When I graduated from Berkeley last year (Go Bears), I was a waitlisted candidate for medical school. Anxious about my future, I constantly brought up med school in my prayers. While I earnestly asked for the LORD’s will to be done, I also asked for an acceptance just as earnestly. Lo and behold, that coveted phone call came in, and they accepted me!
No, just kidding - I was rejected. It was actually a silent rejection, so I never even heard from the school. Talk about heartbreaking disappointment.
This only signaled the beginning of what would be a tumultuous year where things just didn’t go my way. Professionally, relationally, circumstantially — you name it. It was as though God was denying everything I had asked for in my prayers. At a certain point, I started growing bitter towards God and questioning His goodness. It honestly felt like I was bearing the brunt of God’s judgment.
Why would You put me through such senseless suffering? Is this for some unconfessed sin in my life? Had I not obeyed You faithfully enough?
Thankfully, the LORD brought some clarity and perspective from the Bible. He revealed to me that my knee-jerk, bitter response to rejection was indicative of my idolatrous heart that loved worldly success more than God Himself. He graciously exposed my sin so that I could repent of it.
So in hindsight, I don’t think these dire circumstances were God’s judgment on my life. In fact, I came to realize that these hardships were actually evidence of the opposite: it was God graciously delivering me from the consequences my sin would bring.
To clarify, I’m not saying that this is always the reason as to why God doesn’t give us what we ask for. Sometimes it’s because our motives are in the wrong place (James 4:3). Or maybe God has sovereignly willed it as He pleases. But here I want to shed light on an overlooked fact — that many times, God withholding our desires from us is His gracious deliverance from painful future consequences, not his judgment.
Getting Exactly What We Ask For
When we talk about the judgment of God, we imagine natural disasters and personal hardships. We think that whenever we act up, God will pelt us with a lightning bolt or send some other catastrophe our way. That’s certainly how I felt this past year.
But as you read more of the Bible, you’ll quickly see that our understanding of God’s can be skewed. Contrary to what we think, God’s judgment can come in the form of us getting exactly what we want.
In Numbers 11, the LORD had provided the Israelites with manna to sustain them on their journey to the Promised Land. But with unthankful hearts, the Israelites griped and complained because they preferred meat instead (Numbers 11:4-6). Their ungratefulness made the LORD absolutely furious with them (Numbers 11:10). But in His anger, how did He respond to the Israelites?
He gave them exactly what they wanted — more meat. In fact, it would be so much that it would leak out their noses and they would come to hate it (Numbers 11:18-20).
He didn’t strike them down on the spot. He only gave them what they had asked for. Isn’t this consistent with other descriptions of God’s judgment in the Bible (See: Romans 1:21-25, Acts 14:16, 1 Corinthians 5:5)?
If Jesus is truly is the only way, truth, and life, then anything outside of Him will lead to death and destruction. So God doesn’t necessarily have to set us on the path to destruction to judge our sin; we happily run right into it on our own accord (Romans 2:5). The scary thing is that this path can be laden with glitter and pretty lights to make us believe our desires are pleasant and fulfilling. But when all's said and done, shiny things will fade, and we will see just how hollow our desires were all along.
God’s Gracious Warning
Now, the beautiful thing is that God actually uses our failings for our redemption and salvation. He lets men and women chase their desires only to realize that the only good, trustworthy desire is one for Christ and Him alone. Just like a child will learn how painful it is to touch a hot stove, Christians will learn how destructive it is to pursue their selfish desires.
But here is a sobering corollary: Perhaps the worst thing that could ever happen to people is that they receive everything they could ever want and hope for… and be so content with it. They are so infatuated with the glittery, comfortable path that they never even know that destruction lies at the end. It is a scary thought — you can be so drowned in worldly success, wealth, and happiness that you can no longer hear the gracious warning call of God toward true life in Christ.
So what, then, do we make of all this? What we, Christians and non-Christians alike, need in our lives is a paradigm shift.
Too often, Christians buy into this thinking that the bad things in life are God’s judgment toward us, and that the good things are God’s blessing or provision. But this isn’t true. The Christian never needs to fear judgment, for Christ has already absorbed God’s wrath toward our sin on the cross (Romans 5:9-11)!
When God did not give me my desires, it was not his wrath, but his loving discipline and re-direction. He was delivering me from the consequences of my sin.
Therefore believers ought not to look at our hardships as God's judgment, but rather as gracious opportunities to realize the emptiness of our fleshly desires. Because God's ultimate goal in the Christian's life is not to give us worldly blessing and favor, but to make us true, joyful worshippers of Christ.
If you’re reading this and you’re not a Christian, you too can find immense comfort in this truth. Many times, we cite the hardships in life as evidence that there is no God, or if there is, then He is not in control. But this is derived from the same skewed understanding that only labels prosperity and favor as evidences of God's grace.
What if you realized that the hardships in your life was not evidence of God’s absence, but rather of His grace towards you? What if all this time He was withholding worldly favor from you to rescue you from the destruction your desires would bring? Maybe then you will begin to see how God was wooing you to Himself all along and delivering you from judgment. What lavish grace! My hope is that you would be so moved by His grace and respond by turning to Christ — the only source of true, lasting joy.
My Prayer For You and Me
So in retrospect, praise God that I didn’t get everything I wanted. Praise God that things didn’t go my way, because if it were not for these hiccups, maybe I’d still be happily skipping along the path of impending pain and heartache.
There is only One who is deserving of our ultimate affections and desires, and that is Jesus Christ. I pray we would remember there is only One lasting treasure in this world, and that is Jesus Christ. In the words of Apostle Paul, may it be true of us that all things are loss compared to the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus our Lord.
Alex An is a San Diego native who currently resides in the Bay Area. He is a member of Bay Gospel Church in San Jose.