If you’ve been a Christian for any length of time, chances are pretty good that you’ve run across the idea that God answers our prayers in one of three ways: “Yes”, “No”, and “Not yet…” This can be very encouraging when it seems like God is silent, because it gives us reason to hope that the answer to our prayer is indeed “Yes“…just “Not yet“. On the other hand, the same notion can become self-serving and even self-deceptive when we falsely presume that the answer to our prayer is still forthcoming…even though the answer is actually—and often clearly—”No.”
So what are we supposed to do if we can’t tell the difference? Or put differently, how can we tell the difference? After all, if the answer is truly “Not yet” then it would be a mistake to give up! Scripture repeatedly admonishes us to persevere in prayer, so we want to be sure that our faith doesn’t falter when we should actually be praying even more fervently for God to move…
- Like Joseph surely did while he was enslaved and imprisoned in Egypt
- Like Moses did repeatedly as he led the nation of Israel through the wilderness for 40 years
- Like Joshua, Gideon, and Samson did as they delivered the Israelites from their enemies
- Like David did when God punished Israel for David’s arrogance
- Like Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego, and Daniel did as they resisted pagan rulers and evil decrees
- Like the apostles did when they were imprisoned and facing execution
- And like countless others have done when they were out of options and desperate for God to intervene: perhaps your relatives, friends, co-workers, neighbors…maybe even yourself.
Conversely, if we persist in asking God for something when His answer is “No“, then no amount of perseverance is going to change His mind; moreover, He will likely bring increasingly painful circumstances into our lives to help us get the message. Not only do I have first-hand experience with this phenomenon, but it certainly parallels how God dealt with Israel’s insolence and disobedience:
6“I brought hunger to every city and famine to every town. But still you would not return to me,” says the Lord.
7 “I kept the rain from falling when your crops needed it the most. I sent rain on one town
but withheld it from another. Rain fell on one field, while another field withered away.
8 People staggered from town to town looking for water, but there was never enough. But still you would not return to me,” says the Lord.
9 “I struck your farms and vineyards with blight and mildew. Locusts devoured all your fig and olive trees. But still you would not return to me,” says the Lord.
10 “I sent plagues on you like the plagues I sent on Egypt long ago. I killed your young men in war and led all your horses away. The stench of death filled the air! But still you would not return to me,” says the Lord.
11 “I destroyed some of your cities, as I destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah. Those of you who survived were like charred sticks pulled from a fire. But still you would not return to me,” says the Lord.
12 “Therefore, I will bring upon you all the disasters I have announced. Prepare to meet your God in judgment, you people of Israel!”
The irony, of course, is that instead of helping us “get the message”, each additional setback typically prompts us to become more “creative” in how we ask God for the things that He is withholding. And just as with Israel’s fate, as we continue to cling to something that is outside of God’s will for us, the harder those lessons usually become.
So how do we strike the right balance when we pray? How do we ensure that we are rightly persevering in prayer without becoming demanding or presumptuous? Jesus’ own prayer in Gethsemane provides the answer, but we need to recognize how easy it is to end our prayers with “Not my will, but Yours” out of habit…rather than sincerity. We may even think that we mean it (I have certainly convinced myself that I meant it!) but whenever we choose to ignore what God is trying to tell us, we are actually keeping our hearts set upon something that God wants us to surrender.
In a word, by convincing ourselves that we must keep praying for something that continues to elude us, we are practicing idolatry. We are chasing after the things we want God to do for us, rather than chasing after God Himself, so as we obstinately persist in praying for something when His answer is “No“…
- We eventually lose our joy and become discouraged, because we feel like God has abandoned us
- Our worship becomes empty and lifeless, because any gratitude we should be feeling is eclipsed by our disappointment and resentment over what God isn’t giving us
- Our love grows cold, because whenever we pursue idols—whether they are “other gods” or simply those things we value more than God Himself—we are willingly cutting ourselves off from the only true Source of blessing and love.
Indeed, there’s a reason that Solomon makes the following observation:
“Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a dream fulfilled is a tree of life.”
…and there’s nothing like a season of unanswered prayer to bring you to the very brink of despair. Sometimes that temporary “disconnect” is by God’s design, because He wants us to draw closer to Him and deepen our dependence upon Him as we wait for Him to act. But in my experience, more often than not our spiritual droughts are of our own making. They are a necessary and unavoidable consequence of our own idolatry, because the longer we hold onto the mistaken belief that God will eventually condescend to the selfish desires of our fallen hearts, the further away He feels.
Which brings me to “door number 4”. Because in addition to “Yes“, “No“, and “Not yet“, I believe there is another answer we should be listening for:
Sometimes we just need to let go of the sinful things we are pursuing. God is never going to answer self-serving requests with anything but “No“, so when we find ourselves in those prolonged seasons of Divine silence, we need to be honest with ourselves, admit that we’re heading in the wrong direction, and simply “turn around”. It’s the very definition of repentance, and as we relinquish our idols, we simultaneously re-establish our connection and intimacy with Him.
Other times, though, God tells us “No” not because what we want is inherently ungodly or somehow unrighteous, but because it’s less than what He truly wants to give us. Indeed, during those times when God’s continued silence leaves us feeling alone and abandoned, maybe what we really need to do is “turn around” and broaden our perspective. Because as long as our gaze is fixed on the door that remains closed, we fail to realize that God has already opened another door and is waiting for us to walk through it, instead.
So whenever our prayers start to seem futile, we would be wise to examine our hearts and repent if we have wandered from the truth. And when we start to become frustrated and discouraged, remember that it’s not enough for us to pray “Not my will, but Yours”; on the contrary, He’s waiting for us to seek Him out and receive the blessing He truly wants to give us! Because usually, when God starts to feel distant, chances are good that He’s a lot closer than you think. His silence isn’t because He is far from us; rather, we can’t hear Him because we’re simply looking in the wrong direction.