Sunday, September 1, 2013

Why Does God Delay Giving Us Joy?

I firmly believe God does want us to be happy. The way Jesus prays for His people in John 17, especially John 17:13, is a powerful example of that. John 15:11 is another. He is really focused on our joy being full. It appears to be one of the main priorities Jesus has as He is preparing to leave the world. So why is joy so hard for many people to find? If God wants us to have it, why do we have to seek for it in spite of so many obstacles, and why do some of us have to wait so long to find it? This is a painful question for so many people. It has been a painful question for me. The thoughts below have truly helped.

I argued here that the Bible has many examples of God telling us we ought to ask Him for good things that He has already said He wants to give to us. The riches of God's love and kindness to us are displayed much more powerfully when we ask Him for something in complete dependence and He faithfully gives us just what we need. It's one way of demonstrating to the world who He is: a loving heavenly Father who knows how to give good gifts to His children. (Matthew 7:7-11.) That's probably only one glimpse of what God uses prayer to do. What about the prayers for joy, for relief from pain, that God doesn't seem to answer? Why do we sometimes have to ask repeatedly? Why not grant it the first time we ask for it? Wouldn't that look more generous than making us wait?

God clearly has a much more complex purpose in prayer. C.S Lewis made the point that prayer is not about changing how God acts; prayer changes us. There is something happening inside of us as we pray, and especially as we wait for God to act. In fact, to put it fairly, God is acting all the time as we pray to Him. Even when we don't see signs that He is answering the prayers we lifted up, He has already been at work changing us through the relationship of prayer. The process of praying earnestly for God's help over a long period of time is doing something in our souls while we experience it.

When we feel we need something from God and He doesn't seem to give it, it often doesn't feel like a comfort that He is invisibly doing something else in our souls we can't feel yet. We are almost always focused on our immediate needs and wants. We don't have the benefit of God's far-sighted perspective on what will bring us the most happiness. God is not just seeking our immediate happiness. He is seeking a permanent and lasting happiness. In fact, the process of waiting may be a necessary tool that shapes us and trains us so that we actually can receive the joy God wants to give us. We aren't always ready to receive what we ask for - it might not even help us much if we got it when we first asked for it. A loving God would do more than just give us whatever we ask; He would make sure to change us so that we could actually enjoy it.

We easily forget that we are not whole yet. We are not at present the mature children of God that we one day will be. There is still a lot of work to be done to untangle the cords of sin and defiance and pride that are wound around our hearts and souls. There are glorious things God has promised to us, but we have to undergo the process of being healed and fixed and restored in order to appreciate them, and to avoid ruining them. J.D. Greear, in his book Gospel (p. 188), pointed out that waiting for God, and even being denied what we ask for, reveals things about what we really place our hope in and what we really treasure. Sometimes when we ask for joy or happiness, what we really mean by that is that we want certain things in our lives to work out a certain way because that's what we think we need to be happy. The process of waiting can lead to our discovering that we treasure other things more than God, or we trust them to satisfy us more than we trust God to do it. This discovery may be exactly what God uses to bring us to the greater joy of being satisfied in Him alone. J.D. Greear quotes Larry Crabb as saying: "You might never really know Jesus is all that you need until He is all that you have."

The pleasure of knowing God Himself is the only joy in the universe that will never let us down and never wear out. One of the clearest demonstrations of God's love is that when we are wrong about what we think we need to be happy, He doesn't give it to us, but instead helps fix us so we will learn what will really complete our happiness. If we are depending on other things to happen for us to be happy, even "good" things like being married, having unity in our church, or being free from pain, then those things control our joy. As J.D. Greear put it, "Whatever controls your joy is what you abide in." (Gospel, p. 188.) Abiding in anything other than God for joy is setting ourselves up for disappointment. Learning to abide in God alone for joy is a very difficult process for us, but if it guarantees that we will get that joy, and keep it forever, then the sooner we learn to do that the better. That is truly a loving answer to prayer.

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