How do I discern the difference between God’s “no” and God’s “not yet”? Following Sunday’s message this question was asked of one of our staff members. It’s a great question.
There are times when God refuses to answer our prayers. It could be because we are living outside His will. It could be because what we are asking is not what He wants for us or what is good for us. It could be that we are asking with selfish motivation. All these are reasons God may answer with a “no.”
There are times when God answers “not yet.” It could be that we are asking for the right thing, but He knows that it is not the right time. To say “yes” right now would not be best for you or for others. But the question lingers: How do we know if God is saying “no” or God is saying “not yet”? The question we may need to ask first is, “How do I hear God’s voice anyway?”
Jesus said, “The man who enters by the gate is the shepherd of his sheep. The watchman opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.” (John 10:2-5)
Before we can get an answer from God we must be able to hear His voice – to discern it from all the noise around us and from our own inner desires. So, how does God speak to us?
God speaks through His Word (the Bible). 2 Timothy 3:16 tells us that all Scripture is God-breathed. It is His message to us. It is the primary means of hearing from God, and we know we can trust it. If we are not reading God’s Word on a regular basis we are muting God’s voice in our lives. The Bible also becomes the measuring rod by which we measure everything we presume is God’s speaking to us. If it is contrary to God’s revealed Word, then it is not from God.
God speaks through His Son Jesus. “In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by His Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe.” (Hebrews 1:1-2)
God speaks through His creation. As we view the beauty and majesty of God’s creation, it is His way to affirm that He is a powerful Creator. He is supreme, and we owe Him our allegiance and worship. “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities–his eternal power and divine nature–have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse. ” (Romans 1:20)
God speaks through other believers. Proverbs 15:22 tells us: “Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed.” We need to be careful about who it is from whom we seek good advice. Opinions are a dime a dozen. Wisdom, especially godly wisdom, is a rare find. Remember, we need to evaluate any advice from people against what we truly believe He is saying to us and, most importantly, what God has already revealed in His Word.
God speaks through circumstances. Now, we want to be careful that we do not become substitute God’s leadership for fate. Nor do we want to assume that everything under the sun is a sign. We want to be sensitive to doors that God may close or open around us. This should never be our primary means of determining the Lord’s will, but can be part of God’s overall revelation to us.
God speaks through His Spirit. There is a story in 1 Kings about the prophet Elijah who runs away from danger to take refuge in a cave. It was hear that God would speak to the prophet. “The Lord said, ‘Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.’” Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave. Then a voice said to him, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’” (1 Kings 15:11-1)
Elijah would have expected God to speak in some dramatic means, but God spoke in a gentle whisper. Elijah was sensitive to listen for the voice of the Lord. Many of us might have been so caught up in the wind, the earthquake, and the fire that we miss God’s voice.
Once we know how God speaks, it is easier (though perhaps not easy) to determine when He is saying “no” and when He is saying “not yet.” If something is contrary to His revealed will, then the answer is “no.” That’s not too complex. If something is contrary to the teachings or character of Jesus, then the answer is “no.” If some demeans God’s revealed character, then the answer is “no.” Those are fairly obvious, though human beings continually look for loopholes.
There is less certainty about the wisdom we receive from counselors. Even godly counselors can be wrong. There is less certainty about discerning God’s will from circumstances. Humans have a habit of seeing what we want to see. And there is even less certainly about hearing from the Holy Spirit, because we can convince ourselves something is God’s will whether it really is or not. Although these are all valid ways to discern God’s voice, they must not be our only means.
There are times it can be very difficult to discern the difference between God’s “no” and God’s “not yet.” We can apply the above guidelines that may help us determine a “no,” but there will be times when something is not contrary to God’s will or His character. We pray for it but do not see an immediate answer.
If we get no clear direction in our prayer life as we pause to listen intently to the Spirit, then we want to consider our circumstances. Do we see God shaping our world to lead us to a decision? We also want to see godly counsel. This is one of the options we often leave unused. We may complain to our friends. We may watch Oprah or Dr. Phil looking for guidance. We may even look at a horoscope for the answer. It would be far wiser to seek the wisdom of one or more people whom we know have a strong relationship with God, read God’s Word faithfully, and spend time with God in prayer. They can help us to discern our answer.
If we are not convinced that God has said “no” to us after following this pattern, then it would be safe to assume the answer is “not yet.” That means we continue to pray for whomever or whatever burden we have. All the time, we need to leave the door open for God to speak to us again.
One final note – we would prefer God answer our prayer definitely. God, give me a “yes” or a “no.” We don’t like to be left in limbo. It doesn’t feel good. This is when many people either quit praying or look for shortcuts (even resorting to using a Magic 8 Ball). Neither is a good option. Instead we endure in our praying. The more time we spend in God’s Word and in His presence, the better we will hear His voice and discern His will.
This Sunday’s message will be based on John 15:5-8. Perhaps this will help us as we continue to discover what it means to hear from God.
“I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.” (John 15:5-8)