Success can be defined as getting what you want. But happiness is wanting what you get.
We often get the two confused. God’s people of old did, and so do we.
The Israelites were certainly successful and got what they wanted — freedom from slavery and oppression in Egypt; the powerful promise of God’s guiding presence. But they were downright miserable in that they did not want what they got — the loss of the familiar, a strange new way of life, the disappearance of stability and security.
At least in Egypt the trains ran on time, if you will. Here in the desert there weren’t even any trains. At least in Egypt they had their McDonalds. Here in the wilderness they had to stomach God’s strange food.
So intent had God’s people been on getting what they wanted that they could not imagine not wanting what they got. Their success made them miserable.
Aren’t we a lot like this? Some of us used to want nothing so much as to fall in love, get married, have a nice home, a couple of kids, a good car, an occasional vacation.
And we got it. Yet counselors’ and pastors’ offices are full of unfulfilled wives and unhappy husbands. They got what they wanted, but ended up not wanting what they got.
Some of us wanted nothing so much as to get a good job. And we got it. Yet before too long that became old hat and we grew dissatisfied, became irritable, and wished we could do something else.
Some of us had real cause to worry about a possibly serious health problem. We finally bit the bullet, went to the doctor, got ourselves checked out, learned that it wasn’t the end and life could be quite manageable. We were relieved for a while, but the good news wore off and soon we became convinced not all the trouble was diagnosed!
Some of us really wanted to get our lives straightened out by taking God and church seriously, so we did. But that early glow faded, our enthusiasm dwindled, and before long church became “one more thing I’ve got to do.”
When you stop and think about it, most of our discontent can be explained not by failing to get what we want, but by getting what we want and feeling unhappy with it — unfulfilled. And we soon become “pro’s” at discovering the worst in even the best situation.
We’re something like the Navy physician who was stationed in the Pacific. He wanted nothing so much as to hear from his fiancee. Weeks passed with no mail. But finally he got what he wanted. A letter from his fiancee arrived. In it was a snapshot taken on a beach and showing two couples smiling contentedly while his fiancee sat alone at one side, forlorn and lonely.
A note was enclosed explaining that this is how she was fretting away the time until he returned.
At first the physician was delighted, displaying it proudly to several fellow officers.
That night, however, after studying it a long time in silence, he turned to his roommate. “John,” he said, “I wonder who took that picture?”
We can get exactly what we want, only to end up finding reason to be unhappy with what we get!
God finally became fed up with the Israelites as they kept behaving this way. I mean, there God’s people were — miraculously delivered from terrible trouble in Egypt; assured of God’s continued guidance; nourished by God’s provision of manna.
There God’s people were — blessed, blessed again, and promised still more blessing — and they were miserable; upset this time about the manna — complaining, just like my son, Jonathan, that Dad always serves the same thing for supper: “Spaghetti again?”
“If only we could have some meat!” moaned the people. “In Egypt we used to eat all the fish we wanted…. Remember the cucumbers, the watermelons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic we had?” (
While the Israelites’ behavior does sound childish, we should remember, again, how much like them we all are. The more we get what we want, the less we want what we get!
All the complaining really gets to Moses, who tells God he cannot put up with these pigheaded people much longer. Besides, where is Moses supposed to get enough meat for all of them? (
God tells Moses to inform the Israelites that if it’s meat they want it’s meat they’re going to get. “Now the Lord will give you meat,” God says, “and you will have to eat it. You will have to eat it not just for one or two days, or five, or ten, or even twenty days, but for a whole month, until it comes out of your ears, until you are sick of it.
“This will happen,” says the Lord, “because you have rejected the Lord who is here among you and have complained to him that you should never have left Egypt” (
It’s as though God is saying, “You people never think you get what you want, so I’m going to give you what you want in spades. Then maybe you’ll learn that it’s only what I want for you that truly satisfies.”
You remember the rest of the story: about the quail, and how indeed the people get so much meat they become ill and many die at the place fittingly named Kibroth Hattaavah, which means “Graves of Craving” (
For what do you crave? What do you want more than anything else in the world? Let’s think now not of things like food and ice cream, for the issue goes deeper than manna or meat.
The issue is nothing less than our fulfillment — our happiness and satisfaction as human beings. And the point is that as long as we look for this in anything other than what God provides, what we get will never mean what we think it will.
The danger of getting what we want is that, like the Israelites, we will become disillusioned, bitter, depressed — perhaps even sick.
Obviously this is not true in every instance. Some things we want are good and important. But what the Bible wants us to understand is that even when we’re wanting something worthwhile — like happiness at home, or good health, or peace of mind — when that becomes an end in itself, we’re in trouble. Sooner or later we will discover that seeking and achieving even the most worthy human goal or desire is never enough. Only the Lord can save us from the “graves of craving” into which we’re bound to fall when we seek our happiness apart from the Lord and what He provides.
I’ve often thought that recovering addicts have a big head start in understanding the point here. They know terribly well what it’s like to fall into a “grave of craving.” They know what it’s like to pursue something they desperately want, only to find — when they’ve gotten it — that that is not what they wanted at all.
We need not just “Alcoholics Anonymous” but “Sinners Anonymous,” for in truth, one way or another, we all crave something. We are all addicted to something — something other than what will truly satisfy and fulfill us. Since there are no laws against our common addictions the way there are against drunk driving, many of us successfully avoid the truth and get off scot-free — except that inwardly we know something’s wrong. Inwardly we know that something is missing, and we are nowhere near as happy as we might be if, like the recovering alcoholic, we could say, “My name is Joe, I’m a recovering sinner.”
So what is the “substance” you abuse? For what do you crave? Where is it that you think you’re going to find real happiness?
Is it, perhaps, in your work — in doing a good job and really succeeding at what you do? That is valuable and important — but not where you will find your real joy and fulfillment.
Maybe success on the job is not what you crave. Perhaps that’s not the “substance” you abuse, the thing you really pursue to feel good. Maybe instead it is your kids — their health and happiness. Or your marriage. Or some special friendship. Or education — maybe getting that college degree you never got; maybe getting yet another degree.
Perhaps what you really crave is none of those things, important though they are. Perhaps what you really pursue to feel good is simply enjoying life, or enjoying others, or learning to accept and enjoy yourself.
It is hard to believe that any of these things are like abusive substances! Each seems so good and important. And, in its place, each is.
The problem is, we let these things occupy more than just their place. They become a priority on a par with God Himself. And the danger, then, of getting what we want is indeed disappointment, disillusionment, even despair, because nothing and nobody other than God Almighty can truly fill us with real peace and lasting satisfaction. No job, no child, no relationship, no self-acceptance, no experience of life — nothing else can do for us what God does.
The danger of getting what we want is not that what we want is necessarily wrong. It’s that we will pursue what we want as though that is what we really need. And that is a recipe for some form of misery — a recipe for which you and I have all the ingredients.
We’re not all members of Alcoholics Anonymous. But we are all members of Sinners Anonymous. And we all need to reach the point where we can admit our lives are utterly unmanageable without the Lord. In Him and in Him alone will we finally get, not just what we want, but also what we need.
As St. Augustine put it long ago, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”
Thank goodness God understands our restlessness. Thank goodness God’s anger is not God’s last word. At the end of the story about the manna and the quail in the book of Numbers, the last verse says, “they moved [from the “Graves of Craving”] to Hazeroth” (
As the Bible puts it in poetry, God yearns to bless us, not just with “water from the rock” (
The more we accept God’s love and leadership, the more we pray and study God’s Word, the more we worship and praise the name of the Lord, the richer grace becomes — for God’s grace is neither exhausted nor limited by even the best of the past. God’s goodness, however, always waits for our response and acceptance.
As God’s people of old journeyed through the wilderness on their way out of Egypt into the Promised Land, so we journey through this life. For us, too, there are many “dangers, toils, and snares.” Like the Israelites, we too might yearn for the good old days when things seemed clearer and simpler. And we too will surely stumble and stew in our cravings.
Yet as with God’s people then, so with us now: never shall God fail or forsake us. Always will God seek to save and bless us, again and again, come what may, and no matter what!
Will we seek from the Lord’s hand this great promise of blessing and fulfillment? Or will we keep looking for it somewhere else?
By God’s grace, may we too move from the “Graves of Craving” and put down roots in the grace of God. In the name of Jesus, who shows us the way, and who goes that way with us Himself, Amen.
Success can be defined as getting what you want. But happiness is wanting what you get.