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.