A lifelong Adventist, I’ve heard many sermons about “God’s three answers” to prayer: yes, no, and wait.
The Familiar Three
How we love Isaiah’s comforting assurance: “Before they call I will answer; while they are still speaking I will hear.”1 And how often we are told of the “wise, loving heavenly Father, who hears the prayers of His children. But He does not always give them what they desire.”2
Again, from the nobleman of Capernaum and from Old Testament hero Elijah, we receive object lessons on the importance of waiting. Commenting on the nobleman’s position that his belief in Jesus depended on the Lord’s healing his son, Ellen White wrote that like this father, “we are often led to seek Jesus by the desire for some earthly good; and upon the granting of our request we rest our confidence in His love. The Savior longs to give us a greater blessing than we ask; and He delays the answer to our request that He may show us the evil of our own hearts, and our deep need of His grace. He desires us to renounce the selfishness that leads us to seek Him.”3
At times God must wait for our readiness. In Elijah’s case it was God’s own honor that was at stake. The promised rain had to come. Yet Elijah, exhausted from his day on Mount Carmel, had to pray seven times for something that absolutely was within the will and honor of God. Note this description of the process:
“The prophet did not give up in discouragement. He kept reviewing his life, to see where had failed to honor God. . . . As he searched his heart, he seemed to be less and less, both in his own estimation and in the sight of God. It seemed to him that he was nothing, and that God was everything; and when he reached the point of renouncing self, while he clung to the Savior as his only strength and righteousness, the answer came.”4
After a day of great deeds, Elijah in his wearied state was in danger of assuming that God’s awesome deeds had something to do with him. So God put His own honor on hold while He waited till Elijah could humbly proceed. The passage concludes that God’s ear is not closed to our petitions, but that His response may be delayed until He can “safely” bless us. What careful love!
The Unfamiliar Fourth
Not until my junior year in academy did I come in touch with this one. Surprisingly, the understanding came not from a Bible teacher, but from my literature teacher, who found some creative ways to share this enlightenment with her class. Her 3-year-old son Mark had been out of sorts, creating a big fuss, picking on his brother, being rude, whining for a snack, and begging to watch more television. What tired little Mark really needed was not cookies and TV, but a hot bath and a bedtime Bible story. And that was what he was crying out for.
Years later the following passage reminded me of her vignette: “We should not become discouraged and give way to doubt, and think that our prayers are not noticed. We should rely more securely upon Christ and leave our case with God to answer our prayers in His own way. God has not promised to bestow His blessings through the channels we have marked out. God is too wise to err and too regardful of our good to allow us to choose for ourselves.”5
For good measure, two examples on the adult level bear out this wisdom of God in answers that embrace our needs beyond the little limits of our requests. The first recaps one of Guidepost’s most classic stories:
A 1930s farmer supporting a family of 14 found one morning that his plowing mules had been let out of the barnyard gate and died on the railroad tracks. No one would lend him a mule. But then the owner of the general store lent him a tractor that he could pay for over time. “Thank You, God,” he prayed; “while I was praying for mules, You had something even bigger and better in mind!”6
I have personally experienced the thrill of this “better” answer. In the fall of 2008 a few dozen unfinished editorial projects napped in my laptop. My prayers for secluded, uninterrupted work time remained unanswered. I began whining to God, “These projects are Your work, and so long as they’re locked up in Your laptop, the devil must be really content!”
Shortly I was made aware that an evangelistic series in a neighboring church could use my help, except that the round trip would take 90 minutes each evening for three weeks! I thought, Perhaps we could park the motor home in the church lot and be available there for the duration.
It worked. My prayer for a low-cost way became God’s answer of a no-cost stay! God is clearly for us. For though we know not what best to pray for, “the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered.”7 All thanks to God the Spirit for those translations.
Ellen White amplifies: “The answer to our prayers may not come as quickly as we desire, and it may not be just what we have asked; but He who knows what is for the highest good of His children will bestow a much greater good than we have asked, if we do not become faithless and discouraged.”8
It seems clear that God often has a great answer that’s neither “yes,” “no,” nor “wait.” Instead, He says, “I have something better.”
But regardless of which of His answers we receive, we still must honor the conditions. We must know, from the start, that belief on the Lord Jesus Christ inspires a new life of repentance, confession, turning in a new direction, and witnessing.
Matthew 7:7 finds its place in that new life of faith: “Ask and it will be given to you.” Embedded in the promise are God’s expectations that we believe; ask without wavering; ask according to His will; ask in Christ’s name and in obedience to His Word in us; ask without iniquity in our hearts; ask while forgiving others; and ask with persistence.9
Simply put, God’s gifts are free, but they are not trivial. Whichever of the four answers we receive, all heaven is involved in our prayers: the angels who record them, the Spirit who interprets them, Jesus, whose blood covers them and presents them, and the Father who answers them.
Praise God for His wise and wonderful love!
1 Isa. 65:24; see also Matt. 7:11.
2 Ellen G. White, The Upward Look, p. 369.
3 Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages, p. 200.
4 Ellen G. White, Our Father Cares, p. 100.
5 White, The Upward Look, p. 109.
6 Reprinted July 2009.
7 Rom. 8:26, KJV.
8 Ellen G. White, Sons and Daughters of God, p. 92.
9 For more on the conditions of answered prayer, see the chapters “Asking to Give” in Ellen G. White’s Christ’s Object Lessons and “The Privilege of Prayer” in Ellen G. White’s Steps to Christ.
Janet Lankheet is a retired editor and an elder in her local church. This article was published August 18, 2011.