When God Says No

August 21, 2015 Preacher: Cameron Arensen Series: Teach Us to Pray

August 21, 2015
Selected Scriptures
This is the eighth message in our series on prayer. The title of my message this morning is “When God Says No”. Actually, our subject is somewhat broader than that. I want us to think together about the whole subject of answered prayer. One of the most helpful things I was ever taught about prayer was something I was taught when I was still quite young. It was the fact that God always answers our prayers. But he may answer them in one of three ways: Yes, No and Wait. It is a simple lesson – one that I could grasp even as a child. But it still remains a very helpful truth to keep in mind as we consider God’s response to our petitions and requests.
Before we start to explore our main subject this morning – When God Says No – I want to briefly explore a related subject; When God Says Yes. I wonder if you have ever heard a sermon on the subject of “The Dangers of Answered Prayer.” Probably not. But there are some real dangers.
There is a story in the Old Testament about King Hezekiah. We actually studied King Hezekiah a few weeks ago in an earlier message on prayer and how we respond to problems. But there is another incident in his life that is recorded in 2 Kings 20. In this account, King Hezekiah becomes seriously ill. In fact the prophet Isaiah is sent to deliver to him the message that he is about to die. In response to this message, the king desperately prays to God, pleading for his life. And God answered! God said, “Yes!” to his request and gave him another 15 years of life. It’s a great story.
But there is a commentary on this story that is found in the parallel account in the Book of 2 Chronicles. Let’s look at 2 Chronicles 32:24-25:
In those days Hezekiah became sick and was at the point of death, and he prayed to the Lord, and he answered him and gave him a sign. 25 But Hezekiah did not make return according to the benefit done to him, for his heart was proud.
This is a cautionary tale for all of us. The human heart is deceitful and we are capable of taking even God’s good and gracious gifts to us and twisting them into sources of pride. When we receive “Yes” answers to our prayers, do we assume it is because we are good “pray-ers”? Do we covet and then relish the title of “prayer warrior”? When God blesses us with rich experiences with him, do we use those experiences to elevate ourselves in our own eyes and subtly in the eyes of others? Do we narrate these experiences to others in a way that reflects the glory on us, rather than on the God of grace who gave us these gifts?
I say this as a caution to us all. Keep a watch on your own heart. Pride, particularly spiritual pride, is the most insidious of all sins and the most difficult to identify and root out of our lives. Let the one who thinks that he stands, take heed lest he fall.
Just a quick footnote to the story of Hezekiah. The very next verse tells us that Hezekiah repented of the pride in his heart, and as a result, God’s wrath did not fall on him or the nation during his reign.
Let’s move on to our main topic of the morning. When God Says No. Our principle text for this message is the one we read in the Scripture reading a little earlier (2 Corinthians 12:1-10).
In this passage, Paul describes a powerful spiritual experience he had had 14 years previously. It was the kind of experience that the Corinthian believers took great delight and pride in. In a sense it was similar to Hezekiah’s experience – an up-close-and-personal encounter with the power of God. In Hezekiah’s case, it did lead to spiritual pride. But in this case, as Paul narrates, to keep that from happening he was given what he refers to as a “thorn in the flesh.”
This passage has always intrigued interpreters. What was Paul’s thorn? Various possibilities have been suggested. They include various physical maladies such as epilepsy, periodic bouts of depression, migraine headaches, severe eye trouble, malaria, or possibly a stutter or some kind of speech impediment. Others have suggested some chronic, strong compulsion or temptation or even a personality disorder that he could never fully conquer.
The bottom line is that we don’t know what Paul’s thorn in the flesh was. I believe God intended it this way. If we knew what Paul’s thorn was, we would have a tendency to draw comparisons. “Well, that is not so bad compared to what I have to put up with!” By not knowing what it is, Paul’s thorn becomes a symbol for all the chronic troubles of the human experience. After all that is what a thorn is. It is not life-threatening. We don’t die from thorns. But a thorn is painful. It is distracting. It is annoying. It slows us down and prevents us from doing all the things we’d like to be able to do.
So, what did Paul do about it? He did exactly what all of us should do. He prayed. Verse 8 says: Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me.
When Paul says that he did this three times, I don’t think he means that he mentioned it as a prayer request on 3 different occasions. I think it means that three times he engaged in extended sessions of prayer and probably fasting. He engaged in serious supplication. He says he “pleaded” with the Lord. This is a strong word, full of urgency and strong emotion – to plead, beg, entreat – use any synonym you want.
So, how did God answer? Let’s look at the next verse. Look at how it’s printed on the screen:
But he said to me, “NO! My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
Now, I will admit, if you compare this with what is written in your Bible, the word “NO” is not in the text. It is not found in the original manuscripts either. But it is there nonetheless by implication. Paul asked that the thorn in the flesh would leave, and it did not leave. Bottom line: God said NO!
We don’t like the word “NO” do we? We want what we want and we want it now. When God says “No” or even when he just says, “Wait”, we tend to get upset and to throw ourselves a pity party.
But there is a better way to respond. I think we need to back off and take some time to ask ourselves: Why is God saying NO? Why is he not answering my prayer? As we consider that question, the first place I would go is to review the message I preached a couple weeks ago on “Hindrances to Prayer”. Is there unconfessed sin in your life? Are you holding on to bitterness? Are your family relationships out of order? Are you asking out of wrong motives? All of these could be reasons that the Lord is not responding to your prayers.
But even when we have searched our hearts and eliminated these hindrances, it is still possible that we, like the Apostle Paul, will come face to face with a “NO” answer to our petition. What shall we do then?
I believe it is at such times that we need to ask God to give us a teachable spirit to learn the lessons that he is trying to teach us. God is never arbitrary or capricious in his dealing with us. He is always purposeful. It is just that his purposes are sometimes different than ours. So at such times, it is important for us to seek to understand God’s purposes and particularly to learn the lessons he is trying to teach us.
From Paul’s example here as well as his other writings, I would like to suggest four potential lessons we can learn when God’s says “No.”
The first lesson is a paradoxical one.
Lesson # 1: We are strong when we are weak.
Or, as Paul puts, “God’s strength is made perfect in weakness.” This was the answer that God gave to Paul. “My power is made perfect in weakness.”
This takes us back into the story of Paul and his vision. As he ruminated on the thorn in his flesh, he came to understand its purpose.
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. (verse 7)
He goes on in a similar vein in the following verses:
Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
How does this paradox work? It is a difficult one to wrap our minds around. Simply put, when we feel strong, we tend to rely on our own strength. So that is really all we have to offer – our own strength, and with it often comes pride in our achievements. And it all becomes about us.
It is when we are aware of our weakness that we rely upon the power of Christ. Then it is his magnificent power that shines through our weakness, and it all becomes about Christ and his glory.
Earlier, in chapter one, Paul reflects on another experience he had when he thought he was going to die. It’s recorded in 2 Corinthians 1:8-9
8 For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. 9 Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death...
From that experience he drew this lesson:
But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.
So that is one reason God may allow trials to come into our lives and why he may answer “No” to our petitions that they be removed. He wants to display his power through us – and he can do this best when we are fully aware of our own weakness.
The second lesson that God may be trying to teach us when he says “No” is…
Lesson # 2: The secret of contentment
For this related lesson, I want to turn to Philippians 4:11-13.
11 Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. 12 I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me.
How does this passage relate to our subject of “When God Says No”? Oftentimes, we go to the Lord with our requests and with our needs. We go to him to seek the things that we believe will make us content. But in this passage, Paul takes us deeper into the secret of contentment, and he tells us it is not about what we have or don’t have. As he says: “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.” He is not just talking about poverty and riches but about all of life’s circumstances of prosperity or adversity. “In any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.”
So here is the question before us. What is the secret Paul learned? It took me a long time to see it, but it’s found right here in plain view in this passage. The secret is verse 13: I can do all things through him who strengthens me.
One of the reasons it took me so long to discover this secret is because this is one of those verses that has become isolated from its context. Frankly, a lot of very foolish and absurd claims have been made by preachers using this verse as their authority.
The other reason we miss the connection is because of a difficulty in translation. Let me explain. The first thing we need to know is that the word “do” is not in the Greek text. What the original literally says is, “I can…all things…” But that makes no sense in English, does it? It is incomplete. So the translators have provided a helping verb to complete the meaning. As is often the case in such contexts, they have used a very neutral, non-specific verb, “do”. But unfortunately, when we translate it that way and we isolate this verse from its context, we can find ourselves far off course.
I sympathize with the translators, because it is not easy to render this verse clearly into English. But I would suggest supplying some different verbs in light of the context of contentment, poverty and plenty, of good circumstances and difficult circumstances. How about, “I can (endure) all things…”? Or maybe, “I can (cope) with all things…” The best published translation I found was J.B. Phillips: “I am ready for anything…” But then I settled on the simplest solution, by simply relying on the words in the context itself. “I can (be content) in every circumstance…” He is simply repeating his premise and setting us up for the secret he is about to deliver. Here it is. Are you ready for it? “Through him (Christ) who strengthens me.”
The secret is the indwelling Christ and the strength that he provides. He dwells in me. He is my constant companion in every situation and in every circumstance. With him beside me, I have all I need. I am content, because I know that he will supply all the strength I need to endure, to persevere and to overcome whatever comes my way. And this is the lesson we need to learn when God says “No” or “Wait” to our requests. We can rely on the strength of Christ living in us. If we have him, we have all we need.
We might ask, “Where and when did Paul learn this secret of being content in any and all circumstances?” I don’t think it is too much of a stretch to suggest that he learned it on his knees when God said “No” to his request to remove his thorn in the flesh. The word for “strengthen” found in this passage comes from the same root as the word strength that Paul discovered in 2 Corinthians 12, when he learned that this “strength was made perfect in weakness.” He received God’s answer, and learned that lesson and because of it he was content. It was a lesson and a secret that he could and did then apply to any and every circumstance.
Which brings us naturally to my next point in the sermon and the third lesson we can learn:
Lesson # 3. The sufficiency of God’s grace.
This really brings the previous two points together. And this was the lesson Paul learned from the Lord in 2 Corinthians 12:9
But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you…”
There is a tight linguistic connection here that comes through in the original Greek language Paul used when he wrote. The word “sufficient” found here and the word “content” in the passage in Philippians both come from a common root. It is a word that means “enough” or if we could coin a phrase, “a state of enoughness”. When we pray and we persevere in prayer, we may not get exactly what we are asking for – but we will receive God’s grace and we will experience the strength which Christ supplies, and that will be enough and more than enough.
Look at how Paul concludes his thoughts after receiving this answer from the Lord in 2 Corinthians 12:
Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
He not only accepted God’s answer. He embraced it and learned to rejoice in it – reveling, as it were, in his own weakness because it provided such an ideal platform for the power of Christ to be displayed.
That brings us to the fourth lesson we can learn when God says “No.”
Lesson # 4: Trust in God
At the end of the day, this is the primary lesson of the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation. It is question that is posed to us again and again throughout life’s journey. Can God be trusted? It is a question that is presented to us with unique urgency and poignancy when we face one of God’s “No” answers. Can God be trusted? Can we trust his power? Can we trust his wisdom? Can we trust his timing? Do we trust his love?
These are not theoretical questions. These are real life questions. And these are questions which probe the deepest corners of our hearts.
Proverbs 3:5 gives us this challenge:
Trust in the Lord with all your heart,
and do not lean on your own understanding.
And that is where the challenge lies, isn’t it? Especially when God’s says, “No” to our petitions. Trust in the Lord? Or lean on our own understanding.
The Bible makes clear that these will often be at odds with one another. As Isaiah 55:8-9 says,
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.
9 For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.
So where does your trust lie? In our own thoughts or in God’s thoughts? In our ways or God’s ways? When God says “No” to our prayers, he is giving us an opportunity to learn in new ways to trust him. He is our Father in heaven. And our Father knows best.
Let me close with an illustration that I have used before, taken from the life experience of a member of this church. Her name was My Del Rosario. My was a strong believer and a committed servant of the Lord. She played a key role in starting the Friday morning Filipino Bible Study that became our ECC Filipino ministry which continues today and has influenced so many for Christ.
In the early 1990’s, My contracted cancer. She prayed. We prayed. And God answered prayer. He said “Yes,” and took the cancer away. She had five or six cancer free years. But then the cancer returned. Again she prayed. We all prayed. All possible medical help was sought. But nothing worked. This time, God said, “No” to our prayers.
It reached the point when the cancer treatment was destroying her body faster than the disease itself. Finally the doctors told her that they had done all they could for her. They advised her to return home to be with her family during her remaining weeks.
During her time here at ECC, one of My’s ministries had been through music. My had a beautiful singing voice and often sang for us in services. As she came to accept the fact that her life was drawing to a close, she believed that there were two songs that God wanted her to sing here at ECC before she left. In fact, she actually delayed her return home for two weeks so that she could sing these songs in our services. I will never forget that final Friday. By that time, she was so weak that she had to sit in a chair while she sang. Her voice was soft, but it was still pure and sweet. As she sang, there wasn’t a dry eye in the congregation. We knew we were witnessing something special. My was so weak, but God was so strong! And the power of God was perfectly displayed in her weakness.
A few weeks later, My went to be with the Lord. Do I understand why God said “No” to her prayers and ours? No. But that shouldn’t keep us from learning these lessons:
We are strong when we are weak. We can be content in any circumstances with the strength that Christ supplies. God’s grace is sufficient. We can trust God’s power, his wisdom and his love, even when we don’t understand his plan.


August 21, 2015
2 Corinthians 12:1-10 and selected Scriptures

1. “God always answers prayer. But he may answer in one of three ways: Yes, No and Wait.” Discuss this statement. Do you find it helpful? Confusing? Reassuring? Disappointing?

2. “There are dangers to face when God says Yes to our prayers.” Is this a new thought to you? What are the dangers? How can we guard against them?

3. Share a personal experience when God said “No” to your prayers. What were the circumstances? What was your prayer? How and when did you conclude that God was saying “No”? How did you feel?
(Note: The answers to such a question can be deeply personal and even threatening. It is appropriate to limit your sharing based on your comfort level in your group.)

4. Read 2 Corinthians 12:1-10. When we add the word “No” to God’s answer in verse 9, how does it affect your understanding of the passage?

5. There are lessons to learn when God says “No”. Here are the lessons Pastor Cam shared in the message. Discuss each one in turn; helpful or not? Encouraging or not? Confusing or not?
• We are strong when we are weak. (2 Corinthians 12, verses 7, 9,10)
• The secret of contentment (Philippians 4:11-13)
• The sufficiency of God’s grace (2 Cor. 12:9)
• Trust in God (Proverbs 3:5 and Isaiah 55:8-9)

6. Close with a time of prayer together, reflecting on the truths you have been discussing

More in Teach Us to Pray

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Hindrances to Prayer