When God Says No

In the early days of my walk with Christ, I was taught to believe that miracles were an everyday occurrence. The Christians I knew were generous in their definition of what constituted a miracle, as likely to call a good parking spot an act of God as someone’s sudden recovery from cancer. Every situation was treated as an occasion for divine intervention. I confess that this was part of what attracted me to the Christian faith. I was not interested in a God who was merely an abstraction; I wanted to know that God was real. I was looking for a God who paid attention to me when I spoke to Him. It did not occur to me that I was the one who was supposed to do the listening.

I often prayed for God to intervene in my life. But I did not always get what I wanted. I asked Him to heal my mother when she was unexpectedly hospitalized for an illness that the doctors did not seem to be able to diagnose. She died. I asked God to deliver my father from alcoholism. He did not. I prayed to win the lottery (only once). You can guess how that turned out. I am not saying that God has never answered my prayers. Only that God refused my request often enough to know that an affirmative answer is not always a given.

 “Them that’s got shall get, and them that’s not shall lose,” Billie Holiday sang. The whole world seems to be divided into a few privileged people who get everything they want and the majority who do not. Why not Kingdom of God too? We often wonder why God grants to others the thing He denies to us. The effect this has on our prayers is often an attitude of ambivalence. We conclude our prayers with a resigned shrug and interpret delay as denial. We secretly think that God is playing favorites. But the truth is we are the ones who suffer from bias. Our memory is selective, more inclined to dwell on God’s refusals than to remember the many times He has granted our requests. Impatience distorts our sense of God’s timing in His answers so that we ignore the winding and unexpected path that leads from entreaty to answer that earlier generations called providence.

Praying Like a Child

Such thinking is childish, of course. Yet there is no spiritual act that is more childlike than the act of prayer. Jesus acknowledges as much when He encourages His disciples to be persistent in their praying and asks: “Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake?” (Matt. 7:9–10). When it comes to our most basic needs, God often grants them without our even having to ask. He “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matt. 5:45). God “gives everyone life and breath and everything else” (Acts 17:25).

God is generous by nature. But He is no pushover. Whatever our prayers are, they are not a means by which we may manipulate God. We cannot bully God or wheedle Him into granting us the answer that we prefer. The divine right to refuse our requests is necessary if prayer to be something more than a merely mechanical or transactional event. Anthony Bloom’s observation about the possibility that those who pray might still experience the absence of God’s presence also applies the answers we seek in prayer. “If we could mechanically draw Him into an encounter, force Him to meet us, simply because we have chosen this moment to meet Him, there would be no relationship and no encounter,” Bloom explains. “We can do that with an image, with the imagination, or with the various idols we can put in front of us instead of God; we can do nothing of the sort with the living God, any more than we can do it with a living person.”

Mechanical Praying

In His teaching about prayer, Jesus described this same mechanical style as the sort of approach the pagans use when they pray, “for they think they will be heard because of their many words” (Matt. 6:7). The one who piles up words in prayer has lost sight of God. When we cease to relate to God as we would a person, He might as well be a vending machine. At best, we treat God as if He were a mere functionary, the same way we might treat someone who gives us our order at the drive-through. We are hardly aware of them. We hand over our money, take our meal and drive off. We don’t know their name, and minutes after we have left the parking lot, we cannot recall their face.

unrecognizable men praying in old catholic church

Our failure to grasp this can turn prayer into an attempt at manipulation. We desperately try to gauge whether the amount of our faith is enough to trigger the desired response from God. This uncertainty, in turn, lends itself to spiritual posturing. We put on a show in the vain hope that we will somehow convince God that we have the kind of faith that warrants an answer. We fuss over our delivery, trying to sound confident and prove that we have enough faith to gain our request. Or we conclude that the weight God will give to our prayers is a function of the number of people we can persuade to take up our request. We approach prayer as if it were an oral petition drive, hoping that the sound of so many others will drown out the uncertainty of our own voice. We mount a lobbying campaign, inviting those we consider spiritual authorities to pray for us, convinced that their prayers have more influence with God than ours.

More than Answers

Miracles do not always lead to faith any more than answers to prayers do. John 6 tells how the crowd followed Jesus to the other side of the lake after He fed the multitude. “You are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed, but because you ate the loaves and had your fill,” Jesus chided them (John 6:26). The Israelites ate bread that fell from heaven and still grumbled about the menu. The disciples saw Jesus raise people from the dead. But when the women came and told them that they had seen Jesus alive after His crucifixion, they thought they were talking nonsense (Luke 24:11).  As important as the answers to our prayers are, there is more to prayer than getting. Getting the answer is certainly no small thing, but it is not the only thing. “In Gethsemane, the holiest of all petitioners prays three times that a certain cup might pass from Him. It did not,” C. S. Lewis points out. “After that the idea that prayer is recommended to us as a sort of infallible gimmick may be dismissed.” That one denial, combined with Jesus’ resigned, “Yet not my will, but yours be done,” is evidence that prayer is an exercise in trusting God’s answer as much as it is the act of making our request (Luke 22:42).

When I was a boy, Superman was my favorite television show. I wanted to fly like him, so I did the natural thing. I asked my father to teach me. When he told me that he did not know how to fly, I didn’t believe him. It is in a child’s nature to assume not only the willingness of their parents to grant their requests but their ability to do so, no matter how unreasonable the request may be. One of the first lessons of maturity is that of learning to accept our parents’ limitations in such matters. But where our prayers are concerned, the limitation is with us rather than with God. We are not always the best judge of what we need. Like a child who demands a pony for Christmas, our requests are sometimes frivolous. Others are selfish. A few of the things we ask for may even be so bad for us that God dismisses them outright. Yet, many of our requests are reasonable and even beneficial.

If the Bible reveals anything about God’s power, it indicates that He is a God of miracles. All the miracles of Scripture ultimately point to the miracle of miracles, the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The resurrection is the central miracle of the Bible, the one which makes our salvation possible. Yet it is a miracle that was possible only because the Father refused the Savior’s prayer in Gethsemane. We do not always understand why God withholds from us the thing we have asked of Him. But we do not need to know why to understand that His answer is good for us. The Father’s refusal of the prayer of His own Son is all the proof we need that sometimes God’s “no” is more loving than His “yes.”

John’s latest book, Dangerous Virtues: How to Follow Jesus When Evil Masquerades as Good is available from Moody Publishers. Check out the free small group resources by clicking on the Dangerous Virtues-Group Resources tab above.

Clay Feet

When I was a student in college, a Christian writer and speaker that I admired visited our campus on a lecture tour. A young believer at the time, I had been greatly influenced by one of her books. She was the kind of person I aspired to be. A writer, speaker, and a serious Christian. After she spoke to our student group, several of us took her to lunch, where I was thrilled to get a seat at her right hand. I didn’t elbow anybody out of the way for the privilege, at least not much. I didn’t want to miss a word.

I don’t remember much of what this famous author said during lunch. What I do recall is being puzzled by her tone. She didn’t seem to be nearly as excited to meet us as we were to meet her. Maybe she was tired from her long travel schedule. Perhaps she was coming down with something. For whatever reason, most of her comments to us were terse, almost impatient. If you had forced me to put a name to her mood, I would have said that she was grumpy. But of course, that couldn’t be true. Here was a person who had written several no-nonsense books about discipleship and the Christian life. She was famous for her faith. Her spiritual lineage qualified her as Christian royalty. I was sure it was only my imagination.

When the visit was over, some of us asked the staff worker who had picked her up from the airport what it was like to spend time with so distinguished and spiritual a person. The staff worker was silent for a moment. Then she said, “Well, all I will say about it is that sometimes you need to allow your heroes to have clay feet.” I remember being troubled by her answer. I didn’t like what it seemed to imply about one of my heroes in the faith.

These days heroes are hard to come by.

These days heroes are hard to come by. We have galaxies of stars, swarms of celebrities, and an abundance of influencers. But bonafide, pedestal-standing heroes are in short supply. It is hard to find heroes in an iconoclastic age. We love to tear down the idols of earlier generations. Once, we built monuments for our heroes and wrote biographies in their praise. Now we would rather expose flaws than laud virtues. The histories we write today reconstruct those old narratives using a wrecking ball. The new standard leaves no room for moral ambiguity or the limitations of cultural context.

In the church, we used to call our spiritual heroes saints. But Protestantism divested itself of most of those champions of old during the Reformation. The Reformers did not deny the existence of people with remarkable faith and exemplary lives. But they did object to the way the church had exaggerated their accomplishments and elevated them, as Calvin put it, “into copartnership with God, to be honored, and also to be invoked and praised in His stead.”

But our greatest problem is that our heroes always turn out to have feet of clay, no matter how good they appear from a distance. Some years ago, I took a class with a professor who was famous for his books on spiritual formation. More than one person told me that he was the most Christlike person they had ever met. During one of our class sessions, this professor told us that ordinary Christians could live the same kind of life that Jesus did. I was troubled by his assertion and asked him if he thought that his life met that standard. “I’m not going to answer your question,” he replied. “Because if I said yes, you wouldn’t believe me anyway.” The rest of the class laughed, feeling that his answer had put me in my proper place.

I won’t deny that there was a challenge implied in my question. But I meant it sincerely. If the professor had answered in the affirmative, I would have gone on to ask what such a life looked like and how it was possible. I genuinely wanted to know the answer to those questions, because his assertion made me realize that, although I wanted to live like Jesus, I didn’t actually believe it was possible. Instead of helping me resolve the contradiction, it felt like he had shamed me in front of my peers. It made me question the validity of his assertion. Would Jesus have treated my question the same way?

In the church, we used to call our spiritual heroes saints.

He might have. Jesus wasn’t afraid to leave his listeners feeling awkward and confounded. Still, I felt stung by the embarrassment of the encounter. In my mind, it eroded his credibility. I found it hard to remain open to the rest of what he had to say. I admired his work but not his personality. At least, not that sliver of personality that I came into contact with that particular day in class. For his part, I doubt that my discomfort even registered on his consciousness. I’m certain he did not even remember my name.

Some years after this painful exchange, at the Bible college where I taught, one of my students asked to meet with me. I could tell he was uncomfortable. He told me that the appointment hadn’t been his idea but his wife’s. Something had happened in one of my classes that left him deeply discouraged. So much so that he was thinking of dropping out of school. His wife felt that he should at least tell me about it before taking such rash action. He had said something in class, a question or a comment, I couldn’t recall what it was. I had dismissed it with a joke. He had been earnest in what he had said. My flippant response embarrassed him and left him feeling stupid. I hadn’t even noticed.

He went on to say that he had initially come to the school because of something I had written. Perhaps he was exaggerating when he said this. It doesn’t make much difference if he was. The exchange had hurt and embarrassed him. What do you say to someone who has put you on a pedestal, only to discover that you have clay feet? There isn’t much that you can say, except to show them the whole ugly picture. You gently try to help them see that your arms, legs, head, and heart are made of clay as well.

Mark Twain once wrote that the traits that we admire in our heroes are usually the qualities that we lack. “If everybody was satisfied with himself,” Twain observed, “there would be no heroes.” When our heroes fail us, it’s not just the fact that they have fallen from their former height that leaves us so disillusioned. It is that they have come down to our level. Indeed, this may be the bitterest discovery of all. The dismay we feel comes from learning that those we used to hold in high esteem are no better than us. Certainly, their sin disappoints, but it is their ordinariness that causes us to view them with contempt.

If everybody was satisfied with himself there would be no heroes. Mark Twain

For most people, coming to terms with this kind of disappointment is the first great challenge we face on the path to mature adulthood. We learn that we must forgive our parents for being human. And as every adult son or daughter knows, the hardest parent to forgive is the one we most resemble. The great torment of our adolescent struggle with our parents is the fear that we might one day grow up to become “just like them.” But the real tension actually moves in the opposite direction. It comes from our growing awareness that our parents are like us. “The natural or normal course of human growing up must begin with some sort of rebellion against one’s parents, for it is clearly impossible to grow up if one remains a child,” Wendell Berry explains. “But the child, in the process of rebellion and of achieving the emotional and economic independence that rebellion ought to lead to, finally comes to understand the parents as fellow humans and fellow sufferers, and in some manner returns to them as their friend, forgiven and forgiving the inevitable wrongs of family life.”

Whatever pedestals we build for our spiritual heroes must leave enough space to include things like Moses’ petulance, David’s lust, and Peter’s hypocrisy.

It’s not wrong to have heroes. We need them. Hebrews 13:7 urges us to: “Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.” But if the Bible’s unvarnished portrayal of those leaders reveals anything, it shows us that we must also leave room for their humanity. Whatever pedestals we build for our spiritual heroes must also leave enough space to include things like Moses’ petulance, David’s lust, and Peter’s hypocrisy.

In the end, we will find that all our heroes have clay feet. All except for one. He is “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2). His feet are flesh, not clay (John 1:14). Those hands and feet were pierced, wounded by those who should have been His friends (Zechariah  13:6). We will not be sorry when we find that this hero was like us, because Jesus had to be made like us, “fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people” (Hebrews 2:17). He was tempted too like us, “yet he did not sin” (Hebrews 4:15). Jesus is the church’s only real hero because He is everything that we lack. Because He is everything we are not, He is the guarantee that one day we will be like Him.

John’s latest book Practicing the Present: The Neglected Art of Living in the Now (Moody Publishers) is now available. Order your copy today.