Do you delight in God even when he withholds?

"Dear Lord, please give me..." Is this just a Christianised version of "I want! I want!"? It need not be, of course, and much depends on the heart of the one requesting and the thing or things requested. But if we are looking to God to give us things rather than to give us himself, then we may be seeing those things as more important to us than God.

Our prayers reveal a lot about what we value. They also reveal a lot about our attitude towards God. The other day I was reading in a book of prayers and came across one written by Christina Rossetti. In it she prays, "O Lord, we humbly bless Thee for what Thou givest, and for what Thou withholdest; for the knowledge Thou bestowest, and for the knowledge Thou keepest back."[1]

This prayer is interesting in several ways

First, in an echo of Job's "The Lord gives and the Lord takes away," it acknowledges God's sovereignty in what is known as "providence". If we have, it comes from the Lord; if we lack, God ordains it so (even if simply by way of permission), he has chosen not to give. God's ordering of his universe includes the provision of material and spirititual blessings to his people and their withholding.

The second reason the prayer is interesting is because Rossetti is able to bless God both for the provision and the withholding. How many of us, in the secret places of our hearts rather than in our publically displayed piety, really want to bless the Lord for withholding something we feel we ought to have, that we need even? Few of us I suspect. I know that my own experience is often to get impatient or anxious when I feel a need for something or other that I presently lack. I may not express it clearly as annoyance at God's perceived failure to provide, but my demeanour, my actions, my heart all show that is what is going on.

Third, the prayer reflects an important insight. Sometimes the absence, the deliberate withholding of something can indeed be a blessing. You will know that if you are a parent. You will sometimes withhold things from your child because they could, or would, cause them harm. In such circumstances it is an act of love to withhold the thing sought. Rossetti, it seems, understood that of God's withholding. But it is even good things (at leats good in themselves) that can be withheld for our good. Notice Rossetti includes the withholding of knowledge. It is worth remembering that the Satan's first successful temptation came when he convinced Eve that God was unfairly holding back knowledge from her. And it is a sign of the working of God's grace in our hearts when we can begin the bless God for withholding what look very much like good things.

But why might it be for our good that God keeps us from knowing things? Surely knowledge is always good and its withholding always bad, an attempted power grab? In one sense we do not know because we are not God. We cannot see, like he can, what the provision of that knowlege would do to us. Sometimes knowledge damages. All of us can relate to times when we heard something and said, "I wish you hadn't told me that!" There may be things that God has to permit in this world for reasons that we could never comprehend because we are not capable of seeing the big picture in the way that God can. God sees from eternity to eternity. He comprehends things that would cause our finite minds to explode if we even tried to grasp them. And there may be events in history that we want to know why God permitted them and we are not given to know them. There may be chains of consequences that would have arisen from God preventing it that our finite minds could not contain without them being destroyed. We are not God.

And then sometimes God withholds things from us because he sees that we have become too attached to them; they have become little gods to us, things that we worship, adore and come to need as much as if not more than God himself. And God knows that is destructive of us because we were made to worship him, love him, delight in him. Our true happiness is tied up in glorifying him. And that is not megolamania on God's part. he already exists in that kind of loving, glorifying, honouring community in his triune existence. The Father delights to love and honour and glorify the Son and the Son likewise. He knows from his own internal happiness; the perfect happiness of God; what makes us truly happy and he wants us to have that happiness, that perfect, unspeakable joy that comes from joining in the love that the Father has for his Son, the Son for the Father and the Spirit for Father and Son. God's withholding can therefore be a way of drawing us away from the good to the best.

And the concept of blessing, which refers to happiness, is central to the prayer Rossetti expresses and it reflects that biblical understanding that we are called to delight in the Lord. We delight in all that he does, however hard it is to understand from our perspective, whether he is giving or withholding. Why? Because God himself is the good. He is the treasure that he gives so freely. When we learn to delight in God we learn to see his acts in human history and salvation history and to marvel at them, take pleasure in them, have joy in them because through them we see more of the God we love and prize above all things.

Rossetti's prayer models for us a trust in God's gracious, loving kindness to us, and a willingness to see that it is gloriously true that " all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose." (Romans 8:28)

[1] Christina Rossetti in Mary Tilloston, Great Souls at Prayer (1898 repr. Cambridge: James Clarke & Co. Ltd., 1980), 231 (emphasis mine).


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