There's a really common attitude in the church (and I know because I've held it) that says that if we're really godly and devoted to Jesus, God will give us the things that we want. We might not say, or think, that we “deserve” them (because we know it's all grace); but consciously or subconsciously, we believe that if we live a righteous, dedicated life, God will deliver them: a nice place to live, a job, a spouse, a baby, etc.
If we don't get those things, or if we do and they don't live up to our expectations, we question what we're doing wrong? We might think it's because we don't pray enough, or we haven't been able to overcome that nagging sin, or we don't serve in the church enough. We might think that if we tweak the formula a bit, if we put a bit more faith, prayer, and effort in, we'll finally achieve what we're looking for.
Most Christians, and most segments of the church, would not put this belief into words. But nonetheless, we live by it. We get angry with God when our “formula” isn't working. We think “how much more do I have to do?” We envy Christians who have what we want, and wonder how to emulate them. We try harder, working on fixing the areas in which we're “failing”.
One area in which this type of thinking very commonly manifests itself is marriage. Many, many Christians, myself included, have felt that a godly spouse is the reward of a godly life. You'll hear well-meaning Christians giving this type of advice: “Once you're fully content in the Lord, you'll find your spouse.” A prominent Christian dating website even has this verse as its tagline: “Delight yourself in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart.” (Psalm 37:4)
But what happens when this doesn't work? We all know godly singles in their 30s, 40s, and beyond, who would like to be married and can't. Or what about the couple who long for children and are unable to have them, despite the fact that they would make great parents? Are those people simply not godly enough? Do they need to find out where they're failing, so they can fix it? Did they not “delight in the Lord” enough?
The problem with this way of thinking is that a faulty belief underlies it.
This view of God says that he has promised or is obligated to provide us with the trappings of a comfortable and happy life, and that the outcome of the Christian life, lived right, is the achievement of our desires. It's basically a Christianized version of the world's vision of the good life: spouse, kids, nice house, car, fulfilling job.
The problem with this view is that when we don't get what we want—when despite our crying out, our longing, our striving, our pain, our waiting, we are left wanting—we are tempted in several ways:
- We are tempted to believe God isn't good
- We are tempted to believe God isn't sovereign (because if he was, he would have done this by now)
- We are tempted to believe we don't measure up
- We are tempted to “worship” and “serve” God not because he is worthy, but as a means of getting our desire
- We are tempted to abandon God, sin in order to get what we want, or resent him and withhold our whole-hearted worship and service.
But what if the whole premise underlying this is faulty?
Nowhere in the Bible are we promised that we will have the life we want if we are godly enough. True, in the Old Testament material blessings and prosperity, at least on a nation-wide basis, were connected with obedience to God's commands. But the New Testament doesn't promise certain earthly blessings to the followers of Jesus, beyond having our basic needs taken care of (Matthew 6:25-34). In fact, it promises that those who are faithful to Jesus can expect suffering and difficulty in this life (2 Timothy 3:12). Jesus said “In this world you will have trouble.”
Jesus, Paul, and the other apostles encouraged us to have an other-worldly focus that meant that the goods, pleasures, accomplishments, and relationships of this life take second place to God's eternal kingdom:
What I mean, brothers and sisters, is that the time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they do not; those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not; those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep; those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away. (1 Corinthians 7:29-31)
Recently a radical shift in my thinking has taken place: maybe despite my desires for certain things, God has chosen not to give them to me, for his own reasons. A biblical metaphor came to mind that has been very pertinent:
Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him. (2 Timothy 2:3-4)
We are not private citizens. Just as an enlisted soldier is not free to go where he wants and do what he wants, but is fully under the orders of his commanding officer, so are we with Jesus. I believe that's a concept that is very rare in the North American church. The Western secular “gospel” is self-fulfillment, and we often think that Jesus is just a means to that end.
We don't want to believe or do anything that may make us uncomfortable or cause suffering or loss. We don't actually believe Jesus is Lord over our lives, and that his will trumps ours. We don't believe he has the right to ask us to do anything we don't want to do, or to say “no” to anything we desire.
In short, we don't really believe God is God. We see him as a cosmic dispenser of the good stuff, the meeter of our needs. And to be sure, he does provide us with good things! He does delight to give to his children. But maybe, just maybe, sometimes he has different plans for your life than you have.
In thinking that the Christian life is a path to getting what we want, we turn things upside-down, putting ourselves and our desires in the place of God and making him servant to them rather than the other way around.
What if God may actually want you to be single because he wants you to be fully free to use your gifts to further his kingdom? What if God wants that couple to remain childless because he knows that it will spur them to become involved with inner-city children's ministry, something they might not otherwise have done? What if God may want to channel our grief, our longing, and our love into wider and deeper purposes than simply the satisfaction of our own personal needs? What if a grain of wheat, falling into the ground and dying, produces a much larger and beautiful harvest (John 12:24)?
What if it's about God and his kingdom, rather than our own personal one?
I know that this can't fully assuage the aching heart of the single person who longs to be married, or the infertile person who longs for a child, or the sick person who can't find a cure. Trusting Jesus doesn't mean we'll never struggle, get sad or angry, or long for what we don't have. It doesn't mean we don't wrestle with God over unanswered prayer. But I believe the aches and pains and frustrations and unfulfilled longings of this life are meant to drive us to seek the One who loves us perfectly, is always with us, and has promised to make all things new, not in this life but the next. Frustrated desires remind us that this life isn't the final destination, and compel us to seek the eternal Kingdom.