Today I was supposed to be sharing a message with a community group for the National Day of Prayer.
I am instead sipping coffee in my pajamas, and writing my speech anyway. I have been pouting for 6 weeks (or is it 7?) but today seemed right to act like a grown-up and put pen to paper. Or fingers to keys.
Back when the prayer breakfast event was confirmed, if you can believe it (and at this point a swarm of murder hornets has taught us that apparently anything is possible), I had determined the title of my message to be: When the Answer is No.
The irony is not lost on me.
I have often shaken my fists at the sky since March, quite literally, most days, and spat words of frustration and complaint. Even for a perpetually-positive person this season has been hard. My little family and all the people we love have been blessed, safe, cozy, and content, but life moving forward still feels so uncertain, unsettling, uncomfortable, and admittedly full of mistakes.
Yet when I reflect on the most critical and pivotal seasons of my life, those seasons have all been uncertain, unsettling, uncomfortable, and full of mistakes. And I keep making those mistakes over, and over, and over again, until I finally learn the lesson and get it right.
Regarding the prayer breakfast event today, I was given a blank template to simply share my thoughts on prayer. And as much as I envisioned I would present something dazzling and inspirational and uplifting, what kept coming back to me was the word NO.
Answers to prayer: yes, not yet, and no
I imagine we get lots of yeses to our prayers. God says yes to our prayers for safety, health, comfort, provision, small wins, and sometimes even big giant victories that only God could pull off.
We also get a lot of not-yets. Our prayers full of dreams and good ideas, wonderful blessings that we’re simply not ready for. When God says not yet maybe the timing isn’t right, we haven’t yet grown into the person ready to steward the gift, or maybe our prayer is the right idea but the wrong approach. A yes to that prayer now would fall short of God’s master plan. A not yet keeps us learning, stretching, trusting, and refining our minds and hearts. Sometimes this not yet delay is confusing, and it hurts.
But it never hurts as much as a no.
Nothing has tested my faith and my understanding of God and myself as unrelentingly as my prayers which have been answered no.
Perhaps some of those prayers are still not yets. God willing, I still have much life left to live, and maybe some yeses will come, down the line once I’m ready to steward them well.
But as of this moment right now, two urgent, it’s-all-on-the-line prayers in my life have received an unequivocal, indisputable NO. Capital N. Capital O. Period. The end.
The kind of no that changes your life forever.
When no changes the game
One of those prayers, actually a collection of millions of prayers, was for my infant son, who was born early and fought for every breath in his lungs for 17 days. Our community wrapped their loving arms around us, and we all prayed together for his complete healing.
But the answer was no.
Never in my lifelong Christian faith had it EVER occurred to me that such fervent faith would not be rewarded. Not once did I wonder if my precious son wouldn’t live. No doubt of God’s sovereignty and healing power ever entered my mind. I believe in miracles, and in the God who designs them.
But that miracle did not come to pass.
Our son died. And I died a little, too.
Because what did it all mean now? The prayers, the faith, the belief, the community, the scripture, the hope? What happens when you give God everything you have, and it’s not enough?
In this broken mess of grief and rage, I had to learn that God is God, and I am not.
God is God, and I am not
This platitude means nothing to a person in profound grief. Only with the passing of time was I able to finally begin to comprehend it as a comforting truth.
Because God is God, and I am not, he heard every single one of my prayers. The polished and eager ones and the ones dripping in sorrow and hopelessness.
Because God is God, and I am not, he wept with me, knowing the excruciating pain of losing a son himself.
Because God is God, and I am not, he held me lovingly in the palm of his hand even as I screamed and cursed him for not saving my baby boy.
A prayer answered NO can feel like a deal-breaker. And there is just so much “no” in the world right now. Cancelled plans, threatened health, unstable finances, struggling relationships, and anxious futures. No Tex-Mex dine-in. No live church. No hugs.
Try telling an 8-year-old “NO, you can’t go out to the ice cream truck driving past the house.”
Or a ten-year-old “NO, you can’t hug your grandparents.”
Or a toddler "NO, you can't have the scissors."
The scowling, bargaining, stomping, whining, and lingering pout are enough to push my mama feelings over the edge too. I get it, kiddos.
When God says no, maybe it feels cruel.
It’s not because of anything you did or did not do.
It’s not because God finds pleasure in disappointing you. Or because you “deserved it.”
When God says no, it’s because he loves you SO MUCH that he’ll carry you through the most excruciating no along the path to an even more miraculous YES.
A yes you couldn’t have imagined to pray for yourself, not in a million years.
Our adopted daughter was born just three days after our son’s original due date, in the same hospital room.
Their stories are forever-entwined, a living, earthly and divine reminder that every heartbreaking no makes way for a humbling and glorious YES. A walking promise that God will always give to us beauty for ashes.
Learning from no
What no has turned your heart cold or calloused to God or to people?
What no have you been running from that still has truth to teach you?
What no is a gift in disguise, a letting go of things no longer serving you?
In this 2020 season of no, we have to ask ourselves: am I willing to make peace with this disappointment, allow it to teach me, shape me, refine me, and anchor my trust in the God who created me?
Am I willing to surrender to the idea that God is God, and I am not?
And do I have the audacity to believe that a future beyond my wildest imagination is still on the horizon, in the form of a yes I can’t yet see?
The power of prayer
I believe in the power of prayer. I experience its comfort in pain or grief, in the repetition of scripture and holy promise. I bear witness to its joy in celebration and praise, with a song on my lips and a lump in my throat. I embrace prayer especially in confusion, anger, or fear, when the words are messy and hopelessly flawed.
Mostly, I treasure prayer for the lifeline it is – a raw and honest, safe place to lay it all at the feet of the Lord. All my joy, praise, confusion, anger, shame, pain, regret, grief, wonder, and love. A place where I can admit I don’t have all the answers – or ANY answers at all. Prayer is God’s gracious gift that allows us to come just as we are. And absolutely contrary to the way of the world, communing in prayer with our Maker is most fulfilling when we take off our masks and superhero capes and filters. No acting or pretending required.
I was wrong
I have no remarkable words or routine in my prayer life. Which doesn’t really sound great now that I’m “saying it” out loud.
It’s just that I spent the first 26 years of my life praying perfect pristine prayers. And it led me to a place where I assumed the answers would always be yes.
Yet in the darkest and most important moment of my life, the answer was NO.
And it broke me. That no fractured everything I thought I knew about God, prayer, myself, my faith, and my future.
In the moment I couldn't understand. But now I couldn’t be more grateful.
Because all those things I thought I knew about God, prayer, myself, my faith, and future... I was wrong.
God doesn’t reward perfection or poise. He meets us right in the muck. He’s in every tear that falls from our eyes and every gasping cry that escapes our lips.
Through prayer, God invites us to tell the truth. To him and to ourselves. No matter how raw and ugly it feels.
And as God answers our prayers one by one, he continues to weave the threads of our life into the masterpieces he’s designed them to be. He needs not our help. What he does require is our trust. Our willingness. Our hearts at the root of our authenticity.
God’s mercies are new every morning, and his love endures forever. I know this because I have tasted it. My whole living life, your life is a testament to God's goodness and love. He’s teaching us, with unrelenting patience for our flaws and unfathomable grace to forgive us until we get it right. Over and over. Again and again.
He’s loving us closer to him as we transform into the marvelous creatures he planned us to be. With every yes. With every not yet.
And perhaps even, especially when the answer is no.
I wish more people understood that a no is out of love too. It breaks my heart when I talk to people who are convinced that if they pray in obedience the answer will be yes. Like you, I have prayed in obedience for things (a second baby, complete healing for me, etc) and been told no and each time I’ve hung onto the face that God works all things for good and although it’s definitely not pleasant to be told no, it’s good. Even if it’s heartbreaking, it’s good.
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