The raising of the bronze serpent is a story about getting exactly what you want; then, once you've finally gotten it, feeling that what you got turned out to be a kind of a rip-off, and then complaining bitterly about it. It is a massively pivotal story revealing the profound relationship between people's suffering, their complaining about it, their guilt about complaining, and the truth behind it all.
In the desert, the Israelites are attacked by snakes, as the story goes, because they were complaining about life. When they admit they were guilty of complaining about yesterday, they ask God to take away today's newer, more profound suffering. But He doesn't. He doesn't just simply remove it. Why?
Maybe let's start with guilt. Something I'm very familiar with:
Guilt is just a 5 letter word. Words are just words. They don’t mean anything in and of themselves. Go ahead. Say the word "Guilt!" fifty times in a row and soon it loses its meaning and becomes what it actually is: just syllables my mouth, breath, and vocal cords make. Words don't point to themselves; they point to something behind them. In the same way, the snakes biting you presently are not there to point out your guilt for hating your circumstances earlier—but rather to point you to the truth behind them: when you hate your circumstances, which IS the life God gives you, then you hate God-- your true crime. Not that you are doing a contemptuous thing in your complaining, but that you are contempt itself. Not that you are guilty, but that you are guilt itself. The snakes are there to make you aware of who and what and why you are.
Guilt, simply as a word or a concept—as something you think and talk about—only leads to absolving your responsibility by giving it away—to what? To society? To the “father"? To the air?
You can’t hate life and at the same time love God. Because God is life. You can’t hate freedom and ask for mercy. Because mercy is freedom. You can’t ask for mercy from the judge while hating his stupid court. Just what exactly is your crime? Do you even know what you’re guilty of?
Complaining? Hmm? About what? Chances are whatever it is...its life. But when life comes along and delivers a real smashup—real pain—something to really cry about—when the thin shell you’ve been stomping around on, warming with the fire of your hate, suddenly cracks open and out crawls a thousand crocodiles to snap your hands off along with your nice wristwatch—then what? Then maybe you realize you have something to do with the fertilization and gestation of crocodile eggs. Maybe you have something to do with snakes. So now backed in a corner, inches from death, you admit your guilt and beg for life? But from who? From the life you hate? The god you hate? The sun? The moon? Parking spots? Telemarketers? Loud dogs? Overcooked meals? Every person you’ve ever rolled your eyes at? The stars or sky or clouds? Who?
And why would God suddenly hear your words instead of your heart? The mouth cries, “Help me! I’m sorry! Take away this pain! I’m dying!" While the heart secretly whispers, “Take away my responsibility.” Yet remember: God is a whispering God; which means he also must have excellent hearing.
In the story of the bronze serpent, the Israelites admit their guilt for hating yesterday's circumstances and then plead for today's circumstances to be removed; and it is fully expected. But apparently God hears a secret hiding in the Trojan horse of their words to remove their responsibility--to not face exactly who and what they are--to not face the serpent.
Responsibility can not be avoided. It isn't optional. Because it isn’t a thing that can be removed from existence. It is the ability to respond. How can any conscious being avoid that after all? It is reality. In the same way suffering is. They can’t be avoided. Rather they must be incorporated—ingested. They must both be faced voluntarily and accepted--not as something that should be done or even could be done; but rather as an impossible thing that somehow must still be done. That’s just the way it is. Responsibility and suffering go together. Like inside and outside. Two sides of the same coin. The cross and the serpent. The problem and its answer. Each only goes away when they are forged into one in the crucible of the willing heart.