When most Christians talk about “answered prayer,” they mean that God said “Yes” to their request. When something contrary happens—or nothing at all—they call that “unanswered prayer.” It is as if God would never say “No”—He might wait a while, but surely He will come through in the end. Thus, when God clearly says “No,” glum resignation is a common reaction. Some believers brightly acquiesce, but it is rare to see visible enthusiasm about taking God’s “No” for an answer.
There are intelligible reasons for this. Scripture is full of encouragement to pray expecting blessing. Jesus says, “Ask … seek … knock,” and assures us we “will be given … will find … and [will see doors] opened” to us (Matt. 7:7). “The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much,” says James (5:16). Furthermore, not getting the answer we want is bound to be a psychological blow, even if it comes from God. Perhaps you have prayed for a wife, a job, or good health, and the answers were not as you hoped. As God’s providence unfolded in quite different ways, you perhaps discerned His wisdom and slowly came to see that He did answer, but said in effect, “No—let’s do something entirely different!” Perhaps it was only then that you realized that there is no such thing as unanswered prayer—just different answers.
David: No Mandate to Build
David’s great ambition in later life was to build a permanent house of worship for the Lord in Jerusalem (Ps. 132:1–5). As king, he lived in a palace of cedar wood, but there in a tent—for four hundred years and counting—-was the ark of God. The prophet Nathan encouraged him: “ ‘Go, do all that is in your heart, for the Lord is with you’ ” (2 Sam. 7:3). Nathan was not quite correct, as God made plain later (7:5ff.), but it was true that David was free to ask God for what was on his heart—provided, of course, he was seeking God’s will and not his own.
But the Lord never writes blank checks even for the choicest saints. David—and each one of us—has no authority to write in our own will and assume it is all right with God. In this instance, David’s enthusiasm sidestepped the fact that God already had a will written in Scripture and had ordered no change in the tabernacle arrangements. We can think and ask all we like, but we should think twice before suggesting improvements to God’s stated way of doing things. As it happened, God did plan a new house for His name, but it was to be built by David’s “seed” (7:12–13). God’s “No” to our ideas is always a “Yes” for His perfect will.
Paul: No Healing for the Thorn
We do not know what Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” was. It was likely some kind of illness. But we are told why he was so afflicted—it was to keep the gifted apostle humble. Great gifts are a snare to the best of people. The greater the gifts, the greater the temptation to rely on them rather than God.
Humility is one thing, but health is another. We all want to be well, and Paul was no exception. He prayed for this “messenger of Satan” to be removed. He prayed just three times, and three times he struck out. God said “No,” and then, whereas we might pray a million times, the apostle ceased to pray and silently submitted to God.
But the Lord also assured Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). While he would have to live with it, Paul would find the Lord’s enabling grace to sustain him under this disability. The lesson here is as clear as it is shocking. God, who can heal the incurable, brings sickness and trial in order to work even greater marvels of His perfect love and sustaining grace in the hearts and lives of His believing people. Wellness is a blessing, but it is not necessarily the best preparation for Christian service and spiritual growth in Christ. Growth in grace typically happens in the context of personal weakness and need of the Lord’s help. Good health is wonderful, but only grace will bring us through to heaven. All our “thorns” are, one way or another, “messengers of Satan,” but what Satan means for evil, the Lord means for good (Gen. 50:20). God’s “No” to our prayer for perfect health is always a “Yes” for His perfect love to cast out our fear (1 John 4:18).
Jesus: No Reprieve from Death
Jesus also heard His Father-God say “No” to a prayer. Contemplating the cross and His death under God’s just punishment of others’sin, Jesus, in the agonies of His sinless human nature, prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will” (Matt. 26:39). It was, of course, possible to conceive of Jesus not dying under divine wrath, but then there would be no atonement and no salvation. Upon God’s answer hung the very salvation of the world. “No,” said the Father, “this cup must be drained to the last dregs, for you are Jesus[lit. “God saves” ] and You will save Your people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21).
The greatest of answered prayers was in the negative! But that “No” was also the greatest “Yes”in the dispensation of God’s saving grace, for God’s “No” to Jesus’ agonized plea was His “Yes” for the Gospel, which is “the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes” and is “in Him … Yes, and in Him Amen” (Rom. 1:16; 2 Cor. 1:20).