Nothing rattles our faith more than hearing God say “no” to one of the deepest cries of our hearts. Maybe the reason prayer is a struggle for you is because you’ve prayed for something and God didn’t answer you. Or worse, He made it clear that the answer was no. Every Christian has or will experience this crossroads. It’s either the place where our faith grows as we continue to say yes to God, believing He is still good, or it’s the place where our faith laid down to die.
Today I want to share some hope with you so that when “no’s” come, they don’t have to rattle your faith or cause you to walk away from God altogether.
The truth is, “no’s” are not a sign to give up on prayer. They’re not a sign to assume the worst of God. Though we cannot know the mind of God fully, Scripture tells us of some specific reasons we might get a no from God.
I’ve divided these reasons into two categories. Some that will give us pause to examine our own hearts before the Lord, and others that we simply need to accept as reality. I think it’s really easy to assume it’s all God’s fault or all our fault, and I think we need to manage the tension that we have a responsibility in the way we pray, but ultimately God is sovereign. I hope these two sections help you manage where that tension lies.
Note: I’m sharing from my own research in Scripture as well as a couple of sources to basically give a really thorough list (though this is not exhaustive). I’ll share the sources at the end and you’ll see a symbol denoting where each answer came from if you’d like to investigate more from the original source.
REASONS TO EXAMINE WITH THE LORD
Part of my fear sharing this first section is that we will run through the Rolodex of reasons and try to make sure we get an answer from God by “cleaning up” our prayers. Let this simply be a place you ask God to make you aware of any heart issues that need to be addressed. The “no’s” in this case may not be the root problem but instead, a symptom that alerts us to the root issue. If a “no” gives way to more faithfulness in any of the following areas, we can praise God for it!
1. Not having fellowship with the Lord. *
The opportunity for a relationship with God through prayer is available to anyone, but this conversation is for those who’ve chosen to enter into that relationship. Do you reach out to God every once in a while when someone is sick or you lose your job? Or are you in consistent communication with Him?
- John 15:7 If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.
2. Harboring sin and unforgiveness. +
Scripture is clear that when we harbor sin in our hearts, God does not hear us. Sin has a powerful way of hindering our fellowship with God. This is why confession is a necessary part of our prayers. In my book, Pray Confidently and Consistently, I go into more detail about this, but we can begin to fear God in such a way that we are paralyzed to pray because surely we have some unknown sin we haven’t confessed! Psalm 66 refers to “cherished” sins or those sins we know are there but we keep them around because we like it.
- Psalm 66:18 – If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened.
- Matthew 6:14-15 – For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
3. Not walking in obedience.
This is similar to #2, but just a reminder of those things that we may not be doing that God called us to that we don’t necessarily see as sin. If God clearly prompts you to give away all your possessions like the rich young ruler and you don’t, for you, that’s disobedience. What has God called you to do already that you are refusing to do? Don’t fear this question. Instead, just open up your heart to what God might say. His mercy for a contrite heart is bigger than we can imagine.
- Proverbs 28:9 – If one turns away his ear from hearing the law, even his prayer is an abomination.
- Isaiah 66:2b – But this is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word.
- Proverbs 15:29 – The LORD is far from the wicked, but he hears the prayer of the righteous.
- 1 Peter 3:12 – The eyes of the Lord watch over those who do right, and his ears are open to their prayers. But the Lord turns his face against those who do evil.
4. Lacking faith.
Do we believe God can do what we’re asking Him to do or are we just throwing a wish in the air wondering if it might “work”? Pray for God to increase your faith just like the disciples did (Luke 17:5). This doesn’t mean that we know without a shadow of a doubt that God will do what we are praying for, but do we know who He is and what He is capable of?
- James 1:6 – But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind.
- Hebrews 11:6 – And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.
5. Forgetting to actually ask.
It’s possible we’ve thought about a prayer request but never actually brought it before the Lord. Maybe we’ve worked really hard for it. Maybe we’ve talked to everyone we know about it but haven’t actually prayed to the Lord about it.
- James 4:2 – You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask.
6. Going against God’s will.
Am I asking for something that contradicts God’s will? The Bible talks often of praying in Jesus’ name. This isn’t just a tagline to the end of our prayers but it means to pray in agreement with Jesus. Some things we pray for are vague and aren’t clearly defined in God’s Word, so don’t get too spun up about this. You won’t find a passage about which college to go to. But as you study Scripture, pray for a greater understanding of what God’s will is and to desire to follow it.
- 1 John 5:14 – And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us.
- John 14:13 – Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son.
7. Having wrong/selfish motives.
Are you praying with selfish motives? Or just for show? It’s really easy to pray for God to take away all our pain but what if instead, we prayed based on what God actually has promised, to walk with us through the valleys??
- Matthew 6:5 – And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.
8. Ignoring the poor and needy.
God has commanded us to take care of the poor and needy. Are we praying so earnestly for one of our own needs while completely ignoring the poor and needy around us?
- Proverbs 21:13 – Whoever closes his ear to the cry of the poor will himself call out and not be answered.
9. Treating your spouse badly. *
This one, like ignoring the poor and needy can feel a bit too formulaic, but I trust what His Word says and believe that what these two behaviors reveal to God is what’s in our hearts. We can’t pretend to be nice to a spouse or throw a few bucks at a charity. God knows if our motives are real or a show.
- 1 Peter 3:7 – Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered.
10. Giving up too soon. *
Has God said no or have we just grown tired and decided He must not care about us?
- 1 Thessalonians 5:17-18 – Pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.
- Galatians 6:9 – Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.
- Luke 18:1 – Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up.
REASONS TO ACCEPT WITH THE LORD
You’ll hear me talk more about this soon because this concept of accepting things and the power it has in our lives is life-changing. (See just a few thoughts on that here.) For now, though, I want to share this poem from Amy Carmichael about acceptance being the source of peace. Here’s a little portion.
He said, ‘I will accept the breaking sorrow
Which God tomorrow
Will to His son explain.’
Then did the turmoil deep within me cease.
Not vain the word, not vain;
For in Acceptance lieth peace.
As we talk about this second section of reasons God may say no, I pray we accept them. I pray we also experience the peace that comes when we accept them.
You might notice some of these overlap. I’ve intentionally kept them all because sometimes when we feel like God isn’t doing anything in our lives, it’s hard to see any spark. So I hope one of these will be the “aha” moment you need to be reminded of to keep praying no matter how silent it feels like God is right now.
1. For God’s glory. +
That’s the tweet. 😉 But seriously, every answered (and unanswered) prayer is for God’s glory. I don’t know why a “no” may bring more glory to God than a “yes” in your current situation, but I trust that it’s true because this is what I see consistently in Scripture.
- John 14:13 – Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son.
- Crack open your copy of Pray Confidently and Consistently to pages 43-44 for tons of verses on answered prayer being for God’s glory.
2. For the sake of others. +
In Pray Confidently and Consistently, I shared the story of Lazarus dying and Jesus raising Him from the dead. How must Mary and Martha have felt seeing their brother die knowing Jesus could have healed him? The verses that lead up to this heartbreaking moment make it clear what Jesus’ purpose was in waiting, revealing Himself as God to those who witnessed it all. “How would our prayers change if we remembered that the loving God who seems to be late has the full picture of humanity in mind, and our momentary pain may mean eternal redemption for someone who is a witness to it?” I imagine Mary and Martha “jokingly bump Jesus after he raised Lazarus, saying ‘How could you put us through that!’” all the while big things were happening in the lives of others!
- John 11:4 – But when Jesus heard it he said, “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”
- John 11:14-15 – Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus has died, and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”
- John 11:45 – Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what he did, believed in him.
3. For something better. +
What looks like a no may be because something better is coming. I’ve seen this in my own life now that I’m married to Tyler. Every time before meeting him, I thought for sure God got it wrong and just forgot about me and my desire for a husband. Maybe you got turned down for the “perfect” job. Trust God is in control and pray for what is to come.
- Ephesians 3:20 – Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us.
4. Because it’s not good for us like we think.
God’s definition, God’s understanding is different from our own. What looks good to us, may not look good to God. And we have to trust that the God who sees all and knows vastly more than we do has the best plan. Tim Keller says “God will either give us what we ask for in prayer or give us what we would have asked for if we knew everything he knows.” Ask God to help us truly understand what it means to not lean on our own understanding.
- James 1:17 – Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.
- Proverbs 3:5 – Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.
5. Because God is protecting us. *
You’ve heard the stories of someone running late or having something go wrong that caused them to not be in the World Trade Center towers the day of 9/11. They narrowly escaped death, but moments before it looked like possible unanswered prayers. They prayed to catch the subway and they missed it. They prayed their child wouldn’t get sick but they were sick and had to stay home. Those are really big examples, but maybe God is protecting you from something that your “yes” would result in.
- Psalm 121:7 – The LORD will keep you from all harm— he will watch over your life.
- Psalm 91:10 – No harm will overtake you, no disaster will come near your tent.
6. For more intimacy with Himself.
I’m learning this through my own struggles with health, but I have drawn closer to God as He has said “no” to healing. If the alternative would be quick healing, pride and growing distant from God, I would not choose it. Intimacy with God is greater than any gift we could ask him for. The gift can’t be greater than our gift-giver, God Himself.
- 2 Corinthians 12:7 – So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited.
- Romans 1:25 – Because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.
As you read through this list, I pray you find hope. I pray God sparks a thought that helps you see things from another perspective. When we see God deny what we pray so fervently for, it can be so easy to see Him as unloving or incapable of moving in our life. But perhaps, where He is moving is somewhere we aren’t looking because we’re so focused on one solitary response, and until we see it, we will assume God is silent in our lives.
Expand the places you expect God to work and I have so much hope that you will find Him.