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.”

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Sixty-three thousand, seven hundred and seventy-nine

According to Lutheran pastor Christoph Romhild, that’s the number of cross-references in the Bible, linking the various books and chapters to one another.

Not content with just the raw number, Romhild contacted Chris Harrison, a doctoral student at Carnegie Mellon University, about finding a way to graphically display this incredible interconnectedness. They came up with a simple, beautiful solution:

On the base line, every chapter in the bible is represented by a single line. The length of each line is determined by the number of verses in the corresponding chapter. Then, each of the cross-references is depicted by a single arc, from the point of the first use to it’s corresponding reference. [So, from the giving of the great commandment in Deuteronomy 6, to the law expert’s quotation of it in Luke 10, equals a single arc.] The color of each arc is determined by it’s length. All in all, it’s a rather elegant representation of the data, and it gives visual demonstration of an essential truth.

A little while back, a friend wondered aloud why we can’t just take Jesus’ words, and center on them – and only them. Why not focus on Jesus, and what he said, and not worry so much about all that other stuff in the bible? There are many responses you can give to this, from the way Jesus’ own self-understanding and mission was fundamentally shaped by the theology and categories of the Hebrew bible, to the simple fact of Jesus’ own identity as a pious Jew, who grew up in a community that worshiped the God revealed by what we now call the “Old” Testament, to the bible’s own explicit claims that the whole thing clings together and comes from the same God.

The picture above makes this same point rather more colorfully. When looking at the bible, we are looking at a single interconnected book. To rip any part of it – even the central character of Jesus – out in isolation, is to do violence to the very nature of the whole.