Have you ever prayed for something fervently—prayed with faith—then sat back and waited for God’s answer? You waited…and waited…and waited. Until one day you began wondering “Why hasn’t God answered my prayers?”
After all, we have all heard sermons that give us the keys to an effective prayer life. Follow the steps, one, two, three, and you are guaranteed an answer. Indeed, God will answer all of our prayers; but what those sermons, and we, often forget is that “no” is an answer, too. What do you do? What does it mean? How do you handle it when God says “no”?
Over the last two years, God has been saying “no” to me in response to a prayer that is very dear to my heart. I have taken great comfort and instruction through these years from examples God has given us of other prayers He did not grant.
One of the most touching examples of prayers denied is the story of Elizabeth and Zechariah. In the first chapter of Luke, we are introduced to this couple. Luke tells us the situation very succinctly in verse 7: “But they had no child because Elizabeth was barren and both were advanced in years.”
Imagine the years of tearful requests this couple made to the Lord. Try to feel the pain and frustration each month when they realized their prayer had been rejected again. As the months turned into years, the prayers must have grown more and more desperate, for each year as the couple grew older, they knew their chances of having a child grew dimmer.
And yet, after all these years, well past the age of having children, that is the request they continued to make of God. Until one day, as Zechariah, who was a priest, was burning incense in the Temple, an angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son…” (Verse 13)
At this point, you may be thinking that this story is a poor example of God’s rejecting a plea, for He granted their prayer. In fact, the child He gave the couple grew up to be the prophet that “prepared the way” of the Lord (Luke 7:27). The fact is, Zechariah and Elizabeth almost certainly did not pray in their for God to wait to give them a child until their old age. they wanted a child right away. And God’s answer to THAT prayer was “no.”
Even though God had plans for them to ultimately have a son, Zechariah and Elizabeth were unaware of those plans. Yet in the face of years of Divine denial, they were still individuals of faith—people who believed in praying for the desires of their heart and in a God who listened to those prayers. What are some lessons we can learn from this couple?
1. God always has an answer.
Like it or not, “no” is an answer, too. Although it is safe to assume that the couple was grieved at receiving this answer, it is apparent that they still viewed God as one attentive to their prayers. Just because God did not grant their prayer, Zechariah and Elizabeth did not give up on praying. They may have wondered why He did not grant it, but they never confused a negative response for a lack of one. If they had, why would they have persisted in praying?
In fact, sometimes for our own good, or that of others, “no” is the only answer that a loving God would give. Probably all of us can think of prayers in the past which we are very grateful now that God did not grant. When Elijah, for example, was discouraged by attempts on his life, even after his incredible victory over the priests of Baal, he prayed to God that he might die (1 Kings 19:4). God did not grant that prayer. Instead, God sent Elijah sustenance for a journey, and forty days later, God met with Elijah in a cave. Do you think Elijah regretted God’s “no”? Perhaps the “no” for which we should be most grateful, though, was in response to a prayer made in a garden one night. As a result of that “no”, one man died so all can live.
2. God sometimes says ‘No’ to good people.
Certainly, the Bible indicates that sometimes our prayers are not granted because of sin in our lives (James 4:3; 1 Peter 3:7), but it is also true that sometimes our prayers are rejected for other reasons. For example, Job’s problems, as well as the fact that God would not answer his pleas for relief, were attributed by Job’s friends to sin in Job’s life (Job 4:7-9). God’s apparent unresponsiveness, they reasoned, had to be because of sin (regardless of the fact that they could not identify the sin), because their theology did not allow good people to suffer.
What the friends could not know because of their human perspective was the conversation to which we are privy in Job 1:6-12. This passage shows us that God’s refusal to grant Job’s prayer for relief had nothing to do with Job’s sinfulness. Quite the contrary, Job was chosen because of his righteousness. Rather than punishing Job, God was showing Satan and teaching Job a lesson: that it is good to serve God whether or not you receive any physical benefits from your faithfulness.
And what of Elizabeth and Zechariah? Had God said “no” to them all those years because they were sinful? Luke 1:6 tells us “…they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless.” But, verse 7 continues, “They had no child…”
It is wise, when it appears that the effectiveness of your prayer life is being hindered, to examine your life to see if you are walking in sin and God is trying to prod you back into His way. But if after honest self-evaluation, you know you have repented of any sin in your life and are trying to walk in God’s way, do not continue to castigate yourself for some “unknown sin” for which God must be punishing you. Remember that the only truly righteous person who ever lived was denied a fervent prayer.
3. God always has a purpose.
We may not know that purpose while we are receiving our “no.” In fact, we may never know His purpose for saying “no” while we are here on this earth. When God closed Rachel’s womb, for example, there was no divine message to her explaining why. But Genesis 29:31 tells us that this was the Lord’s way of comforting Jacob’s other wife, Leah, for the fact that Rachel was loved by Jacob and she was not. Indeed, opening Leah’s womb and closing Rachel’s may have been the only way to secure Leah’s conjugal rights, for Jacob needed offspring, and only the wife he despised could give him children.
Elizabeth and Zechariah may have never seen a reason for God’s delay, but read farther into Luke 1. When the angel of the Lord explains to Mary what is about to transpire in her body, she is incredulous. It is very difficult for her to believe that what the angels says will happen, is possible (verse 34). What proof does the angel offer Mary that God has the power to do what the angel has said? He tells her about her kinswoman Elizabeth’s pregnancy. His point to Mary is that if God can do what is biologically impossible and make Elizabeth conceive when she is too old, He can do what is biologically impossible and make Mary conceive while she remains a virgin. Would Elizabeth’s having a child at the age of twenty have helped Mary believe the angel’s message? God always has a purpose.
Just as He did to these people—and they were real people—God sometimes says “no” to our prayers. Studying God’s “no’s” in other peoples’ lives, though, is much easier than applying the lessons to our own. Ungranted prayers will always disappoint us, but here are some suggestions to keep them from disillusioning to us:
When God says ‘No’......
1. Affirm His presence.
“No” does not mean that no one is home up there. We may get a negative response, but any response necessitates a responder.
2. Affirm His power.
Just because God will not, does not mean He CANNOT. He is able to do abundantly more than we can ask or even think (Ephesians 3:20-21).
3. Affirm His purpose
We do not always know what this purpose is, but we can affirm THAT it is; and because of what God has revealed to us of Himself, we know that His purpose is all-loving and all-wise.