As I meditated on the life of Joseph this past week found in the book of Genesis, I began to wonder about Joseph’s prayer life. I mean, Joseph was a man of God, right? Didn’t Joseph ever pray in the midst of his calamities? In the pit, surely Joseph earnestly prayed to God that he would be restored back to his father’s house. How about as a slave to the Ismaelites as they caravanned to Egypt? In Potiphar’s house as a slave? As a inmate in Pharaoh’s prison? No prayers are recorded, but surely he, if he was a man of God, must have prayed earnestly. Yet in every occasion, Joseph got a “no” from God.
You and I have certainly had that happen as well. We’ve prayed earnestly, believing that God would answer “yes.” We’ve prayed:
- Lord, please let my loved one live.
- Lord, please let me marry that certain person.
- Lord, please give me that job.
- Lord, please heal my body.
Nevertheless, your loved one still died, that certain person married somebody else, that boss never hired you, and your body is still diseased. Instead of a “yes” from God, you received a “no.” To be honest, the “no” has thrown you for a loop because you’ve read Scripture that says that whatever you ask for will come to pass. You’ve read passages like:
- Mark 11:20-24, As they were passing by in the morning, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots up. 21 Being reminded, Peter *said to Him, “Rabbi, look, the fig tree which You cursed has withered.” 22 And Jesus *answered saying to them, “Have faith in God. 23 “Truly I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and cast into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says is going to happen, it will be granted him. 24 “Therefore I say to you, all things for which you pray and ask, believe that you have received them, and they will be granted you.
- Matthew 21:20-22, Seeing this, the disciples were amazed and asked, “How did the fig tree wither all at once?” 21 And Jesus answered and said to them, “Truly I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what was done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and cast into the sea,’ it will happen. 22 “And all things you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive.”
- Matthew 7:7-11, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. 8 “For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. 9 “Or what man is there among you who, when his son asks for a loaf, will give him a stone? 10 “Or if he asks for a fish, he will not give him a snake, will he? 11 “If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give what is good to those who ask Him!
You asked. You believed. But it still wasn’t granted. What’s up with that?! It’s caused you trouble in your heart and your mind because you were standing on the promise of a “yes.” My hope is to help you understand the “no.”
Basically, we have four options:
- Jesus was wrong. Jesus meant well, but he really didn’t know what He was talking about.
- Jesus is just speaking to the 12 disciples/apostles. The power of prayer and the privilege of a guaranteed favorable answer isn’t meant for us. It died with the apostles.
- You didn’t have enough faith. You must have doubted. You should have tried harder. Then God would have been moved by you.
- You didn’t understand Jesus’ promise in light of all the Scripture. Other passages of Scripture qualify these seemingly absolute and all-inclusive promises.
As for a quick evaluation, first, Jesus is never wrong. He is the infallible, inerrant God who always speaks truth. Second, these passages were meant to encourage us to pray. If the power and privilege died with the apostles, then these passages would be false encouragement. Third, I think one of the meanest things that a person can say to another is, “You just didn’t have enough faith. Your wife would have lived if you had just prayed more.” That’s unloving and untrue. We do not have faith in faith or faith in ourselves. Our faith is in God who does whatever He pleases (Psalm 115:3, Psalm 135:6). To “believe,” as referenced in the above passages on prayer, isn’t knowing without a shadow of a doubt that God will grant your request, but rather knowing beyond a shadow of a doubt that God is able to grant your request if He so wills. With all that said then, I’m going with the fourth option.
The Scripture texts on asking and receiving are not blank checks given to us by God with no restrictions. There are certainly qualifications to the promises. I want to look at three. God answers “yes” only to prayers that are…
Asking for Good Things
The first qualification is found in the Matthew 7:7-11 passage quoted above. Notice that the relationship talked about here between God and man is a father to a child. God is certainly our heavenly Father, and we are certainly His children through Jesus Christ. Jesus is saying in this passage that if an earthly father knows how to give good gifts to his children, then certainly our heavenly Father knows how to give good gifts us, His children. That’s certainly true. God will always give us good gifts. If we ask for a fish, He won’t give us a snake. Nevertheless, we often ask for a snake unwittingly, and when we do, God will not give it to us. Furthermore, sometimes we ask for a fish, but what we need is a loaf of bread. Even though you didn’t want a loaf of bread, your heavenly Father knows what’s best.
My son Zachariah will be 5-years-old in October. He would absolutely love, love, love for me to go out and get him a big ol’ ninja sword, but he can forget it. He’s asked me many times, begging and pleading, but no matter how much he asks, I will not grant his request. There’s nothing wrong with ninja swords. It just wouldn’t be good for him to have one. I would probably end up disemboweled, and his brother Elijah would probably end up dismembered. There would definitely be a lot of blood! Therefore, I will not give one to him.
It’s the same way with our heavenly Father. He knows best. Therefore, when we ask believing, we shouldn’t demand. We should come in trust and surrender knowing that God loves us and will spare no good thing to us. Furthermore, we should keep in mind that God’s ultimate good for us is to be transformed into the image of Jesus Christ as Romans 8:28-29 tells us, And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. 29 For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren. Therefore, sometimes the “good” stuff that God gives is actually trials and tribulations meant to refine and edify us.
The Apostle Paul comes to mind here. Paul tells in 2 Corinthians 12:7, Because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me—to keep me from exalting myself! Whatever this thorn in the flesh was, Paul prayed three times to God to take it away. Now if anybody was going to pray believing, it would be the Apostle Paul. Yet God said “no.” We get the reason why and Paul’s reaction in 2 Corinthians 12:9, And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Paul realized that that the thorn in his flesh was actually a good gift from God because through it, he was being conformed to the image of Christ.
So, if it’s not good for us, God will not give it to us no matter how much we ask for it and no matter how much we believe we’ll receive it.
Asked with the Right Motive
The second qualification is found in James 4:2-3, You lust and do not have; so you commit murder. You are envious and cannot obtain; so you fight and quarrel. You do not have because you do not ask. 3 You ask and do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your pleasures. This passage seems to have a selfish desire for money as its focus, but in general, it’s pointing to wanting something for the wrong reason. Numerous reasons could be listed here. You could be motivated by selfishness, pride, fear, greed, laziness, etc. James says that God says “no” to prayer requests made with the wrong motivations because if God were to give it to us, we wouldn’t use it to glorify Him.
We must constantly check our hearts to see what our motivation really is. We can say one thing with our lips, but our hearts are naked before God. He knows our exact motivation. So, asked with the wrong motive, God will not give it to us no matter how much we ask for it and no matter how much we believe we’ll receive it.
In Accordance with God’s Will
The final qualification is found in 1 John 5:14-15, This is the confidence which we have before Him, that, if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us. 15 And if we know that He hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests which we have asked from Him. God is all-wise, which means that He not only knows what is best but that He also knows the best way to accomplish the best. God is also all-knowing, which means that He not only knows the past, present, and future but that He also knows what would happen if one variable changed. We are the opposite. In our finitude and weakness, we tend to be foolish instead of wise and ignorant instead of knowledgeable. In the end, we simply don’t know what’s best, but God does. Furthermore, as the Creator and Sustainer of the universe, He has the right to rule and reign it. His will should be done and is being done. This news is incredibly good!
Can you imagine if God always did our will? The following illustration might be somewhat flippant and lightweight, but the movie Bruce Almighty comes to mind. Life just isn’t going the way Bruce would like it to go, and so he throws a fit with God. God then decides to teach him a lesson by letting Bruce be god for a while. The one scene that stands out in my mind is the one where Bruce is hearing all of these prayer requests at once. It’s driving him crazy so, in his almightiness, he converts the prayer requests into emails. He then begins to respond speedily, one by one to the prayers but quickly grows tired. Then in one bulk move, he hits the “reply to all” button and responds “yes.” Every person got exactly what they asked for. You can see the movie clip here. Soon thereafter though, Bruce realizes that he’s made a tragic mistake. The world is in utter chaos. There’s rioting in the street. Millions of people won the lottery, which meant that they each got pocket change. I’m sure you get the point the movie is trying to make. We ask from a single, little viewpoint, but God answers from the big picture. It would simply be unwise for God to say “yes” every time.
But now let me give you a weighty, biblical example. Jesus, on the night that He was betrayed by Judas, went to the Garden of Gethsemane. He was deeply troubled knowing that His time of suffering was soon at hand. He tells the inner three disciples in Matthew 26:38, My soul is deeply grieved, to the point of death; remain here and keep watch with Me. Then He proceeds to pray saying in Matthew 26:39, My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; yet not as I will, but as You will. Just a few moments later He prays again in Matthew 26:42, My Father, if this cannot pass away unless I drink it, Your will be done. Luke 22:44 tells us that Jesus was so troubled and prayed so fervently that His sweat became like drops of blood, falling down upon the ground. Surely this example is the greatest one of a person asking in full belief (Matthew 21:22). Jesus prayed with perfect faith, sharing His desire that He’d rather not go through the crucifixion, the imputation of man’s sin, the wrath of God, and death, but nevertheless, Jesus got a “no” from the Father. It was the Father’s will that Jesus endure these things.
The same is true when we pray. If what we ask for is in accordance with God’s will, it will be granted to us. Otherwise, we get a “no.” No matter the answer, we trust in the wisdom of God and the goodness of His plan. So, if it’s not in accordance with God’s will, God will not give it to us no matter how much we ask for it and no matter how much we believe we’ll receive it.
So, in summary, God answers “yes” only to prayers that are:
- asking for good things.
- asked with the right motive.
- in accordance with God’s will.
So How Should We Pray Then
We should pray and pray often. We should pray believing, which is to know that God is able if He so wills. We should pray, making our requests known but also seeking to be bent to God’s wisdom and good plan. We should pray as Jesus prayed—fervently and wanting God’s will to be done.
In fact, Jesus gave us an example of how to pray in Matthew 6:7-13:
And when you are praying, do not use meaningless repetition as the Gentiles do, for they suppose that they will be heard for their many words. 8 So do not be like them; for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him. 9 Pray, then, in this way: “Our Father who is in heaven, Hallowed be Your name. 10 Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. 11 Give us this day our daily bread. 12 And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. 13 And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.”
Notice that even here, Jesus taught us to pray that God’s will be done, which is a way of saying, “Father, I trust you to do exactly what’s best and to give me exactly what I need.” May that be the spirit in which we go forth in lifting up prayers and receiving answers to prayers!