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”?
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 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?
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.
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.
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”…
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.
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).
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.
Affirm His Sovereignty
God is Sovereign Over…
Seemingly random things:
The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD.
The heart of the most powerful person in the land…
The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the LORD; he turns it wherever he will.
Our daily lives and plans…
Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”—yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. . . . Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.”
Life and death:
See now that I, even I, am he, and there is no god beside me; I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; and there is none that can deliver out of my hand. (Deuteronomy 32:39)
Then the LORD said to [Moses], “Who has made man’s mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the LORD?” (Exodus 4:11)
Is a trumpet blown in a city, and the people are not afraid? Does disaster come to a city, unless the LORD has done it? (Amos 3:6)
“The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.” In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong. . . . “Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” In all this Job did not sin with his lips. (Job 1:21-22; 2:10)
[God] sent a man ahead of them, Joseph, who was sold as a slave. . . . As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. (Psalm 105:17; Genesis 50:21)
[God] works all things according to the counsel of his will. (Ephesians 1:11)
Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases. (Psalm 115:3)
I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. (Job 42:2)
All the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and he does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, “What have you done?” (Daniel 4:35)
Does God care when He answers no?
When God answers our prayers with a no or not yet there is a tendency to question the goodness of God or question whether or not He even cares. When we go through dark seasons of doubt we need to cling to the revealed Word of God. God in Romans 8:34 provides us with 4 pictures of Jesus Christ which are meant to make us strong in the midst of “no” or “unanswered” prayers.
Let’s see him and know him in four painfully brief pictures that Paul paints here.
1. Know Him as One Who Gave His Life for You
First know him as one who gave his life for you. I say "gave his life for you" instead of "died for you" just to make plain that he chose to die. He planned to die. He embraced death for you. He didn’t stumble in front of the divine bullet meant for you; he stepped in front of it.
Know him as the one who gave his life for the ungodly, not the deserving and worthy, but the undeserving and unworthy, even while we were still enemies (Romans 4:5; 5:6).
Know him as the one who gave his life to complete his perfect obedience so it could be imputed to us (Philippians 2:8; Romans 5:19; Galatians 2:21; 2 Corinthians 5:21).
Know him as the one who gave his life to forgive all our sins (Ephesians 1:7).
Know him as the one who gave his life to become a curse for us and remove the curse of the law (Galatians 3:13).
Know him as the one who gave his life to absorb our condemnation and remove the wrath of God (Romans 8:3).
Know him as the one who gave his life to prove that God is just when he justifies the ungodly who has faith in Jesus (Romans 3:26).
Know him as the one who gave his life in all these ways to prove the love of God for us.
2. Know Him as the One Raise from the Dead by the Father
Second, know him as the one raised from the dead by the Father. I stress that he was raised by the Father because the verb is passive in verse 34: not "Christ rose" but "Christ was raised." The point is that the Father was so satisfied with the once for all, atoning work of the Son that he vindicated his obedience and suffering and his infinite accomplishment by raising him from the dead.
So know your Friend and Savior and Lord and Treasure as one absolutely approved by God. And know him, as Romans 6:9 says, as the one who "will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him." And therefore know him as what Paul describes in the next two phrases.
3. Know Him as the One Who Is at the Right Hand of God
Know him, third, as the one who is at the right hand of God. That little phrase "right hand of God" was full of power for those first-century Christians who knew their Old Testament. Psalm 110:1 is quoted by New Testament writers more than any other verse in the Psalms. God says to the Messiah, "Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool."
The meaning is triumph and rule and authority. We can see this in Ephesians 1:20-21, "[God] raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, 21 far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come." And 1 Peter 3:22, "[He] has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him."
In other words, to be at God’s right hand is to rule over all authority and power and dominion and angels and names. Know your Savior, your Lord, your Friend, your Treasure this way – triumphant and ruling now over all the universe until all his enemies are put under his feet. Know him and enjoy this unshakable security.
4. Know Him as the Intercessor between You and God the Father
Finally, know him as the intercessor between you and God the Father. Verse 34 ends, ". . . who also intercedes for us." He was and is now and ever will be our go-between (1 Timothy 2:5). Our advocate (1 John 2:1). Our intercessor.
Hebrews 7:25 says, "He is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them." We experience this intercession every time we pray in Jesus’ name. Why do we say, "In Jesus’ name, Amen"? Because we have no rights with the Father apart from what he did for us on the cross and what he is for us in heaven. So know him as your intercessor every time you pray. Be thankful to him that he loved you and died for you and bought all your salvation and every answered prayer at the cost of his life.
I have emphasized know him. Not just knowing his work.
Know him who did – and is doing – for you these great things.
Know him as your freedom from condemnation,
Know Him as your fearlessness,
Know Him as your massive security in merciful service through many sufferings.
Know Him as the One who Causes all things to work together for our good and His glory
Know Him as the One who has gone to prepare a place for you
Know Him as the Supreme, Sovereign Lord of the Universe
Know Him as the Great High Priest
Know Him as the Creator
Know Him as Your Sustainer and present Help in times of trial
Know Him as the One who walks with you through the flames
Know Him as the Promise Keeper
Know Him who chose you from before the foundation of the world
Know Him as the One who adopted you into His family
Know Him as the One who Gave His Life for you
Know Him as the One Raised From the Dead By the Father
Know Him as the One Who Is At the Right Hand of the Father
Know Him as the Intercessor between You and God the Father.
O, that you would know the all-conquering love of Christ which makes us unshakably secure for the sake of suffering in the Christ-exalting path of obedience.
The point of Romans 8:34 is to build into your life God-wrought, blood-bought security to help you suffer well. The point of Romans 8:34 is to remind you that when we can’t trace God’s hand we can always trust His heart. If He gave His life for us, if He rose from the dead by the Father for us, if He sits at the Father's right hand and intercedes for us why can't we trust Him to know what He is doing when He answers our prayers with a no?
When we can’t trace His hand we can always trust His heart.
God is doing a work. Trust Him. Do not doubt Him. Run to His Word. Run to Him in prayer. Cry out to Him. Talk with Him. Search His Word. Please do not run away but rather run to Him.