When God tells us no.

by K.W. Leslie, 10 March

If you ever browse books on prayer, you’ll notice most of them are about being successful at prayer: Prayers that work. Prayers that get heard. Prayers which’ll definitely reach God’s ears. How to be persistent at it, and thereby get what we want. How to have the proper prayer attitude, so God’ll be pleased with us and give us what I want. How to pray as God would want, and therefore get us what we ask for. Yada yada yada.

What makes prayer “successful”? Clearly, getting all our wishes granted.

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 now that he knows us, he’ll grant all our wishes.

Look, I already pointed out it’s okay to ask God for anything. The Lord’s Prayer entirely consists of prayer requests, and Jesus tells us 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: As far as every Christian is concerned, successful prayer gets results. We ask God for miracles, money, quick fixes to big problems, autonomous fruit of the Spirit, power and influence, and maybe daily bread. God grants all our requests, we get what we want, we give him all the credit (’cause apparently that’s all the payback God needs, and thus we restore our karmic balance), and that’s how prayer works.

Thus we have Christians who arrogantly expect everything we pray for, to just happen. We named it; we claimed it; God’s gotta cough it up, because he promised he’d give us whatever we ask for in Jesus’s name. And he wants us to live successful, prosperous, territory-expanding lives. And he gave us his power to call forth the things that are not, as though they were. Ro 4.17

Now lemme be blunt: God is not your genie.

Nearly all the name-it-claim-it Christians do not have the ultimate goal of growing faith and glorifying God. Their goal is to enrich themselves, and justify their comforts on the grounds God wants us to be comfortable. Their relationship with God is distorted into a senile grandpa who wants to spoil the kids, or a Santa Claus who’ll give us everything on our Christmas lists. It’s entirely based on how God benefits me, ’cause I am the center of this universe.

So those people who are wealthy and comfortable and problem-free, figure God’s happy with them and they needn’t apply any more effort to their relationship. They’ll gleefully call him a mighty God. The rest of us, who still have struggles and suffering… wonder what’s wrong with this system. And one of four things follow:

  1. We figure we’re the problem. We prayed wrong. Or we sin too much, or haven’t confessed everything, and thus alienated God. Or we don’t have enough faith; let’s believe even harder! Or we’re short on good karma; let’s do a bunch of good works and get back in God’s favor. Or maybe we’re not even saved; maybe God isn’t gonna save us.
  2. We figure God turned off the miracles. He doesn’t answer prayer anymore. He left. All he left behind is the bible; read that and be ye warmed and filled. Jm 2.16 KJV
  3. We figure God’s the problem. And if God won’t come through for us, f--- him; we quit. (Happens more often than you’d think.)
  4. We still don’t get it… but we don’t really care enough to investigate, and like the trappings of Christianity too much to just quit. So we go through the motions, claim we believe but really don’t, put our faith in other things, and go Christianist.

All these wrong ideas are based on the assumption that too many Christians don’t honestly consider: God can, and does, tell people no. He’s not ignoring us; he’s not denying us; he’s not punishing us; he’s simply saying, “You don’t know what you’re asking” Mk 10.38 —same as Jesus told two of his students when he told them no.

Yep. God’s not a mathematical formula that, once you figure him out, you can get the answers you like. Our relationship isn’t a contractual quid pro quo, where we do for him, and he’s therefore gotta do for us. He’s a sentient being with free will, and as the wisest being, he knows best. He says “no” for good reason. If we can’t accept that, we’re presuming we’re the wisest person in our relationship… and that’d be stupid.

Learn to trust his no.

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

Simple fix to the 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 these “no” answers are actually “not yet.” I get a lot 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 tell us. Sometimes he will; 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 entire backstory: The devil dared the LORD to let it smite Job, and the LORD said okay… and poor Job didn’t know what hit him, nor why. Come to think of it, Job would’ve been pissed had God explained it: “Well y’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 this truth shut Job up.

When we’re miserable, no answer God gives us is really gonna comfort us. That’s why sometimes God won’t bother with answers. They don’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 far better in mind for us—but 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 think of ’em as hypothetical realities, and we’re only looking at what’s right here and right now. But to God, these “hypothetical realities” are realities, ’cause he’s infinite and is already there. In order to bring us from here to there, he’s gotta bring out the best in both us and everyone else. If we can’t fathom this, there’s really no point in God giving us any answer: We’ll just flail about in confusion and anger, nitpick his decision (kinda like we already do), and wallow in self-pity.

Look, I don’t like God’s “no” answers any more than you. Deep down I probably still foolishly 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.