But there is another reason why God may say “N0” to some of our prayers. His timing may delay answers past the time when we think they should be granted. God may say a temporary “No” to our prayers, or a “NOT YET” until his timing is right. Do you remember that encounter between Jesus and Mary his mother at the wedding of Cana? Jesus said to his mother, when she requested his help, “My time is not yet come.” Well there are times in life when God says to us, “Not Yet.” My time has not yet come.
The Psalmists faced this discrepancy between his own expectations and God’s intervention. You can hear them crying in Psalm after Psalm, “How Long, O Lord, how long…?” (See Psalm 13:1-4) Jeremiah & Habakkuk also cried the same question. “Why is God often late?” Or is he?
Let me take you through God’s dealings with some of Ancient Israel’s pivotal characters.
In Genesis can you hear Abram & Sarai as they prayed for a child? It was one of the great griefs of their life together. Day after day they prayed and hoped. Month after month they wished and prayed and hoped and yearned. Years went by, with no pregancy, the decades went by and still there is no child. Now they are senior citizens. And yet the prayer will not go away. The longing has been aggravated by a promise from God and that makes the praying and the long wait more puzzling. So Abraham suggests other alternatives. He tells God he would like to adopt his manservant Eliezar, and when God says “no” Sarah suggests that Abraham take Hagar her handmaid as a second wife, and bear children through her instead. It is only when conception has become obviously impossible through Sarah, that the child Isaac is born. No child was ever so longed for. But why would God wait so long? God is concerned for a nation and a world, and not just a couple. For the rest of their history the nation of Israel would know that their entire existence had been due, not to an accident of birth, but an impossible act of God. Israel would have many experiences that would cause them to question whether God had really chosen them, but then an ancient story would remind them of God’s great intervention in their birth as a nation.
Some years later Joseph a great grandson of Abraham & Sarah is in trouble. His brothers have thrown him down a well to dispose of him. In those moments Joseph is praying dome version of, “O God, get me out of this mess.” and God does, he places him on a camel caravan going in the wrong direction. And Joseph prays as he travels, “O God get me out of this mess.” And God lands him into deeper trouble, he finds himself a slave in Potiphar’s house “way down in Egypt land.” And as Potiphar’s wife chases Joseph around the bed, Joseph must have been praying, “O God get me out of this mess.” and he finds himself in prison. And I am sure that he prayed while there “O Lord, get me out of this mess.” only to find his hopes raised and dashed when both butler and baker forget him.
For 13 years his prayers seem not to be answered. Then one day, the butler remembers, and in a matter of days Joseph is catapulted to a place of power and prominence. God had kept on saying “not yet” so that when he got him out of his difficult circumstances he would be the right kind of man in the right kind of place to further the continuance of a people. To have answered his prayer too soon would have helped one young man, but might not have saved a nation.
And there are times in our lives when our hearts cry out for relief. The burden is too heavy, the circumstances too bitter, the deprivation too costly, but God says, “Not Yet” because of a greater good he wants to achieve in us or through us.
Let me take you to a passage in the Gospel of John. Word has just come that Lazarus the friend of Jesus is ill. John 11:5-6 records the strange behaviour of Jesus. “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, so when he heard that he was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.”
Jesus is obviously stalling. Notice verse 14. “Jesus then told his disciples plainly, “Lazarus is dead; and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe.”
Verse 17, “When Jesus came, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days.” But when Jesus gets to the vicinity of the tomb, instead of hurrying to the family he continues to slow down his own progress. And in the conversations that follow everyone concludes that he is late, too late!
But he is not late. He is not callous. He too weeps at the tomb. God always weeps with those who weep! He loved Lazarus & Mary & Martha dearly, but Jesus had a purpose for his disciples that must also be met, and the activity of Jesus says “not yet” to the family so that out of this great hurt he can bring maximum good. He has a Church to build and a world to win and he will not waste the death of Lazarus by some quick resuscitation. He is asking the disciples to believe that he is the resurrection and the life, and that is more crucial than giving Lazarus and his family a respite from tears.
And to this day, God needs to say “NOT YET” to many of our prayers. For God is the great recycler. He will not waste such hurt and he will work in his own way to make sure that the hurt, the pain, the loss does its own good work in our lives.
Malcolm Muggeridge has a word for us on suffering. He writes, “Suppose you eliminate suffering, what a dreadful place the world would be. I would almost rather eliminate happiness. The world would be the most ghastly place because everything that corrects the tendency of this unspeakable little creature, man, to feel over important and over pleased with himself would disappear. He’s bad enough now, but he would be absolutely intolerable if he never suffered.”
Because suffering is not our ultimate enemy, God may allow it to be an ingredient in making life truly whole, and may say to our pain, “not yet.” I guess the questions comes down to this, “Can we trust Him? Can we trust his wisdom and his love when every nerve ending of life says, “He’s late!”
God may say “No” to our prayers because his time has not yet come. But hear the benediction that comes to us from St. Peter: I Peter 5:10-11
“And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the power forever and ever. Amen.”