when God says “no”

In reading recently, struck with two prayers to which God said “no”.

I Kings 19:4:

“He (Elijah) came to a broom tree, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. ‘I have had enough, LORD,’ he said. ‘Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.'”

God’s answer to Elijah’s prayer? A resounding no. Elijah lives.

But: Over the next few days, God answered the deep heart of Elijah’s prayer. God ministered to his body (with rest, food and water), ministered to his soul (by speaking to him directly), encouraged him with new perspective (actually Elijah, you aren’t alone), and then did the exact opposite of Elijah’s original request. Instead of removing him from this world and from ministry, God commissioned him with more work to be done.

God’s answer to Elijah’s prayer was no. But God penetrated to the heart of the matter – in this case Elijah’s profound discouragement and weariness – and He dealt with that for Elijah’s greater good.

Augustine, in the Confessions:

“That night I slipped away secretly, and she remained to pray and weep. And what was it, O Lord, that she was asking of Thee in such a flood of tears but that Thou wouldst not allow me to sail? But Thou, taking Thy own secret counsel and noting the real point of her desire, didst not grant what she was then asking in order to grant to her the thing that she had always been asking.”

Augustine was a dissolute and lusty young man, who wanted to move to Rome to pursue his fortunes there. His mother, Monica, was a devout Christian, who prayed for him constantly for years, and who thought that the great city of Rome (center of all kinds of wild iniquity) was the last place her son should be. She wanted to have her son near her where she might influence him, and not in Rome where he could pursue every lust and be influenced in every wrong direction.

She prayed, weeping, for God to keep her son from Rome. The immediate answer she received was no. Augustine snuck off in the night, boarded a ship headed to the city and sailed away. Monica was crushed.

But: God knew and intended to answer the deep heart of Monica’s prayer, in a way that she could not yet understand. In Rome, Augustine would encounter the preaching of Ambrose and would be moved toward his conversion to Christ.

God’s answer to Monica’s prayer in this case was no. But God penetrated to the heart of the matter, and dealt with that for Monica’s greater good. In Augustine’s fine words, “Thou, taking Thy own secret counsel and noting the real point of her desire, didst not grant what she was then asking in order to grant to her the thing that she had always been asking.”

Pursuing piety as it’s own reward

Richard Lovelace, Dynamics of Spiritual Life: An Evangelical Theology of Renewal (154):

“Puritan piety sometimes re-created the counsels of perfection in monastic spirituality in what it required of the normal Christian prayer life. It was considered good for the young Christian to be challenged with the marathon records of Jesus and the saints. This could be humbling, but it could also cause the young prayer-warrior to buckle under the weight of the armor he felt bound to assume. In such cases prayer was not an expression of faith in God’s grace, but a monument erected to attract his attention. Trust was not centered on the God who constantly oversees our paths and knows our needs, but on prayer itself, which must be used as a magical lever to pry answers from an unwilling God.”

The pursuit of marathon prayer-sessions persists.

Six or so years ago when we began a monthly prayer meeting at our church (after a period without any such meetings), one of the people helping to plan the meetings – filled with sincere passion – suggested that we set aside two full hours for each and every meeting. If we’re going to pray, let’s challenge people to really pray, was the sentiment I recall. Raise the bar. Based on his passion, and following the assumption that marathon prayer is better (I mean it has to be more holy, doesn’t it?), we went for it. 2 hours, on a Friday night, all prayer, straight up.

This was diving in to the deep end, to say the least. At the time (and to this day) Jesus was still in the process of teaching us what it even meant to gather God’s people in dedicated prayer. So we were setting out a goal (2 hours in prayer) that we didn’t even know how to meet. But we were also operating on a flawed understanding of what was most necessary about prayer in the first place. Subtly, subtly, the expectation works in that prayer is necessary not because of our utter need for the presence and power of God. Rather, we begin to believe it is necessary because of what it says about us or what it provokes from God – in Lovelace’s words, prayer becomes either a monument or a magical lever.

Suddenly the focus is on prayer and how it works, rather than on the God who bids us call Him Father, and invites us in to freely ask and freely receive. But to focus on prayer itself is to miss the point. Lovelace reminds us of how Jesus rebuked the elaborate prayers of the Gentiles in Mt. 6:7 – 8, and of the simple prayer He then taught His disciples. Just think of the simplicity of the Lord’s Prayer in contrast to the serious piety of marathon prayer! Lovelace writes that Jesus’ words critiquing elaborate, marathon prayers, combined with

“the short formula of prayer which follows, might seem almost dangerously indulgent to many who have been schooled in a more laborious piety”.

Dangerously indulgent indeed. Scandalous to the seriously self-righteous. Just like grace itself.

All of this, of course, is not to dismiss the need for prayer. No indeed. But it is to say that we should make sure we understand the proper basis of all prayer and what it is we are actually doing as we pray.

In my experience, the announcement of a dedicated time of prayer is not usually greeted with anticipation, as a gift, but with a sigh, as a burden. We think, “I don’t pray well enough“. We think, “I don’t pray long enough“. We think, “I don’t really enjoy sitting awkwardly in a room, ignoring the silences“. But we think, “I know I should. So I hope I’m already busy that night“.

This isn’t just our sinful nature or lack of discipline; it’s also a misunderstanding of the whole endeavor, right from the start. We may not enjoy prayer because we are thinking of prayer as something that it isn’t. One shouldn’t enjoy seriously pursuing piety as it’s own reward.

He stands ready to teach us

Luke 11:1 (NIV): “One day Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.'”

Gordon Hugenberger in his book on the Lord’s Prayer, writes of this question and Jesus’ response:

Jesus’ response to this question is remarkable. He might have said, ‘The ability to pray as I do is a spiritual gift: it cannot be taught.’ It is apparent, however, that this was not Jesus’ opinion of the matter. The ability to pray is not just a special gift reserved for a select few. For this reason it is not included in any of the lists of spiritual gifts…If we are followers of Christ and we want to learn how to pray, he stands ready to teach us.

This is the starting point for Andrew Murray’s With Christ in the School of Prayer. In the first chapter, he writes,

‘Lord, teach us to pray.’ Yes, to pray. This is what we need to be taught. Though in its beginnings prayer is so simple that the feeblest child can pray, it is at the same time the highest and holiest work to which man can rise. Prayer is fellowship with the Unseen and Most Holy One. The powers of the eternal world have been placed at prayer’s disposal. It is the very essence of true religion and the channel of all blessings. It is the secret of power and life not only for ourselves, but for others, for the Church, and for the world. It is to prayer that God has given the right to take hold of Him and His strength. It is on prayer that the promises wait for their fulfillment, the Kingdom waits for its coming, and the glory of God waits for its full revelation.

Yes, teach us to pray indeed. And again, there He stands, ready to teach us.

Jesus never taught His disciples how to preach, only how to pray. To know how to speak to God is more than knowing how to speak to a man. Power with God is the first thing, not power with men. Jesus loves to teach us how to pray.

The Savior of my prayers

Paul Miller, in his book A Praying Life:

Imagine that your prayer is a poorly dressed beggar reeking of alcohol and body odor, stumbling toward the palace of the great king. You have become your prayer. As you shuffle toward the barred gate, the guards stiffen. Your smell has preceded you. You stammer out a message for the great king: ‘I want to see the king.’ Your words are barely intelligible, but you whisper one final word, ‘Jesus. I come in the name of Jesus.’ At the name of Jesus, as if by magic, the palace comes alive. The guards snap to attention, bowing low in front of you. Lights come on, and the door flies open. You are ushered into the palace and down a long hallway into the throne room of the great king, who comes running to you and wraps you in his arms.

The name of Jesus gives my prayers royal access. They get through. Jesus isn’t just the Savior of my soul. He’s also the Savior of my prayers.

Two men at prayer

Mack Stiles, businessman in Dubai, tells this story when sharing the gospel in a Muslim context:

Two men went to the mosque to pray. One was a rich man, the other a poor man. The rich man went through his libations and prayers as he did five times a day. As he was praying, he began to have a sexual fantasy about the young wife who lived next door to his home. But he finished his prayers and went home. The poor man stood off at a distance. He came so infrequently to the mosque, that he couldn’t remember the positions for prayer or his libations. But he looked up to heaven, beat his breast, and said, ‘Forgive me, O Lord, for I’m a sinner.’ Who went home justified? 

Editor’s note: “Mr. Stiles says that every Muslim he has asked this question to has answered, ‘The rich man.'”

Prayer is the expression of hope

David Wells, in his classic article, Prayer: Rebelling Against the Status Quo

Against all of this, it must be asserted that petitionary prayer only flourishes where there is a twofold belief: first, that God’s name is hallowed too irregularly, his kingdom has come too little, and his will is done too infrequently; second, that God himself can change this situation. Petitionary prayer, therefore, is the expression of the hope that life as we meet it, on the one hand, can be otherwise and, on the other had, that it ought to be otherwise. It is therefore impossible to seek to live in God’s world on his terms, doing his work in a way that is consistent with who he is, without engaging in regular prayer.