Sometimes God Says, “No!”

When I was a student at Asbury Seminary, I had a friend by the name of David. Prior to seminary, he had to battle for his life. He had a brain tumor. He enrolled in seminary the day his doctor said he was tumor-free. Halfway through seminary his brain tumor returned. This time, the malignancy moved quickly. David seemed to grow weaker daily. Soon the doctors said it was only a matter of time. On the Sunday night before his last hospitalization, David attended a healing service. The traveling evangelist promised a healing if David truly believed. It saddens me to say, David was not healed. I attended his funeral and mourned. I still have questions about his death. In the months to follow, I talked to his twenty-seven-year-old widow, Char. She said David died feeling like a spiritual failure. David believed the traveling evangelist; if he had faith then he would be healed. The problem was, he wasn’t healed. David forgot the divine truth. Sometimes, God says, “No!” That leads us to the scripture lesson for today.

We find ourselves in the seventh chapter of Matthew, verses seven through twelve. Our reading is part of the Sermon on the Mount. These words were not directed to just the twelve disciples. They are directed to the crowd that had gathered in Galilee. Jesus encourages his followers to be bold in prayer. Verses seven and eight grab our attention, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.” The primary point that Jesus is trying to make is about the very nature of God. Verses seven and eight were uttered by the Master to explain the depth of God’s love for us. Those are not magic words to get your heart’s desire.  That is how many interpret that verse. They are destined to be frustrated.

That is Ted Turner’s (born 1938) story. The cable television mogul is a true American celebrity. He is worth a fortune and seems to lack nothing. However, he lacks any spiritual foundation. He was raised in a strict Christian home, and at one time he even considered being a missionary. That all changed when his sister died, despite his prayers. Turner has been quoted as saying, “the more I strayed from my faith, the better I felt.” I have a hard time believing that quote. With all Ted Turner knows, he forgot the divine truth. Sometimes, God says, “No!” He is not alone.

How many people do you know who are mad at God because God said, “No!” They will be glad to tell you, their story. With a sincere heart, they prayed. It may have been for a person or a certain situation. They prayed, but their prayer requests seemed to fall on deaf ears. You know it is true because it has happened in your life. How many gravely ill people have you prayed for who have died? How many hopeless situations remained hopeless? How many unemployed people remain unemployed? Have you ever become disenchanted with the faith because your prayers were not answered to your satisfaction? This is the sad divine truth. Sometimes God says, “No!”

In verses nine through twelve, Jesus uses a loving parent to illustrate this divine point. You know it is true. I know many loving parents, so we understand Jesus’s point. We would like to say “Yes” to every request our children present to us but that is impossible. There are many reasons why. Sometimes we say “No” because it is asked out of ignorance. Sometimes we say “No” because our children are short-sighted, and we want to spare them from future harm. Sometimes we say “No” because it is uttered in an emotional moment and there is nothing logical about the request. Sometimes we say “No” because the request is grounded in selfishness. When was the last time you said “No” to your children because you love them? Sometime God says “No” because he loves us too. Let me say this clearly. Verses seven and eight were uttered by the Master to explain to the crowd the depth of God’s love. God wants us to come to Him with the desires of our hearts because he wants an open relationship. God loves us. We struggle with this passage because we assume the main topic is prayer, but the main topic is the nature of God. However, that does not mean that prayer isn’t important.

Prayer is important to the believer for three reasons. First, God expects us to pray. (Matthew 7:7-8, Luke 18:1, 1 Thess. 5:17.) That is the most important reason to pray. Second, it is in our very nature to pray. It is natural for us to reach to God when our problems are larger than our resources. Third, prayer is the link between us and God. It is upon prayer that God gives us His grace and spirit. The next question is key.

Why does God want us to pray? The answer is not to inform God about a certain situation. God knows all things. The answer is not to change God’s mind or alter a particularly sad or hopeless situation. The answer is more fundamental. God wants us to pray to change us. There is no way you can spend time with God and not be changed. Prayer reminds us of who God is and prayer reminds us of who we are! He is the God of the universe. He is the one who created this world out of nothing. He is the one who knows our great dreams and greatest fears. He is the author of history. He is the one who loves you so much he sent Jesus into this world to die so he could spend eternity with you! In prayer, we learn that God is big, and we are extremely small. In prayer, we learn Jesus was right! The very nature of God is love. God wants us to pray not to change particularly sad situations, God wants us to pray because prayer changes us.

History tells us Martin Luther (1483-1546), the great reformer, saw prayer as vital. We are told he got up every day and spent two hours in prayer before he attempted his first earthly task. The night before one particularly busy day, he looked at an associate and said, “I have so much scheduled for tomorrow that I must rise an hour earlier to have an extra hour alone with God.” Can I ask you an extremely personal question? How much time do you spend in prayer? If you are serious about growing as a disciple of Jesus Christ, then you must find time to pray.Did you know John Wesley (1703-1791), the father of the great Methodist movement, got up at 4:00 am every day to spend time with God? How much time do you spend with God? How much has prayer changed you?

I love this story. Mother Theresa (1910-1997) was summoned to the kitchen of the orphanage one day in Calcutta. There was a problem. The head cook was upset because the order of food hadn’t been delivered and she was expecting three hundred for lunch in less than an hour. Everyone expected Mother Theresa to contact one of her sponsors for help. She didn’t. Instead, she looked at the kitchen staff and said, “I suggest you go to the chapel and pray about this situation”. They did, and ten minutes later a stranger showed up at the front door holding a clipboard. He asked for Mother Theresa. When she appeared, the stranger looked at her and said, “The teachers have just gone on strike, so school has been canceled today. I have 7,000 extra lunches. Can you help us use them?” Isn’t it great when God answers our prayers with a yes! The problem is, God often answers our prayers requests with a “no”. It is frustrating when God answers our prayers requests with a “no”. Ours is not the first generation to experience a divine no.

Consider this: God also said, “No!” to the greatest personalities in the Bible. How do you say, “No!” to Paul? He took the Good News to the Gentile world. He was the greatest missionary of all time. Yet, when Paul prayed that God would heal him from the thorn in his side, the thorn remained. How do you say, “No!” to Jesus? He was the very son of God, who left the perfection of heaven to slum it in this world. You remember the story. Jesus prayed in the garden that this cup could be taken from him, but it remained. Jesus went to the cross and died a horrible death. If God could say, “No” to Paul and Jesus, then God can say, “No!” to you. Life teaches us that God often says, “No!” That is what makes our scripture lesson so difficult to understand. It is almost like Jesus is lying to us. The text is not really about prayer. It is about the very nature of our loving God. Let me end this blog with this story.

In the early days of Dallas Theological Seminary there was a critical need of $10,000 to keep the school open. During a prayer meeting, renowned Bible teacher Harry Ironside (1876-1951), a lecturer at the school, prayed, “Lord, you own the cattle on a thousand hills. Please sell some of those cattle to help us meet this need.” Shortly after the prayer meeting, a check for $10,000 arrived at the school, sent days earlier by a friend who had no idea of the urgent need or of Ironside’s prayer. The man simply said the money came from the sale of some of his cattle! What a great story!

Isn’t it great when our prayers are answered, “Yes”! The problem is, sometimes God says, “No.” However, God always loves us and longs to hear the desires of our hearts. Never forget it. Prayer is important. Prayer may not change every situation, but prayer will change you. How much time do you spend in prayer? The great reformer Martin Luther said it best. He said, “To be a Christian without prayer is no more possible than to be alive without breathing.”

Let Us Pray

Years ago, I served three small membership United Methodist congregations in Belmont County, Ohio. I was proud to serve the Morristown, Lloydsville and Bannock churches. Combined, they averaged eighty people on an average Sunday morning. You could drive the loop in 12 miles. My three churches were teamed with two other United Methodist congregations in the area, Belmont and Bethesda. Together, we formed the West Belmont Cooperative Parish.

Every Monday morning the pastors of those churches would meet. The pastor of the Belmont church was a guy by the name of Lew. He was sort of an odd fellow, but I liked him. He wore a rumbled shirt and sported an un-groomed beard with uncombed hair. His glasses were always dirty and sliding down his nose. He left the ministry years ago. He was more passionate about computers, then he was anything else.

At one of our Monday morning gatherings, he showed up with his computer. Within the first few minutes, he turned it on and asked the group, “Can I show you something?” He hit a few buttons and showed us a list of prayer requests. He flashed his yellow smile and said, “My church is compiling a list of prayer requests. We are going to prove to the world that prayer works.” I thought that was an odd thing to do, so I said nothing. I thought, how many answered prayers do you need to prove pray works? Lost in his computer world, Lew showed us his list. There was all kind of things on it.

  1. Vern was facing knee surgery
  2. Doris’ children were traveling up from Charlotte
  3. Jennifer was taking a big exam in school
  4. Dorothy was trying a new hair color and prayed she would like it
  5. Kelly wanted a date with someone named Steve
  6. Rain for the crops
  7. Lois was worried about a new recipe

Wanting to impress us with his computer, he printed the list out and gave each one of us a copy. When I got home, I looked the list again. The more I studied the list the more critical I grew. Everything on that list was about them, their wants, their needs, and their desires. I hate to say it. Their prayer requests were extremely narrow and selfish. Listen to what I am about to say. There is more to prayer than our wants, needs and desires. Prayer is not about us. Prayer is really about God. That takes us to the scripture lesson for today.

We find ourselves in the fourth chapter of Acts, verses twenty-three through thirty-one. Much has happened already. It is really a continuation of a single story. It began in the third chapter, where Peter healed a lame beggar. The miracle created a crowd and Peter took that opportunity to talk about Jesus. In the end, Peter and his companion, John, were arrested. Once released, they were sent back to their own people. The Apostles reported on what had happened, and the people responded by praising God in prayer. It is that prayer that grabs our attention. Those early believers knew what we often forget. Prayer is not about us. Prayer is about God. Their prayer models for us three things we should never forget in our prayers. It is those things I want to look at in this blog.

First, when you pray never forget the sovereignty of God! One of the most beloved stories in the Bible is the story of Jonah. We think of it as a children’s story. However, it is really a story for adults. You know the story as well as I. Jonah was the reluctant prophet. God tells him to go to Nineveh because they need to repent. The problem is Jonah does not want to go. This is the question you must answer to understand the book. Why doesn’t Jonah want to go to Nineveh? The reason is the people of Nineveh were Gentiles and Jonah was a Jew. He only wants God to love people who are just like him. This is the point. Every day we play the part of Jonah. We only want to love people who are just like us. When was the last time you prayed for someone who wasn’t just like you?

When you pray remember the sovereignty of God. When God looks at the world, he doesn’t see political boundaries or different philosophies of living. God is not a racial profiler. God does not have a foreign policy. God does not see Americans and non-Americans. God does not see one’s sexual orientation. God has never uttered the phrase, “Charity begins at home.” (That is such an unchristian phrase. It was shut down any church.) God only sees human needs and suffering. Look at verses 24b-26. It says, “When they heard this, they raised their voices together in prayer to God. “Sovereign Lord,” they said, “you made the heavens and the earth and the sea, and everything in them. You spoke by the Holy Spirit through the mouth of your servant, our father David: “‘Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth rise up and the rulers band together against the Lord and against his anointed one.’”  The early believers knew of the sovereignty of God. I hope we never forget about the sovereignty of God. I challenge you to remember sovereignty of God the next time you pray.

Second, when you pray never forget the supremacy of Jesus! Max Lucado (born 1955) is a Christian author and clergyman. He once said:

If our greatest need had been information, God would have sent us an educator.

If your greatest need had been technology, God would have sent us a scientist.

If our greatest need had been money, God would have sent us an economist.

If our greatest need had been pleasure, God would have sent us an entertainer.

But our greatest need was forgiveness, so God sent us a Savior.

When you pray remember the supremacy of Christ. Jesus was the greatest life that ever lived. I am sure the founders of the other world regions were fine people, but they can not hold a candle next to Jesus. He is the bridge between God and humankind. He is our only hope of salvation. The early church understood the supremacy of Christ. In the second chapter of Philippians Paul wrote:

He (Jesus) humbled himself in obedience to God
    and died a criminal’s death on a cross.

 Therefore, God elevated him to the place of highest honor
    and gave him the name above all other names,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.

In verse 27 of our scripture lesson, Jesus is called the anointed one. To the early church, Jesus was everything. Some things should not change. Jesus should be everything to us. I challenge you to remember sovereignty of God and the supremacy of Jesus the next time you pray.

Third, when you pray never forget the sanctity of the church! In 1949, the Chinese communist government expelled all foreign missionaries. That action signaled the beginning of a new round of Christian persecution. For decades, there was next to no news about the church in China. The only thing the church could do was pray. Everyone expected the worst. Then, the world found out what was happening, revival! In 1949, there were 1.8 million Christians in China. By the year 2000, there were 26 million Christians. In 2018, the Chinese government declared there were 44 million Christians in China. Yes, there is terrible persecution, but there is also revival!

When you pray never forget the sanctity of the church. I am not talking about the human organization we call the church, the one that is filled with boards and committees. I am talking about that organism God calls the church, the body of Christ, those individuals who are glorifying the name of Jesus, and those individuals who are still proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ. Verses 29-31 says, “Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. Stretch out your hand to heal and perform signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.”  I challenge you to remember sovereignty of God, the supremacy of Jesus, and the sanctity of the church the next time you pray.

Saint Francis of Assisi (1182-1226) was an Italian friar, deacon, and mystic. He died at the age of 44. Don’t let his age fool you. We know his name because of his spiritual maturity. He once uttered this prayer:

O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love; for it is in giving that we receive it; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. 

Saint Francis knew the truth. Prayer is not about us. Prayer is about God.

One of the saints in my life is a woman named Carol. She truly is an amazing Christian woman. I have known her for years. My wife Kathryn has known her longer. As a matter of fact, Carol was Kathryn’s Sunday School teacher during her High School years. Years later, she babysat our daughter, Anna, in her home. Life is funny. Carol and Anna are now Facebook friends. Every visit with Carol is a treat. On one such visit, Kathryn looked at Carol and said, “I must tell you something. Without you I never would have gone into the ministry.” Carol responded with moist eyes and said, “Every time I hear about you and your ministry in the former Soviet Union, I am so proud I know you. I must tell you something. I’m not in a situation to financially support your ministry. I’m sorry.” Kathryn said, “I don’t send you those reports because I want your money. I spend you those reports because I want something more valuable. I want your prayers.” If Carol knows anything, she knows how to pray.

Do you know how to pray? Are your prayers filled with your wants, needs and desires? Are your prayers filled with the things of God? Prayer is not about us. Prayer is about God. The founder of the great Methodist movement once said, “Prayer is where the action is.”

Worth the Risk

His name is Felix Baumgartner (born 1969). His is an Austrian born skydiver. On October 14, 2012, he roared twenty-four miles up in a helium balloon. He found the place where space begins. Do you remember what happened? The video clip was shown countless times. He jumped out of his balloon and drifted down to the surface of the earth safely. Along the way he became the first person to break the sound barrier without vehicular power. I knew he would be safe because the whole thing was sponsored by energy drink company, Red Bull. Can I ask you a question? Do you consider Felix a hero? Do you consider Felix a fool? We can all agree on the fact that he is a risk taker. Here is a question you must answer. How great of a risk are you willing to take for God? That leads us to the scripture lesson for today.

We are in the third chapter of Acts, verses one through ten. According to the text, Peter and John are on their way to the temple to pray at 3:00 in the afternoon. It is unusual for us to show up at church for pray in the middle of the afternoon, but it was not unusual for them. The devout came at scripted times. They came at 9:00 in the morning. They came at 3:00 in the afternoon. They came at sunset. The Hebrew faith has always valued prayer.

As the devout came, they saw the usual cast of characters lining the street, the beggars. Most did not come by their own power. They were placed there by their loved ones, who knew of the generosity of the religious. After all, how can you worship God and ignore the needy of this world? Each one of the beggars had their own spot and story. Some were begging because of some physical limitation. They were blind, lame, or deaf. Some were begging because of an accident or a disease. Some were begging because they were simply too old to work. It was quite a crowd. The only thing they had in common was poverty. They sat there begging because they had nowhere else to go. They were the lowest of the low in their society. They were a sea of hopelessness. Everyone had pity on them, but no one would have traded places with them.

According to the text, as Peter was nearing the temple, he does something unexpected. In the middle of that sea of hopelessness, Peter picked out one man. I do not know why that man. Perhaps, he had been there the longest? The text tells us he had been lame from birth. Perhaps, his voice was the loudest or the most annoying? Perhaps, he was the most pitiful? Or perhaps, the man just got lucky? The man just happened to be at the right place at the right time. He just happened to be there when Peter mustered enough courage to try something new. That was Peter’s first miracle. It is always hard to do something for the first time. What happens if he calls on the name of Jesus to heal the man and nothing happens? The more I have wrestled with this text, the more I am convinced Peter was a risk taker. Are you a risk taker? I hope you are, because you are never going to make a difference in this world playing it safe. Let me ask you two questions. Both are extremely practical.

First, how much of your personal pride are you willing to risk serving God? There are no guarantees in the ministry. In the history of the church, we have known great success and we have known great failure. When was the last time you were part of a ministry that failed? The feeling never goes away. When ministries fail egos are damaged and people never forget. However, the worst thing is there is nothing we can do. Are you willing to be a risk taker for Jesus or are you happy playing it safe? Helen Keller (1880-1968) once said, “Life is either a wild adventure or it is nothing at all.” Are you willing to risk your personal pride serving God?

Listen to this list of names:

  1. Bill Gates
  2. Abraham Lincoln
  3. Isaac Newton
  4. Ludwig van Beethoven
  5. Frank Woolworth
  6. Walt Disney
  7. Thomas Edison
  8. Winston Churchill
  9. Henry Ford
  10.  Albert Einstein

Each one these individuals knew great success. Each one of these individuals also experienced failure. I can give you a story of failure about each one. For example, Thomas Edison’s (1847-1931) teacher once told him me was too stupid to learn. I respect each name on the list because they worked through their individual failures.

I love this story because Peter lays everything on the line. Verse six says, “Then Peter said, “Silver or gold I do not have, but what I do have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.” It is one thing to say the words. It is another thing to have a miracle flow through you. I don’t care how you turn the story. Peter was risking his personal pride. What would have happened if the man wasn’t healed? Peter would have looked like a fool. How foolish are you willing to look for Jesus? Are you willing to risk your personal pride?

Second, how much of your personal security are you willing to risk serving God? It isn’t just true of Peter. It is true of us. We live in a sea of hopelessness. Our world is filled with hurting people. God expects us to help them. They are not going to come to us. We are going to have to go to them. God expects us to meet them. God expects us to interact with them. God expects us to get emotionally involved with them. That is the difference between missions and charity. Yes, there is an element of risk. Are you willing to risk your personal security?

During my time in the ministry, my wife Katheryn and I have visited the former Soviet Union over two dozen times to help unadoptable orphans. In December of 2011, Kathryn and I were getting ready to travel back to Russia. We were traveling to an orphanage we had visited in the past, the Renewal Orphanage in Dmitrov. We were excited about that trip because our youngest daughter, Anna, was going. It was her first trip, and she was a little apprehensive. I couldn’t blame her. She had never done anything like this in the past. She had seen a mountain of pictures from previous trips but going was different. Anna has always tried to hide her emotions, so she was not always easy to read. That is why when she came home from school just a few days before we left upset, I was surprised. I said, “Anna, what is wrong?” She responded, “Someone asked me if my will was up to date. You may need it if you are going to Russia.” She asked for the first time, “Dad, are we going to be safe?” I said, “Yes! Do you really think I would put you in danger?”

Have you ever noticed how many cowards there are in this world? You know it is true. You don’t have to travel out of the country. Just try to do something in the name of Jesus. Annually, my church sent teenagers on domestic youth mission trips. They went everywhere. Annually, someone will tell me it isn’t a good idea because the highways are dangerous. Try to help people in the city and people will try to discourage you by quoting some crime report. Try to save the souls of the incarcerated and people will wonder about your sanity. Have you ever tried to discourage someone from doing something in the name of Jesus? Could it be our pews are filled with cowards?

Are you willing to risk your personal security? Just think about it for a moment. In the text, the group that was responsible for killing Jesus was still in power. They had the authority to kill anyone who supported Jesus. Peter healed this man in the name of Jesus. He was aligning himself with Jesus and putting himself in danger. You can say a great deal about Peter, but you can’t call him a coward. Do you consider yourself a coward? Are you willing to risk your personal pride? Are you willing to risk your personal security?

I love this old story. A clergyman from New York called on Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) at the White House during the darkest days of the Civil War. He said: “I have not come to ask any favors of you, Mr. President; I have only come to say that the loyal people of the North are sustaining you and will continue to do so. We are giving you all that we have, the lives of our sons as well as our confidence and our prayers. You must know that no boy’s father or mother ever kneels in prayer these days without asking God to give you strength and wisdom.” Lincoln was moved by his words. He replied, “But for those prayers, I should have faltered and perhaps failed long ago. Tell every father and mother you know to keep on praying, and I will keep on fighting, for I know God is on our side.” As the clergyman started to leave the room, Mr. Lincoln held him by the hands and said: “May I consider this a pastoral call?” “Yes,” replied the clergyman. “Out in the country,” replied Lincoln, “when a parson makes a pastoral call, it was always the custom for the folks to ask him to lead in prayer, and I should like to ask you to pray with me today. Pray that I may have the strength and the wisdom.” The two men knelt side by side, and the clergyman offered the most fervent plea to Almighty God that ever fell from his lips. As they arose, the President clasped his visitor’s hand and remarked in a satisfied sort of way: “I feel better.”

I love that story because it humanizes one of the great figures in American history.

I don’t care if you are president of the United States or a common citizen, we all need prayer. If you are going to make a difference for Jesus in this world, then you better collect as many prayers as possible. It is not easy risking your personal pride. Sometimes we fail. It is not easy risking personal security. There is a sea of hopelessness out there. It is not easy serving in the name of Jesus, but it is worth the risk. Albert Einstein (1879-1955) once said, “A ship is always safe at the shore – but that is NOT what it was built for.” Neither are you!