As many ways as we looked at this question, for all of us, it came down to the key word, “faith.” Do we trust God’s ability and wisdom to answer our prayers? This is especially hard when we are contending for our children. It is hard enough to experience our own pain and suffering, but next to impossible to witness pain and suffering in our kids. Often the question simmering under the surface of difficult circumstances is, “Why?”
Why, for example, would someone who is acting in obedience to God face defeat? We looked at a story in Judges. An innocent woman from Israel was murdered by some men from the tribe of Benjamin in a city called Gibeah. The Israelites united in war to stand against Benjamin’s wickedness and unwillingness to bring justice to the murderers.
The people of Israel arose and went up to Bethel and inquired of God, “Who shall go up first for us to fight against the people of Benjamin?” And the LORD said, “Judah shall go up first.”
Then the people of Israel rose in the morning and encamped against Gibeah. And the men of Israel went out to fight against Benjamin, and the men of Israel drew up the battle line against them at Gibeah. The people of Benjamin came out of Gibeah and destroyed on that day 22,000 men of the Israelites. But the people, the men of Israel, took courage, and again formed the battle line in the same place where they had formed it on the first day. And the people of Israel went up and wept before the LORD until the evening. And they inquired of the LORD, “Shall we again draw near to fight against our brothers, the people of Benjamin?” And the LORD said, “Go up against them.”
So the people of Israel came near against the people of Benjamin the second day. And Benjamin went against them out of Gibeah the second day, and destroyed 18,000 men of the people of Israel. All these were men who drew the sword. Then all the people of Israel, the whole army, went up and came to Bethel and wept. They sat there before the LORD and fasted that day until evening, and offered burnt offerings and peace offerings before the LORD. And the people of Israel inquired of the LORD (for the ark of the covenant of God was there in those days, and Phinehas the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron, ministered before it in those days), saying, “Shall we go out once more to battle against our brothers, the people of Benjamin, or shall we cease?” And the LORD said, “Go up, for tomorrow I will give them into your hand.”
So Israel set men in ambush around Gibeah. And the people of Israel went up against the people of Benjamin on the third day and set themselves in array against Gibeah, as at other times. And the people of Benjamin went out against the people and were drawn away from the city. And as at other times they began to strike and kill some of the people in the highways, one of which goes up to Bethel and the other to Gibeah, and in the open country, about thirty men of Israel. And the people of Benjamin said, “They are routed before us, as at the first.” But the people of Israel said, “Let us flee and draw them away from the city to the highways.” And all the men of Israel rose up out of their place and set themselves in array at Baal-tamar, and the men of Israel who were in ambush rushed out of their place from Maareh-geba. And there came against Gibeah 10,000 chosen men out of all Israel, and the battle was hard, but the Benjaminites did not know that disaster was close upon them. And the LORD defeated Benjamin before Israel, and the people of Israel destroyed 25,100 men of Benjamin that day. All these were men who drew the sword. (Judges 20:18-35 ESV)
The Israelites asked for instructions from God. They obeyed the instructions from God. And 22,000 Israelites died the first day. The second day the Israelites inquired of God again. They followed His instructions. That day 18,000 Israelites died. On the third day they asked for instructions from God again. This time the Lord gave them victory. Why, when they were seeking His will, did they have to suffer two days of defeats and 40,000 lost lives before He gave them victory? Here is Biblical evidence that, when we seek the Lord in prayer, we are not always given immediate victory.
So, can we still move forward in faith? If we stood among the Israelites on the morning of the third day, would we still trust God’s answer? In the following verse, Jesus is speaking to Martha just before raising her brother, Lazarus, from the dead.
Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” (John 11:40 ESV)
Can we move forward in faith even when He chooses not to raise someone from the dead? Will we still see the glory of God even if it is not displayed by a “Yes” answer to our most heartfelt prayers? One member of our study group is gifted with a faith that claims this John 11 verse and believes. Two members of our study group have had to bury a child. That experience is the greatest possible test for a mother’s faith as she attempts to move forward, trusting God for the good of her family.
We looked at some places in Scripture where God says “No” to others. Paul talks about at least two such examples in 2 Corinthians.
For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. (2 Corinthians 1:8-9 ESV)
So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:7-10 ESV)
Our affliction, pain, and suffering makes us rely on God, rather than ourselves. It keeps us from boasting in ourselves and allows Christ’s power to be made perfect in our weakness. But it also comes with His grace, which is sufficient. Even Jesus, the Son of God, faced a “no” answer from the Father.
Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to his disciples, “Sit here, while I go over there and pray.” And taking with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me.” And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” And he came to the disciples and found them sleeping. And he said to Peter, “So, could you not watch with me one hour? Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Again, for the second time, he went away and prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” And again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. So, leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words again. Then he came to the disciples and said to them, “Sleep and take your rest later on. See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Rise, let us be going; see, my betrayer is at hand.”
While he was still speaking, Judas came, one of the twelve, and with him a great crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the elders of the people. Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, “The one I will kiss is the man; seize him.” And he came up to Jesus at once and said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” And he kissed him. Jesus said to him, “Friend, do what you came to do.” Then they came up and laid hands on Jesus and seized him. And behold, one of those who were with Jesus stretched out his hand and drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his ear. Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then should the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?” (Matthew 26:36-54 ESV)
Three times Jesus asked God if it was possible to let the sorrow and distress of the coming crucifixion pass from him. All three times, Jesus yielded to the Father’s will. His statements to those who would fight to prevent His arrest also show that He understands the will of the Father — if the Father wanted to fight to prevent Jesus’ arrest, twelve legions of angels would be sent for the battle. Maybe the problem with our prayers and petitions is that we expect the answer to be “yes,” rather than accepting an answer that is God’s perfect will. The gospel of John records another scene as Jesus was arrested in the Garden.
When Jesus had spoken these words, he went out with his disciples across the brook Kidron, where there was a garden, which he and his disciples entered. Now Judas, who betrayed him, also knew the place, for Jesus often met there with his disciples. So Judas, having procured a band of soldiers and some officers from the chief priests and the Pharisees, went there with lanterns and torches and weapons. Then Jesus, knowing all that would happen to him, came forward and said to them, “Whom do you seek?” They answered him, “Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus said to them, “I am he.” Judas, who betrayed him, was standing with them. When Jesus said to them, “I am he,” they drew back and fell to the ground. (John 18:1-6 ESV)
This account emphasizes both the deity and the power of Jesus. The group that came to arrest Jesus included Judas, a band of soldiers, and officers from the chief priests and Pharisees. They were armed with lanterns and torches to find Him and weapons to subdue Him. Yet He simply spoke, “I am he,” and they fell to the ground. Falling to the ground is a common reaction when humans have a divine encounter (Ezekiel 1:28, Daniel 8:18, Acts 9:4, Revelation 1:17). The overwhelming power and glory of an almighty God before a frail, fallen human leaves no human worthy to stand. Jesus’ wording, “I am he,” is no accident and a clear reference to His divinity, as compared to God stating His name to Moses:
Then Moses said to God, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” (Exodus 3:13-14 ESV)
I AM. There is so much about God’s character built into those two words and the fact that it is God’s chosen name for Himself. We could spend a week studying those meanings. For now, it may be enough to recognize that Jesus identified Himself also as “I AM” and that Paul was told by “I AM” that “My grace is sufficient for you.” “I AM” stands alongside us through every trial. “I AM” provides His power and grace to hold us up. Every challenge in life — every “no” answer when God does not step in and remove the challenge — is an opportunity for us to draw closer to Him in relationship and seek His power and grace, or to push Him away. The choice we face is whether or not to believe “I AM” and His power.
We touched on some other verses to hold close when God chooses not to intervene in our difficult circumstances:
Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:12-14 ESV)
These words were written by Paul in the context of a passage teaching about righteousness that comes from God through faith and about suffering alongside Christ and identifying with Christ, thus experiencing the power and love of the Savior.
Trust in the LORD with all your heart,
and do not lean on your own understanding. (Proverbs 3:5 ESV)
“Remember not the former things,
nor consider the things of old.
Behold, I am doing a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
and rivers in the desert. (Isaiah 43:18-19 ESV)
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55:8-9 ESV)
Taken together, these verses make clear our need to trust a God whose ways are beyond our comprehension. We are not going to understand His ways. He has a higher understanding and He is doing new things that we simply cannot perceive.
And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. (1 John 5:14 ESV)
Again, we return to the idea that it is all about God’s will, not ours. Again and again we find verses that show that He absolutely hears our prayers and that He will grant them according to His will. And we don’t fully understand His will.
Let’s look at an example in Scripture where Jesus says “no” when people make a request of Him.
That evening at sundown they brought to him all who were sick or oppressed by demons. And the whole city was gathered together at the door. And he healed many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons. And he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.
And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed. And Simon and those who were with him searched for him, and they found him and said to him, “Everyone is looking for you.” And he said to them, “Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also, for that is why I came out.” And he went throughout all Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and casting out demons. (Mark 1:32-39 ESV)
Jesus healed many, but He had a higher purpose than just healing. Simon Peter came looking for Jesus on behalf of the masses when Jesus had departed to pray. But Jesus had more to do than just heal. If all we see of Jesus are His healing and His miracles, we are seeing something good, but we are missing His best. He is our everything, not just our healer. If He heals everyone, does that turn our faith into presumption? Isn’t there more to prayer than just making requests of God? We also pray to be in communication with God, in relationship, out of thankfulness.
There are problems when our own selfish desires preface our prayers to God. We see God’s answer to our prayers as “yes” or “no.” In fact, His answer to our prayers is relationship, which is His will. His grace is sufficient for us. Satan would like us to believe lies that we aren’t good enough when God does not give us what we ask for in prayer. But if we come into prayer as a relationship with our heavenly Father, recognizing that His will and understanding is beyond ours, and that His grace and power are sufficient for us, all of our answers are “yes.” Not “yes” to our wishes at all times, but “yes” to relationship, “yes” to His grace, “yes” to His power, and “yes” to His presence in our lives. These are the things that we need to move forward, pursuing a life serving God. Let’s put Satan’s lies behind us and press toward the goal of walking in relationship with “I AM,” trusting that He is sufficient.
Part of the beauty of a Bible study like this — where we have a small group searching the Scriptures for answers to very real questions about our faith — is that we all come in with different life perspectives. God has walked us through different circumstances, giving each of us His grace and power and love in different ways. When we share this with one another, we get to experience different views of who God is and how He meets with us.
Another perspective with which one can approach this question of “How do you move forward in faith when the answer to your prayer is ‘no’ or there seems to be no answer?” is a perspective of the question of the goodness of God.
“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him! (Matthew 7:7-11 ESV)
Jesus teaches in these verses in Matthew that, if we ask for good things, God will give us good things. When we ask for something which appears from every angle to be good and we don’t get it, is God still good? What makes God good? What is God’s definition of good?
For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer. (1 Timothy 4:4-5 ESV)
And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. (Mark 10:18 ESV)
You are good and do good; teach me your statutes. (Psalm 119:68 ESV)
Praise the LORD! Oh give thanks to the LORD, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever! (Psalm 106:1 ESV)
Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him! (Psalm 34:8 ESV)
Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. (James 1:17 ESV)
What makes God good? The things that God does that are good are not what make Him good. He is good. It is part of the essence of who He is. Part of His character. Doing good does not make Him good. When He does good, it demonstrates His goodness to us. But those of us who live in faith and believe the Word of God to be true should be ready to accept in faith that He is good, just based on His promise that He is, even if He doesn’t demonstrate it in His actions.
Everything that is good comes from God. Every bit of goodness that exists outside of God came from Him. God defines good. He defines good in the sense that He has infinite wisdom to know what is good (remember, His thoughts are higher than our thoughts), but He also defines good in the sense that He is goodness Himself. If everything that is good in us comes from God and He has defined goodness, how can we possibly presume to know what is good above God?
You turn things upside down!
Shall the potter be regarded as the clay,
that the thing made should say of its maker,
“He did not make me”;
or the thing formed say of him who formed it,
“He has no understanding”? (Isaiah 29:16 ESV)
We simply do not know enough to thoroughly know and define “good.” God is inherently good and just His promise that He is should be enough. But He also blesses us by allowing us to see His goodness. There is no other event in all of history that can better demonstrate the goodness of God than the death of Jesus on the cross. If we ever begin to doubt His promise that He is good, just returning to the cross and its message of God’s love and willingness to take on the penalty of our sins and give us His perfect righteous record — that is the ultimate demonstration of His goodness.
For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:21 ESV)
One demonstration in the Bible that God’s definition of good is different than ours is in the story of Mary and Martha:
Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38-42 ESV)
Martha’s definition of good was serving others, including the Lord. It does seem to be good. But Jesus says that Mary has chosen the “good portion” — sitting at His feet and listening to His teaching. Sometimes what we see as good is good, but we are missing the best.
So what is God’s definition of good?
Your people shall all be righteous; they shall possess the land forever, the branch of my planting, the work of my hands, that I might be glorified. (Isaiah 60:21 ESV)
So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. (1 Corinthians 10:31 ESV)
As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace: whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. (1 Peter 4:10-11 ESV)
And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. (Romans 8:28-29 ESV)
God’s end-goal is His glory and conforming us to the image of Jesus. That is how He has defined good for us. We often quote Romans 8:28 and leave off verse 29. The “good” of verse 28 is being “conformed to the image of His Son” in verse 29.
Sometimes God chooses not to step in and make the way easier for us so that we can become more dependent on Him and His perfect strength. This process conforms us to the image of the Son of God. Our difficult circumstances are opportunities for Him to display His glory. Clearly, He has a better idea of how to display His glory than we do. (Refer back to our notes on John 11:40 in this post).
So, How do you move forward in faith when the answer to your prayer is “no” or there is no answer? Recognize that God’s wisdom is far above our wisdom. Seek out His presence. Rely on His love and grace and strength. Allow the difficult circumstances to deepen your relationship with Him. Have faith in the promises that God is good and that He is displaying His glory and conforming you to the image of Jesus. Trust in the great “I AM.”