Life’s circumstances sometimes bring us to our knees, asking God to do what we cannot. Most of the time we’re praying for good things: healing for a loved one, freedom from sin patterns, a job, a spouse, a child, salvation. Yet, at times, our good desires remain unfulfilled. Years ago, I watched cancer take the life of a beloved friend, even though we fasted, prayed, and begged God for her life. I’ve prayed for salvation that never happened, wombs that never opened, and spouses that never appeared. I’ve prayed for prodigals to return, but they still remain far from home.

At times, God’s answer to our desperate cries is no.

Why God?

We may never understand on this side of eternity the reasons God answers no when we so desperately long for a yes. Sometimes I cannot comprehend how his promises align with the circumstances my loved ones and I face. I’ve come to learn the problem is my limited understanding, not the truth of God’s promises. Theologian J. I. Packer offers the following insights:

Perhaps he means to strengthen us in patience, good humor, compassion, humility or meekness . . .  Perhaps he has new lessons in self-denial and self-distrust to teach us. Perhaps he wishes to break us of complacency or undetected forms of pride and conceit.  Perhaps His purpose is simply to draw us closer to himself . . . Or perhaps God is preparing us for forms of service of which at present we have no inkling.

I’ve seen the Lord teach me these very lessons by withholding the things I wanted so much. And, yet, when a new “no” is given, I stumble around in the darkness of my understanding, wondering again what the Lord is doing and why he withholds the yes I believe I so desperately need.  It’s tempting to believe the lie that a yes from God confirms his blessing, while a no is a form of punishment or heavenly disapproval. Or perhaps, we wonder, does God even hear our desperate cries?

Do You Hear Me?

Last week in Bible study, we read this verse from Hebrews: “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence” (Heb. 5:7).

I paused and really considered this verse for perhaps the first time. Jesus—always perfect, always righteous—offered up prayers and supplications. He cried out with tears. He was heard!

And, the answer he was given? No.

It doesn’t seem to make sense. God heard Jesus’s cries and tears. He heard his beloved, perfectly obedient Son. Yet Jesus still suffered and died. He wasn’t rescued from the cross. And God does not always rescue us from the trials we face.

When God says no, we often wonder if we’ve got a bad connection: “Can you hear me?” “Can you hear me now?” This passage reminds us that God hears our prayers. In Christ, we’re heard because we share in his righteousness. God’s not deaf to our cries, pleading, and longing. But, sometimes, for reasons that we may not understand, his good purpose is to say no.

Do You Care?

The book of Hebrews not only reminds us God hears us, it also reminds us we have a Savior who cares: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:15-16).

Suffering was a painful prospect for Jesus. It wasn’t any easier for him than it is for you or me. Luke tells us Jesus prayed, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me” (Luke 22:42). He offered up loud cries and tears along with his prayers and supplications: “And being in agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground” (Luke 22:44)

Jesus heard God’s painful answer, no. His experience doesn’t harden him to our pain in some “I’ve had it way worse than you” type of comparison, but helps him enter into our pain. His humility allows him to understand our humanity. We can cry out to him with tears, knowing he meets us with sympathy and love.

Better Yes

God is shaping and fashioning us for something far greater than we may have imagined. We’re content with an easy life. He wants to make us holy, to shine like stars in the universe (Phil. 2:15, NIV). Even when I resist his process, I can trust and believe his purposes are for my good. C. S. Lewis opens the doors to our imagination with this reminder:

Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what he is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on: you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently he starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make sense. What on earth is he up to? The explanation is that he is building quite a different house from the one you thought of—throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were going to be made into a decent little cottage: but he is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it himself.

God’s no to our prayers is always a yes to his providential purposes. We can hold fast to him, knowing that he hears us, he cares for us, and he is always at work. He does not forget us or fail us just because he tells us no.