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Facing the No or No Answer

Keep asking God till you get a yes—or the grace to live with the no.

Editor’s Note: Kevin Miller was kind enough to share his notes he used while developing this sermon. Take a look below to see the types of questions he asked of the text and his hearers. We hope this behind-the-scenes look, helps you see how one preacher developed their sermon on a difficult topic of unanswered prayer. You can read the entire manuscript beneath the Notes.

Biblical

  • What is this text primarily about?
    • What Paul boasts about
  • What is it saying about what it’s about?
    • NOT visions he’s had, even though he’s had amazing ones, but only his weaknesses, for it’s through them that Christ’s power rests on him.
  • [LAST] How well do the commentaries support this?
    • Well.

Clear

  • What question is this text answering? And what is its answer?
    • How do you know a true apostle? Not through powerful visions, but through weaknesses that reveal Jesus’ power. Things like weaknesses, hardships, insults.
  • What is surprising about this text?
    • We’d expect that someone filled with God’s power wouldn’t be weak and suffering, daily tormented by a thorn.
  • What is the good news of this text?
    • Jesus’ grace is sufficient for our thorns / weaknesses / hardships / insults. His power is made perfect in our weakness.
    • If we pray, God will give us a yes—or the grace to live with the no.
  • Why did the original audience need to hear this message? It was meant to move them from what to what?
    • From being wowed by false apostles to correctly recognizing true apostles. The true signs of an apostle are not exciting visions but endurance. Which means that we’re less likely to be deceived.

Prayerful

  • Since every text is about God, what does this text say about God? Have I stayed in this text until I met the Lord of this text?
    • Jesus gives visions and revelations—including ones so dramatic that you don’t know if it’s in your body or out of it
    • God knows things we don’t: like whether we’re in our body or out of it during a vision
    • Some things God reveals are not permitted to be told
    • To keep us from becoming conceited, God may give us a thorn
    • The Lord Jesus has the power to take away the thorn that’s tormenting us.
    • Jesus’ grace is sufficient for the thorns he allows in our lives
    • Jesus’ power is made perfect in our weakness. It’s displayed better, shown to be even more amazing.
  • Based on this text, how do I want to pray to God? What can I praise God for? What can I confess about myself?
    • Lord Jesus Christ, help me trust you with my Parkinson’s. You have given me this “messenger of Satan” to keep me from becoming conceited, to draw me closer to you to share in your sufferings, and to make your power even more perfect in my life; and to prepare me for complete reunion with you in a glorious and strong resurrection body. Give me the grace to “boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Your power may rest on me.”
  • Do I genuinely love these people? Am I worried what people think of my message or what God thinks?
    • I want to be glorified for the simplicity and clarity of this message, for my speaking skills. Father, forgive me. Whatever I have comes from you. It is sheer gift. And it is a gift for the sake of others, not for me.

Applied

  • Which person in this text is most like my listeners? What do they have in common?
    • Paul. They have painful things in their life that they would love to be rid of. They struggle with why God would allow this. How do they pray about it?
  • When have I experienced the truth of this text--or struggled to?
    • Miscarriage. (Answered with grace: “many spiritual children: and is this not your heart’s desire? Says the Lord”)
    • Loved one's addictions. (Answered with YES.)
    • My Parkinson’s. (Answered with grace.)
    • K’s being laid out with pain. (Answered with YES—up and walking without walker, cane, or wheelchair—and also with grace to daily manage pain.)
  • How will my listener instinctively push back on, or not accept, this truth?
    • Happiness: We value short-term over long-term; comfort over holiness
  • How can I show I understand and feel that concern and can even see some good in it?
    • It’s not wrong to pray the thorn is pulled out.
  • “Yes, But How?”: For people who agree, how do they live out this truth in simple, practical ways?
    • When you have a thorn, keep asking God to remove it until you get a yes—or the grace to live with the no.
  • How will God empower them to do that? How can I show God provides more supply than demand?
    • God will give them a yes, or the grace to live with the no.

Passionate

  • How is this passage supposed to make me feel? How can my sermon help people feel that?
    • (Stress for Success: “…the most important element in communication is emotion. Your choice of words is less important than the feelings behind your words.”)
    • Curiosity: what was the vision? What did you hear in heaven?
    • Puzzlement: why would GOD give you a “messenger of Satan”?
    • Comfort: God can use my weaknesses to display his strength.
  • What is at stake if people enter the reality of this text? If they don’t?
    • If they do: As they have weaknesses that torment them, Instead of becoming fatalistic, they will rejoice to see them taken away; or receive the deep calm that comes as God gives grace to live with them
    • If they don’t: They will stop praying. Frustrated. Thinking there’s no answer. Maybe, I’m doing something wrong, like not having enough faith. Or maybe there isn’t a God like I thought there was.
  • Why will people HAVE to keep listening to me? What reason can I give in the first 3-4 minutes? “I promise that if you listen to me for the next 20 minutes…” ("Follow the pleasure or follow the pain"--Greg Stielstra)
    • I will explain what to do when you have been praying and getting no, or no answer.

Summary: Homiletical Big Idea

  • Based on the questions I’ve answered, what is the 1 Truth I want to share with people from this Bible passage? (Not 2 truths, 3 truths, or more. Only 1):
    • Keep asking God till you get a yes—or the grace to live with the no.
  • What is the simplest way I can word this?
    • Keep knocking till the door opens—or you suddenly notice the side window is open.
  • What is the most memorable way I can word this? How can I make the idea “sticky”? What are my “Words that catch the wind”? Am I repeating those at least 3x?

Outline and Moves

  • Should I modify my Hook/Book/Took outline?
    • GREGORY “then/now”: Hook, Book-Took, Book-Took, Book-Took, Took (emphasis: application to daily life, especially when more than 1)
  • How can I make my outline simple and CLEAR to people?

Supporting Cast

  • Is there a prop or physical way I can make this truth clear and memorable?
  • Do I need a self-evaluation to reveal people’s heart condition?
  • Any songs that would work great as Offertory to bring this home?
  • Do we need time afterward for prayer? More prayer ministers?

Final Prayer

  • “Dear Lord God, I want to preach so that you are glorified. I want to speak of you, praise you, praise your name. Although I probably cannot make it turn out well, won’t you make it turn out well?” (Martin Luther)

Introduction

When I was a newer Christian, still in college, I visited Karen, who’s now my wife, on her campus. And there I met Karen’s roommate, Nancy.

Nancy, to be honest, looked pale, and a little sickly. Karen explained to me that Nancy had a blood disorder, and it left her unusually weak. The most she could manage per day was one trip across campus, so she walked slowly to her first class in the morning, and stayed over on that side of campus until the last one was over, because she didn’t have enough strength to walk back & forth.

That night, Karen and I met Nancy at the cafeteria, and going through the serving line with her, when we got to the place where dinner was being served, the worker on the line saw Nancy, and reached back for a plate they had prepared for her. It had 1 thing only: boiled potatoes—plain, no butter. And then to make them even less appetizing, those plain potatoes had been wrapped in clear, plastic Saran Wrap and left to cool on the counter. During dinner, what Nancy got down with the potatoes was a fistful of pills. That was in the fall.

The next spring, Nancy was in the chapel on campus, praying. And she had a vision of Jesus. Jesus stood before her and said, “My blood is yours.”

Nancy came back to the room that evening and told Karen, “Jesus healed me. I can stop taking my meds.” And Karen said, “I don’t think you should do that. You tried that once before, and you ended up in a terrible state. At least talk to your doctor.”

So Nancy did, and the doctor confirmed: Something dramatic had happened. Her blood picture had returned to normal. Normal.

A couple of years later, we went to Nancy’s wedding, and she looked radiant. She’s now a mother of two grown boys and a writer and has lived a completely normal life.

So I learned early on that God is the god of the universe. He can do ANYTHING! And he answers prayer.

A few years after Nancy’s prayer was so dramatically answered YES!, my nephew, Jonathan, was born. And for some reason, he didn’t want to nurse, and he wasn’t thriving. So tests were run, and it was discovered that Jonathan had congenital heart abnormalities.

His dad and mom prayed for Jonathan! Karen and I prayed. Our entire family did, and so did plenty of Christians around the country who’d never met Jonathan.

We prayed that God would heal him when he went through an open-heart surgery. And then another. And another. And another.

But at 8-1/2 months, Jonathan died.

I walked into the funeral home and there sat this tiny white casket at the front, and it didn’t make sense. Why would God say yes to Nancy’s prayer for healing, and say no to our prayers for Jonathan?

You cannot be a Christian for very long before this happens to you: You pray for something, and it happens. And then you pray for something else, and it doesn’t. You get a dramatic yes. And a distressing no.

Early Christians experienced the same thing. For example, the Bible tells us that, “God gave Paul the power to perform unusual miracles. When handkerchiefs or aprons that had merely touched his skin were placed on sick people, they were healed of their diseases” (Acts 19:11-12).

But the Bible also says, in Paul’s own words: “I left Trophimus sick at Miletus” (2 Tim. 4:20). Wait. Why, Paul, did you have to leave your friend and co-worker sick? Why didn’t you just pull out your handkerchief and see him healed?

Because to be a Christian is to experience this reality in prayer:

Sometimes God says yes, and sometimes God says no.

How do you and I respond to this? As people who pray, it’s awesome to get a Yes. But How do we face the No, or the No Answer?

It’s essential that we learn about this. Because if we don’t, when we hit a NO, we will stop praying. Or get fatalistic. Or blame ourselves for not having enough faith. Or decide there isn’t a God like we thought there was.

But if we learn from God’s Word how to respond to a No or No Answer to our prayer, we will move on to an even closer relationship with God.

We’re going to look at one of the most painful experiences that the apostle Paul ever went through. It comes at the end of Paul’s most-anguished letter, called 2 Corinthians.

(Read 2 Corinthians 12:1-10)

‘A Thorn in My Flesh’

Notice that Paul hasn’t said a word about this vision for 14 years. Not a syllable. And even now, he doesn’t tell us anything about what he saw or what he heard. In fact, he’s so reluctant to build his reputation by talking about powerful supernatural moments, That he won’t even use the word “I.” Instead, he says, “I know a man who …,” third person.

What does Paul want to talk about? What does he think are the telltale signs that someone is a real Christian leader?

Weaknesses. His weaknesses. Not his strengths.

Where did Paul get an idea like that? From a painful time when he prayed and prayed, and he got a NO or NO ANSWER.

What does Paul mean by “a thorn in my flesh”? We don’t know for sure. But here are the two most likely answers.

One is enemies, of which Paul had many. For example, Paul says, “Alexander the metalworker did me a great deal of harm.” If you’ve been insulted, like Paul was, or attacked, or had your work undermined, then you know that that feels like having a thorn pushed into your flesh till you bleed.

The second possibility for Paul’s thorn, and the one I think is most likely, is a physical disease. Most likely an eye problem that just won’t go away.

Paul writes in one place: “As you know, it was because of an illness that I first preached the gospel to you, and even though my illness was a trial to you, you did not treat me with contempt or scorn. … I can testify that, if you could have done so, you would have torn out your eyes and given them to me.”

Even though we’ll never be 100% sure exactly what Paul’s thorn is, we know this: It’s a “weakness” (v. 9), it “torments” you (v. 7). And it’s a “messenger of Satan” (v. 7), meaning, Satan is using this to send you messages like: “God doesn’t care about you. God won’t take care of you.”

What’s your thorn? Is it financial pressure? Always barely making it. A Physical condition? A Mental condition? Anxiety, depression, OCD? A person in your life who puts you down or abuses you, who really has become your enemy? A relationship that’s broken? A job that leaves you feeling spent and devalued? Is it racial injustice, the feeling of being constantly on edge, and your body takes in that trauma?

Don’t Stop Praying

Whatever your thorn is, notice what Paul does with his: “Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me.” I pleaded. And I pleaded. And I pleaded.

I imagine Paul’s prayers: “Lord, you gave me a tour of heaven so why would you give me this thorn? You gave me the highest high, so why now this lowest low? Lord, take this away!”

No answer.

But Paul doesn’t stop praying.

“Lord, please, I beg you, take this away from me. I know you have the power, and I know you love me. Take away this torment!”

Still No answer.

Does that make Paul stop praying? Nope.

“Lord, this thorn is keeping me from doing the work you’ve given me to do! Don’t you want your gospel to spread, but how am I supposed to do that when I can barely read or write, and my eye looks horrible to the people I’m preaching to! Lord, take away this thorn!”

Since the thorn came after his vision, and the vision came 14 years ago, Paul probably is praying these prayers over years.

Have you prayed for a long time about a thorn?

  • Lord, deliver me from this recurring sin.
  • Lord, lead my child back home to God.
  • Lord, heal me from this affliction.

Whatever your thorn is, may I lovingly encourage you to not stop praying, just because you have prayed and not yet gotten an answer.

Jesus prays three times that the cup of suffering will be taken away from him. Paul prays three times to take this thorn away for good.

Are we asking—and then keeping on asking? Sometimes, I notice, I wish something were gone. I hope it goes away. But I don’t actually ask God to change it or remove it. I complain to others about it, but I still may not be asking God to remove it.

So ask. And if you don’t get an answer, ask again. And if you still don’t get an answer, ask again.

Because when Paul finally gets an answer, it is an answer that is so profound, it’s still encouraging Christians 2,000 years later. It boosted me this week.

God’s No Is Better than My Yes

Here’s the answer that Paul got, because he didn’t stop praying: “But [Jesus] said to me, ‘[Paul,] My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’”

The answer to your prayer—all 3 of your prayers, Paul—is No. The thorn in your flesh will not be taken away. But here’s something even better: My grace will be enough for you. My divine power will keep you going. And in fact, when my power works with your weakness, something wonderful happens. People look at you and think, “How does he keep going?” How does Paul keep on trusting God when he has this thorn in the flesh? It has to be God. There’s no other way.”

But if Paul was strong on his own and just kept going and going, people would say, “Faith may work for a person like Paul, but it will never work for me.” You would be an advertisement for Paul, not for Jesus Christ.”

It really is true, this answer Paul got to his prayers. Jesus still says it to his followers: “My power is made perfect in your weakness.”

It sounds funny to say that the power of Jesus is “made perfect,” but I think it’s like how we might say: “Wow, that diamond is just perfect in that ring.” The diamond was perfect before it was put in the ring, but somehow in the ring it just pops. You can see how perfect it is.

Well, for Paul, and for you and for me, the shining diamond of Jesus’ power is really shown off when it’s sitting in the humble ring of our weakness.

I asked a Christian friend how have you lived for 25 years with a debilitating illness? And she gave me her own version of what Jesus spoke to Paul: “The weaker I become, the stronger He becomes."

This, finally, is an answer Paul can live with. Now he can stop praying. He wanted the answer “YES, I will remove the thorn.”

But now Paul realizes, God’s NO is better than my YES.

Paul realizes, “Now I don’t need you to take away this thorn, Lord, because you’ve given me along with it, something so much better. In fact, if I lost this thorn, I would lose the power of Christ resting on me.”

Conclusion

We all have thorns. Here’s the bottom line: Whenever you and I have a thorn in our life, we Keep asking till we get a yes—or until God gives us the grace to live with NO. Keep asking God till we get a yes—or the grace to live with no.

Get to the yes—or to the no with a blessing. Keep knocking till the door opens—or till we suddenly notice, “Oh, the side window is open.”

While working on this sermon, I thought back on the most painful thorns in my life. Ones I prayed over and over about. And four came to mind.

With one thorn, God answered YES: After many years, it was removed. Gone. I still thank him for that. For the next two thorns, God gave me the grace to live with the NO. And for the final thorn, I got a combo answer. About 85% of the thorn was removed, and God gave me the grace to live with the unremoved 15%.

You and I, quite naturally, think the best answer to our prayers is always yes. We think no is a stupid answer that no one should have to live with. Or in our cynical moments, we may think, “Christians just say this stuff to cover for the fact that prayers don’t get answered.”

All I can say is this: Have you experienced what it is like to live with the daily grace of Jesus Christ in your weakness, lifting you up like a life preserver in a stormy sea? Have you ever been in a time that was so bitter, and then you tasted the sweet and consoling presence of Jesus Christ?

Then you will know that as good as YES is, God can give us a NO with so much grace we can even rejoice in our weaknesses. Not fake rejoice in them. Really rejoice in them.

This is not masochism. We should all pray for yes. Over and over. And thank God for how often he gives us yes. But, if the power of Christ will rest on me more because of the no, then bring on the no.

Let me close with this: For the thorn in your life, are you still praying to God, asking him to take it away? Or have you given up? I urge you: Keep asking God till you get a yes—or the grace to live with the no.

Kevin A. Miller is the senior pastor at Church of the Savior in Wheaton, Illinois.

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