One of the first words our children learned was “No.” This was especially true of our son Jacob. He suffered near paralyzing colic (paralyzing for his sleep-deprived parents, not for him) for several months. Perhaps that trauma contributed to his surprisingly high level of stubbornness. By the time Jacob became mobile, hardly a half-hour passed without Kendra or me stating firmly to Jacob, “No.” No pulling your sister’s hair. No sticking forks in the outlet. No breaking your toys. No, No, No. It is no surprise that one of his first words was “No.” He heard it more often than he’d like.
That describes many of us when it comes to prayer. We hear “no” more often than we’d like. Even when we ask God for things that seems completely legitimate and in line with what we know of his will, time and time again we hear “no.” A friend of mine named Josh Ross had a sister who was dying. At the height of the prayer-campaign, literally thousands of people around the world were praying for his sister Jenny. College students. Professors. Fellow preachers. Members of their congregation and congregations in places that spanned the globe. Thousands of people were begging, “God, please heal Jenny.” And God said “no.” It’s a word we hear from God more often than we’d like.
And it’s a word with devastating consequences. Philip Yancey writes:[i] I have a file drawer full of letters in response to a book I wrote entitled Disappointment with God, and every so often I read through those letters. They would silence the mouth of any prosperity-gospel evangelist and break the heart of any sensitive soul. Some tell of relatively trivial unanswered prayers: for example, a baby that refuses to sleep and cries louder every time the harried mother prays for relief. Some tell of unanswered prayers with more serious consequences. Scars from abuse not by bullies but by family members. A child with cystic fibrosis. A mother with severe Alzheimer’s who has suddenly turned violent. Breast cancer, a brain tumor, pancreatic cancer. The correspondents give a virtual diary of prayer, begun with high hopes, buoyed by support of friends and church, dashed into disappointment. They are writing to me, as they explain, because their faith dangles on the thread of unanswered prayer. Some blame themselves, following the cruel logic of fellow Christians who tell them that proper faith would achieve the desired result. Some, looking for bright spots, point to positive side-effects of prayers—relatives brought to faith, a church united—while the main request goes ignored. Others simply give up, concluding that prayer doesn’t work.
No is a word we hear from God much more often than we’d like.
We are not alone. While we may like to think of Scripture as the record of those rare and unusual people who got a powerful “yes” to every plea they ever uttered, that is simply not the case. The Bible is filled with prominent person after prominent person receiving a “no” from God.
During this series we’ve highlighted some of those “no” prayers: the unanswered prayers of Jesus, Paul praying about his thorn, and David asking for the life of his infant son. But there are many more “no” prayers in Scripture.
There are few people in the Bible as prominent as Moses. He stands head and shoulders above most in the Old Testament. Yet at the end of his life, after what must have seemed an eternity of leading a rebellious and unfaithful people, Moses asks God to just let him live long enough to get to the Promised Land. Just give him enough breath to cross the Jordan River. Just carry him a few more days so he can see the end of the journey he’s spent four decades driving. But God says “no”:
23″And I pleaded with the LORD at that time, saying, 24′O Lord GOD, you have only begun to show your servant your greatness and your mighty hand. For what god is there in heaven or on earth who can do such works and mighty acts as yours? 25Please let me go over and see the good land beyond the Jordan, that good hill country and Lebanon.’ 26But the LORD was angry with me because of you and would not listen to me. And the LORD said to me, ‘Enough from you; do not speak to me of this matter again. 27 Go up to the top of Pisgah and lift up your eyes westward and northward and southward and eastward, and look at it with your eyes, for you shall not go over this Jordan. (Deut. 3:23-27 ESV)
If any person in the Old Testament stands above Moses, perhaps it is David. David, the author of so many of the psalms which inspired worship then and now. David, the trusting and humble young man God chose as king. David, the one after whom Jesus would be named (“Son of David”). David had a dream of building a temple for God. David’s passion was to provide a dwelling place for God. But when David asked God about this, God said, “no”:
1 David assembled at Jerusalem all the officials of Israel, the officials of the tribes, the officers of the divisions that served the king, the commanders of thousands, the commanders of hundreds, the stewards of all the property and livestock of the king and his sons, together with the palace officials, the mighty men and all the seasoned warriors. 2Then King David rose to his feet and said: “Hear me, my brothers and my people. I had it in my heart to build a house of rest for the ark of the covenant of the LORD and for the footstool of our God, and I made preparations for building. 3But God said to me, ‘You may not build a house for my name, for you are a man of war and have shed blood.’ (1 Chr. 28:1-3 ESV).
The ministry of Elijah was about as mystical and magnificent as a ministry ever was. It seemed to climax that day on Mount Carmel when Elijah took on hundreds of Jezebel’s prophets in a prayer showdown. The first group to get their god to answer “yes” to a prayer for fire from heaven was the winner. Despite dances and desperation, Jezebel’s prophets couldn’t even get a whisper from their gods. But when Elijah prayed, the Lord sent fire so furious that all present were persuaded that Elijah’s God was the true God. Days later, exhausted from ministry and the pace of life, times turned bad. Elijah learned he was the object of an assassination plan plotted by Jezebel. It should have been smooth sailing after Carmel. But now the seas were stormy and the days were dark. One of the most powerful women in the land had put a price on Elijah’s head. So Elijah prayed. He prayed for God to call him home. He prayed for an immediate way out. He prayed for God to end his life on earth and begin his retirement in heaven. But God said, “no”:
1Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. 2Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So may the gods do to me and more also, if I do not make your life as the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.” 3Then he was afraid, and he arose and ran for his life and came to Beersheba, which belongs to Judah, and left his servant there. 4But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness and came and sat down under a broom tree. And he asked that he might die, saying, “It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers.” 5And he lay down and slept under a broom tree. And behold, an angel touched him and said to him, “Arise and eat.” 6And he looked, and behold, there was at his head a cake baked on hot stones and a jar of water. And he ate and drank and lay down again. 7And the angel of the LORD came again a second time and touched him and said, “Arise and eat, for the journey is too great for you.” 8And he arose and ate and drank, and went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb, the mount of God. (1 Kings 19:1-8 ESV)
A similar prayer and a similar “no” arrived in the life of Jonah. One day, stuck in the belly of a great fish, Jonah prayed to God. He pleaded for God to save his life. He begged God for another day to live. He petitioned God for more time to do the ministry he had run from. And God answered with a resounding “yes.” God spoke to the fish, the fish swam to the shore, and Jonah was ejected from the fish’s belly. Not a pleasantly answered prayer, but one answered nonetheless. Then the tables turned. Someone else was in trouble. Someone else was in danger of dying. Someone else stood in the path of God’s wrath. Not Jonah. But the people of Nineveh. Because of their sin God was going to destroy their city. But they repented. They prayed. And God spared them. And Jonah couldn’t stand it. They were the enemies. They were the militant terrorists of Jonah’s day. They didn’t deserve compassion. They deserved annihilation. So Jonah begged God to end his ministry. He begged God to end his life. He begged God to send him on a permanent vacation. But God said, “no”:
1But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. 2And he prayed to the LORD and said, “O LORD, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. 3 Therefore now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” 4And the LORD said, “Do you do well to be angry?” (Jonah 4:1-4 ESV)
These “no’s” from God are paralleled by “no’s” from Jesus in the Gospels. For example, one day James and John had doors slammed in their face as they tried to find a place for Jesus to stay. The inhospitable homeowners were Samaritans. Like good former Jews, James and John looked down on the Samaritans. They were half-bloods. They were unfaithful and disloyal to God. They were enemies of orthodoxy and the biblical faith. So when the Samaritans slammed the door in their face, James and John began fantasizing about their Old Testament hero Elijah. Should they, like Elijah, call down fire from heaven on these enemies of God? They brought the request to Jesus. It seemed perfectly in line with what they knew of the Old Testament. But Jesus said “no”:
51When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. 52And he sent messengers ahead of him, who went and entered a village of the Samaritans, to make preparations for him. 53But the people did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. 54And when his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” 55But he turned and rebuked them. 56And they went on to another village. (Luke 9:51-56 ESV)
“No” is a word we often hear from God. It’s a word many in Scripture also heard. What then do we do with these unanswered prayers?
Let me suggest three stages or attitudes towards prayer.[ii] One stage we might summarize in this way: I seek my wish. There is an attitude towards prayer in which our primary focus is this: I seek my wish. What matters most to us is our need. What holds our attention is our need. And to us, prayer is primarily about getting God to grant our wish.
Philip Yancey writes about a Japanese friend who visited him in the United States.[iii] The friend told Yancey that he was shocked by the directness of our prayers. The American pray-er, he told Yancey, “resembles a person who goes to Burger King and orders a ‘Whopper well-done, but hold the pickle and lettuce—with extra ketchup, please.’” By contrast, the friend told Yancey, the Japanese are “more like the tourist who walks into a foreign restaurant unable to read the menu. He finally communicates, with gestures and reference to a phrase book, that he would like the house specialty.” In other words, he cannot ask for what he really wants so he just tells the host to bring what he thinks is best.
And there is something very direct about our prayers in America. Sometimes we seem stuck in this stage: I seem my wish. What most matters to us is getting exactly what we want in exactly the way we want it.
Thus when God says “no,” we are completely devastated. Because our heart is wrapped up in our wish, when God denies that wish, we cannot handle it. This stage of prayer is thus one that is unable to cope with unanswered prayer.
A second attitude toward prayer might be summarized in this way: I seek your will. In this stage, what matters most to us is not our wish, but God’s will. What most focuses our energy and attention is ensuring that what God wants is preeminent.
Here, we are more like the Japanese pray-er in Yancey’s story. We don’t ask for what we really want. Instead we just ask God to bring what he thinks is best. And while such an attitude toward prayer may appear praiseworthy, it also has its problems.
I remember talking once with a woman about her prayer life. And she told me something like this: “I’ve just stopped praying about things like the physical healing of family members, or things I need at work. I no longer even ask God for things like the repairing of a friend’s marriage. Because I know God has a will for all of those things. And I think God’s going to do his will whether or not I pray about them. So I just entrust all of those things to him rather than bothering him with what I want from them.”
But there are problems with that attitude toward prayer. It treats prayer rather coldly. It forgets that prayer is about relationship. For example, the other day while I was in my office working on sermons, some of the guys in the office decided to go out to lunch together. They didn’t ask me to go, because they knew I would say no. I was busy. I had my door shut. And they knew me enough to know that if they asked, I would have said no. I saw them outside my window get into a car and drive off. But to be honest, my feelings were a little hurt. I would have liked the opportunity to say no. I would have liked to have been asked to go, even though my will would have been to not go. Why? Because for me it was more about our relationship than it was about going to lunch. I want to feel like I’m part of the lives of those I work with. I want connection with them. And that day, I didn’t feel that connection.
I think that may be similar to what God might experience. If we reach a stage in prayer where we just rarely ever pray because we think we already know God’s will about a matter, we are forgetting the relational aspect of prayer. We may think that God’s going to say no to a request. And that may be exactly what he does. But I think God would like the chance to say no personally. I think he wants that connection. I think he desires that relationship.
These two stages don’t deal effectively with unanswered prayers. The first stage—I seek my wish—can’t handle it when God says “no.” The second stage—I seek your will—doesn’t even give God a chance to say “no.”
Perhaps the third stage is the best stage. It is the stage demonstrated by Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane:
36 Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to his disciples, “Sit here, while I go over there and pray.” 37And taking with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, he began to be sorrowful and troubled. 38Then he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me.” 39And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will (Matt. 26:36-39 ESV)
In this painful prayer Jesus brings these two stages of prayer together and transforms them into a third stage. One the one hand, Jesus does seek his wish: “let this cup pass from me.” But he doesn’t leave it there. Jesus also seeks God’s will: “nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” For Jesus it was not either I seek my wish or I seek your will but both: I seek my wish and your will. And this attitude towards prayer is perhaps the best attitude for dealing with unanswered prayer.
Because he is fundamentally relational, God wants to hear our prayers. He wants us to ask for what we wish. Sometimes he will say “yes.” At other times he will say “no.” But he wants us to ask for what we wish. Yet by going a step further and also asking for what God wills, we place ourselves in a safer position to handle the “no.” When our prayers are focused on both our wish and God’s will, we are ready to rejoice at the “yes” answers and ready to receive humbly the “no” answers. Jesus models the best way to deal with the reality of God’s “no” answers.
If we can take both lines in to every prayer, we will be well suited for whatever God’s answer may be. My encouragement to you would be to know that you are not alone in receiving a “no” to prayer. Scripture is filled with godly and devout people who also had to struggle with a “no” to prayer. And the best way to posture yourself in prayer is not to focus solely on what you wish, nor on only what God wills. The best posture is to focus on both. With every need and in every situation, come before God stating what you wish and submitting to what he wills. Then when he answers, and he will, with either a “yes” or a “no,” you’ll be able to appropriately receive the answer.
[i] Philip Yancey Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference? (Zondervan, 2006), 219-220.
[ii] These stages are inspired by Yancey though the specifics are mine.
[iii] Yancey, 107.