Amy’s cancer appeared with a vengeance. She was a faithful wife and loving mother of three young children. Her diagnosis was grave, but her faith was great. She knew her God is good and that he could heal her. So, she prayed. Her husband prayed. Her children prayed. Our church prayed. We pleaded for God to spare her life. But on a cold January morning, Amy died.
Her death isn’t the only time I’ve witnessed God deny pleas for help. My wife prayed for her father to believe in Christ before he died. It doesn’t appear he did. I’ve begged God to heal family members from mental-health issues, and he hasn’t.
Have you ever prayed earnestly for something, only for God to say no? What should we do when God says no to our earnest prayers?
The apostle Paul faced countless trials during his ministry (2 Cor. 11:23–28). Yet one abiding pain seemed to stand out. A mysterious thorn tormented him and led him to plead with God to remove it. But God said no.
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.” (2 Cor. 12:7–9)
Much ink has been spilled over the details of this passage. Some suggest Paul’s thorn was a secret struggle with sin. Others (like me) suspect it was an eye condition that unceasingly plagued him (cf. Gal. 4:13–15). We can speculate, but we don’t know what the thorn was.
We can speculate, but we don’t know what the thorn was.
But Paul certainly did. It seemed to him that Satan was twisting it like a razor-sharp thorn into his flesh. Paul suffered so much from it that he “pleaded with the Lord” on multiple occasions to take it away, believing God could grant his request.
Earnest prayer, however, wouldn’t be enough this time. Paul would need to endure his pain-inducing, weakness-exposing, prayer-evoking thorn.
Yet Paul’s request wasn’t altogether rejected. Instead of relieving pain, the Lord promised grace (2 Cor. 12:8). The thorn would deepen his dependence, and the grace would keep him from giving up on the God who said no to his prayer. Paul would even learn to boast in his weakness as divine strength shone through (2 Cor. 12:10).
What follows are four gracious truths that can guard us from despairing when the Lord says no to our earnest prayers.
1. Beware of Satan’s Lies
Satan is a liar and the accuser of God’s people (John 8:44; Rev. 12:10; cf. Job 1–2). When God doesn’t answer your prayers, you can be sure Satan will offer you reasons why. “God is cruel; you can’t trust him.” “You are unlovable; of course God rejected your prayer.” “Your faith is weak and your sin is shameful—God doesn’t love you.”
We must lift the shield of faith to extinguish these flaming darts. Call on friends to help you lift the shield by speaking truth to you. Immerse yourself in the Psalms and engage with the inspired prayers of suffering saints. Keep praying to the Lord, even when it seems pointless.
Instead of relieving pain, the Lord promised grace.
Satan will assure you that God isn’t listening. He’ll point to your perpetually barren womb or freshly dug tomb to prove it. This is why Peter warned the suffering churches of Asia Minor, “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Pet. 5:8). Flee to the Good Shepherd. The Lord may have said no to one request, but he’ll never refuse your pleas for grace (Heb. 4:14–16).
2. Trust in God’s Wisdom
When my wife’s unbelieving father died, she was deeply confused. She couldn’t understand why God would’ve burdened her to pray for him only to not save him. Knowing God was wise, she found comfort in the truths of Psalm 131. Rather than being crippled by things “too great and marvelous for [him],” David “quieted [his] soul” by casting himself on the Lord’s wisdom.
When God declines even our most genuine prayers, we must trust that, “My ways [are] higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isa. 55:8–9). His wise plan may require him to decline our pleas.
Unanswered prayer can be confusing for us, but not for him. He knows what we don’t and sees what we don’t. And on the Last Day, when we know what he knows, we’ll accuse him of nothing but being faithful.
3. Rest in God’s Goodness
Few things can drive us to question God’s character like unanswered prayers. We may echo the psalmist’s question, “Has God forgotten to be gracious? Has he in anger shut up his compassion?” (Ps. 77:9). If I’m honest, questions like his resonate with me in the face of certain unanswered prayers. At times I can be tempted to doubt God’s goodness to me.
Few things can drive us to question God’s character like unanswered prayers.
But Jesus’s words have brought me great comfort:
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! (Matt. 7:9–11)
Jesus wants us to know that our heavenly Father only gives us good things (Ps. 84:11). He never gives us snakes when we ask for fish, or stones when we ask for bread. He may not give us bread or fish, but he will never withhold good from us. As John Piper once said, “[God] gives us what we ask for, or something better (not necessarily easier), if we trust him.”
4. Trust God Will Answer Soon
In Revelation 4–5, we find the risen Lord Jesus opening a scroll that contains God’s plan to deliver his people and destroy his enemies. Among many angelic beings we find a select few holding “golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints” (Rev. 5:8).
Those bowls are filled with the prayers of God’s people who have long cried out for God to bring his kingdom. They are prayers for the effects of the fall to be overcome. And to that point the prayers have been unanswered.
On this side of glory, we endure unanswered prayers. But one day soon, the Lord will answer his people’s prayers with a hearty yes.
On that Day, the Lord will answer our prayers for Amy and resurrect her body gloriously. On that Day, our heavenly Father will console my wife about her earthly father’s eternal destiny. On that Day, God will finally rid us of all the thorns we begged him to remove.
And until that Day, his grace will be sufficient to hold us fast.