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Occasional Letters: When God says "No"

D Newell, Glasgow

Back in 1969 some of the Christians in Oxford University arranged an evangelistic outreach advertised by colourful posters inscribed with the slogan "God or Nothing". One embarrassed undergraduate had to confess to his tutor that, because of his involvement in the campaign, he had been unable to complete his normal academic assignment. "Mmm", responded the tutor, "in your case it’s obviously God and nothing". And sometimes – to be quite serious now – it is. That is to say, God may refuse our most heart-felt requests so that we might be the more taken up with Him rather than with His blessings. As one young friend put it, "God says ’No’ to me that I might know more of Him".

It is understandable that we dwell most on positive answers to prayer, but it should not be forgotten that the God who grants can also deny, for He is all-wise as well as all-powerful. Occasionally, for example, He negates our spiritual ambitions. David longed to build a temple, an idea so laudable than even Nathan the prophet instinctively endorsed the king’s desire. What could be more commendable than to wish to erect for Jehovah a palace worthy of His majesty? But in God’s purpose it was to be Solomon, not his father, who would build God’s house. Similarly, Moses pleaded without success to enter the Promised Land. Then again, in the New Testament it seems that Jude originally aspired to write a comprehensive account of God’s great salvation: "Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith" (Jude v.3, ESV). This translation usefully brings out the contrast between what Jude wanted to do ("I was very eager") and what he discovered he was obliged to do ("I found it necessary"). Who would not rather go down in history as the author of a hardback systematically analysing the evangelical faith in depth, rather than as the writer of a flimsy tract? But then, in the plan of God, what Jude hankered after was being undertaken by Paul, whose letter to the Romans is the perfect examination of the "common salvation". What we wish to do others may be better equipped of God to do. The newly rescued Gadarene demoniac asked to accompany the Lord and the apostles, but was told to stay where he was (Mk 5.18-20). Many believers would love to have made a mark for God in the public sphere as preachers addressing thousands, or pioneer missionaries reaching out to regions hitherto unknown with the message of grace. Yet they have had to stay at home and care for a family, or maintain a tiny assembly, or work in comparative obscurity without recognition or reward. The desirable often has to give place to the needful. But when God says "No" and closes a door, He is not slighting our spiritual yearnings to serve Him. Rather, He is testing our obedience. Will we react to His "No" with a fit of the sulks, or a tantrum of rage? The examples above did not. David might not be permitted to build the temple, but he was commended for his desire (1 Kings 8.18), and given the privilege of preparing for the project by amassing essential raw materials. Moses zealously trained his successor Joshua to lead Israel into Canaan. Jude didn’t go off in a huff because he was not entrusted with the letter to the Romans, but instead put his all into one of the shortest but most hard-hitting and necessary epistles in the New Testament. And the Gadarene ex-demoniac obeyed a command which ran counter to his personal exercise with such enthusiasm that the people who wilfully expelled the Lord Jesus marvelled at an indisputable testimony to His gracious power.

Sometimes we pray in vain for physical healing. David entreated God to rescind the death sentence pronounced on the baby who was the fruit of his sin with Bathsheba: "David therefore besought God for the child; and David fasted, and went in, and lay all night upon the earth". In fact David’s intercessory ardour was so intense that when the child eventually died his servants feared to tell him lest he did himself an injury. Clearly, fervent prayer does not of itself guarantee divine assent. But David’s response to bereavement was remarkable: "Then David arose from the earth, and washed, and anointed himself, and changed his apparel, and came into the house of the Lord, and worshipped" (2 Sam 12.14-20). That God had not granted his request in no way shook David’s faith. Take the case of Paul. Afflicted with an unspecified "thorn in the flesh" (perhaps a disfiguring and disabling eye-disease), obviously a serious hindrance to his ministry, he asked for its removal. And the Lord said, "No". But that was not all. "My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me" (2 Cor 12.9). Paul learned that bodily health is not the most important thing in life.

Others may ask the opposite – not an extension, but a reduction of life. Brought to the very edge of physical and spiritual collapse by the responsibility of caring for Israel, Moses prayed to die: "I am not able to bear all this people alone, because it is too heavy for me. And if thou deal thus with me, kill me, I pray thee, out of hand" (Num 11.14-15). God said, "No", but kindly furnished Moses with practical support in his service. Tetchy and indignant because of God’s mercy on the wicked Assyrians, Jonah, the most successful preacher in history, also asked for death. "I knew that thou art a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repentest thee of the evil. Therefore now, O Lord, take, I beseech thee, my life from me; for it is better for me to die than to live" (Jonah 4.2-3). But Gentile sinners today rejoice in what Jonah resented – that God’s grace extends beyond the bounds of Israel to folk like us who are just as bad as the Ninevites. Seriously depressed by his failure to see revival in Samaria despite the triumph on Mount Carmel, Elijah "requested for himself that he might die; and said, It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life; for I am not better than my fathers" (1 Kings 19.4). But not only did Elijah not die, he has not died yet!

Spiritual despondency and physical weakness often distort our perspective. Fear – of old age, loneliness, uselessness, and bringing disgrace upon the Lord’s name – may nudge believers into wishing for death. But our God always knows what is best for us. Deep anguish of soul may even cause us to ask for the last thing we really want. Consider Peter. Completely overwhelmed by a demonstration of the Lord’s miraculous power, he was suddenly brought face to face with his own wretchedness. "When Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord" (Lk 5.8-9). Strange request, but one that proved the genuineness of Peter’s heart. When, earlier, the Lord had worked miracles in Jerusalem many are said to have "believed", but the context indicates that this was not saving faith: "many believed in his name, when they saw the miracles which he did. But Jesus did not commit himself [entrust himself] unto them, because he knew all men, And needed not that any should testify of man: for he knew what was in man" (Jn 2.23-24). They professed faith in Christ but He had none in them, for He knew their heart. Unregenerate man clamours for the sensational and the spectacular. But Peter, also exposed to a miracle, saw in it a revelation of the greatness of Christ’s person and became so convicted of his own utter unworthiness that he asked the Saviour to go away. Mercifully, that request was not granted, for the sinless Son came from heaven specifically to save sinful men. Let us therefore be thankful to our all-wise, loving God when He denies our prayers as well as when He grants them. To possess such a God, and nothing else, may be the greatest blessing of all.

To be continued.

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