"I don't know how many times I would find myself waiting on God and find the shame and guilt rising in my soul leaving me obsessively searching my heart for the hidden sin. Over time I learned more about prayer, but occasionally the guilt would come flooding back--
These prayer requests were emotional prayers because I prayed for people I loved dearly. Some felt complicated because sometimes the answer looked like it was "yes," then it turned back into "wait," then looked like a "no," and then repeat. An example of this is when I prayed for my parents' marriage to be healed. Their marriage was one of severe ups and downs, threats of divorce, separations, and reconciliations, and ultimately ended in divorce. All of this taking place from the time I was conceived until they divorced when I was a young mom. I have been contemplating the "no" answers this week, trying to figure out exactly how I feel about them. I realize there is a lot more in my heart in regard to prayer that God answers with "no."
First, some prayers that were answered with a clear "no" were easy to accept and move past. Sometimes it is because I had little emotional attachment for whom I was praying for. If I don't know someone well, I don't expend as much emotional energy praying as I do when I pray for close friends or family members. "No" can also be easy to accept and move past when I've prayed and it becomes obvious that God's answer is "no" and His answer alleviates suffering, as it did in the case of my friend, Karen. She received a diagnosis of lung cancer and was not given long to live. She lived years past the doctors' predictions and loved God, trusting Him until the end. She reminds me of the group of saints mentioned in Hebrews Chapter 11:39-40 who remained faithful through severe hardships, "And all these, though commended through their faith did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect." Although God did not answer our prayers for the full healing of her body, He granted her extra years and the strength and grace to fight valiantly the cancer ravaging her body. She died in faith still believing He could heal her, but her healing occurred in heaven. To me, it seemed that God's "No" ultimately alleviated pain and suffering. The years of her fight taught me a lot about faith and about trusting God in the hard.
Other "nos" have been harder to take. I prayed for years that God would heal a friend of a heart condition. I knew the answer went from a "wait" to a "no" when she passed away in her sleep from congestive heart failure. I struggled with the "no" because I experienced Jesus in my relationship with her. She loved well, forgave quickly, was slow to answer, gave lavishly, and had a heart for others to know God. As I grieved, I knew God had the power to heal her and had chosen not to in this life. It pulled at my heart strings because she left two kids, a husband, and a slew of friends who loved her. I don't know why God chose the time He chose to take her home, but when I look back I see God's gracious hand all over the situation. I had called her the week prior to her death and for some reason neither of us wanted to get off of the phone. We had talked regularly, but that day our conversation lasted hours and took on a deeper transparency. We affirmed our love for each other and celebrated the long friendship we had despite the miles between us. She shared that even though she had deeply grieved the loss of three babies when we lived close, she was blessed and thoroughly enjoying the two children God had allowed her to raise. I shared with her the blessings of being a mom to my children. We laughed, we cried, we reminisced, and we challenged each other to love well and to forgive readily. As we hung up, something in me sensed it was our last conversation. I shook it off, but not long after a mutual friend called to tell me she was gone, but she got choked up and couldn't speak. I gently told her, I already knew what she was going to say.
The love and comfort I received from the church at her funeral and from our last conversation helped me navigate the "No." In her death I was given the privilege of seeing things she had done to help that church grow in ways God wanted it to grow, but she would have never told me about those things herself. Sometimes I wish I could pick up the phone and call her, and I feel a wave a grief that I can't. Yet, I am confident the God she exemplified is good and is faithful to His promises. His taking her home alleviated the painful and scary symptoms she had described to me in that last conversation. I know the impact she had on the church, her friends and her family is ever evident. Her impact helped many become lovers of God and lovers of people. I know she is still singing praises, but now I know she has the joy of singing praises Face-to-face.
As I look back at other "nos" I realize there were seasons of life in which the "no" answers challenged my faith and caused me to close myself off from God. I was afraid to ask, fearing the "no" because I believed it to be a pronouncement of judgment on me and my walk with God. I have since accepted we all have a fleshly sinful core that runs deep. But it is really all about God's grace and His grace is always bigger than my sin. It His is grace that saved me and it His is grace that is slowly and surely transforming me. It is His goodness that leads me to repentance, not a fear of "no' answers and surely not the fear of not having the approval of others over my spirituality.
For a time I also struggled with the idea that the "no" answers meant I was less loved than others who share how God answers their prayers. But as I look back at my life I see something more about how God has relentlessly pursued me. I never deserved it, it is all of grace. I don't know that I ever physically ran from God, but I did run emotionally from Him by closing off my heart and living in an emotionally numbed state. One day I finally realized that whenever I "ran" there would always come a point that I felt like I hit a proverbial wall emotionally and spiritually. I am so thankful that every single time that "wall" that I ran into was Jesus, Himself.
I have come to realize God doesn't work the same way in everyone's lives. Three mothers can ask God to heal their children. God takes one home. He heals one. He teaches one how to live with chronic illness. Yet I believe God relentlessly loves all three mothers and the children for which they prayed.
Four mothers can pray for their sons or daughters to return safely from war. Yet, one comes home in a coffin, one comes home seemingly unscathed, one comes home with emotional wounds running deep to the core, and one comes home with missing limbs. Yet God loves all four mothers and the children for which they prayed.
Several dads pray for their drug addicted children to come home and get clean and sober. Yet one has to identify his son in the morgue. One has to pass his daughter on the street corner, prostituting herself on the street to pay for her habit. One has the joy of watching his child work hard for sobriety, return to Christ, and help others overcome their addictions. And God loves every dad and the children for which they prayed.
Several moms pray as their children struggle with depression. One loses a child to suicide, one sees her child healed, and one watches as her child learns to find joy in the midst of the depression. And God loves the moms and the children for which they prayed.
Then their are catastrophes like the Twin Towers. People prayed for family members to be rescued. Some came home and some didn't. Then there were those who had last minute changes in flights and their lives were spared. There were some who stopped to help others and lost their lives because of the sacrifice they made, while there were some whose lives were spared because they too had paused at just the right moment as they were helping someone. Yet, somehow I believe God loved
relentlessly and was pursuing people in the midst of what appeared to be chaotic abandonment. And God, He loved them--those who lived, those who died, and those struggling still because of what they experienced that horrific day.
There are times we, as Christians, judge others who have prayed and have received life altering "no's." We act as if they were somehow more sinful, less worthy, or less faithful than those whose prayers were answered with resounding "yeses." Maybe, just maybe, we do this because we're uncomfortable with a God whose ways are bigger than our ways, who is not bound by our human finite minds, and who can say "no" to the things we so desperately desire. We want a magic formula to insure we get what we ask for, but maybe prayer isn't so much about the answers as it is about the relationship we develop in the humility of the asking.
Not one of us has everything figured out about prayer. When a tsunami hit Thailand several years ago, many believers claimed it to be God's punishment for the overt sex trafficking of women and children occurring there, not realizing it is happening here in our own communities. Maybe some people who were traffickers died that day, but so did some victims and some believers who never ever trafficked anyone. Yet, what I saw happening in the aftermath was grace in the midst of horrific trauma. Grace extended His grace through believers who went in and provided relief and that going there gave them access to those who needed Jesus and those who needed help out of the trafficked life. Many of the things we tend to be so judgmental about are really invitations to be Jesus' hands and feet to people who have been made vulnerable enough by the Master's design so that they might recognize they need Him and those things making them vulnerable are our calling to meet their need.
I watch as women struggle with God's sovereignty over the abuses they have experienced. Many prayed God would protect them or stop the abuse and many carry great shame because He didn't. They mistakenly believe His lack of protection to be a pronouncement of their worth when in actuality there were people who turned their heads, pretending not to see. Some who believed healing would come from understanding the "why's" now understand that it came from a transparent relationship they developed with God as they wrestled honestly with Him over His seeming lack of protection. That wrestling helped them accept that their life story as the redeeming life story God, Himself, is still in the process of penning.
I have learned over a long period of time with a lot of wrestling that I can lean into God in total honest transparency when life is hard. The harder I lean into Him, the more I can see His goodness as He reveals it in the "yes" answers, in the "wait awhile" answers, and in the "no" answers. As I boldly, specifically, and continuously pray I want to have an open heart that accepts that His ways are not defined by me, but by Him. I want to believe whole-heartedly that He is fully present even when I don't sense Him and when I can't understand what is happening. It is in prayer that I find my relationship with Him growing and the more real I am the more I pray like Jesus did in the Garden of Gethsemane. It is then that I see His will revealed not only in His Word, but in the way He chooses to answer prayers. God is not mean. God is not manipulative. God is not seeking to control me with fear. God is not seeking to destroy me. He is gracious and every action and decision He makes is filtered through love scarred hands and a heart that has been pursuing me relentlessly. I can't help but wonder if the "no" answer is often the intervention God uses to bring me to the place I am humbled enough to open my heart fully to Him. And maybe it is the prayers I pray and the praise I give in the aftermath of the "no" when my heart has been laid bare and doubts have surfaced that allows me to exercise faith and participate in worship in its purest form as I proclaim, "God is good!"