Q: Doesn’t the Bible say God will always say yes to the prayers of Christians?

It certainly sounds like it! Ask, and it WILL be given to you, Jesus himself promised in his Sermon on the Mount. James wrote to the new Christian church: The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective. Just one verse earlier, he stoutly guarantees: The prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. And yet we have all seen holy people pass away. We pray for a good person – maybe a missionary – to be blessed, and instead, they die in a plane crash. Even Jesus, in the Garden of Gethsemane, prayed a very good prayer . . . and his heavenly Father said no.

There’s a cute story where little Joyce writes a letter to God: “Dear God, Thank you for the baby brother, but what I prayed for was a puppy.” We often ask for the wrong thing! And the reality is that the child of God has to trust that God will always answer each and every prayer with the best reply – as our Father knows best. Back in that Sermon on the Mount, Jesus reminds us that if we want to give good gifts, our heavenly Dad wants to even more! In his classic book, Knowing God, J. I. Packer observes: “Sometimes we ask for the wrong thing! It is God’s prerogative to give good things, things that we have need of, and if in our unwisdom we ask for things that do not come under these headings, God, like any good parent, reserves the right to say, ‘No, not that; it wouldn’t be good for you – but have this instead.’”

In The Meaning of Prayer, Harry Emerson Fosdick tells of a concerned mother who prayed that God would not let her unbelieving son leave home and go to the licentious world of Italy. Surely he would be better off staying where Mom could keep an eye on things. To her chagrin, God said no – her boy got on a ship and sailed away toward the worldly lights of temptation. But while in Italy, he made an influential friend named Ambrose, who soon led him to convert to Christianity. That wayward boy was the great church leader, Augustine! And Fosdick concludes, “The form of her petition was denied; the substance of her desire was granted.”

We can be encouraged by two things. First, Hebrews 12:1 talks about a “great cloud of witnesses.” Through the centuries, many saints have been healed, protected, delivered from danger, released from prison. If God, in his wisdom says no to our specific request, we can still rejoice that he has healed and given victory to many of our brothers and sisters in the faith. We serve a healing God!

It’s also good news that God always says yes to certain prayers. Prayers for forgiveness of our sins. Prayers for God to bless and sustain those we love. Prayers that God’s work might go forward in our world and in our community. Prayer that God will bring others into the Body of faith through our efforts. The Bible clearly says that it is God’s will for these things to happen, and we can pray in full confidence knowing that his answer is always yes.