The Pursuit of God

Serious Topics for Serious Christians

Hard Work, No Rewards: Why God Is Stomping On Your Dreams (Help for Serious Christians)

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Do you see a man skilled in his work? He will stand in the presence of kings. He will not stand in the presence of unknown men. (Prov. 22:29)

A man will be satisfied with good by the words of his mouth, and the work of a man’s hands will reward him. (Prov. 12:14)

There is profit in all hard work, but endless talk leads only to poverty. (Prov. 14:23)

In the Bible, we find several men declaring quite confidently that if you work hard and apply yourself well, you’ll surely end up rewarded.  Especially in the books of Proverbs and Psalms, we find many assurances that making God-honoring choices in this world will result in health, wealth, recognition, fame, and satisfaction in this world.  It’s the old “Serve God well so that He will serve you,” mindset.  But of course when we put it that way, it suddenly sounds like a pretty bad attitude, doesn’t it?  And as a serious Christian, you aren’t trying to have a bad attitude.  You’re just sick of watching the slackers and spiritual rebels getting ahead of you in the areas  you care about.  You’re tired of working hard to make your dreams come true only to have God keep throwing up roadblocks.  So why is God being so annoying?  First He loads you up with a bunch of talents, interests, and passions, but then when you try to act on those things, He starts hemming you in with a bunch of frustrating obstacles.  And then, as if discouraging you isn’t bad enough, He makes sure to rub your face in the fact that He’s making all of your dreams come true for someone else right in front of you.  It’s rather like going to your own birthday party only to watch your dad give all of your presents away to someone else.  And while that someone else tears the wrapping off of each gift and exults in each item, you’re sitting there stewing in a bunch of bitter jealousy.  What kind of jerky Creator treats His most dedicated followers this meanly?  What are you to make of God’s behavior?

UNDERSTANDING GOD

Whenever we find ourselves feeling convinced that God is sticking it to us just to do it, we need to realize that we’re casting judgment before we have all of the facts, and naturally this leads to us condemning the wrong party.  After all, if Paula says, “My husband Jack shot me,” then right away you’re going to view Jack in a negative light and throw your sympathy onto Paula’s side.  The problem is that you’re only hearing one side of the story, and that always leads to trouble.  If you want to get a more accurate understanding of what happened, you need to hold off of on casting judgment until you talk to Jack.  And when you do talk to Jack, he tells you, “Yes, I did shoot Paula, but only after she shot me twice and refused to put the gun down.”  Wow.  This additional information gives you a whole new view of the situation, doesn’t it?

Here’s a dilemma that all serious Christians go through with God.  When He opens our eyes to understand that we were designed to revolve around Him and that pleasing Him really is the only thing that matters, we get excited.  When He tells us to pursue Him first in life, we eagerly sign on for His most intense spiritual maturation program by praying things like, “Make me all that You want me to be.  I want to be as close to You as I can.  I want You to be my First Love in life.”  Then we sigh in satisfaction and get ready for those rewards to start rolling in because, after all, we’ve taken the highest road that there is.  We’ve decided to put God first, and that means He’s supposed to bump us to the front of the line to receive the best rewards that there are, right?  Isn’t that what He promised?  Sure, He’s promised to give us His idea of the best rewards.  But what we’re not really tuning into is that His definition of the best rewards is quite different than our own.

Now here’s where some of you might say, “Oh, sure, I know that.  God says intimacy with Him is the greatest reward.  Well, fine, but surely that leaves room for some good times on earth to happen as well.”  Yes, it does…sort of.  But you see before intimacy with God can happen, the proper relationship dynamic must be forged.  To put it bluntly: God has to teach you what your place in this relationship is going to be.  Then He has to teach you how to embrace your place with a good attitude.  Just those first two steps can take a lifetime to achieve and they don’t have anything to do with you having a sweet life on earth. In fact, if you’re going to learn how to relate correctly to God Almighty, then it is essential that you go through some trial periods in life.  Once you get serious about spiritual maturity, frustration becomes your new best friend.  Why?  Well, it has to do with those four soul attitudes that we’re always harping on…

DEVELOPING THE DYNAMIC

Why do we so frequently mention the soul attitudes of reverence, submission, dependency and trust?  Because you cannot develop the correct dynamic with God without developing these four attitudes.  So how do you develop them?  You have no idea how, and that’s okay, because you don’t need to.  God understands how to develop these four attitudes within you, and once you cross certain lines with Him, your entire life is going to become about Him developing these four attitudes.  They are the bedrock upon which all else is built.  Trying to get close to God apart from these four attitudes is like trying to build a skyscraper without using cement, steel, glass, or wood.  It’s just not going to happen.

It is misinterpreting God’s motivations which drives you into all kinds of despairing conclusions about His view of you.  When God doesn’t bless your work, or when He’s blocking you from using your talents or fulfilling your earthly dreams, you leap to the very wrong conclusion that He must be against you.  But no, God is actually very pleased with souls who pursue the right spiritual priorities in life, and one of the most important ways that He expresses His pleasure is by heaping on the growth lessons.

As a serious Christian, you say that you want to be pleasing to God.  Great.  He is now helping you become even more pleasing to Him by stepping up your spiritual development.  Here is where you misunderstand what He’s doing and you complain that He’s not rewarding your work.   And yet the truth is that He’s rewarding your soul choices in the best possible way.  You see, you can’t mature yourself. You’re like a lump of clay that longs to become an elegant statue.  Unless God grabs hold of you and starts squeezing, stretching, and shaping you, you’ll never become what you’ve asked Him to make you.  But let’s remember that you were the one who accepted His invitation.  You could have blown Him off when He started calling you to get serious about pleasing Him in life.  No one forced you to ask God to make you all that He wanted you to be.  You chose this.  Now He’s giving you exactly what you begged Him for, so what are you griping about?  Well, when you signed up for this program, you didn’t understand all that was involved, and it turns out that this is a lot tougher than you thought it would be.

Some degree of disillusionment is an inevitable part of the maturity process.  We’re none of us prepared for God’s program when we first sign up for it, and He doesn’t give us a blow by blow of what it will take for us to become all that He wants us to be.  Why not?  Because such details would undoubtedly freak us out and cause us to erroneously conclude that we could never survive the maturity process. You see, we would need mature trust in God to be able to face the grim picture of spiritual refinement without melting into a puddle of fear.  When we’re just spiritual infants, we don’t have such trust, nor are we able to comprehend how capable God is of getting us through terrible trials. So God intentionally withholds the grisly details from us and instead focuses us on the bottom line: how serious are we going to be about living for our Creator?  Are we going to choose total devotion or are we going to keep holding back?  When we choose full devotion, God is very pleased and He knows that He will get us through the process.  Then He starts the process and, wow, things start getting tough.

Let’s take your current bitterness about God not making your life go the way you want it to go.  Whatever your reasoning is, the bottom line is that God’s not doing things your way. He’s not conforming to your agenda.  Well, no, He’s not, because God won’t let you lead Him.  In this relationship the submission is going to be entirely on your side. Now it’s easy enough to agree with this principle when you hear it, but in practice, this submission stuff quickly becomes a bitter herb.  We resent being told that we’re trying to get God to submit to us because we don’t like how that sounds.  We prefer to say that we’re simply expecting God to live up to His end of the deal: He says He’ll give us a sweet life on earth if we work hard and choose the right priorities.  We’re doing our part, so now He needs to do His.  What’s wrong with this logic?  There are actually two things wrong with it, and let’s discuss them each in turn.

MISUNDERSTANDING THE PROMISE

The first problem with the “I worked hard, so where are my blessings?” complaint is that God never promised you a sweet life on earth in return for hard work and right soul choices.  Whenever you start yanking promises out of the Bible, there are two critical rules that you need to keep in mind. First, whenever you’re in the Old Testament, you need to remember that after Genesis, the Old Testament is discussing Old Covenant theology.  Then you need to remember that you are no longer living under the Old Covenant, thus you need to be cautious when trying to apply Old Covenant theology to your life today.  While many principles remain the same—such as God’s demand that we reverentially submit to Him as the Supreme Authority—other things have changed.  Under the Old Covenant, Yahweh did promise a sweet life on earth as a reward for spiritual devotion.  But God’s promises always come with conditions, and today you never hear anyone talk about what the real conditions were for that sweet life on earth promise.  First, this promise was given only to the entire community of believers.  Second, the blessings were only offered on the condition that the entire community remained faithful to God.  Individuals were never offered the promise of a sweet life on earth in return for spiritual devotion.  So when you find guys like Solomon, David, and the apostle Paul saying that Yahweh has promised to reward material gifts with material rewards, what’s happening is that Old Covenant believers are twisting what Yahweh actually said.  When we pretend that there’s no difference between God talking and humans putting words in God’s mouth for Him, we only end up promoting the idiotic idea that every word in the Bible is God breathed.  Well, no, this is utterly absurd.  Some of God’s words are recorded in the Bible, but there’s also a whole bunch of guff that was thrown in by folks who are intentionally twisting God’s words to line up with what their egos wanted to hear.

Humans have been looking for a way to manipulate their Creators since time began.  This is why Adam and Eve were so enticed by the forbidden fruit.  Once they had reason to believe that the fruit would have some magical effect on them which would lessen the difference in abilities between them and Yahweh, they were all for it.  Why?  Because they wanted to find a way to dominate God.  They wanted to give the orders, not just take them, and they figured that acquiring more knowledge was a strategic step in that direction.

Today, many Christians are erroneously taught that God will materially bless their lives if they just work hard or give generous offerings or pray prayers that they think God wants to hear.  But let’s be honest: when we do right for the purpose of getting God to bless our earthly lives, are we really honoring Him with our motivations?  No.  In such cases, we’re not really trying to live for God—we’re just putting on a pretense of living for God as a means of trying to get God to serve us.

Living for God means just what it says: living for God.  When we’re living for God, it’s His pleasure, satisfaction, and priorities that we’re most interested in, not our own.  It doesn’t mean we stop caring about ourselves, because we’ll always care to some degree.  But when pleasing God is our top priority in life, then we’re willing to accept not having our own preferences met.  When we invest our resources in some project, we do so out of a desire to please God.  When He starts throwing up roadblocks, we stop pressing forward and instead welcome His course correction.  When pleasing God comes first, if He tells us to stop what we’re doing and change course, then we want to obey out of a desire to please Him.  We might find it difficult or costly to change directions or careers or ministries or whatever else, but what matters most of all is that God is telling us that He does not want us to continue on our current course.

Living for God is something serious Christians claim to be doing long before they even understand what the phrase actually means. When we first start telling ourselves that we’re living for God, we’re really still living for ourselves.  We just don’t recognize that’s what we’re doing until God creates a situation which suddenly thrusts the limits of our submission to Him in our faces.  When our dream of making it in professional sports hits a wall, we hit the roof with angry accusations that God owes us our shot at fame.  When we apply for our dream job only to get shot down, we go into a big huff and refuse to accept that God is telling us no.  Until God really blocked us this way, we honestly thought we were fully submitted to Him. And perhaps we really were giving Him all of the submission that we had access to at the time, but the point is that it’s not enough.  Sure, God’s thrilled that we’ve asked Him to have His way with us, but the party’s just getting started.  Now God’s rolling up His sleeves and announcing that it’s time to start deepening our submission to Him because what we’re giving Him right now is simply not enough to qualify us for close communion with Him.

You see, God doesn’t just give Himself away for free.  If we want to be invited closer in, we need to vastly improve the way that we treat Him.  There needs to be a whole lot more reverence, submission, dependency and trust.  And this isn’t a problem, because God knows exactly how to mature us in all of these areas.  Now the question is: how long is it going to take us to stop pouting and get back on board with His maturation program?  After all, we asked Him to make us all that He wants us to be.  God wants us to vastly improve the way that we are relating to Him.  He considers our treatment of Him to be infinitely more important than what kind of job we’re doing on earth or how popular we are or how much we’re enjoying ourselves in life.  God says that if we keep pursuing the priorities He tells us to pursue, then we’ll discover a kind of joy and satisfaction that makes our earthly dreams seem totally trivial by comparison.  As always, God is pushing us to go for the better thing.  Are we going to acknowledge that He’s wiser than we are and cooperate with Him or are we going to keep stewing over the fact that He’s not making our lives go the way we want?

HOW GOD DEFINES SUBMISSION

Earlier we said that there were two flaws with the assumption that God owes us a sweet life on earth if we work hard and try to make better spiritual choices than most.  We’ve already discussed the first flaw with this logic, and that is the fact that God never made us any such guarantee.  Now let’s talk about the second flaw in this assumption.

The second major error in our thinking that encourages us to stay in sullen funks about God not blessing our lives comes from misunderstanding God’s definition of submission.  In human relationships, if one partner goes back on a promise, then we often feel that it’s reasonable for the second partner to be angry or to want revenge.  In human relationships, there is never supposed to be an element of unconditional submission.  There is an element of power in every human relationship, and for those relationships to remain healthy, that power must be carefully allocated and balanced (see The Element of Power in Human Relationships).  No human should ever be given absolute power over another, nor should any human offer total submission to any created being.  With humans, we learn to recognize the signs that one party has gained too much power.  If a friend keeps breaking his promises to you or if he starts showing a lack of respect for your preferences, then that is a clear indicator that the balance of power between the two of you needs to be corrected.  Your friend has acquired too much power, and now he’s becoming abusive.  To correct the situation, you must pull some of the power back to your side, and that means you need to start making demands and drawing boundaries and withholding favors until your friend starts respecting you again.

So wait—isn’t this all a bit off topic?  Why are we talking so much about the power structure in human relationships?  Because as a human, you instinctively drag all of your human methods into your relationship with God.  The angry fit you throw when He does something you don’t like, the way you stop talking to Him when you’re mad, the way you start throwing verses in His face from that Bible you think is some kind of contract He is supposed to be bound by—all of these behaviors are your attempts to pull power away from God and onto your side.  You’re instinctively doing to Him what you’d do to humans who start abusing you—you’re trying to punish Him back into line. You’re trying to throw up boundaries and force Him to improve the way He’s treating you so that you can settle into a pattern of happy compromise.  In human relationships, compromise is essential: both parties must be willing to take turns at not having things their way.  But the problem is that God is not a human, and He demands an entirely different kind of dynamic with you.

Your relationship with God is the only relationship in which it is appropriate for you to give total submission. It’s not only appropriate, it’s essential.  God demands total submission from you, and until you give it to Him, He will put limits on how close you can be to Him.  But total submission is a foreign concept for us humans.  It’s also extremely unnerving because it forces us to accept a completely powerless position.  If we’re going to totally submit to God, then that means He is free to do whatever He wants.  If He makes a promise, He is free to break that promise anytime He wants, and there’s no basis on which we can cry that it’s unfair.  You see, as soon as one partner in a relationship accepts a position of total submission, then the other partner is put in a situation of total domination.  God says that as the Supreme Authority over all things, He is accountable to no one, and that you are obligated to respect and obey Him simply because He is God.  Compromise is not on the table.  God doesn’t say, “Give Me a little attention, and I’ll pour down the blessings.”  God says, “I am God.  I am the most glorious Being in existence.  Praising, serving, and adoring Me 24/7 is the very least you should be doing as a creature who depends on Me for all things.”

You see, the Church in all of her rebellious arrogance teaches us to act like God Almighty ought to feel humbly honored by our two seconds of sincere praise.  She teaches us to view God as subordinate to us—rather like our pet dog who anxiously waits for us to open up that treat jar again and toss him another biscuit.  Oh look: we went to church Sunday morning and really praised our hearts out.  What a special treat for God.  Oh look: we tossed in an extra few bucks in the offering plate—now God is really feeling blessed.  This is the kind of gross disrespect that the Church encourages us to have.  She starts us off with the premise that we owe God nothing, therefore we all ought to pat ourselves on the back as being extra generous when we pay Him extra attention.  Well, this is the total opposite of what God says.  He says that we owe Him absolute devotion at all times, therefore He is the One being magnanimous when He actually rewards us for doing so much less than we ought to.  Now of course our egos hate being placed in the role of unworthy servants, and yet this is exactly what Jesus called us in one of His fabulous parables about the kind of submission we’re supposed to be giving God (see The Parable of the Unworthy Servant).

So what happens when we start using God’s definition of submission?  Let’s say you are very talented at sports.  Fine.  As your Creator, God says that you and all of your talents are quite literally His property.  As His property, God has the right to do whatever He wants with you. If He wants to load you up with talents and then never use those talents, He gets to. When you then beef about this, are you being a good servant?  Are you treating God with the respect He deserves?  No.  You’re trying to dominate Him by trying to tell Him how He ought to run your life.

Now we know how unpleasant and deflating a discussion like this is, but when you’re serious about maturing, at some point you need to get exposed to the truth about how things really are between us and God.  This whole concept of us trying to limit how much say God has over us while we simultaneously take pride in how committed we are to Him is just a bunch of hypocritical baloney.  Total submission leaves no room for us trying to tell God how He should and shouldn’t lead us in life.  In the God-human dynamic, there is simply no room for the servants to be bossing or correcting their Master.  Until we understand how obnoxious we’re being to gripe about the way God is running our lives, we can’t appreciate the positive thing He is doing for us.  The raw truth is that we’re simply out of line to complain to God about anything ever.  And once we stop evading that truth, we’re finally ready to talk about the good news.

THE GOOD NEWS

It’s impossible to talk about how we should be treating God without coming to the conclusion that we’re all abysmal failures in the honoring God department.  So here is where we need to talk about the good news.  While God has every right to be a tyrannical Taskmaster who doesn’t give a darn about how miserable His orders make us, the reality is that He is quite the opposite of this.  Instead of demanding perfection from us, God graciously accepts the extremely flawed and insufficient offerings of service and devotion that we give Him.  Not only does He accept them, but He actually delights in our positive response to Him.  God also cares far more about our own well-being than we do, which is why He will insist on putting us through the trials He knows we need to mature.  Instead of reacting with disgust and harsh criticism as we gripe against the way He is leading our lives, God is extremely patient and compassionate towards us.  He graciously takes into account our very limited understanding and our backwards priorities and He actually encourages us to vent our frustration to Him instead of telling us to shut up and go away.  Instead of shoving us away when we get in one of our many brattitudes, God responds to us like the mother who pulls her baby closer in when he starts to fuss and speaks to him in soothing tones.  When we’re frustrated, God wants us to engage with Him and be open to Him teaching us productive ways to deal with our frustrations.  Instead of just shutting us down, He sympathizes with our human perspective and assures us that His motivations towards us are very positive.  But you see, we’ll never appreciate how wonderful God is being towards us until we get a grip on the fact that He doesn’t have to be this way.  There is no law written somewhere that says God must love humans.  God chooses to love us of His own free will—not because some bigger God is forcing Him. This is a critical point to grasp when we’re trying to break out of mindsets of entitlement.  God simply doesn’t owe it to us to make us happy, comfortable or satisfied in this life.  He doesn’t have to make our dreams come true simply because they are our dreams.  He doesn’t have to do things that make sense to us.  He’s God—He can do whatever He wants.  But He chooses to care immensely about what is best for our souls in the long term, and then He keeps creating situations in our lives which we can benefit from if we are willing to listen to Him.

So given all of this, what should you conclude about your personal situation?  When your hard work isn’t paying off or when your talents are going unused, does it mean God is being a jerk?  No, God is actually doing exactly what you asked Him to do: He is prodding you down the path that will be best for your soul in the long run.  Because you don’t recognize the better thing, you complain and shove it away from you.  But because God loves you, He is not going to just cave into you and give you the things you’re craving when He can see that what you currently have your eye on just doesn’t have any eternal value.

God isn’t just messing with us when He tells us that we cannot find true satisfaction apart from Him.  When He says that true happiness can only be found through total submission to Him, He’s telling us a fact about how He designed us to operate.  We can choose to ignore the facts, but ignoring them won’t change the way God has made us.

No one can even guess at how many different kinds of creatures God is currently sustaining.  But every creature is designed to function in a certain way, and we humans were designed to thrive only in the context of total submission to our Creator.  Trying to get God to share His power with us will get us nowhere.  Trying to get Him to take turns serving us in certain areas of our lives will only result in Him disciplining us.  We either play by His rules, or we end up in a mess: this is how it works when you’re dealing with the nonhuman Being who created you.

In the Church, you can find many Christian leaders who will insist that you can thrive by treating God like a human. Whole denominations and many ego-pleasing doctrines have been built on the assumption that God Almighty actually offers to serve the works of His hands.  But no matter how many times we recycle the lies, they never become true.  God will not serve us.  If we are wise, we will ask Him to help us grow in our submission to Him until it is truly complete.  If we are wise, we will ask Him to make us all that He wants us to be even as we begin to understand that what He wants will probably turn out to be something shockingly different than what we expected.  And yet, if we are honest, what is our alternative?  Hold back our submission and go try to force our own will to happen in a universe which God totally controls?  No, this is absurd thinking.

In Luke 17, Jesus said that when we obey Him, we should view it as the very least we ought to be doing, not as some grand favor which we deserve to be eternally rewarded for.  If we are wise, we will ask Jesus to make us into servants who greatly delight Him because we treat Him with such honor and respect.  It is by praying for things like this that you progress to the next stage of spiritual maturity.  First we eagerly talk about being fully devoted.  Then we start to actually become so.  Are you ready to take the next step forward in your own walk with God?

FURTHER READING:
The Process & Purpose of Being Dominated by God
Using Our Talents
Better than Heaven: Pursuing What Really Matters
Soul Before Earthsuit: Understanding God’s Priorities
Soul Attitudes That Please God: What They Are & How We Develop Them

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