definitely not showing him to be a good leader by acting all put out that people want water to drink in the desert. Who comes off as arrogant in that story? Not the people dying of thirst!

  19. Angela, I remember your post on that memoir, it really affected me.
    Thing about Moses, he might have had his first political science lessons in the court of the Pharoah. I wonder if the concept of leaders listening to the people would not have really been in his primal wheelhouse, would have been something he would have had to learn, and he seems to have had many opportunities. dunno, just wondering

  20. Bishop Bill says:

    Elder Renland (in defending the Church’s lack of knowledge about Heavenly Mother), said that to demand revelation is “both arrogant and unproductive”. Is complaining about the not knowing about our Mother in Heaven any different than demanding? And who is demanding???

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