The Blessing of Not Getting What You Want

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Last week, I talked about taking “no” for an answer to prayer, and went into the deep reasons behind God’s negative responses: the humbling of pride and the manifesting of God’s strength in our weakness. Rarely do we appreciate these gifts when we first receive them: often, we never really understand why we need them. There are times when all we can do is accept an answer that amounts to “Because I said so,” and hang on in pure faith to the assurance that God knows best.

Often, though, the situation is less profound than the chronic pain of a thorn in the flesh, the despair of seeing a loved one die unsaved, or the shattering of a lifelong dream. We also get unwanted “no” answers to prayers that involve less important concerns but mean the world to us:

  • You pray that your manuscript will be accepted by this publisher, and you get a rejection–or no response at all.
  • You pray that you’ll be chosen for this promotion, and you’re passed over without explanation.
  • You pray that this person will turn out to be the marriage partner you’ll spend the rest of your life with, and they lose interest after a few months.
  • You pray that you’ll win this cooking contest, and you come in fifth place.

The typical response from friends is, “Don’t worry, you’ll find a publisher/get a promotion/meet the right person/do better next time.” And they may well be right; but at the moment, all you care about is this time, not the next. You’ve waited long enough; you’ve worked hard enough; this option looked more than good enough; and you’re sure you would have been happy forever if you’d gotten it.

At that point, do you sulk and moan that your life is over? Do you decide you’re tired of waiting, period, and go after second- and third-rate options because they’re at least easy to catch? Or do you continue to pray about the overall situation and trust that God has something better in mind for you?

Committed Christians aren’t immune to the “bitterly” disappointed reaction that says, “God, I don’t care what Your will is. If You won’t do things my way, I won’t do things Your way either!” But is that really what we want out of life: to gain the world (or at least some measure of temporary satisfaction) and lose our souls (or at least an opportunity for spiritual growth and effectiveness)? Are we unwilling to believe what even secular psychologists confirm: that “worth waiting for” is more than a cliche?

If we accept God’s “no” answer, lay our disappointment at His feet, and ask Him to handle the situation in His own way, we may later join the ranks of those who say:

  • “Thank God my manuscript wasn’t accepted by the first publisher I tried: I never would have gotten as good a deal as I have with my current publisher.”
  • “Thank God I didn’t get that promotion: I would have been caught up in the scandal that’s consuming that whole department right now.”
  • “Thank God I didn’t marry my first love: I would have been off the market when my true love came along.”
  • “Thank God it took me thirteen tries to win a blue ribbon in the cooking contest: I never would have believed all I’d learn through those years of trial and error.”

Even if we never find a specific reason to thank God for a specific “no,” faithful acceptance nurtures our spiritual growth. And there’s no greater blessing than being able to say sincerely, “Thank God for all He’s done to remake me in the image of Christ.”

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When Your Prayer Is Answered With a “No”

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When we complain we don’t hear God speaking, sometimes the problem is that we just don’t want to listen. Especially when we suspect He’s going to say something we don’t want to hear.

Likewise, when we complain that God’s not answering our prayers, sometimes the real problem is we just don’t want to accept His answer. Especially when that answer is “no”:

No, this isn’t the job you’re going to be offered.

No, the person you wanted to marry is not going to come back to you.

No, your mother is not going to walk again after that accident.

And perhaps hardest of all to take: No, you are not going to see your son/husband/best friend come to Christ.

It’s one thing if your prayer was offered with the wrong motives (cf. James 4:3). But it’s hard to accept that a good God could reject a plea for health or life. Many people have taken their first steps into skepticism via that sort of disappointment. Among those who hold to their faith, it’s still a rare soul who doesn’t unleash a torrent of anger or despair.

Great saints have faced the same situation. Listen to Paul in 2 Corinthians 12: “To keep me from becoming proud, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger from Satan to torment me and keep me from becoming proud. Three different times I begged the Lord to take it away. Each time he said, ‘My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness'” (verses 7-9, NLT). 

We aren’t told how Paul initially reacted to God’s “no.” While we might expect the master of spiritual insight to respond with a quiet “Thy will be done,” it’s also possible that he was bitterly disappointed. I suspect there was at least some disappointment involved: why else would Paul have had to hear God’s “No” three times instead of one?

If Paul was in fact reluctant to take “no” for an answer, it’s likely that his history of spiritual achievement, far from making the disappointment easier to accept, actually made it worse. Hadn’t Paul personally and miraculously healed countless others? Hadn’t he been privileged to see not only the risen and glorified Jesus, but also visions of Heaven that “no human is allowed to tell“? Why, then, should he be denied relief from this one problem?

What Paul eventually came to understand was that his “thorn in the flesh” was in some strange way a gift from God, for Paul’s own good. The same rich spiritual life that made Paul such an effective Christian worker might have eventually led him to become overconfident, taking credit for his own achievements rather than giving the glory to God. The “thorn’s” ongoing reminders that he couldn’t have everything perfect was a version of the Lord’s warning to the Israelites in Deuteronomy 8:10-18: Enjoy God’s blessings, but don’t get ideas they’re your just reward for being so smart, strong, or saintly. Stay thankful and stay humble; keep your eyes on God.

That’s likely why God’s power “works best in weakness”: personal awareness of our inadequacy keeps spiritual communication channels open. It’s hard to put God “on hold” until we finish something, when we know we need His support to finish it at all. Possibly even to know when it’s finished–or at least when our part in it is finished.

So it is with prayer. When God tells us “No,” He also tells us to let go of the matter. Weep out your disappointment on His shoulder, but don’t keep begging Him to change His mind. Whatever comes of all this, we can trust that God is working it out for our good and preparing for us an eternal glory that far outweighs all unwanted answers to prayer.

  • Sick of hearing complaints and negativity everywhere you turn? My free list of "100 Ways to Live as an Optimist in a Pessimistic World" provides 10 x 10 life hacks to counter such attitudes. Get your free copy by signing up here, and you'll also be registered to receive twice-weekly emails of Christian mental-health and encouragement topics.

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    Bible quotes used in this blog are from the New Living Translation or the New International Version (1984). See http://www.biblegateway.com/ for copyright details.
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