I remember pleading with God for something, only to be given a “no” for an answer. Yet, I’ve noticed that others made similar requests, and received a “yes” from God. What’s up with that!? This raises the obvious question:Why does a sovereign God sometimes say “no” to desperate prayers?

For help we turn to a fascinating example found in the Bible. We find two requests going up to God from the same place (Dothan—a few miles north of Jerusalem) and two very different answers from God’s hand. The requests came from Joseph in the book of Genesis, and Elisha in the book of 2 Kings.

In the first, Joseph is betrayed and treated violently by his brothers, and ends up in slavery. The biblical narrative does not tell us much about Joseph’s spiritual life during this time, but we do know that he cried out for his life to his brothers from the cistern below (Genesis 42:21). God did not intervene directly and Joseph was then sold into slavery, and eventually betrayed and imprisoned in a foreign country. In short, God chose not to intervene in a cruel string of events that were saturated with injustice. Infuriating! God apparently said “no” to Joseph’s requests for many years. Injustice lingered and went unresolved.

Contrast this with Elisha’s situation (in 2 Kings 6) which also took place in Dothan. Elisha and his servant are trapped in Dothan and surrounded by hostile Syrian troops. Elisha’s servant was understandably terrified., so Elisha prays and asks God to open his servant’s eyes. And suddenly… God chooses to show them “chariots of fire”—heavenly troops surrounding the city who will deliver them. The Lord also struck the Syrian troops with blindness immediately after Elisha asked Him to.

SO…here’s the question. Why did God answer the prayers of two men in Dothan so differently? We know that God was just as present and active in the “slow answers” to Joseph as in the “rapid answers” with Elisha. He was just as active in the silence of the cistern and the prison as he was in the besieged city surrounded by a hostile army. What’s up?

What we cannot do, and should never do, is question God’s wisdom, goodness or His love, simply because He did not respond the way we wanted. Yet this is so tempting. There are times when Becky and I have pled through tears for God to change a situation and He has! But other times He has said “no.” I can easily begin to pout and wonder if God knows what He’s doing. How foolish! How sinful! How evil of me! Over the years, we’ve learned that we need to trust in His goodness and His power, because getting divine “no’s” is just part of the Christian life.

So, if you are pleading with God right now, to change a loved one’s heart, or to be healed from a disease, or to change a financial situation, know that you are praying to a good and wise heavenly Father. He truly knows what He is doing. Be glad that you are not in charge of things! Even thank God for the times He says “no.” Recall all the reminders in the Bible of God’s love for His people. Meditate on passages like Psalm 103 or Psalm 23. Remember to keep preaching God’s promises to yourself. And remember that, in the end, God’s people live on promises—and not on getting everything we ask for. Finally, recall the words of God through Isaiah, the prophet,

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways,”
declares the LORD.
“As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

Isaiah 55:8-9