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When God says "No"

April 19, 2012

It is common for all of us to have to struggle as to the great mystery of God’s providence and will. If it is not our own struggle then we must often commiserate with others who are in distress. One person is losing her young daughter to cancer, a friend is struggling to find work, still another has a husband who is drinking. Some will say to me, “I’ve been praying, Father. Nothing seems to happen.” I am not always sure what to say and God doesn’t often explain why we must suffer, or why he delays, or why he says, “No.”

Just think of how he answered Job. Job wanted answers as to why he was suffering. And God spoke from the whirlwind and upbraided Job with provocative questions meant to humble him. But in the end he gave him no real answer. He DID restore Job though. And somehow in the midst of God’s mysterious ways we DO have to remember that if we are faithful God is going to more than restore us one day. But in the midst of trials, future restoration seems pretty theoretical.

So, often in the midst of trials, the best we can do is to be still. To breathe, to sigh and yearn, and to weep with those who weep. Scripture says, The LORD is good to those who wait for him, to the soul that seeks him. It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD (Lam 3:25).

Scripture does give some answers as to God’s delay and to his “No.” And while these explanations may not always satisfy us emotionally, they do provide a teaching which can ultimately assist us in not allowing our sorrow, anger or disappointment to interact with our pride and lead us away from faith. Let’s look at a few of these explanations as to God’s “No” and his delay. Some of these explanations pertain to God and some to us. I place the word “sometimes” before most of these since they do not all apply to all of us, all the time.

1. Sometimes, “No” is the Best Answer We often think we know what is best for us. We want to have this job, or we want that person to fall in love and marry us. We want to be delivered from a certain illness or receive a financial blessing. We see these as good outcomes and are sure that God must also see them this way. But God may not, in fact, agree with our assessment as to what is best for us. And thus his “No” is really the best answer to our prayers.

For example we may always prefer that God answer our prayer that none of our children be born with any disabilities. But God may see that the experience of disability may be just the thing that we or the child may need in order to be saved ultimately. St. Paul prayed for deliverance from some sort of physical affliction: Three times I begged the Lord about this, that it might leave me, but he said to me,My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me. Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Cor 12:7-10).

The fact is, we really don’t know what is best for us or for someone else. We may think we know, but we do not. God’s “No” to Paul helped to save him for it helped him better understand the power of the cross in his life and how we must learn to depend on God. So too for us. We may prefer certain outcomes, but God alone really knows if our preference is truly good for us or just apparently good.

2. God is love – Many confuse love with kindness. Kindness is a common attribute of love but it is not the same as love. Any parent knows that they must often times discipline their children, and that it is the loving thing to do. A parent who is always kind and never punishes, spoils that child and does not exhibit true love. Parents will sometimes inflict pain on a child by limiting their freedom and insisting that they do what is right. They will bring an unwilling child to the doctor for shots, they will insist that they finish their homework before play. They may give a firm “no” to certain requests that they know are harmful or interfere with greater duties. Kindness always wants to say yes, but love sometimes says no and even inflicts hardships where necessary.

God is a Father. Kindness has its place but love is more essential for us than mere kindness which is but an attribute of love.

Scripture says, My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son….God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it. (Heb 12:5-6, 11). And Again: Endure hardship with us like a good soldier of Christ Jesus….Reflect on what I am saying, for the Lord will give you insight into all this (2 Tim 2:3,7)

3. Sometimes our request cannot be affirmed without violating another’s freedom– It is a common thing that we may pray for the conversion of another person. Or we may pray that they make some decision that we prefer. God is all powerful and could force outcomes, but this would violate the freedom of others to truly decide. If freedom is contingent upon God’s whim then it is not really freedom. God can exhort through his Church and the Scriptures. He can send special graces to be of influence, but in the end, we are free and he will not generally force an individual to choose what we want or ask in prayer. The Scriptures affirm our freedom. For example: There are set before you fire and water; to which ever you choose, stretch forth your hand. Before man are life and death, which ever he chooses shall be given him (Sirach 15:16-17).

4. Sometimes our request cannot be granted due to the harm it might cause to others- We can sometimes fall into the trap of thinking that we are the most important thing on God’s agenda. We want a sunny day for our picnic but the farmers are in desperate need of rain. Whose need is more important? It would seem that the farmers might be a bit higher on God’s list than my picnic, however, even this, I leave up to God.

The prophet Jonah went reluctantly to the Ninevites to preach. And he didn’t want them to be converted. He wanted them to refuse repentance and be destroyed within 40 days. He had, in his own mind,  good reasons to want this. The Ninevites (Assyrians) were amassing an army that was a great threat to Israel, and if they were destroyed Israel would be spared any further threat. But the Ninevites DID repent. And Jonah was sullen and bitter. God rebuked him for wanting the Ninevites destroyed with these words: Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city? (Jonah 4:9) We may not be praying for another’s harm but it may sometimes be the case that what we ask for would adversely affect others.

5. Sometimes our faith is not strong enough – Jesus said: “If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.” (Matthew 21:22) And the Book of James says, But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; (James 1:6-7) There is also the sad fact of Nazareth where the Lord could work few miracles so much did their lack of faith disturb him (Matt 13:58)

6. Sometimes we ask for improper things or with wrong motives – The Book of James says : “When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures

7. Sometimes unrepented sin sets up a barrier between us and God so that our prayer is blocked – Surely the arm of the Lord is not too short to save, nor His ear too dull to hear. But your iniquities (sins) have separated you from God; your sins have hidden his face from you so that He will not hear” (Isaiah 59:1-2).

8. Sometimes we have not been generous with the requests and needs of others – If a man shuts his ears to the cry of the poor, he too will cry out and not be answered” (Proverbs 21:13)

9. Sometimes God cannot trust us with blessings for we are not conformed to his word or trustworthy with lesser things – If you remain in me and my word remains in you, ask whatever you wish and it will be given to you” (John 15:7) and Again: So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else’s property, who will give you property of your own? (Lk 16:11-12). Thus we must prove trustworthy in smaller matters to be trusted with greater blessings.

Again, please remember the “explanations” above may or may not apply to you personally. Some, others may not. In the end we have to accept the mystery of prayer and come to accept that not everything is fully explainable. We see so very little of the whole picture God sees. Humility must be our constant disposition.

This Song says that some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers.

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Comments (29)

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  1. Sandra Lipari says:

    “Surely the arm of the Lord is not too short to save, nor His ear too dull to hear. But your iniquities (sins) have separated you from God; your sins have hidden his face from you so that He will not hear” (Isaiah 59:1-2).

    Miss Fr. Charlie… World’s Greatest Confessor! ALWAYS… Fr. Charlie PRAY FOR US! MISS YOU

  2. TaylorKH says:

    Very good insights here Msgr Pope. Thank you.

  3. Vijaya says:

    I needed to read this again today … I was mad at God for the tragedies in two families. I weep and pray and argue. Even though I do not comment much any more (fewer questions — I am becoming more accepting and total consecration has transformed me) I read your blog faithfully and learn every day. God bless you abundantly Father. You are in my prayers.
    Vijaya

  4. Jessica says:

    My family and I used to be unsatisfied when God didn’t answer our prayer but as times goes by we do realize that the prayer didn’t give us what we want but it do change my family personally. We become more faithful because we believe that God will give us hope. We know deep inside our heart that He will help us to carry our cross no matter how heavy it is.

    Thank you for such a great post, Msgr. Charles Pope.

  5. CGS says:

    This is just what I needed to read today! Thank you.

  6. Brandy M. Miller says:

    This week I have had cause to ponder how often God has said “No” to my prayers because He knew where a “yes” would lead me and wanted something better for me. He said “no” to fame, because it would have led me away from Him and would have only increased my pride. He said “no” to wealth, because He knew it would have led me to making easy but wrong-headed choices and I would never have gotten what I truly desired that way. I think a friend of mine, a convert from Protestantism, said it best. She said God never says, “No” without the words “because I have something better in mind” following after.

    • anonymous says:

      I love this message. Thanks for sharing, and thank you Msgr. Pope for the article.

  7. Brother Juniper says:

    God and the Church are trying to mold us into perfect beings worthy of salvation. Suffering is either the method or the by-product of the molding process. The process is painful but there is no way for it to be otherwise. When Christ died on the cross he dies with us. When he rose to heaven he takes us with him if we can somehow attach our Souls to His Glory.

  8. Denita Arnold says:

    I needed to read this today. I often question God about why I was born with a mental illness. I still question Him. But I know he knows what’s best for me. I just need to believe this.

    • Kim says:

      Denita, I share your suffering with mental illness. Maybe God gave us this so we can continually suffer with Him at Gethsemane. There are a lot of people in agony; maybe He is asking us to carry some of that cross.

      Just some thoughts.

      Kim

      • Anthony says:

        I’ve seen severe cases of this in my own life, and it is scary painful and prolonged. You have my prayers and sympathy. But we have to trust in God, He always listens and knows what’s best!!

  9. Mary says:

    Instead of praying for what I wish for, I have started praying, asking God to allow me to see His will for me. In doing so, I have seen God’s FAITHFULNESS through the years and how blessed I have been through all the tragedies, illnesses and unanswered prayers. I understand that God KNOWS what I need, better than I do. He gave me the gifts and the tools to carry out His will for this journey. Our job is to submit, to do the things that must be done. We must do what the Spirit directs us to do, but God will receive the credit, not us. We could do none of these works by our own means. God gives the ability. He gives the inspiration, the strength, and the endurance. He opens the doors. He supplies the resources to go through those doors. He supplies love so that the doors can be opened. We merely walk through them.

  10. Liam Ronan says:

    If God wills ‘it’ to be so He can do ‘it’. The disconcerting part is that when ‘it’ does not happen is it because of some deficiency, unworthiness, or unknown defect on our part or is it because He simply does not desire ‘it’?
    Mark 1: 40-42 “And there came a leper to him, beseeching him, and kneeling down said to him: If thou wilt, thou canst make me clean. 41 And Jesus having compassion on him, stretched forth his hand; and touching him, saith to him: I will. Be thou made clean. 42 And when he had spoken, immediately the leprosy departed from him, and he was made clean.”

  11. Jennifer says:

    Wow, I can see so many of these reasons at work in my life! Everything in God’s time, and according to His will! Alleluia!

  12. Lisa says:

    Great post! Thank you.

  13. John says:

    Thank you. I also needed to read this today. I don’t understand God’s plan for me. I thought I did. I was certain. But I turned out to be so very, very wrong. All I can do now is trust Him. It’s not easy, though.

  14. Debbie Lohr. says:

    Dear Lord. I know ypu are watching over me, and I am feeling truly blessed, for no matter what I pray for, you always know what’s best.

  15. Brian says:

    I have found that unforgiveness, the holding of grudges, can also be a cause of unanswered prayers. I’ve also found that sometimes we’re not ready for some thing we’re asking for. We can be like children asking for a puppy who swear they will take care of it every day, not having an inkling of all that entails. God sometimes wants us to grow mature (not necessarily old) enough to be able to take care of that puppy.

  16. Pattie, RN says:

    I know this is not original, but this little sign has always reminded me of His vision and power.

    God only has three answers to prayers…

    1. Yes

    2. No yet

    3. I have a MUCH better idea

    Peace~

    • Patricia says:

      Father Romy told us a similar way to look at the situation with these answers.

      1. Yes
      2. No
      3. Not at this time

      I added the 4th

      4. Not in the way you think will solve the problem.

      The same as you Pattie but a bit more wordy. I have recently begun my most fervent prayers with, “If it be your will,Oh God”……..
      The idea of looking into what I may need to do to put my own house in order, by being less critical of others & not being as generous in aiding others as I should, gives much room for thought .

      Peace and Love to all

  17. Exhausted says:

    Well, it sounds very nice … in theory. But in life …not so.
    Judging from my experience I must conclude that God’s will for me is constant misery in every way (except material, so far), no matter how much I pray and work.
    And it doesn’t make me holly. It makes me forlorn, exhausted and bitter.
    If I were a Calvinist, I would be sure I’m damned.

  18. Jack says:

    Same old sanctimonius crap only this time from a Msgr.

    If you’re so great Msgr then tell me why God made me Autistic, denied me a proper family in which to grow up and has lashed me with curses for the best part of 25 years; I’m told God ‘Loves me’ by my fellow Catholics, well to be honest I’d like to start feeling the love.

    • Cast your bread on the water, it will come back to you after many days (Eccl 11:1)

      • Jack says:

        Coming from you Father that just sounds like more santimonious garbage, I have friends who have everything; they come from nice Catholic families where mom and dad have been married since forever, lots of siblings that say the family Rosary together, they are in the peak of phsyical,mental and spiritual health, some of them even have a vocation. And what do I have? a dad who wasn’t much of a Father even before he left, a mom who loves me in a pitying manner, a genetic illness that blights my life and to top it all; it has been made quite clear to me that simply because 12 years ago my dad decided he didn’t mean it when he said “till death do us part” that finding an Orthodox vocation director who will NOT dismiss me out of hand is practically impossible.

        Then try having to deal with sanctomonious Priests and Religious like yourself, You try living with the knowledge that you are a monster, no matter how hard you try to act otherwise, you try living with the knowledge that if only you acted in accordance with your nature then the pain would shortly be gone as some ‘annointed hero’ would euthanise you. Then I’m sure you wouldn’t be so condescending .

        • Andrew says:

          Jack,

          I am not a priest, nor a husband, nor a father of a child. In just eight months from today we will again recall Christ’s birth on the Feast of Christmas. Redemption. Christ came to earth to die for us. He has already shown us His love to you and me. In prayer, consider what Christ did hanging on the Cross, and why He did it. Consider what He said from the pulpit of the Cross and who He said it to. For you, Sirach 51: 7-12, is my sharing of God’s Word with you today.

          Andrew

        • Anthony says:

          Dear Jack,

          We often tend to measure our successes according to our worldly achievements, don’t we? I too, feel very sad when I compare my life with others. But I am trying to understand what the true greatness of life is. For this, I reflect on Jesus’s commendation on John the Baptist “I assure you that John the Baptist is greater than anyone who has ever lived. But the one who is least in the Kingdom of heaven is greater than John” (Matt11:11). Why was the Baptist great when he didn’t have anything to boast about himself?
          You are in my prayers Jack. May God bless you!

  19. ~Mary says:

    Dear Jack,

    Yes, God loves you; however, to feel his love… you need to stop feeling sorry for yourself and maybe by helping others, you will know and feel God’s love for you. You need to figure what an autistic person (especially yourself), can do to help others. For one thing… it is apparent you are able to write very well. How could you use that ability to help others? What else could you do??? Maybe write grants for causes you have an interest in??? God made you to help others… get busy! Get involved with your own talents and use them to make this a better world. Maybe you could write a book about yourself and help other mothers who have autistic children understand what you have and are going through.

    Blessings,
    ~Mary

  20. Jim says:

    Sometimes (and it sounds counterintuitive) the best way to “solve” our problems is to simply stop looking at them. To look “out” and not “in.” A counselor once said that the first thing he tells people is to go help someone. This is good, to help others, but it is also a good way to look outwardly and not in on ourselves. If we spend our time looking in, we are never going to be happy with what we find. But if we look out and die to self, that is when true transformation can occur. An overly simplistic answer, but a very successful way of dealing with many problems. The very process of prayer is to transform us and point us to God. If He wills something, He will bless us with that grace or favor or miracle on His own time when it is best for us. Remember, St. Monica prayed for St. Augustine’s conversion for something like 20 years!! And he became one of the greatest saints in the entire church! Never despair and remember that God is ALWAYS faithful!

  21. Randoph says:

    If God did not answer prayers I could accept it; but the fact that He reveals Himself as the Most Loving of Fathers…I feel like reporting Him to DCF! If I, as wicked as I am, treated (or permitted or allowed) the experiences in life to my child (that I experienced) I would not even expect the child to want a relationship with me (for the record I was not blessed with children or anything else for that matter—Job has nohing on me). It is just so disappointing that there always seems to be an end note or foot note or codicil to unanswered prayer (and in my situation all prayer is unanswered). Especially when one is persistant and prays for the grace and acceptance to grace to receive the prayer or to pray for the obtainment of the fruit of the trial without delay so the trial may cease. I understand that this is the valley of tears and that as a catholic, we are really the only faith that speaks of the theology of the cross…but sometimes I just wish I was a happy teleevangelist protestant.