When God Withholds Something Good

Few things are more terrifying than being left to yourself. And if we refuse to listen to God, he may choose to leave us with our own thoughts and plans. But if we listen to him, nothing in this world will have the right to terrify us.

After God saved his people from the awful affliction of slave labor in Egypt, they grumbled and complained in the wilderness, even wishing he had left them in bondage. He rescued them from oppression, promised them prosperity, and how did they respond? With mutiny.

“My people did not listen to my voice;
     Israel would not submit to me.
So I gave them over to their stubborn hearts,
     to follow their own counsels.” (Psalm 81:11–12)

God rescued them from Pharaoh, only to deliver them over to themselves. They walked out of slavery, only to realize the worst chains were wrapped around their hearts. They had to be liberated to realize they had become their own oppressors.

One of the worst things God can do to us is leave us alone with our hearts, because if we’re left to ourselves, our sin remains, and festers, and our slavery never ends. That makes “Follow your heart” an anthem of judgment, not inspiration — in the wrong hands. But if God makes our hearts his own, then he removes our sin and gives us the joy that never ends.

Why Do We Refuse to Listen?

How could God’s people refuse to listen to him? They bore the scars of violent oppression. They witnessed the carnage of the plagues — the bloody Nile, buildings destroyed by hail, ground covered in frogs, locusts, and dead livestock, bodies covered in boils, a dead son in each Egyptian family. They left slavery without lifting a hand, at least not in battle. They watched the Red Sea open like a tulip in May, and walked across on dry, firm ground.

And yet as hunger and thirst, stress and fear, grew in the wilderness, they grumbled against the God who had delivered them. God’s people, like sheep, went astray. They turned to their own way. And the Lord let them have their way.

Why did they refuse to listen? The answer is in the previous verse:

“I am the Lord your God,
     who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.
Open your mouth wide, and I will fill it.
But my people did not listen to my voice;
     Israel would not submit to me.” (Psalm 81:10–11)

They did not listen because, despite all the evidence, they did not really believe God would satisfy them. They would not simply open wide their mouths, because they feared he would leave them wanting. They listened to the hunger pangs in their hearts rather than the promises of their Savior.

And still today, one of the greatest lies we tell ourselves is that God can do absolutely anything, except make us happy.

The Test

When God rescued his people from slavery, why did he send them into the wilderness for so long without easy access to food and water? He could have ushered them immediately into the Promised Land. He could have made mouthwatering meals out of sand and turned rocks into bread. Instead, he let his treasured people go even more hungry than they had been while in bondage. He let his chosen children, his prized possession, walk for days and days without basic refreshment.

But forty years in the wilderness was not an accident; it was a test. “I tested you at the waters of Meribah” (Psalm 81:7). There the people quarreled with Moses because they were thirsty (Exodus 17:1–2). Moses pled with God for help, and received the reply, “Behold, I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb, and you shall strike the rock, and water shall come out of it, and the people will drink” (Exodus 17:6). Moses struck the rock, and God quenched their thirst.

By withholding food and water — and comfort and security and familiarity — God was testing them: Now that you are free, will you feed on me? And if God withholds anything good from his children today, he wants to know if we’re happy to be left alone with him — or if we’ll retreat from him until he gives us what we really want.

God Gave Them Over

If we want something from God more than we want God himself, we should be terrified that God might give us what we want — and withhold himself.

When sinners see the magnificence of God and prefer something else, God may give “them up in the lusts of their hearts ” (Romans 1:24). He may let them follow their hearts. Why? “Because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever!” (Romans 1:25).

What does it look like when God gives sinners over to themselves? It looks like grumbling against the God who redeemed you from slavery, which soon multiplies into all manner of sin:

God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. (Romans 1:28–31)

Every sin, however socially respectable or deplorable, is a lashing out of deep and unfulfilled desires and longings. Every sin is the fruit of following a heart that is not satisfied in God. If the spiritually famished do not feed on God through his word, and drink from his well of living water, they will always try to bury their neediness in every manner of evil.

Listen to Me

So, what should we do when we are hungry or thirsty — when our circumstances press in on us, causing us to doubt that God will deliver, provide, or come through? God says, “Oh, that my people would listen to me” (Psalm 81:13).

Relieving our hunger and quenching our thirst begins with listening to God. Israel tried to grumble their way out of pain and suffering. They spoke. They raised their voices against God rather than opening their ears and hearts to him. But they only dug themselves into deeper hunger and dried out their mouths more with complaining.

If we want God to fill our hearts, we will open our ears to his words. And if we will trust God’s heart revealed in his words more than our hunger and thirst, he promises to be so much more for us than our petty and fleeting cravings:

“I would soon subdue their enemies
     and turn my hand against their foes.
Those who hate the Lord would cringe toward him,
     and their fate would last forever.
But he would feed you with the finest of the wheat,
     and with honey from the rock I would satisfy you.” (Psalm 81:14–16)

Wheat and honey are but whispers of someone more nourishing and more satisfying. If we find ourselves resenting God for withholding wheat and honey (or whatever he seems to be keeping from you right now), we’re not hearing what God is whispering in wheat and honey: “Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Incline your ear, and come to me; hear, that your soul may live” (Isaiah 55:2–3).

Open your mouth wide, and he will fill it — with the finest wheat, the coolest stream, the sweetest honey. Himself.