21 October 2015

When God tells us no.

Because God’s not a wish-granting genie.

If you ever go looking for books on prayer—and even when you don’t; when you’re browsing in your favorite (or less-than-favorite) Christian bookstore, and the book titles simply shout at you—you’ll notice a whole lot of them are about being successful at prayer: How to pray effectively. How to get our prayers answered. How to know our prayers actually reached God’s ears. How to be persistent at it, and thus get what we want. How to have the right prayer attitude, and thus get what we want. How to pray as God would want, and thus get what we would want. Yada yada yada.

What makes a prayer “successful”? Obviously, getting what we want.

Of course we won’t always admit this. We’ll try to make our answers sound less greedy, more spiritual, less self-centered. “Um… A successful prayer gets us closer to God.” Yeah, nice try Bubba. Closer to God for why? So we can get what we want.

Look, I already pointed out it’s okay to ask God for things. The Lord’s Prayer entirely consists of prayer requests, and we’re instructed to pray like that, so clearly God’s not gonna be offended when we tell him we want stuff from him.

But let’s be honest, for once: A successful prayer, as far as every Christian is concerned, gets results. We ask God for stuff, and God responds, “Yes.” He grants our request, we get what we want… and now that we got the pony we always wanted, we realize we gotta feed and brush the thing, and find some room in the backyard for it, and man do ponies poop a lot. And when you’re an adult, you’re too big to ride them… What exactly are ponies good for again?

Back to prayer though. Why do so many prayer requests appear to get a “no”—or dead silence, which is pretty much the same thing—from God? Why do so many pagans laughingly tell us we stand just as much a chance of dumb luck answering our prayers as God? Why do so many Christians, even the ones who write all the prayer books, so often not get what they ask God for? Even as they’re insisting, “All God’s promises are yes and amen,” 2Co 1.20 and “anything you ask in my name, I’ll do” Jn 14.13-14 let’s face it: They’re really not getting everything they asked for. Their loved ones still die. Their business opportunities don’t always come to fruition. And when they ask God certain questions, he doesn’t give answers—which is why the answers they give us come across as iffy and unbiblical.

What’s the deal?

There’s no formula.

If you want God to answer your prayers yes, let me begin by making this fact abundantly, absolutely clear: GOD HAS FREE WILL. What’s that mean? Simple: There’s no formula for always getting a “yes” answer from God. If you think you’ve jumped through all God’s hoops, so now he simply has to answer your prayers with yes, you’ve been conned. He has no hoops.

What about praying for stuff in Jesus’s name? Didn’t Jesus say anything you ask in his name, he’ll do? Jn 14.13-14 Yes he did. Now, in Gethsemane, when Jesus was asking the Father to pretty please not get crucified, Mt 26.38-44 using of course his own name—he didn’t make his request under anyone else’s identity—did he get everything he asked for? Nope. Got crucified anyway. If even Jesus can get a “no” answer, how did we manage to get a guaranteed “yes” one?

God has free will. He doesn’t have to do as we want. We don’t have him over a barrel: “According to your promises in the bible, you have to do as I ask, because you committed yourself.” First of all, we might not be interpreting his biblical promises all that accurately; there’s a better-than-average chance our wishful thinking has skewed things a bit.

Second, God can totally change his mind if he so chooses. Ge 6.6, Ex 32.14, Jg 2.18, 1Sa 15.35, 1Ch 21.15, Jr 26.19, Am 7.3, 6 If you’ve been taught otherwise, you’ve either been listening to Calvinists, or you’ve confused God’s unchanging character with his will. God’s never gonna stop being kind, gracious, forgiving, loving, patient, or all that. But if he decides, “I had this in mind for you, but now I have a new plan,” he’s almighty; he can do that. We can debate all we like about whether our rebellion or sins, or that of others, triggered God’s change of plans, but either way God changed plans. The stuff we thought were promises, and done deals, aren’t. God isn’t capricious; he doesn’t switch things up on us for fun. But he has free will, remember? He hasn’t obligated himself to do a single thing he doesn’t want to. He hasn’t put himself into our power. That’s not how our relationship with him works, at all.

Third, there’s this popular formula rolling around Christendom: “Do you want God to always answer yes? Then only pray for things which you know to be God’s will. It’s foolproof: You prayed for what God already wants to do. So of course he’ll answer you yes.”

Foolproof only if you never studied logic. I taught the subject, so here’s how it works. Reduce this formula to its component propositions:

  1. I only want what God wants.
  2. God always gets his way.
  3. Therefore I always get my way.

It’s a basic syllogism. But a syllogism only works if every statement in it is true. And the second statement isn’t always true. God doesn’t always get his way. He wants me, fr’instance, to always tell the truth. Well, Barack Obama was born in Kenya. There: God didn’t get his way.

Sin goes against God’s will, but people sin all the time. God wants everyone to repent and not perish, 2Pe 3.9 but we already know some people never will repent, and are therefore gonna perish. Ps 9.17 Again, if you think otherwise, you’ve been talking to Calvinists, who think God’s not almighty enough to maintain a universe where people sometimes go against him, who stretch the limits of sanity by claiming God has a hidden will, a secret will, where all the evil in the universe is actually something he meant to have happen… yet for some reason this doesn’t make God secretly evil, whereas anybody else with a secret evil plan totally would be. In reality, God’s more than capable of running a universe with free agents in it.

And since God’s the freest of all, of course he can get his way when he insists on it. If he wants someone to repent, he can always appear to them personally, order them to stop their foolishness, and turn ’em into Christians. He did it with Paul of Tarsus; Ac 9.3-6 according to lots of testimonies he still does this from time to time. But much as God wants to save everybody, he, more than anyone, has self-control: He wants us to voluntarily follow him, and is willing to not demand his way to get it—because love doesn’t do that. 1Co 13.5

So no: There’s no formula. At all. Only one person in our relationship with God is the Lord, and it sure ain’t the clever human.

Learn to trust the no.

It’s actually not true that most of God’s answers to prayer are “no.” We humans just tend to focus so much on the “no” answers, we forget how often, how casually, God says yes. Imagine a child whose parents took her to the Disney store and bought her every princess item imaginable, yet because they won’t let her stay up past her bedtime to play with them, her day is ruined. That’d be us. We get fixated on the “no” answers, and it colors the way we look at God’s infinite generosity.

Simple fix to that problem: Start keeping track of your prayer requests. Mark down God’s answers. Notice how few “no” answers God actually gives you.

And notice how often those “no” answers are actually “not yet.” I get a few of those. I get ’em every time I pray for Jesus to return. I know it’ll become yes eventually; it’s inevitable. But God’s response is “Not now,” and I want it to be now—you know, like the kid with the princess toys.

So why not now? Well, God doesn’t have to say. Sometimes he will, and sometimes he won’t. If the answer will do us any good, he’ll tell; if it doesn’t, he won’t. You might notice, in Job, how we know the whole backstory—the devil dared the LORD to let Job be tested, and the LORD said fine—but Job knew nothing. Come to think of it, Job would’ve been pissed had God explained it. “Well you see, Job, the devil and I had this bet…” I sure wouldn’t have appreciated it, even though God has every right to take back my property, my family, my health, and my life, if he so chooses. And Job needed a reminder of that fact, which is why God answered, “Can you do what I can?”—and it shut Job up.

But when we’re miserable, no answer God gives us is really gonna comfort us. That’s why sometimes God doesn’t bother with answers. They won’t help. We just need comfort. And faith. We need to remember God knows best.

He doesn’t tell us no because he wants to frustrate his kids, and deprive us. Just the opposite. Mt 7.9-11 He has better in mind for us, and we don’t see it right now. We can’t see how the consequences of our smallest actions might affect or influence people for billions of years, from this age to the next. We may not even care about such things; we still think of them as hypothetical realities. But to God they’re realities, ’cause our infinite God is there already. And in order to get us from here to there, he’s gotta bring out the best in both us and everyone else. If we don’t recognize this when we ask him “Why not?” there’s really no point in God giving us any answer. We’ll just nitpick it, and wallow in self-pity.

I don’t like God’s “no” answers any more than you. Deep down I probably still think I know better. God’s “no” is a reminder I don’t. He does. There are infinitely good reasons why I follow him, and not vice-versa. And if I’m gonna follow him, I need to accept a “no” from time to time and be okay with it. So I try. So should we all.