Over our years together, God has answered our direct prayers on many different occasions. We love to worship God for these clear answers to prayers. We have come to expect these affirmative answers. Furthermore, it is much more than experience that we base these expectations upon, our foundation of faith is scriptural.
I read this promise:
“In Philippians 4:19, ‘God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.’
But I don’t see God providing as his word says he would. My prayers go up, but it seems like God is silent, or he constantly answers me with an implied ‘no.’ This causes me to feel discouraged and ignored.
How do I respond to this ‘no’ from God when I pray for good things?
Does this sound painfully familiar to you? My assumption would be that you understand the sentiment of that statement all too well. The fact of the matter is, being told “no” is often a painful experience.
I think few things have caused me to search my soul and search the Scriptures more than the fact that I have called upon the Lord to do things, things which I think are in perfect accord with his will, according to Scripture, and yet he has not, seen fit to grant, or at least grant in the way that I asked or hoped for. I don’t look upon the problem of unanswered prayer in a theoretical way but in a very personal and sometimes gut-wrenching way.
Sadly, at the time of me writing this email, I still don’t claim to have a final answer. I hope someday to understand this better and to have gone deeper with God in prayer so that I understand both from Scripture and from experience how he deals with his children. But He has taught me some things, and it might be helpful if I give two Bible passages for you to think about with regard to the way he answers his children when they ask him for things. One of the texts is Matthew 7:7–11, and the other one is from Genesis 17.
Here’s what Jesus says in Matthew 7:7–11:
“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.”
Then he uses this analogy, which helps me so much:
“Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!”
That’s an amazing analogy that draws us into thinking about how we treat our children, and how God treats his children. What’s striking here is that God promises to give good things to his children when they ask. It’s striking because it doesn’t say he gives them precisely what they ask for. Since he’s comparing himself to our own parenting, we know that’s the case. We don’t give our children, especially when they’re two or three years old, everything they ask for. They don’t know all that is good for them.
I think the words of Jesus point us in this direction when dealing with unanswered prayer. Now, that may sound like a nice solution, but I know what some people are thinking — just like what I’m thinking. We ask glorious things of God, like the conversion of our family and the healing of the sick, and we can’t imagine how it could be bad for us. How could it be anything less than good to have God save our family? I don’t presume to say this is a quick fix, and yet I do think the principle laid there should be embraced even if the application of it to all situations is a little harder for us to grasp. That’s the first help that God has given us in regard to how prayers are sometimes answered differently than we would ask.
Here’s the other one. In a sense, this passage from Genesis 17 is an application in one way of what we’ve just seen in Matthew 7.
Here’s the text: And God said to Abraham,
“As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover, I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall become nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.”
Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed and said to himself,
“Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” And Abraham said to God, “Oh that Ishmael might live before you!” (Genesis 17:15–18)
In other words, Abraham prayed, “God, let Ishmael be the chosen seed.” The text continues: God said, “No, but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him. As for Ishmael, I have heard you; behold, I have blessed him and will make him fruitful and multiply him greatly. He shall father twelve princes, and I will make him into a great nation.” (Genesis 17:19–20)Now, Abraham had asked God in prayer that Ishmael would be the son of promise. God says explicitly, “No.” Now, God might have just left it at that, gone on, and done to Ishmael whatever he was going to do to Ishmael. Instead, he takes pains to say, “I have heard you. That’s what makes me do what I’m going to do to Ishmael. I have heard you, and that’s why I’m going to bless Ishmael the way I’m going to bless him. You have asked me to bless Ishmael, and I’m not going to do it the way you ask, but I am going to do it, and I’m doing it because I heard you.”
When God says “No”
Now, what should we learn from this about God’s “no” to our prayers? Here’s the least I think we can learn. Even when God says no to the specific intention of our prayer, it does not mean there’s no blessing in response to the prayer. In fact, I would go so far as to say (bringing in other texts, especially Matthew 7) that when we pray with the right heart, we never, never pray in vain. God never does anything in answer to prayer. These two passages have kept me crying out to God, even when it seems that the specific thing I’m asking for is not granted. I really believe that God always gives good things to his children precisely because we ask him, and always because we ask him. The blessings we receive may not be in the form of the things we ask for, but they are owing to our prayers. They’re owing to our prayers, and they’re good.
I think a day is coming, according to Revelation 8:1–5 when all the prayers that have ever been prayed by God’s faithful people, which over thousands of years served as a pleasing incense and aroma before the throne of God, will be poured out on the earth in the consummation of history. They will bring about the consummation of history, and it will be plain that not one expression of “hallowed is thy name” or “thy kingdom come” or “thy will be done on earth” will have been prayed in vain.
The Answer as to Why?
That final day, as of this morning at 9:00 AM, when I am writing this, has not yet come. So we remain in constant need of God’s answering of our prayers. Like countless others, George Muller has taught me much on the subject of prayer. I think of Muller as a timeless testimony of just how much the prayer of one man can accomplish. But Muller also had his share of hearing “No” from God. In his early sixties, his wife, Mary, was dying. He prayed that she would be healed. She was not healed, and here’s what he wrote: “The last portion of Scripture which I read to my precious wife was this: “The Lord God is a sun and shield; the Lord will give grace and glory. No good thing will he withhold from them that walk uprightly” [Psalm 84:11]. . . . I said to myself, with regard to the latter part, “no good thing will he withhold from them that walk uprightly” — I am in myself a poor, worthless sinner, but I have been saved by the blood of Christ. And I do not live in sin; I walk uprightly before God. Therefore, if it is really good for me, my darling wife will be raised up again, sick as she is. God will restore her again. But if she is not restored again, then it would not be a good thing for me. And so my heart was at rest. I was satisfied with God.”
While we pray and watch for answered prayers, don’t minimize the answers that you are receiving.
- Are you still a Christian? – God is hearing your prayer for keeping you.
- Are you in any measure of health? – God is sustaining.
- Are you in any way at all influential in pointing others to Christ? – God is working.
- Are you inclined to God’s word? – That’s an answer to prayer.
- Are you able to see any beautiful, spiritual things in God’s word? – God is answering.
- Is Christ precious to you? – That’s a miraculous answer.
- Do you have any measure of satisfaction in him? – He’s acting. Do you hallow his name?
- Seek his kingdom?
- Do his will?
- Eat daily bread?
- Escape from temptation?
- Defeat the devil’s lies?
Oh my, God is answering. Let us not make too little of these glorious acts of God, and may they embolden us to persevere in prayer.
Grace and Peace,