(Question 2 of 8 in the Goodness of God series)
Although it might not seem like it at first blush, I think this question could be the greatest barrier to a life-giving belief in and appreciation of God’s goodness for most modern American Christians. There are many subtle and secondary variations, but I suspect that those in our culture who doubt God or question His goodness do so primarily because they have boiled their assessment of God’s character down to a single criterion: Did God give me what I wanted (needed, deserved, asked for, etc)?
What we deserve
We play an extremely dangerous game when we demand from God what we think we deserve. The Bible is clear that what we all actually deserve is death — eternal punishment for sinful rebellion against an infinitely holy God. Scripture is quite clear! For example, Daniel 9 says, “To you, O Lord, belongs righteousness, but to us open shame, [because we] have not obeyed the voice of the Lord our God by walking in his laws, which he set before us by his servants the prophets.” (see Daniel 9:3-19, c.f. James 1:15; Ezekiel 18:20; 2 Thessalonians 1:9, etc)
We do not deserve long and healthy lives. We don’t deserve good jobs. We don’t deserve happiness. We don’t deserve good friends, full tables, comfortable pillows, fulfilling hobbies, loving spouses, healthy children, fond memories, large bank accounts, or any of the other myriad things we demand from God. Whatever you may hear on TV or feel you can extrapolate from America’s founding documents, none of these things are “inalienable rights”.
And we certainly don’t deserve to know God, walk with God, be loved by God, and live eternally with God as His adopted kids. God may choose, out of His goodness, to give us these things. But we don’t deserve them!
Instead, what we deserve is death, separation, punishment, and rejection. These are the wages which our sinful choices have earned (Romans 6:23). So we would be wise to tread lightly in throwing around indignation about not getting what we deserve.
What’s amazing is that, in His great mercy, God actively gives us exactly what we do not deserve (2 Corinthians 5:21; Ephesians 2:4-9). This is the definition of “grace”. This primarily takes the form of life in Jesus when we deserved death in ourselves. And if God had stopped there, none of us would have the right to grumble. Our grumbling is a massive affront to God; a rebellious slap in His perfectly-loving face. But in addition to the cross (which is everything), most of us in fact do have nearly everything I listed above — from health to wealth to comfort to luxuries most people in history couldn’t have imagined. These are good and perfect gifts that come down from the Father of Lights (James 1:17).
So it takes a bit of nerve to accuse God of wrongful unfairness, imply that He hasn’t been good to us, or claim that He’s in any sense brought us up short in life … because something in our incredibly blessed, largely comfortable lives didn’t go the way we wanted it to or felt it should have.
What we desire
Let’s face it, we really want our lives to be a certain way. In fact, I don’t think it’s being unfair to admit that most of us demand that our lives be a certain way. We want some things and not others. We want them at certain times — not sooner or later than we plan. We want specific things from our relationships. We want safety. We want security. We want comfort. We want wealth. We may even want righteousness or a godly life. And we want them a) now, b) in increasing measure, and c) to be amplified in our children. (How many times have you heard someone say, or maybe said yourself, “I want my kids to have what I never had”?) The human heart, especially when blended with even the slightest affluence, gets pretty pushy and demanding, pretty fast.
We have countless desires, and if God doesn’t make them happen – and on our terms, no less – then we question His goodness. Not only is that unfair, it’s foolish. You don’t run God’s universe; He does. If you spend your life “grading” God’s goodness based on how often, how quickly, and how thoroughly you get your way, you’re going to be miserable … a lot. Life just doesn’t work like that.
What God desires
Here’s the deal… God’s goodness isn’t demonstrated by how He fulfills your desires. Rather, we are invited to make God’s goodness to be our greatest desire. And when we do, God truly does give us what most we long to have … whether we realize it or not. This is what the Psalmist means when He says, “Delight yourself in the Lord, and He will give you the desires of your heart” (Psalm 37:4). In other words, if you love and trust God … if God means so much to you that you light up when He enters the room (so to speak) … if you invite and allow Him to rule in your heart … then it will change you. You will begin to dream of having the things that God already dreams that you would have. And God will give you those things in great abundance.
I’ve heard this concept paraphrased, “If you take care of what’s on God’s heart, God will take care of what’s on your heart.” Maybe. But I don’t like that way of thinking at all. It’s very American, but I’m not sure it’s very biblical. It comes too close to saying that if we identify what God wants for us in our lives and work hard to do it, then God will be obligated to give us the stuff we wanted to have going in — but in some sense put on hold or subjugated to our perception of God’s will. It comes too close to bribing God.
Let’s walk through an example…
God and the Ferrari
I want a Ferrari. It’s been “on my heart” for years. But I’m a Christian now, and I recently learned that God wants me to go to church, be nice to people (even mean people), and take care of widows and orphans. So, while I’m saving up for my Ferrari, I start doing those things … knowing that God will be proud of my good work, and hook me up. I’ve taken care of what’s on God’s heart, now He gets me a Ferrari because He’s amazing and wants to take care of what’s on my heart in return for doing His thing.
Um … not exactly. Try again …
I want a Ferrari. It’s been “on my heart” for years. But I’m a Christian now, and I recently learned that God wants me to go to church, be nice to people (even mean people), and take care of widows and orphans. So, while I’m saving up for my Ferrari, I start doing those things … and wake up one morning to realize that I don’t care about Ferraris at all any more. God has been changing me. I love being with my church family, I look for people to whom I can show Christ’s love, I’ve adopted a child, I serve at a nursing home, and I’m continually trying to figure out how to live on less and give more to widows and orphans. I don’t think God owes me; but I love serving Him. Somewhere along the way, I stopped saving for the Ferrari; I don’t even remember when. I drive a used Honda, and I’m fine with it. In fact, I rarely think about my car at all. God is pleased (and glorified), and He seems to continually provide new opportunities for me to love, serve and give to Him, and to others. I am seeing people come to Christ and be loved instead of lonely, full instead of hungry, hopeful instead of despairing … and I look more like my Father every day.
I have delighted myself in God, and He has given me the desires of my heart.
Which god is “good”?
These two scenarios paint very different pictures of God’s character. Which god would we call “good”? Is it the Ferrari’s-R-Us god, who gives us what we want, especially if we earn it by knocking a few items off His checklist first? Or is it the give-yourself-away God, who bids us to set aside our immediate desires in favor of being changed little-by-little to become more like Him (one who gives us new desires)? One of these “gods” fits neatly into our affluent self-centered culture; the other does not.
It’s important to remember that God is a loving Father. He is interested in your spiritual maturity (which leads to fullness of life), not your happiness (which is fleeting by comparison). He’s not about granting wishes, He’s about building character that produces lasting joy (James 1:2-4). Whether you’re happy or comfortable or satisfied for a few moments is of little concern to Him. Whether you grow up into the likeness of His Son, and increasingly fit into His family, such that you’re at home in His house and satisfied for all eternity … that draws the attention of the Father!
CS Lewis puts it this way in his amazing book, Mere Christianity:
Christ says, “Give me all. I don’t want so much of your time and so much of your money and so much of your work. I want you. I have not come to torment your natural self, but to kill it. No half measures are any good. I don’t want to cut off a branch here and a branch there. I want to have the whole tree down… Hand over the whole natural self — all the desires which you think innocent, as well as the ones you think wicked — the whole outfit. I will give you a new self instead. In fact, I will give you myself; my own will shall become yours.“
It’s okay to have dreams
This does not mean that we have no wishes or desires, no wants or dreams to bring before the Lord. As our perfect Father, God desires not only to hear from us but to give us good things. Put yourself sometime in the position to observe a loving human father and his 4-year old son. Take note of how silly and trivial the child’s requests are and how seriously they are taken by his father. That’s totally a picture of us with our Heavenly Father!
God loves His kids! If you are His, then He hears your requests and welcomes them. And He always responds, not out of obligation or expedience, but out of His goodness, wisdom and love. Not in a way we always understand or would have envisioned, but always rightly and for our good. This is how Jesus puts it…
Which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him! (Matthew 7:9-11)
It’s better to have a loving Father
Don’t let your inability to comprehend God’s responses detract from your sense of His goodness. If God doesn’t respond to you in a way you recognize or on a specific timetable, that doesn’t mean He isn’t good. That just means you don’t understand what He’s doing. And that makes sense, if you think about it. What 4-year old really understands how his father makes decisions on his behalf? How could he? He wants candy for every meal, but his father withholds it and serves veggies instead. Does that make his father evil? Of course not! He wants to ride his tricycle out into the street, but his father grabs the boy, scolds him, and turns him around to play in the yard. Does that mean he isn’t good? No! If anything, we see the father’s goodness precisely in that he did NOT let his son have his way!
Similarly, God’s goodness does not hinge on His responding to us the way we want Him to. Often, the problem isn’t God’s goodness, it’s our demand to eat candy and play in the street. Maybe God withholds what we’re asking for (demanding?), because He loves us and knows that what we want wouldn’t be good for us to have. If God gives me a Ferrari, I may never develop the ability to be content with a used Honda. If God gives me the other stuff I’m demanding from Him in order to be happy, I may never learn to trust God in the midst of need. Maybe God sees in your heart too great a potential to worship shiny toys. Maybe He knows that if He gives you a Ferrari, you’ll want a Lamborghini by the following Christmas. Maybe your soul will be demanded of you by Labor Day, and a Ferrari is the last thing you need in this crucial time of learning to cling to God on the eve of meeting Him face-to-face.
You might be saying, “But I don’t want something stupid like a Ferrari! I just want to have kids or a husband who loves me or a job that pays the bills or to have my nephew back who died way too young!” I get it. None of those things sound unreasonable to me either. But that’s not the point. If a 4-year old has trouble understanding why His Father makes the decisions he does, but knows intrinsically that his father loves him anyway, how much more do we need to lean into trusting God and not rest our faith on our ability (or inability!) to understand His ways?! How much more of a gap is there between us and God than between any 4-year old and his earthly father?! And that includes knowing what’s best for us! You must remember that God is all-powerful and all-knowing and always working for your good, whether you see how or not. One of the great battles in our affluent cultural context is to simply trust that God is doing what’s best, regardless of how well our lives match up to what we envisioned they would be.
If we claim to know anything at all about God’s character, then we must bring our hopes and dreams before Him with open hands. Far from a kung-fu death grip on our desires, we must train ourselves to be satisfied simply to be with Him and eager for His will to be done in us. If God chooses to withhold something we desire, then we trust Him and rejoice that He loves us and is far wiser than we are. And if God subsequently changes our hearts / our desires, then we rejoice even more, because He has counted us worthy to be made more like His Son. In short, we value what God values… to be far more interested in God’s molding our wishes than that He fulfills them.
This is what it means to come before our good God in faith. He’s a Father, not a vending machine. He’s a King, not a genie. He’s a Redeemer and Reconciler of hearts, and a Molder of clay, not a wish granter.
The dangers of getting my way
So, when we bring our desires before the Lord, sometimes He seems to say “no” because He knows best, and sometimes He changes us so that we forget about our original desires in favor of something greater. In either case, we must be careful not to misjudge God’s goodness. But sometimes, God gives us exactly what we ask for … extremely good gifts, sometimes even in unanticipated abundance. In this case, we must also be scrupulously careful to rejoice primarily in the Giver, not the gift.
The human heart is particularly gifted at making the thing God gives us to be god itself. It’s crazy how fast we forget that God is the provider of all the good things in our lives, not we ourselves. Moses warned the people of Israel about this very danger when God brought them into the land He had promised them. And if it was true for them, imagine how true it is for us in the face of the unprecedented affluence of our modern American culture.
Hear Moses’ warning…
You shall eat and be full, and you shall bless the Lord your God for the good land He has given you. But take care, lest you forget the Lord your God by not keeping His commandments and His rules and His statutes, which I command you today, lest, when you have eaten and are full and have built good houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks multiply and your silver and gold is multiplied and all that you have is multiplied, then your heart be lifted up, and you forget the Lord your God, who [gave you everything you have]. (Deuteronomy 8:10-16)
The real danger we face is not that God would withhold what we ask, but that He would give it! Consider for a second that getting your way might actually warrant your greatest caution … “lest you forget the Lord your God.” This particular tendency toward short memory is, in my opinion, precisely what has led to the prevalence of this question in the first place. It’s not that we don’t have what we want, but that we have way too much of what we want, and have forgotten not only our real needs but the One who gave us such abundance in the first place.
We’ve covered a lot of ground, but we keep coming back to the primary point… God’s goodness doesn’t consist in His granting our wishes.
- We are way off about what we deserve, but God shows His goodness by giving us what we don’t deserve.
- We complain that God hasn’t given us what we want, but God shows His goodness by withholding harmful things, and gives us greater and more lasting things than we ask for.
- We want unimportant or even dangerous things, but God shows His goodness by changing us to look more like Jesus and to increasingly desire what He dreams for us.
- We ask God for things we don’t understand, but God shows His goodness by showering fatherly blessings upon us out of His understanding of what’s best for us rather than our own.
- We are given more than we typically realize, but God shows His goodness not only in the giving, but by warning us not to forget where all those good things come from.
- In the ultimate demonstration of love and favor, God shows His goodness by tearing out our hearts of stone and replacing them with hearts of flesh (Ezekiel 36:26). He gives us Himself, and makes us like Him! And that is enough!
As we set about to navigate a world filled with so many things we could desire, dream about, or even demand, let us be careful to fix our eyes on Jesus! There is nothing higher or better we could possibly be given than to be adopted into God’s family and molded into the image of His Son. And that is exactly what God is actively pursuing in the lives of those who commit their way to Him. If we make that our wish, then God’s goodness ensures that He will fulfill it in abundance.