Eugene Peterson writes: “There are times when our grand human plans to do something for God are seen, after a night of prayer, to be a huge human distraction from what God is doing for us.”
As a Christian author, I can find myself stumbling over this truth time and time and time again. When I made the decision to give God my writing career, it was with a level of humility that can come only with the realization it was already His to begin with. Any talent I may possess comes from Him; any desire to put pen to paper comes from Him; any success I have within this chosen field comes from Him. Understanding these truths leads to a greater appreciation for God, but it can also lead to greater desire to do things for Him. I want to write more books, speak more Truth, be an ambassador for His name—I want to perform all of these tasks to glorify Him. And, while that’s not necessarily a bad thing, I have to be careful that I don’t get so busy working for Him that I miss HIS work IN ME.
Because that’s what it comes down to, doesn’t it? Although God invites us to participate in His plans and celebrates our service to Him, living our lives continually doing things for His glory changes US. While we’re working for Him, He is simultaneously working IN US, changing us and molding us further into the image of Christ He desires.
A perfect case-in-point for this can be found in 2 Samuel 7. Here we find David, finally crowned king, settled in his palace and at rest from his enemies. As a “man after [God’s] own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14), David recognized the Lord’s blessing in his current situation and said to the prophet Nathan, “Here I am, living a palace of cedar, while the ark of God remains in a tent” (2 Samuel 7:2). Bearing this in mind, he made it his goal to build a magnificent temple in which God could dwell and His people could worship.
Sounds great, right? Noble, righteous, God-honoring work, for sure.
But it was not to be.
In the next passage, we overhear God speaking to Nathan in a dream that night. “Go and tell my servant David, ‘This is what the Lord says: Are you the one to build me a house to dwell in? I have not dwelt in a house from the day I brought the Israelites up out of Egypt to this day. I have been moving from place to place with a tent as my dwelling. Wherever I have moved with the Israelites, did I ever say to any of their rulers whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, ‘Why have you not built me a house of cedar?’…when your days are over and you rest with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, who will come from your own body, and I will establish his kingdom. He is the one who will build a house for my Name…” (2 Samuel 7:5-13).
Did you catch it? David wanted to do this great, God-honoring thing…and God told him no.
If you sit and think about it with our human sensibilities, it can seem jarring. Why wouldn’t God want a temple? For Himself and His people? What David wanted to do was a good thing. It doesn’t make any sense. We can speculate all day about God’s reasoning behind His denial (and many theologians have done so, if you’re curious) but, for us, I think that’s missing the point. Because the point here isn’t God’s rejection of David’s plan, even though it was one in which he was attempting to glorify the Lord. The point here is David’s reaction to that declination.
You see, in addition to telling David that he was not the one to build the temple, God also took the time to remind David of His past faithfulness–and His future:
“I took you from the pasture and from following the flock to be ruler over my people Israel. I have been with you wherever you have gone, and I have cut off all your enemies from before you. Now I will make your name great, like the names of the greatest men on earth…the Lord declares to you that the Lord himself will establish a house for you…your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me, your throne will be established forever.” (2 Samuel 7:8-16).
Yes, there are many reasons God may have had for denying David’s intention to build a temple. But I love the emphasis in His words. In a sense, He was telling David, “I know you want to do something for me. But instead, I want you to see what I’m going to do for you.” Rather than David building a “house” for God, God was going to build a “house” for him–an everlasting throne and kingdom, culminating in God’s own Son, born in the line of David, to endure for all times. Although it’s pure speculation, perhaps God’s reason for turning down David’s goal of building a temple was so David wouldn’t be so distracted by his work for God that he missed the work from God. As Peterson puts it, perhaps God was preventing David from making God an “afterthought” when He is really the “architect.”
Doing good works for God is wonderful thing. Not only that, its necessary if we want to live in obedience and have an “alive” faith (see James 2:17). However, we must realize not every “good deed” is meant for us; there are times when God will tell us no, even when our plans are ones that seek to honor Him. My prayer is that you and I never forget the ultimate goal is Christ working in us and that, in humility, we will accept that sometimes that goal will take priority in His kingdom.
So, when God tells us no, I pray we can respond like David. Did David beg and plead? Pout and sulk? Or, worse, go ahead and build the temple anyway?
No. Instead, he “went in and sat before the Lord” (verse 17) and offered up these words of praise:
“Who am I, O Sovereign Lord, and what is my family, that you have brought me this far? And as if this were not enough in your sight, O Sovereign Lord, you have also spoken about the future of the house of your servant…how great you are, O Sovereign Lord! There is no one like you, and there is no God but you, as we have heard with our own ears…your words are trustworthy, and you have promised these good things to your servant.” (2 Samuel 7: 18-28).
Like David, we have assurances of God’s future plans for us, plans that may or may not include the things we want to do for Him. But we can trust in Who He is, His sovereignty, and–most of all–the glorious work He Himself is doing in us. As such, we can surrender all of our plans to His.
Because sometimes not doing something for God is the act of greatest obedience.