by Dorothy Hsu
When I awoke in the morning, the desperate prayer was on my lips. During the day it was almost a continuous plea that didn't subside until I finally dropped off to sleep at night: "Please heal my husband, please heal him."
But when the call came from the hospital on a July evening, I quit pleading for healing. My husband was dead. God had clearly answered "no."
God's answers to prayer, however, are not always so definite. If my husband had lingered in his coma for ten years, would I--or should I--have continued to plead for his healing? Is it possible to discern when God is simply building patience, faith or fortitude in me and wants me to continue in prayer? Or does the time come when I should take no for an answer and stop praying?
Several Bible characters were forced to accept a no to their requests. By their examples, I've discovered how I can better evaluate my own prayers.
Moses was a righteous man, chosen by God; but he was not perfect. When God directed him to speak to a rock to produce water for the thirsty Israelites, Moses instead struck the rock in anger (see Num. 20:8-12). To show His displeasure, God decreed that Moses could not enter the land of Canaan. Moses' dream was shattered. For 40 years he had lived for the day when he could enter the Promised Land. and he wasn't willing to give up his dream easily. He begged God to change His mind. Finally, God spoke to Moses as I have sometimes spoken to my own children. " 'That is enough,' the Lord said. 'Do not speak to me anymore about this matter' " (Deut. 3:25,26, NIV). The subject was closed.
I need to evaluate my own requests to see whether I am praying presumptuously like Moses. Perhaps I'm following my friend's example. When a patrolman stopped her husband for speeding, she pleaded, "Please God, don't let him get a ticket." Or I may cry, "Lord, provide the money I need for my groceries," when I have already wasted my paycheck on some frivolous item.
Certainly God can show mercy when He desires; but if my prayer is not justified, I should be humbly willing to accept a "no."
On the surface, Martha's request of Jesus in Luke 10:40 did seem justified. While she was in a frenzy trying to prepare dinner for guests, Mary didn't lift a finger but simply sat at Jesus' feet. Martha complained to Him, "Lord, don't you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself. Tell her to help me!"
Jesus didn't respond sharply, "No, I won't!" He was kind. But He did refuse her request because it indicated her motives were out of whack. Savoring Jesus' words, like Mary was doing, was more important at the moment than impressing Jesus with a gourmet meal.
When I seem to be getting a "no" response, I should also check my motive. Am I praying for a new house because I want to appear successful? Am I praying for a husband because I'm envious of a married friend, or because I don't believe I can cope alone?
If my motive is a selfish one, or my prayer reveals a lack of trust, I should stop repeating my request until I get my heart attitude in line with His. Perhaps, then the request will no longer be important to me.
Often, however, a "no" response isn't because of sin in my life at all. A man healed by Jesus in Mark 5 is such an example. After Jesus cast demons out of the man, he begged Jesus to take him along with His party as they ministered. What a logical request! This new convert had much to learn. Who could disciple him better than Jesus could? But the Lord knew the man's ministry would be most effective where he was. Thus, Jesus said, "Go home to your family and tell them how much the Lord has done for you" (v. 19). The man did as he was told, and the people were amazed at his message.
My pastor had a similar experience years ago when he and his wife took steps to become missionaries in Africa. For various reasons they were unable to go. They accepted the "no" answer and have been used to establish a fruitful work in my home church. God had a better plan for Pastor Jim. Perhaps He does for me also.
Paul's "no" to healing wasn't because of sin in his life either. Three times he asked God to remove the thorn that seemingly hampered his ministry. But Paul discovered that his physical problem caused him to depend on God rather than on himself. It prevented him from becoming conceited. Through it he discovered that he was strongest when he recognized his own weakness. Because the spiritual benefits outweighed the hindrances, Paul was content to live with the thorn.
I am the first to admit, however, that negative answers to prayer are not always easy to interpret. And if after careful examination the burden remains, I must keep praying. (Perhaps the Lord is teaching me to persevere.)
And to be sure, I must never give up on some requests such as praying for an individual's salvation or spiritual growth.
But if after honestly probing my heart I recognize that God is saying no, perhaps for one of the reasons I've suggested, it's time to stop badgering Him and give up the prayer. When doors don't open, when bodies and minds don't heal, when jobs don't materialize, I may simply need to accept it. I can trust the One who could have said "yes."