When The Answer Is No

(Originally published on March 28, 2015.)

I must have absorbed it by osmosis through the years, this idea that answer to prayer was a synonym for receiving from God what I had asked for. And unanswered prayer somehow became just another way of saying “I haven’t received what I want” I don’t remember being told that, specifically, and if you had asked me I would have said with certainty that God doesn’t always do what we ask of Him. Any praying person figures that out pretty quickly. And yet there it was, that use of the term that implies the only answer that matters is the one we want.

As we study prayer in small groups, we have talked about this particular oddity of church culture, and we have found our understanding of God’s answers widening. God promised His people, “Call to me and I will answer you…” (Jeremiah 33:3) So whatever God gives us in response to our prayers He must consider a sufficient answer, even if sometimes it does not look at all the way we thought it would. Sometimes the answer is a promise for the future; sometimes a charge to repent or take action so that He can bless us; sometimes His tender mercies toward our heartache, or provision for our need; and much to our dismay, quite often His answer is No, my dear child.

Indeed, sometimes when the need is most pressing and it feels as if the world is collapsing around us, still the answer can seem to be No, and hearts can lose their faith in the rubble, unless we can be still and listen to His promise: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9) Because when we ask anything of Him, the unspoken question between us is always whether we will trust Him in this, and which we want more– the thing we desire, or more of Him. It is not an easy thing, to say with the Church-Planter Paul, “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:10)

We can blame it on perspective, maybe, because we are very bad at knowing what is good for us, and our prayers reflect both our short-sightedness and our dependency on the world we can taste and touch.  Quite often our prayers are more heartfelt than wise, and we should be glad that the God who lives in Eternity knows what is actually good for us in the long run, knows all things inside and out. As Sheldon Vanauken observed, in his account of love and loss, sometimes our great tragedies are but “a severe mercy” from the hands of a compassionate Father. Job was honest about the impact of his life-changing losses: “For sighing has become my daily food; my groans pour out like water. What I feared has come upon me; what I dreaded has happened to me.” (Job 3:24-25) But I wonder, in the long run, whether he would have traded those long dark months of grieving, in light of his glimpse of God’s glory and the wisdom he gained through it. You can’t have one without the other. I heard a preacher say once that God allowed the worst thing he could imagine to happen in his life, because it made him desperate…and desperation brings about transformation. In God’s book, it is always okay to be desperate.

What does it mean in practical terms to pray “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven,” like Jesus taught us to do? That phrase has a ring to it, and it rolls off the tongue very poetically when you are reciting The Lord’s Prayer in a group. But to be able to pray that with face to the earth, in total surrender to the Lord of heaven and earth, requires us to dig deeply into our desires and motives. It’s not the kind of prayer one should pray lightly, without counting the cost. Yet when you think about it, is God’s will not the end goal of all true prayer? If prayer is abiding with Christ and communicating heart-to-heart with Him, then each of our petitions, from the simplest childish request to the deepest struggles of the human heart are a seeking for Him, a crying out for the Father to respond to His children. And every answer He gives (no matter how it comes) is a way to know Him better, a glimpse of His heart and His plans for us. And the more we know His heart, the more we trust Him and embrace His will, till everything in our corner of the world bows in submission and worship, as it does in the heavenly places. With Jesus we will be able to pray, “Father, if You are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but Yours be done.” (Luke 22:42) and know that even when the answer is No, God will be there still, and He will be Enough.

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“He must often seem to us to be playing fast and loose with us….And the danger is that when what He means by ‘wind’ appears you will ignore it because it is not what you thought it would be– as He Himself was rejected because He was not like the Messiah the Jews had in mind.”

CS Lewis in a letter to Vanauken

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“‘Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet My unfailing love for you will not be shaken nor My covenant of peace be removed,’ says the Lord, who has compassion on you.”

 (Isaiah 54:10)
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