In the middle of giving a talk a few years ago, I almost broke down. As I was recounting how I had begged God to save the life of my son, I felt my chest tighten. I remembered how desperate I felt. How sure I was that my begging would be effective. How much I wanted God to do what I had asked.
After all, he is God. Nothing is impossible for him. I had never wanted anything so much in my life, and it was almost inconceivable that God would say “no” to such an earnest request. It seemed good and right and in keeping with God’s character.
But God did say “no.” Even as I was pleading for my son’s life, he was dying. How does a good God let that happen? I couldn’t understand that. And I remembered with vivid clarity many other times that I had begged God for things that he refused. As a child, I begged God to heal me. In my twenties, I begged God to repair a broken romantic relationship. And several years ago, I begged God to bring my husband back.
I wondered even as I was speaking, “Why doesn’t God answer my deepest prayers?” Of course, I had thought through my theology before delivering my message. My talk was about finding God in the middle of our mess. The point of my talk was that God uses all things in our lives for our joy and his glory.
But as I was saying the words, “I begged God…” I was flooded with the emotions that I had felt decades earlier. Once again, I felt the raw pain of begging God and wondering why he had not answered me the way I wanted. At the time, I had felt abandoned. At the time, it seemed as though God didn’t care at all.
But as I was speaking, the Holy Spirit met me. He used the words that I was saying, and had written days earlier, to minister to me in that moment. He reminded me of the truth that while he always hears and answers our prayers, his answers may look wholly different from what we expect. Though he may give us painful struggles to endure, he carries us through them.
I was addressing a group of urban women, many of whom had known extraordinary hardship. As I was talking, I was thankful for my own suffering, even if it wasn’t as profound as theirs. My words were not an abstraction I had found in a textbook, hoping it would resonate with my audience. I was not advising them to do something that I hadn’t done myself. Or asking them to trust God for things that I hadn’t trusted him for myself. No, I had lived what I was talking about so my words were from experience.
At the end of my talk, I had an overwhelming sense of God’s purpose. I was overcome by a love for Christ and a joy over what he had done in my life. And in that roomful of women who had suffered so much, his presence was tangible. There was joy mixed with tears. Repentance and confession. Hope and a renewed love for Jesus. I was standing on holy ground, grateful to be a part of this profound work of the Spirit.
As I listened to these precious accounts, I saw a tiny glimpse of the glorious work God is doing in all of us. I saw that his refusals were his mercies; they had shaped me. Every “no” drove me deeper into the heart of God, deeper into his word, deeper into prayer.
I was thankful for each “no”, each trial and hardship, each affliction that drove me to my knees.
In my finite wisdom, I would never have chosen the path I have walked. It has been hard and gritty and none of my struggles have had simple happy endings, tied up neatly with a bow. But as I listened to these women’s stories, I realized that God had chiseled and hammered me, said “no” when I begged for “yes”, offered his presence when I wanted his presents, because he had a much bigger plan for me. Part of it was telling people about his goodness in the midst of suffering.
I am thankful I do not decide my future. God does. Left to myself, my journey would have been smooth sailing in spiritually shallow waters. My life would have been filled with temporary pleasures and perpetual emptiness. So today, when I think back over the instances when God said “no,” despite my begging, I am thankful. Though some “no’s” have left an ache in my soul, I would not seek to undo them. In part because I often see purpose in them, but more importantly because I know that he will always do what is best for me. Even when I don’t understand why, I trust he has a purpose in my pain.
In Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, Tim Keller quotes John Newton saying:
“All shall work together for good; everything is needful that he sends; nothing can be needful that he withholds… Yield to his prescriptions, and fight against every thought that would represent it as desirable to be permitted to choose for yourself. When you cannot see your way, be satisfied that he is your leader.”
Why doesn’t God fix my problem when I’m begging him? Because he knows what I need and has chosen for me what I would not have chosen for myself, given my limited perspective on life and my penchant for my own comfort.
Everything is needful that he sends. Nothing can be needful that he withholds.
It has all been necessary.
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