We love the truth that God answers prayer (1 John 5:14–15). But what we love most is when He agrees with our requests and says “yes.” But sometimes God’s answer is “no” or “not yet.” As a good Father, God will not grant us that which is not in our long-term best interest, even when we plead. God’s “yes” answers build our faith and confidence in prayer. But how are we to respond when He says “no”?
Accepting God’s “no” can be a sticky situation. There are verses that seem to indicate that whatever we ask for in faith we receive (e.g., Mark 11:24; Matthew 21:22). If we isolate those verses and build a theology around them, it can be faith-shattering when things do not happen as we anticipated. It is wiser to take a step back and consider the “whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). Any time we build a whole doctrine around one or two verses, we are headed for trouble.
Several times in Scripture, God did not do as someone asked. He is God, and He can see things we can’t see. King David pleaded with the Lord for the life of his and Bathsheba’s infant son. David fasted and prayed for days, but, on the seventh day, the child died (2 Samuel 12:16, 18). God said “no.” David responded in a way that is a model for us all. He accepted that what God had done was right and good, “and he went into the house of the Lord and worshiped” (verse 20, NKJV). He had hoped for a different outcome. But God is God, and He has the right to make life-and-death decisions. In his grief, David did not become bitter toward the Lord or turn away. David’s response to God’s “no” was deeper worship and surrender, even in his heartache.
The New Testament gives more examples of times when God said “no” to His servants. The apostle Paul was set to travel throughout Asia Minor to preach, but God said “no” (Acts 16:6–9). Paul thought he had understood the plan of God. He believed he was to continue in Asia. But the Holy Spirit said “no.” Because Paul’s desire was to listen and obey, regardless of what it cost, he left Asia Minor and went to Macedonia instead. There he started churches that impacted the whole world. His response to God’s “no” was instant obedience and a change of direction.
In his personal life, Paul was plagued by what he called a “thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me” (2 Corinthians 12:7). Paul pleaded with the Lord on three separate occasions to take this “thorn” from him, but God said “no.” In this trial, Paul learned to appropriate greater measures of God’s grace and to live for the glory of God through the difficulty. His response to God’s “no” was to glory in his weakness (verse 9). Instead of giving up in frustration or deciding God did not care, Paul chose to “delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (verse 10).
What we learn from the biblical examples is that God never stops being God. He is sovereign: “I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me. I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come. I say, ‘My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please.’ . . . What I have said, that I will bring about; what I have planned, that I will do” (Isaiah 46:9–11).
There are many times when God can say “yes” to our requests because they fit into the plan He is working out in our lives (Romans 8:28). He said “yes” to Moses’ request to see His glory (Exodus 33:17). He said “yes” to Solomon’s request for wisdom (1 Kings 3:11–13). And Jesus said “yes” to everyone who asked Him for healing and help (Matthew 8:16). But our faith-filled requests do not supersede God’s sovereign rule. If He was bound by our prayers, as some teach, He would, in effect, cease to be God. We would be gods by dictating His actions. Nowhere in Scripture do we see such a precedent.
God will often say “no” to things we yearn to see happen. Those with immature faith sometimes use this as an excuse to abandon Him altogether: “God didn’t heal my baby.” “God didn’t save my marriage.” “God didn’t give me that job I needed.” If our view is that God is obligated to grant our requests like a genie grants wishes, then we will be dismayed when God does not “perform” for us. We choose whether to allow a “no” from God to shatter our faith or build it up; a “no” from God can teach us to endure—even when we don’t understand (James 1:3).
It is often in the seasons when God says “no” that we are forced to pursue God more earnestly. God’s “nos” often shatter the tiny box in which we tried to keep Him and allow the real God to reveal Himself to us. He says “no” when it is part of His grander plan. He says “no” when our lack of faith indicates that we do not truly believe He is who He says He is (Hebrews 11:6). He says “no” when our requests are rooted in selfishness (James 4:3) or when a “yes” would harm us. And He says “no” when, like Paul, we must learn that His grace is sufficient for us. The biblical examples of servants of God who experienced God’s “no” help us learn the right response when God says “no” to us.