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 When God says "No"

John Hoole June 27, 2004

Wayne Smith, pastor of a church in Lexington, Kentucky, underwent surgery a few years ago. Prior to the surgery, during the heart catheterization, 52 people met in the chapel of St. Joseph Hospital to pray for Wayne. Many of them prayed that the catheterization would reveal that his problem could be treatable with medication and surgery would not be necessary. Others prayed that perhaps the problem could be corrected by angioplasty and the more invasive bypass surgery would not be needed. But God did not answer those prayers. Bypass surgery was scheduled and pastor Smith went through the ordeal.

What happened? Why did their prayers go unanswered?

More than a decade ago, Jerry Sittser prayed for the protection of his family, and yet three of his loved ones - his daughter, his wife and his mother - died in a auto accident. What went wrong? Why wasn't his prayer answered? Did he pray improperly? Were his prayers useless?

Most, if not all of us, have seen or experienced the miraculous power of God displayed in an instantaneous healing or witnessed a mighty deliverance from the moment of crisis or great difficulty. But, undoubtedly, we have also seen or experienced those moments when no such answer came -- no instantaneous miracle occurred despite the fact that much prayer had been offered up to God by men and women of faith.

Why is there this seeming great disparity in the way God responds? Is God fickled? Does He dispense with bursts of miraculous power in a random and capricious manner?

Something about human nature loves formulas. We want and enjoy predictability, regularity, and uniformity. This desire isn't bad. God created order in the universe. All the disciplines of science would be impossible if everything behaved randomly. One of the axioms of what is known as the "Scientific Method" is the aspect of repeatability. If there was no promise that a given set of conditions would produce a given result each time it is repeated, there would be no disciplines of science as we know them.

Our trouble is that we sometimes try to put God in our little boxes of formulas. We want predictable and uniform behavior from Him. And within very large parameters, even this is okay with God. For instance, God is love and we can and must expect that He will predictably and uniformly act on the basis of love every time. We have no issue with this. He never violates His character.

But that does not mean we can predict what specific action God will take in a given isolated case. Paul admitted this in Romans 11:33 (KJV).

33 O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out!

And yet, even though we know His ways are beyond our ability to completely understand we proceed in a given situation to predict what God will do -- and sometimes we have in our minds what He "must" do. And then, if He fails to salute when we raise our flag of faith, suddenly there is a crisis. Not only the crisis we are in the midst of, and for which we are praying. but a crisis of wondering if God can really be trusted. Or a crisis where we now question our own spiritual relationship with God.

Today we are going to begin looking at why some of our prayers seemingly go unanswered, or at least it appears that nothing positive came of it.



Some will say: God always answers!!

Sometimes He says "yes."
Sometimes He says "no."
Sometimes He says "wait."

There is some truth in this. A "NO" or a "WAIT" answer can teach us much as Christians -- things like surrender and patience.

Somewhere I read another person's suggestion of 4 different kinds of answers:

If the request is wrong, God says "NO"
If the timing is wrong, God says "SLOW."
If you are wrong, God says, "GROW."
If the request is right, the timing is right and we are right, God says "GO."

There may be some who would argue that a "NO" answer is not really an answer to the prayer. They reason, if a person like Jerry Sittser prays for protection, and receives none, then what he requested did not come to pass.


Almost always it is referring to a 'yes' answer. When God answered someone's prayer for healing, it was that the illness was removed. That's a 'yes' answer.

When God answered a request for wisdom, the person received what they needed for the situation requiring that wisdom.

When God answered a desire for a good job, the individual got a good job.

You would say each of these were a "yes" answer, because each received what was asked.


I do not believe that petitioning prayer was ever designated to draw a blank. When most of us talk about God answering our prayers, we, for the most part, are talking about a "yes" answer. That is the common-sense meaning. It means that God gave us what we asked for. And this is the meaning the Bible normally uses.

2 Corinthians 1:20 (NIV)

For no matter how many promises God has made, they are "Yes" in Christ. And so through him the "Amen" is spoken by us to the glory of God.

To paraphrase - "all the promises of God find their YES in Christ."

When Jesus encouraged his disciples to pray, don't you think He meant to pray for a "yes" answer? I believe the Bible verse, "Ask and ye shall receive" assumes a positive answer. When the apostle Paul urged the congregations in Philippi, Ephesus, and Colossae to pray that he would be given boldness to preach the Gospel, he expected them to pray for a "yes" answer - and he expected a "yes" answer.

In an earlier lesson during this series, we took note that prayers can be broken down into six categories. Let's review the list.

1. Petitions …for the supply of our needs.
2. Thanksgiving …for mercies and favors received
3. Confession …of our sinfulness and unworthiness
4. Adoration & Praise …in worship
5. Intercession …bearing the burdens of others
6. Conversation …for fellowship with God.


- petition
- intercession
- confession

Let me show you the prayer list we have for our Thursday night prayer meeting in our home. Right now it has 57 different prayer requests on it. Some have been there for awhile -- others brand new. We list these under a number of categories. On the back side is a continuation of a list of answered prayers. The list is now up to 354 answered prayers. We praise God for all of these and continue to thank Him in advance for what He will do with the remaining.

The very essence of prayer carries with it the expectation that God will answer prayer. Most, if not all, of us agree that God is a prayer-hearing and a prayer-answering God.

In the Bible, the promises relative to prayer number in the hundreds.

o "Cast your cares on the Lord, and he will sustain you" (Psalm 55:22) (NIV).

o "Call to me, and I will answer you, and show you great and mighty things, which you do not know." (Jeremiah 33:3) (NKJV).

o "Watch and pray, lest you enter into temptation"(Matthew 26:41) (NKJV).

o "Then He spoke a parable to them to this end, that men always ought to pray, and not lose heart. (Luke 18:1) (NKJV).

o "Until now you have asked nothing in my name: ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full" (John 16:24) (NKJV).

o "Praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, being watchful to this end with all perseverance and supplication for all saints; and for me….(Ephesians 6:18-19) (NKJV).

o "Be anxious for nothing; but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known unto God" (Philippians 4:6) (NKJV).

o "Pray without ceasing" (1 Thessalonians 5:17) (NKJV).

o "Therefore I exhort first of all, that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men" (1 Timothy 2:1) (NKJV).

o "But without faith it is impossible to please him: for he who comes to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of those who diligently seek him" (Hebrews 11:6) (NKJV).

o "You do not have, because you do not ask" (James 4:2) (NKJV).

o "Casting all your care upon Him; for he cares for you" (1 Peter 5:7) (NKJV).

I think it is obvious that God wants us to come to him in prayer. He takes great delight when His children pray. Not only is He delighted, He expects us to do so. And when we come with a request, we are to expect him to answer our prayers.

We should remind ourselves that everything Jesus accomplished during His earthly ministry was accomplished through the power of the Holy Spirit in answer to prayer. Jesus said, in John 11:42, "I know that you always hear me." We know that one of the keys to His divine, power-packed relationship was the consistency of the prayer life of Jesus Christ. We read in the Gospels alone of at least 14 times when Jesus was busy praying. If Jesus needed to pray, how much more do we need to pray.

His parting instruction to His disciples was that they were to tarry (wait prayerfully) in Jerusalem until they were endued with power from on high. The answer to those prayers was the outpouring of the power of God - the Holy Spirit. The testimony of the early church was that they were people of prayer and people of power.


For lots of people, a "wait" answer to prayer is worse than a "no." We are an instant-oriented society. Listen to this poem.


We wait at the check-out, we wait at DMV
We'll wait at the drive-thru for a super-sized ice tea
We wait to see the doctor, we wait in line to vote
We'll wait for a summer sale on a terrific winter coat

We wait at the beauty shop, we wait for the mail
And every line you stand in, is the slowest without fail
We wait in line to purchase stamps, we wait for the fish to bite
We wait for night to turn to day and day to turn to night

We wait for our paycheck, then we wait at the bank
We wait at the gas pump to fill up our tank
We will stand and wait to sit down and eat
Then wait to pay when the meal is complete

We wait at the light, it's been red way too long
We wait for our spouses to admit that they're wrong
We wait because basically, we don't have a choice
So why is it so hard...to wait for God's voice?

We really should be used to waiting, we do it everyday
But when God says "Wait!", we say no, we want it our own way
You'll save yourself a lot of trouble, if you trust that God knows best
When God says "Wait!", obey His voice and He will do the rest

Merissa Lee Kelley - July 14, 2000

I once heard a woman talking about her grandparents, who lived on a farm in Vermont. She said that her grandma was a "ball of fire." while grandpa was slow and deliberate. One night they were awakened by a commotion in the chicken house. Grandma sprang out of bed, ran to the chicken house and found the cause of the racket. It was a large black snake. Having nothing to catch it with, she clamped her foot down on its head. And there she stood until Grandpa finally arrived a good 15 minutes later. He was fully dressed and even his pocket watch was in place. "Well," he said to his disheveled and enraged wife, "If I'd known you had him, I wouldn't have hurried so."

There are reasons for a "wait" answer from God.

1. Sometimes God answers "wait" so that we will refocus totally upon Him.

Matthew 6:33 NKJV

33 But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.

God desires for us to want Him more than we want any person, position or object. He wants us to trust Him explicitly and fully. He desires for us to see Him as the source of our supply, and to know that a relationship with Him is far more valuable than any answer to prayer.

2. Sometimes God answers "wait" so that our attitude will be adjusted and more accurately reflect the attitude of Christ Jesus.

Philippians 2:5 KJV

5 Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus

God may need for us to have a different attitude towards Him and things, so that we will know how best to use the blessing He is about to give to us. In some cases, He wants us to mature in some way, so we can handle the answer He will give.

A small child wants a pocket knife, but a wise parent knows that a pocket knife is not an appropriate gift for a young child. The parent waits until the child is older and can use a pocket knife without injuring himself. Likewise, God may delay His answer to our prayer until we are better prepared to accept it.

On one occasion, Christ told the disciples to "wait" so that they would grow. I mentioned this earlier in a different context, but I want to emphasize it again.

Luke 24:49 NKJV

49 Behold, I send the Promise of My Father upon you; but tarry (WAIT) in the city of Jerusalem until you are endued with power from on high."

If the disciples are going to reflect more accurately the attitude of Jesus Himself, He knew they could only do that with the help of the Holy Spirit. If we are going to accomplish all God wants us to, then we need to spend time waiting on the Lord. To succeed, we cannot do his calling in our own strength.

3. Sometimes God answers "wait" because He is preparing for an even greater blessing than the one for which we asked.

This certainly was true in the case of Lazarus. Jesus knew that Lazarus was ill, and He could have gone to him to heal him before he died. Instead, Jesus waited until Lazarus had died so that He might raise him from the dead as a definite sign of His authority over death.

In Revelation 6:10, (NIV) a group of martyrs from the Tribulation time ask God, "How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?"

God tells them to wait. Something greater is in store when their prayer will be answered.

Yes, when we receive a "wait" answer from God, it can be difficult. God doesn't always tell you that it is a wait answer so you and I might be prone to think it is a "no" answer. You may wonder if God heard your prayer, or if He really cares. But just because He remains silent does not mean He's forgotten you. He still is at work, and He wants us to "be still and know that I am God." God does hear you. He loves you. And He is working to provide what is best for you.

So, during a wait period, ask God what it is that He wants to teach you. And don't be surprised if the lesson is about something unrelated to the issue you are praying about. And it might be some time before you see how God answers you.

God's delays are meant to develop us, not to discourage us. We are at times prone to assume the worst. We can waste a lot of time and a lot of joy assuming the worst. We can sum it up with a simple creed that I try to live by:

God is in control

He Loves me

He never . . . ever . . . makes a mistake.

Psalms 27:14 NKJV

14 Wait on the LORD; Be of good courage, And He shall strengthen your heart; Wait, I say, on the LORD!

Waiting creates time to build our trust in the Lord.

Psalms 40:1 NKJV

I waited patiently for the LORD; And He inclined to me, And heard my cry.

God's Résumé

Not only do we have a prayer-hearing and prayer-answering God, but His divine attributes are all directly linked to His power and plan to answer prayer. Let's look at God's résumé.

1. God is a living God.

As the eternally existent One, He asks us to call upon Him. The fact that He lives gives us great courage to call upon Him. And the fact that He answers prayer reminds us that He is alive.

2. God is omniscient

Since He knows everything, then His answers to prayers are always exactly right. Additionally, His perfect understanding means that He is never confused by what we ask Him.

3. God is omnipotent

Because we cannot exhaust His power, we can take literally His command to pray without ceasing. God's miraculous answers to prayer also reveal that He is not limited by His own creation. His answers to prayer reveal that He continually controls al things.

4. God is holy

We do not manipulate God into answering prayer, nor does He violate His own perfection by manipulating us. His answers are right - His answers are just.

5. God is love

His unconditional love moves Him to respond to the plea of even the most unlovely of His creation. As I stated a moment ago, He doesn't respond because we coerced Him to answer our prayer. He responds because He loves us. His love governs His response so that we receive what we need, not necessarily what we want.

Do you fully understand this résumé of God.

o He is a living God. Only a living God can hear our prayers.

o He is omniscient. He alone has the full wisdom of how to properly answer your prayer.

o He is omnipotent. He has the power to do what His wisdom desires.

o He is a Holy God. Nothing He does will be unholy. And His answers are always right and just.

o He is a God with infinite love. Because He is motivated by His love for you, He delights in answering your prayers.

Let me expand upon the omnipotence part of God's résumé. Our God is able to do whatever is needed by us.

o He is able to guard us while we are battling temptation.
o He is able to comfort us in affliction.
o He is able to keep us from falling away.
o He is able to save.
o He is able to heal.
o He is able to deliver.
o He is able to restore.
o He is able to raise us from the dead.
o He is able to take us to be with Him in heaven.
o He is able to keep that which we commit unto Him.

He is able! You see,...

o His names,

o His creative acts,

o His power over nature,

o His power over nations,

o His power and place as seen in the Word...

...yes, everything comes together in perfect harmony to declare, "Now to him WHO IS ABLE to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to HIS POWER that is at work within us." (Ephesians 3:20)

Our God is very much alive and He can do anything.

o There is no problems He cannot solve.
o There is no question He cannot answer.
o There is no disease He cannot heal.
o There is no demon He cannot cast out.
o There is no enemy He cannot defeat.
o There is no difficulty He cannot overcome.
o There is no stronghold He cannot bring down.
o There is no bondage He cannot break.
o There is no prison He cannot open.
o There is no need He cannot meet.
o There is no mountain He cannot move.

There is absolutely nothing too hard for our God!

One additional part of God's résumé is found in the Psalms 81:10 NKJV

10 I am the LORD your God, Who brought you out of the land of Egypt; Open your mouth wide, and I will fill it.

It sounds almost like is looking for the job of answering prayer. In this verse, all kinds of thoughts would come to the Israelites. Jesus is saying:

a. I brought you out of Egypt
b. I opened the Red Sea in answer to Moses' prayer.
c. I brought you out between the piled-up waters of the Red Sea.
d. I fed you with manna from Heaven for 40 years in the wilderness.
e. I gave you water from a rock.
f. I brought you across the flooded Jordan river on dry ground.
g. I caused the walls of Jericho to fall.

That's the kind of God I am. If you want any big things done, just come to me. God is just as willing now as he was then. He is still the same. He hasn't changed.

We are to pray expecting a "yes" answer. That is the only way that makes sense. In no way has God mapped out prayer as a dead-end street. But what happens when our prayers are not answered exactly as we had expected? Or what if it takes a little longer than we think it should?


Actually, I think we will find a number of them.

1. King Saul

King Saul prayed for help and guidance. But Saul had removed himself so far from God that He no longer answered Saul's prayers. Saul then sought an answer through a medium (1 Sam 28:6-7).

2. King David

David prayed for the life of his son. The son died because of David's sin with Bathsheba (2 Samuel 12:13-23). The lesson for us - sin has its consequences.

3. Elijah

Elijah prayed that he might die (1 Kings 19:4). God had much more work for Elijah to do, so it was not in God's will for Elijah to die at that time.

I have always looked at this request of Elijah with some amusement. Here was a guy who, a few days earlier, had witnessed a great answer to his prayers, with fire coming down out of heaven, consuming his sacrifice in a showdown with the 400 prophets of Baal. Now he was running from Jezebel, and would rather have God kill him right then and there, rather than be confronted by this wicked queen. And yet, his prayer was never answer - not here, or ever. Elijah never saw death, but was taken to heaven in a chariot of fire by a whirlwind.

4. Jonah

Jonah also prayed that God would take his life. He felt it would be better to die than to live. God does not answer this type of prayer for there is a time to die and we must wait for God's timing not ours. Also, Jonah had yet to accomplish the work God sent him to do (Jonah 4:3).

5. King Zedekiah

King Zedekiah prayed for help in defeating Nebuchadnezzar. God answered that He would not help because of the many sins of Israel (Jeremiah 21:2).

6. The disciples James and John

James and John, along with their mother, requested the highest rank in the kingdom Jesus was to establish. Christ actually asks them what they wanted Him to do for them. Their request - for one to sit on the right and the other on the left. The answer of Jesus was that this position was not His to give. And then Jesus goes on to teach them how those who would be first were to be servants of one another before greatness would be given them (Mark 10:34-40).

7. The Apostle Paul

Paul prayed that his "thorn in the flesh" be removed. In fact, he prayed three times for it to be removed. Paul's thorn was not removed. The reason, so that Christ would be glorified, not Paul. It would keep him from becoming to proud. (2 Corinthians 12:7-10).

Paul did not receive what he requested, but rather, God says to him, "my grace is sufficient for you: for my strength is made perfect in weakness."

8. Moses

In Exodus 33:11, Moses is referred to as a friend of God -- one whom the Lord spoke with "face to face." And yet, although Moses was one of the Greatest Old Testament servants of God, even he heard an ear-splitting "No!" when he asked God to reconsider the question of his entrance into the Promised Land. To paraphrase, God said "don't talk to me about it another time - case closed."

9. Daniel

Daniel was given some incredible visions of what will happen in the end times. At the end of the book he wrote, Daniel says "Although I heard, I did not understand." (Daniel 12:8) So Daniel asks the Lord what the meaning of all that was given to him. In Verse 9, Daniel is told that it is not for him to know and understand. His writings were to be closed up until the end times. Daniel did not receive what He asked for.

10. Jesus

In the Garden of Gethsemane, with the cross looming over Him, Jesus prayed, "May this cup be taken from me." He actually makes that request twice. As Luther put it, "God struggles with God." As He lay prostrate on the ground, sweat falling from him like drops of blood, his prayers took on an uncharacteristic tone of pleading. But, Jesus goes on to say, "Your will be done." Jesus was not saved from death, as He had requested.

This story has great hope for me and you. Submitting to the will of God is not always easy for me. In fact, it is sometimes downright difficult. Knowing that Jesus could go on after his prayer was answered with a "no," gives me some comfort. And, what's more, my salvation is a result of God saying "no" to His Son. But it is also the result of Christ submitting to the will of the Father.

When prayer seems more like struggle with God than a relationship with Him, when I find myself repeating the same requests over and over and even wonder, "Is anyone really listening?" I take comfort in remembering that Jesus, too, had unanswered prayers.

In each of these 10 examples where the person did not receive what they requested, someone might say, "but they still received an answer. They all receive a "NO" answer."

ut, when you are in a crisis like each of these, a "no" answer raises other questions. And while some will learn later that a "wait" or "no" answer turned out to be a great blessing, there are many times when God never tells us why we received a "no." And for some of us, that might seem to be confusing. Some are so sure they are praying in the perfect will of God, and yet their request is turned down, or they are told to wait, although they may not learn which it is - a no or wait - for some time.

We will learn in a later lesson what our reaction should be towards God when we receive a "wait" or "no" answer.

The night was dark and foggy. A man walked in the darkness from his house to the cobble-stone street His step determined and relentless, but his face - had anyone been able to see it in the dark - was tear-stained and weary. As he reached the street, he peered both ways, looking for the tell-take lantern of a horse-drawn, London cab. The man muttered: "Nothing! Am I too late? But no! I must end all tonight! And the river it must be!" Then, in the distance, he espied a hazy light, slowly enlarging. Almost whispering, the man said bitterly: "God, you provided me no solace, but here you provide the cab to take me to my death!"

"Where to?" asked the cabbie, when he stopped. "London Bridge," the man replied, curtly. "A cold night it is, sir -- what sort of business have you at the Bridge at this hour?" But the man said nothing. The cabbie ended his attempt at conversation, and set off toward that well-known destination. But the fog became thicker and thicker, so that the cabbie could not see even his horse's nose. What should have been a 20 minute ride lasted an hour, and still there was no sign of the river or the 600 year-old bridge. The cabbie peered into the fog, desperately looking for some familiar sign.

Suddenly, the fog lifted. The passenger, startled from his morose stare, looked to his right and saw, to his amazement, his own home. The cab, lost in the fog, had circled back to the very place he began the journey. "My God! You have answered me!" the passenger cried out. Later that night, by his own hearth, this man, one of the greatest of England's 18th century poets, meditated on Psalm 77. Let us read it now:

1. I cry aloud to God, I cry out to God to hear me.
2 In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord; in the night my hand is stretched out without wearying; my soul refuses to be comforted.
3 I think of God, and I moan; I muse, and my spirit grows faint. Selah
4 You keep my eyelids from closing; I am so troubled that I cannot speak.
5 I consider the days of old, and remember the years of long ago.
6 I remember my song in the night; my heart muses, and my spirit inquires:
7 "Will the Lord reject forever? Will he never show his favor again?
8 Has his unfailing love vanished forever? Is his word no longer valid for evermore?
9 Has God forgotten to show his favor? Has he in anger stopped the flow of his mercy? Selah
10 And I say, "This is my grief: the right hand of the Most High has changed."
11. I will call to mind the deeds of the LORD; I will remember your wonders of old. 12 I will meditate on all your work, and muse on your mighty deeds.
13 Your way, O God, is holy. What god is so great as our God?
14 You are the God who works wonders; you have displayed your might among the peoples.
15 With your strong arm you redeemed your people, the descendants of Jacob and Joseph. Selah
16 When the waters saw you, O God, when the waters saw you, they were afraid; the very deep trembled.
17 The clouds poured out water; the skies thundered; your arrows flashed on every side.
18 The crash of your thunder was in the whirlwind; your lightnings lit up the world; the earth trembled and shook.
19 Your way was through the sea, your path, through the mighty waters; yet your footprints were unseen.
20 You led your people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron.
(slightly edited NRSV)

That same night, William Cowper penned this great poem, which we sang earlier today, more than two centuries later:

God moves in a mysterious ways
His wonders to perform;
He plants his footsteps in the sea,
And rides upon the storm.
Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never-failing skill,
He treasures up his bright designs,
And works his sovereign will.
Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take!
The clouds ye so much dread;
Are big with mercy, and shall break
In blessings on your head.
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense.
But trust him for his grace;
Behind a frowning providence,
He hides a smiling face.
His purposes will ripen fast,
Unfolding every hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flower.
Blind unbelief is sure to err,
And scan his work in vain;
God is his own interpreter,
And he will make it plain.

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Last Updated: Thursday September 08 2011
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