Sometimes it feels like half of being a dad is getting good at saying “No!” without being either angry or indecisive. No matter how good we get, however, our children often struggle to accept the answer.1
It’s hard to hear “No” (particularly if it’s something you really want!). In this post, I want to focus primarily on our hearts as dads. We have authorities just like our kids. Make a quick mental list of the authorities in your life. Your list will likely look something like this:
- my boss
- my pastor(s)
- my local governing authorities
- my country’s governing authorities
It’s easy to pretend you live without authorities, especially if you’re American. We like to think about ourselves as completely independent entities, submissive to no one and nothing. While that thinking may be American, Western, or even Constitutional, it’s not biblical. It’s been said that “the test of submission is when you disagree.” And each of your authorities are likely to tell you “No” or “Not yet” on a regular basis.
Like our children, we raise all kinds of excuses when our authorities shoot down our great ideas! When those authorities are human, we can often easily justify our frustration. After all, your boss is only human, your pastor is imperfect, and your political leaders are often spiritually blind unbelievers.2
What do you do, though, when God says, “No”? You know you can’t call God’s character into question. You can’t say God is operating without all the facts. But those realities don’t make it any easier to respond correctly.
The best voices on a topic are often those most tested by time. So I’d like to introduce you to a pastor from 400 years ago, Thomas Goodwin. He was, among other things, a Puritan pastor for the last twenty years of his life at Fetter Lane Independent Church in London.3
In Chapter 9 (pages 393–397) of The Return of Prayers, Goodwin provides six pastoral considerations for when God denies our requests. He describes the chapter this way: “Considerations to quiet the heart, and to help it to discern an answer to, and acceptation of, the prayer when [it] is not accomplished.” I know that sounds verbose and complicated, but there’s gold here and I want to distill it to help you see it.
1. Trust God’s judgment.
Goodwin opens by directing our attention to what he calls the frame of our prayers. If you pray “absolutely and peremptorily, as simply best for [you],” he writes, you should not be surprised if your prayer is denied. But if you frame your prayer with a condition, “with an if, as Christ did,” then Goodwin urges you to “trust God’s judgment in the thing, and not [your] own.”
Praying (and meaning!) “if it be possible” and “your will be done” entrusts the answer to God when the prayer is made. Should we retract this trust when the answer returned is “No”? If God answers “no” does it not mean that his will is being done in his very denial?
The observation not only touches our prayers, but Christ’s as well. The Father simultaneously answered Christ’s prayer “no” and “yes,” for in denying his request (“let this cup pass from me”), he answered his request (“your will be done”). Pray with trust (“your will be done”) and then trust God’s judgment, not your own.
2. Recognize God’s grace and mercy.
The denial of our prayers may, in fact, be the foundation for some greater and further mercy from God. He expounds with the following points:
- God’s denials often protect us: Like children, we can long for things that will actually hurt us. As Goodwin explains, “The denial of a godly man’s prayer is for his greater good, and is laid as a foundation of greater mercy.”
- God’s denials often teach us: Denial often breaks us. In these moments of brokenness, we examine our own hearts, our prayers, and our relationship to God. This introspection itself is a great mercy and we find that “by the loss of one thing [we draw closer to God and] learn how to pray better, and so obtain a hundred better things afterward.” Goodwin offers this anecdote: “The woman that had the bloody issue, though she used many means … yet none took effect; that in the end she might come to Christ, and have both body and soul healed at once.” May God’s “no” draw us to Christ like that dear woman!
3. Discern if God has granted some transformation of your request.
Goodwin notes that God may have actually answered the request by turning “the thing desired into some other greater blessing of the same kind.” He illustrates his point with several Old Testament stories, including the blessing of Jacob. Although Isaac wanted to bless Esau, the blessing rightly fell to Jacob (albeit humanly speaking by Jacob’s own hand). “So often doth God take off his hand of blessing from the thing we prayed for, and lays and discovers it in another more for our good,” Goodwin concludes. This transmutation (i.e., changing) of our prayers “may as truly and directly be called an answer to prayer.”
4. Perceive if God has granted the essence of your request.
In this consideration, Goodwin assumes three basic ends of our prayers: God’s glory, the church’s good, and our particular comfort and happiness. God may deny specific means to these ends while still granting our fundamental requests. In other words, we may ask for some object or event that we think will bring about our comfort and God’s glory (the basic essence of our request). God may deny our specific request and yet give us comfort and achieve his glory in another way. In this sense, God has not denied our request, but fulfilled it with perfect wisdom through another means.
We understand this intuitively as fathers. How often have you denied your child’s sincere desire because you had something better for them! You may deny their request to go have fun at their friend’s house because you’re going to surprise them with some father/daughter time. What are you doing? You’re fulfilling their underlying request (i.e., have fun) while denying their planned attempt to fulfill that request (i.e., going to a friend’s house). And so it is with our Father.
Goodwin illustrates his point with Christ’s call to discipleship: “He that leaves father and mother shall have a hundred-fold.” While we cannot physically have a hundred fathers, “God fulfills [his promise] not therefore always in the same kind, but in some other things, which shall be more than a hundred fathers would be.”
5. Observe God’s tenderness.
God often denies our requests with fatherly tenderness. Goodwin provides two scriptural examples.
- Moses: God denied Moses’s request to enter the Promised Land because he had disobeyed the Lord. Although Moses’s own choices led to this punishment, God did not answer his request with harshness. He allowed him to come to the very borders of Canaan, to see the land. God’s “no” was firm, but tender and caring.
- Abraham: In Genesis 17, God reiterates his promise to Abraham. Sarah would bear Abraham the promised son. Abraham responds with a request: “Oh that Ishmael might live before you.” Although God denies Abraham’s request, he does so in tenderness. Verses 19–20 read, “God said, ‘No, but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son….As for Ishmael, I have heard you; behold, I have blessed him and will make him fruitful and multiply him greatly. He shall father twelve princes, and I will make him into a great nation.’” God often says “no” with the greatest tenderness.
6. Note how God’s denial changes you.
Here, Goodwin offers four positive benefits:
1. We realize our unworthiness in light of God’s holiness and righteousness
David pens these words in Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?…O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest” (1–2). The next verse begins, “Yet you are holy.” When God appears silent, David voices God’s character.
The psalmist continues, recounting how God listened to prayers of the fathers of Israel: “they cried and were rescued; in you they trusted and were not put to shame.” But this is not David’s experience. He writes, “But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by mankind and despised.” His words do not signal self-pity or self-deprecation. Rather, he is expressing trust and perspective.
In other words, the denial from God caused David to look at his own unworthiness. “I am a worm” he recounts. Like one godly man recently told me before he went into surgery, “God owes me nothing.” And he will do right by us.
2. We find God’s grace sufficient
Certainly, the Apostle Paul discovered the sufficiency of God’s grace when his request was denied (2 Cor 12:9). We find the same result in David’s prayers over his infant son (2 Sam 12). After seven days of fasting and seeking God’s face, his child died. But when he discovered the child had died, he washed, anointed himself, changed clothes, and worshipped God in the temple. He found comfort in God’s “no” so much so that he “comforted his wife, Bathsheba.” God grants grace with every “no.”
3. We rejoice and give thanks
Goodwin uses the example of David again on this point. He identifies the spirit of David’s worship by his preparation. “Anointing himself and changing his raiment” was a “token of rejoicing and thanksgiving.” In the face of great disappointment, David’s faith led him to rejoice and give thanks. He rejoices out of faith (i.e., “I shall go to him”), not sight. When God denies our request and we can counterintuitively respond in faith with joy and gratitude, God is truly changing us.
4. We are not discouraged from praying, but set on praying no matter the answer
When you deny your child one request, he doesn’t stop asking you for other requests. And so it should be with God. When God denies our requests and faith still stirs us to pray, we are approaching God in trust. God’s “no” only stops our prayers altogether if we doubt his character. When you trust God, however, a “no” may be perplexing, but it also draws you to further conversation with God. “So say thou,” Goodwin concludes, “I will pray still, though I never have an answer in this life. It moves ingenuous natures to see men take repulses and denials well, which proud persons will not do: and so it moves God.”
Our children often need help correctly hearing “No” and so it is with us dads. If you are a born-again Christian, God’s “No” is always meant for your good. Your part is to hear his “no” as the answer of a loving Father.
As dads, we gain an additional lesson. We learn what should inform our hearts when we deny our children’s requests. We should model our answers after God’s. Like the Father, we should deny our children’s requests for their good, not because it only interrupts us or will cost us time or energy. And even when we must say “no” God shows us we can reach for a deeper “yes” and work for the good of our children.
Kristopher Schaal recently wrote about “the appeal process” for kids. It’s a helpful way for your children to respectfully appeal your directives! ↩
It’s worthwhile mentioning that Paul wrote both Romans 1:18–32 and Romans 13:1–6. In other words, Paul recognized by the deliberate blindness of the unbeliever (which is quite easily applied to our political leaders and Paul’s—ever heard of Nero?) and still commands subjection to those same unbelievers when they are our “governing authorities.” ↩
Thomas Goodwin (1600–1680) profoundly impacted his world through his pastoral work and scholarly study. During his early academic studies, the young lecturer came under the influence of Puritan thinkers and preachers while at Cambridge. This Puritan influence eventually drove Goodwin to sever his academic ties with the university and to resign his post of lecturer at Trinity Church (1634). When he departed from Cambridge, he relocated to London, married, and aligned himself with the Congregationalists—a move that eventually prompted his flight to Holland, a safe haven for dissenters. Over time, Goodwin’s influence expanded and he was selected to serve as a member of the Westminster Assembly (1643), appointed by Parliament to the presidency of Magdalene College (1650), and commissioned as chaplain to the Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell (1656). For the last twenty years of his life, he devoted himself to the pastoral ministry at Fetter Lane Independent Church in London. Collections of his writings and sermons were published in twelve volumes after his death. ↩