Often we turn to God for healing, a miracle or divine protection; but when God says “No,” how do we make sense of his answer?
“Recently I talked to a friend who had been a faithful pastor for more than two decades,” Craig Groeschel wrote in his book Hope in the Dark. “After raising four kids with his wife of almost thirty years, he came home one day to the shock of his life. His wife had decided she didn’t want to be married anymore.
“An old high school flame had contacted her on Facebook. One thing led to another, and she had rekindled her relationship with the man ‘God had intended for her to marry in the first place.’
“After she left my friend, the elders at his church started talking. They agreed that in the wake of a scandal like that, he wasn’t fit to lead the church. He could resign or be terminated: his ‘choice.’ This poor, battered man sat in my office recounting his losses, and we cried together.
“He said, ‘I know God doesn’t owe me anything, but now I have nothing….’
“Often when we want God to do something, the solution wouldn’t require much of him. A quick nod. A spoken word. An answered prayer. In the grand scheme of things, just a small miracle. If only he would allow me to be rewarded for all my hard work! Or just heal my sick child! Or help my loved one overcome depression! Or break my sexual addiction! Or bring my prodigal child back home!”
So often these pains are bewildering and unexpected. So often we beg God for an answer, healing, a miracle or divine protection.
So often God doesn’t give us the answer we want.
When God Has Other Plans
In a podcast about the coronavirus and fear, Gary Wilkerson pointed to the peculiar wording of Hebrews 12:25-28.
“’All creation will be shaken and removed so that only the unshakable things will remain. We are receiving a kingdom that is unshakable.’ I love that phrase there. ‘We are receiving a kingdom.’ It's not past tense….
“I see, in seasons like this, that God has a purpose in shaking things. You know, some people attribute it all to the devil. ‘The devil is sending this situation,’ or ‘The devil sent that thing.’ Certainly, the devil is involved in all wickedness and evil, but here in this context, we're seeing God shaking things for a purpose or allowing things to be shaken up.”
Accepted God’s unknown purposes is easy when life is going good and much, much harder when our world feels like a snow globe getting tossed around. There’s a certain irony in the fact that hardship is often where God invites us into his presence.
Case in point, a lot of godly people in the Bible went through extremely hard times. It’s easy for us to read about their lives with the benefit of already knowing how things turned out, but they weren’t so lucky. Joseph went through grueling years of slavery, injustice and incarceration before he finally ended up at Pharaoh’s side. It would probably be safe to say that he had a lot of questions that went unanswered for a long time as his world turned upside down over and over again.
Even when he came to power, it was because seven years of brutal famine and disaster were looming in everyone’s future. Joseph couldn’t have known that this famine was going to drive his family back into his life; he must’ve spent more than a few lonely nights wondering if he’d planned sufficiently to save his new wife and little children and all of the other people depending on him.
The vast majority of Joseph’s life was him grappling with a combination of terrible personal betrayals and sweeping natural disasters.
He must’ve wondered, at least once or twice, what God was doing.
At any point along the way—when he was betrayed by his brothers, nearly murdered, sold as a slave, unjustly accused of rape by his owner’s wife, unfairly incarcerated, forgotten by the man he helped in prison, handed the responsibility for saving an entire country from a natural disaster—Joseph could’ve become bitter.
He could’ve yelled, “God, why aren’t you protecting me? Is this punishment for something I don’t know about?”
Instead, he trusted that God is good, no matter how circumstances around him might’ve said otherwise. That trust built him into the man who could eventually say to his brothers, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Genesis 50:20, ESV).
When Our Attention Is Misdirected
Sometimes God’s answer to our prayers not only doesn’t keep us out of life’s storms but sends us right into the middle of the fifty-foot waves because he has better plans for us than we do, as much as we might disagree in the moment.
Other times, he doesn’t give us the answer or miracle we’re pleading for because our focus is on the wrong thing.
In a sermon to a men’s prison in Africa, John Piper preached on Jesus’ miracle of feeding the five thousand. “They saw this miracle and they fixated on the product of the miracle, not the person of the miracle. The crowd found Jesus the next day, and this is what he says to the them: ‘Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves”’ (John 6:26).
“He’s angry. Can you imagine Jesus being angry that somebody is seeking him? Why would he get upset if you sought him? It’s because they were seeking him as useful, useful for the bread, the money, the health, the prosperity. He’s useful to my stuff.”
Sometimes God doesn’t grant us a miraculous healing or divine intervention because we want the answer more than his presence.
I do not want to belittle the pain of those who have gone through terrible life circumstances and have questions for God. God wants us to engage with him, and he’s proven in the Bible that he is willing to dialog with those who come to him honestly and humbly with their confusion and hurt.
The problem arises when we become angry and either withdraw or try to lash out at God because he hasn’t answered our prayers the way we would like. Honestly, this mentality is a bit like getting married so that you can have someone cook your meals or fix your car for free. How heartbreaking would it be to discover that a fringe benefit was why your spouse went through with the wedding in the first place? “You’re a nice perk and all, but my real incentive was (fill in the blank).”
God jealously desires our affections. If something threatens to steal our hearts away from him, even good things like a miracle or protection, he won’t dishonor his relationship with us by granting that request.
When There’s A Thorn in Our Side
Probably the most famous denied prayer-request is in Paul’s letters. “…a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness’” (2 Corinthians 12:7-9).
I don’t know about you, but I think freedom from harassment by a messenger of Satan doesn’t sound like a bad prayer, especially if Paul felt like this situation might be threatening his efficiency on the mission field.
However, God answered Paul’s prayer with “No.”
Clearly, Paul struggled with this because he kept praying about it, but God’s answer persisted. Paul would never have freedom from this ‘thorn in the flesh,’ at least not in life.
John Piper once sagely pointed out, “Jesus came into the world to bless us in some measure now…but mainly he’s trying to forgive our sins, clothe us with righteousness, make himself our treasure, seal our eternity forever, and then put us to work in the world….”
Our lives are intended to be for the glory of God and the benefit of others, and that may mean that God occasionally answers our requests for good things with a compassionate “No.” He’s enticing us into a greater and wilder adventure. He’s inviting us to show up for more than just the miracles.
He’s holding out his hand as we gaze over the edge of the boat at the dark and stormy sea. “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.”