I recently overheard this at a baby shower, “Now that I’m eight and a half months pregnant, I know that God is sovereign. He is just too faithful.” This is similar to other statements typical of these events: “Since I got pregnant, I know the Lord is sovereign,” and “How do I know he is sovereign? I got pregnant.” Finally, “His faithfulness became clear to me when I got pregnant.” Repeatedly hearing these and similar lines both astonished and got me thinking. What if God says no?
What About When God Says No?
I thought, ‘What happens when you don’t get pregnant? Does that jeopardise God’s sovereign status? What if you lose your baby, after naming her, anticipating her arrival with prayer and joy? Is he no longer sovereign then?’
Do we celebrate God’s sovereignty, even when we don’t get what we ask for?
It seems that God’s faithfulness and sovereignty are two divine traits experienced exclusively by pregnant wives. Now, I’m not knocking this reinforcement of faith. Nor do I think we should not celebrate God’s kindness to us. But I am still wondering. Do we celebrate God’s sovereignty, even when we don’t get what we ask for?
3 Examples of God’s Sovereign Refusal of Prayers In Scripture
There are occasions in the Bible when the sovereign God refuses to grant the prayer requests of his people. Here are three incidents that stand out for me.
Jesus In Gethsemane
Jesus in Gethsemane is a prime example of having a request denied. When he famously asked God to let the cup pass him by the Father’s response was a resounding, ‘No’ (Luke 22:42). Jesus, perfectly obedient and sinless Jesus, did not get what he asked for. Thus perseverance in prayer should not depend on God giving us what we ask for. Jesus demonstrates for us the substance of faith.
Faith is not a temporary, wishy-washy thing that is only in full effect when we are happy with God
Faith is not a temporary, wishy-washy thing that is only in full effect when we are happy with God. From Jesus’ life we see that faith and unanswered prayers are not incompatible. Jesus demonstrated a full blooded trust in God despite the results. Praise God the result for Jesus was the reward of a name higher than any other name (Philippians 2:9). At this name, the believer will joyously bow in glory (Philippians 2:10).
Paul’s tussle with the mysterious thorn in his side is another biblical instance of God flatly denying a prayer request. Just as Jesus did, Paul pleaded three times with the Lord for the removal of his thorn (2 Corinthians 12:8). Following in his Lord’s footsteps, Paul obeyed and rejoiced in the Father despite continued agony.
God still provides for us when he doesn’t give us what we ask for
What we learn from Paul is that God still provides for us when he doesn’t give us what we ask for. Paul suffered the presence of the thorn, but he did it with the grace of God, the power of God, and with the power of Christ resting on him (2 Corinthians 12:9). Though we don’t know what happened to this thorn, God further rewarded Paul with fruitful ministry.
Paul and Jesus demonstrate a pattern of praying, pleading and accepting God’s sovereignty in their circumstances. Naomi’s case is slightly different. But I have a certain sympathy for Naomi, eschewing this pattern. She seems to skip pleading and comfortably settles into acceptance. After losing her husband and two sons in a foreign land, she returns to Judah (Ruth 1:3-7). Back in Bethlehem, Naomi – in a wonderfully melodramatic turn – gives herself an ostensibly impulsive ‘make-under.’ She changes her name to Mara, which is Hebrew for ‘bitter’ (Ruth 1:20).
Naomi endured harsh circumstances. These understandably coloured her view of God
Her evolution from Pleasant to Bitter is not without reasonable cause. Naomi endured harsh circumstances. These understandably coloured her view of God. A childless widow in those days would have faced an uncertain future, including the lack of financial support. Naomi’s daughters-in-law wanted to stay with her and, though she clearly loved Ruth and Orpah, she couldn’t see a relationship with them beyond marriage to her offspring. So she tried to send them away (Ruth 1:13).
Naomi believed in the living God, but she lost sight of his goodness towards her. Nonetheless, the end of Naomi’s story is a remarkable reward from God. In fact, she already possessed a daughter-in-law worth more than seven sons (Ruth 4:15).
How Should We Respond?
Naomi, Paul, and Jesus all survived God denying their requests. How do we respond when we don’t get what we want? Sometimes, I respond like Paul and Jesus did. This usually happens when I’m struggling with a health issue. The frailty of the human body makes it startlingly clear how God does not diminish, or become any less faithful, when he says ‘no.’ In the thrall of a near paralysing headache, or a spell of darker moods, I give full-throated assent to Isaiah’s words. The Father is indeed with us in the fire and in the flood (Isaiah 43:2).
I allow the frustration of unmet desires to cloud my judgment, blinding me from seeing and worshiping a full-orbed picture of God
Most times, though, I respond similarly to Naomi. This is why I have both an affinity with and sympathy for her. I allow the frustration of unmet desires to cloud my judgment, blinding me from seeing and worshiping a full-orbed picture of God. This shows itself quite clearly in my prayer life. Perfunctory prayers become the order of the day. I merely go through the motions. My heart is far from God, unbelieving, twisting and turning, plotting and planning how to get things to go my way. All the while, my mouth is saying, “Lord, help me.”
God Is Sovereign, Even When We Don’t Get What We Want
My final point is on the nature of our prayers. To quote another article at TGC Africa, “many today would measure faith by the outcomes of prayer.” Those who use the product of prayer as a yardstick of faith assume that all prayers are acceptable prayers. But that is simply not true.
James 4:3 corrects this notion. Just because we want something really, really badly, doesn’t mean we want it rightly. Furthermore, we may ask for things outside of God’s will. We desire faultily. It then becomes a display of God’s mercy and wisdom that we do not get what we want.
We desire faultily. It then becomes a display of God’s mercy and wisdom that we do not get what we want
In January 2019, I let go of a desire I’d been holding on to for roughly 17 years. I’d held on so long because the strength of my desire would surely sway God. No dice. I did not accept or thank God for his ‘No.’ Instead, for years I marinated in bitterness. By his mercy, I came to a place where I could sincerely thank him for his wisdom and love in not letting me have what I wanted.
God Wisely Withholds For Our Good
Charles Spurgeon says, “Should everything seem to go amiss with us after we have done the right thing, there is no cause for regret. Remember that our conduct is the maker of our character.” Affirmative answers to prayer mean so much more than the satisfaction of our desires. They are part of God’s method of shoring up our faith, building it, especially for those times when our requests are denied and we’re tempted to doubt him.
By his mercy, I came to a place where I could sincerely thank him for his wisdom in not letting me have what I wanted
Children are indeed a heritage from the Lord (Psalm 127:3). It is good that fertility is such a popular prayer point today. However, let’s not lose sight of the fact that the ultimate goal of God granting, or not granting, our desires is his glory and our good. He answers our prayers according to his wisdom and will. God simply knows what is best for us, much more than we do. Let us not get so caught up in the ‘No’ that we miss what God has given and continues to give us.