In the first article in this series, we explored why God at times says no to our most sincere requests. We wrestled with questions like: Why did you not answer my prayer, Lord? Why are you not easing my pain? Why are you not taking away my sorrow? I’ve asked with tears. I’ve asked with hope. I’ve asked in faith. I know You have the power to grant my request. I know You love me. So, why have You not moved?
And we explored these questions within the context of John 11, when Jesus waits four long days as Lazarus, the one whom he loved (11:3), dies. He said no to the urgent calls of Mary and Martha. You can hear it in their words: “Lord, if you had been here …” (11:21). He had healed so many other strangers, even from afar. Surely he would heal Lazarus—a friend. And yet, Jesus waited.
He seems often to do something similar with our prayers. We cry out with tears, and we theologically know he loves us, but he doesn’t move as we have pleaded. The silence seems to whisper, does he really love me then?
Why does God sometimes say no to our most earnest prayers?
Let’s resume the story from the previous article. Though Jesus waited and let Lazarus die, he did not leave Mary and Martha in the dark. He sent the messengers back with an important message: an explanation as to why He chose not to heal Lazarus, why He did not grant the sisters’ request, why He let Lazarus die.
And the answer Jesus gives these sisters is the same answer He gives us today.
For God's Glory
First, Jesus refused to answer the sisters’ request because that was what would most exalt His Father’s glory. “For the glory of God” (John 11:4) was Jesus’ reasoning. God being glorified was most important to Jesus (John 12:28)—and it is what must be most important to us. Why? Because God’s glory is always for our best. His glory is always for our joy. His glory is for our greatest good. And thus, we must be satisfied with God’s no, if that is how He sees fit to best put His glory on display. Did Jesus not model this Himself in Gethsemane (Matt 26:39–44)?
The overarching purpose of all that God does—including His no to many of our most heartfelt prayers—is the praise of His glorious name (Isa 48:11). God will not grant our prayers if they will detract from His glory.
Jesus delayed so that His Father might receive maximum praise. He stayed away so that God’s mercy and grace would shine most bright. Jesus let Lazarus die because it was best for these sisters. In the words of one author, “God’s glory does not consist in sparing the faithful life’s difficulties.” Indeed, quite often, God’s glory comes through life’s sorrows (Ps 30:5).
We Need His No
A second reason Jesus did not answer Mary and Martha’s request was because He saw the greater need of these sisters. More than a healer, they needed a Savior. More than a cure, they needed His cross. This is why Jesus adds, “so that the Son of God may be glorified” (John 11:4)—a reference to the sacrificial and atoning death of Jesus.
Think of John 12:23: “Jesus answered … ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified’ ” (John 12:23, emphasis added). What hour was Jesus referring to? The appointed hour of His coming death, which Jesus makes clear in the next verse, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it will bear much fruit” (John 12:24, emphasis added). The hour of the Son’s death was the hour of His glory. In John 17:1, Jesus made the same connection, “Jesus … lifting up His eyes to heaven … said, ‘Father, the hour has come; glorify Your Son, that the Son may glorify You’” (John 17:1). The glory of Christ necessitated the cross of Christ.
By saying no to Mary and Martha, “Jesus began a chain of events that would lead in time to the cross.” Jesus delayed His trip to Bethany to set the stage for the very miracle that would seal His death sentence. Jesus let Lazarus die to give the mourners time to gather in great number at the sisters’ home. By waiting, Jesus allowed Lazarus to be dead for four days, a cultural timestamp of death’s permanence. By delaying, a large stone now locked the tomb’s entrance, the very symbol of death’s finality. All setting the stage for the greatest, most remarkable, and climatic miracle Jesus would perform in His lifetime. Why? So that word would get back to the religious leaders that Jesus did what no mere mortal could do: reach into Sheol, the realm that belonged to God alone, and snatch life from the claws of death (Ps 68:20). So that the Sanhedrin would finally meet and officially condemn Him to death. Jesus delayed so that He would die, which is exactly how the story of Lazarus ends: “Therefore the chief priests convened a council … Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them … ‘it is expedient … that one man die.’ … So from that day they planned to kill Him” (John 11:47, 49, 53).
Here is the wisdom of Christ in unanswered prayer: He sees what we do not see. He knows what we need most. Though His delay meant temporary pain for the sisters, it also meant salvation for their souls. The sisters wanted Lazarus to live, but Jesus knew they needed Him to die. Here is the grace of Christ in unanswered prayer: though His no may bring us extreme sorrow, it is always with our eternal joy in mind. Though the sisters did not know it, they needed Jesus to say no to their request—as, so often, do we.
Remember, “God’s no to our prayers is always a yes to his providential purposes.” The Lord only says no when we need Him to. His no is how He chooses to accomplish His redemptive purposes, while sanctifying us into the image of His Son. In the words of J.I. Packer,
Perhaps he means to strengthen us in patience … compassion, humility or meekness. … Perhaps he has new lessons in self-denial and self-distrust to teach us. Perhaps he wishes to break us of complacency or undetected forms of pride and conceit. Perhaps His purpose is simply to draw us closer to himself. … Or perhaps God is preparing us for forms of service of which at present we have no inkling.
The Lord’s no is always His yes to our greater need.
Because He Loves
A third reason Jesus said no to Mary and Martha is because He loved them. “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus” (John 11:5, emphasis added). On the surface, this is an unnecessary editorial note because John has already told us that Jesus loved this family (John 11:3). And yet for some reason, John still felt the need to remind his readers of Jesus’ love for them.
But verse 5 is not only a reminder of Jesus’ love for this family, it also serves to deepen Jesus’ love for this family. First, John specified that Jesus loved each family member individually; He did not only love Lazarus, “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus” (John 11:5). Second, John used a different, more intense, word for love in verse 5. In verse 3, we read that Jesus loved Lazarus with a φιλέω love—a kind of brotherly love. But in verse 5, John makes clear that Jesus loved each member of this family with an ἀγαπάω love. There is no love more personal, special, or profound. Third, John also put the verb love in the imperfect tense, indicating that Jesus’ love for this family was a dependable, never-failing love.
This leads to several questions: Why did John feel the need to remind us of Jesus’ love for this family? Why specifically mention Jesus’ love for each member of the family? Why deepen Jesus’ love for them? Why emphasize the dependable, never-failing nature of Jesus’ love? Answer: Because John knew, once we read that Jesus did not heal Lazarus in verse 6, we would doubt His love for Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. “So when He heard that he was sick, He then stayed two days longer in the place where He was” (John 11:6). Without a reminder of Jesus’ reliable, never-failing, deep affection for each member of this family, Jesus’ response would seem callous, heartless, and cold.
Put yourself in Mary and Martha’s shoes. When the messengers came back—without Jesus—would you have felt loved by Jesus? “It would have felt like betrayal.” In fact, isn’t that what we hear Martha and Mary say when Jesus arrived, “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11:21). Where were you Jesus? Why weren’t you here when we needed You most? We thought You loved us? We thought You cared?
Verse 5 is clear, Jesus waited because He loved. Unbeknownst to Martha and Mary, it would have been unloving for Jesus to give them what they asked. And so it is every time the Lord says no to us—it would be unloving for Him to say yes.
When we pray, we want Jesus to act immediately, don’t we? We want Him to relieve our pain, to take away our sorrow. Instantly! We want answers now, not later. We want relief today, not tomorrow. Waiting is not our strong suit, especially in our “give-it-to-me-now” culture. And yet our Lord, because of His great love for us, often will not give us what we want. Like a loving Father who refuses to withhold pain from his child when that pain is for the child’s good, so too, our Savior refuses to answer our prayers when they are too shortsighted for our own good.
No Good Thing Will He Withhold
Every time the Lord answers no to our prayers, He fulfills Psalm 84:11, “No good thing does He withhold from those who walk uprightly” (Ps 84:11). Mary, Martha, and Lazarus were an upright family (John 12:1–3). This was a household of faith (John 11:27, 32). Jesus did not delay because the sisters were in sin. He answered no because it was for their benefit.
Every time God says no, He is not keeping anything good from us. He is treating us with love.
God's Infinite Wisdom is Greater Than Our Finite Minds
When God says no, we need to remember that His wisdom is far greater than our own (Rom 11:33). He sees what we do not see. He knows what we do not know. He sees all of life’s contingencies—and in accordance with His infinite wisdom, coupled with His eternal love for His children, He only answers in ways that are for our best. In the moment, God’s no might seem cold and uncaring; yet in reality, it is an extension of His loving hand.
In the words of J.C. Ryle,
Christ knows best at what time to do anything for His people. … The children of God must constantly school their minds to learn the great lesson now before us. Nothing so helps us to bear patiently the trials of life as an abiding conviction of the perfect wisdom by which everything around us is managed. Let us try to believe not only that all that happens to us is well done, but that it is done in the best manner, by the right instrument, and at the right time. We are all naturally impatient in the day of trial. … We forget that Christ is too wise a Physician to make any mistakes. … Let us believe that He by whom all things were made at first is He who is managing all with perfect wisdom. The affairs of kingdoms, families, and private individuals are all … overruled by Him. He chooses all the portions of His people. When we are sick, it is because He knows it to be for our good; when He delays coming to help us, it is for some wise reason. The hand that was nailed to the cross is too wise and loving to smite without a needs-be, or to keep us waiting for relief without a cause.
We may never know the specifics of why the Lord does not grant many of our prayers. But what we do know is that He loves us, and in His sovereignty always works for our good, which is His glory.
We pray, not to change the mind of God, but to cast our cares upon Him. We pray, not to inform Him of what He does not already know, but to rest our worries on His perfect wisdom. We pray because He loves us, works for us, and promises never to withhold anything good from us. His no, is actually His yes—yes to what is better than what we even asked for.
 “For the glory of God” was the same answer Jesus gave His Apostles in John 9:4, when asked why a man was born blind. Surely the man’s parents asked for a healthy baby boy. And surely, once they realized their son could not see, they prayed for him to be given sight. But to each of those prayers, God answered no. Why? Why did God allow the boy’s blindness? Why did He wait decades before giving him sight? Why did He delay in answering the parents’ prayers? Here is Jesus’ answer, “It was so that the works of God might be displayed in him” (John 9:3). The man’s blindness was for his good, because his blindness would one day become a vehicle for him to bring glory to his God (John 9:35-38).
 See: Jonathan Edwards, The End for Which God Created the World.
 Ernst Haenchen, as cited in Leon Morris, the Gospel According to John, 478.
 Leon Morris, Reflections on the Gospel of John, 404.
 The theory of the day was that the soul would hover over a dead body for 3 days, but on the fourth day, once the body began to decompose, the soul would leave. One rabbi explained it this way, “For three days after death the soul hovers over the body, intending to re-enter it, but as soon as it sees its appearance change, it departs.” Another rabbi wrote, “The full force of mourning lasts for three days. Why? Because for three days the shape of the face is recognizable.” For the 1st century Jew, once decay set in on the 4th day, all hope was gone.
 Michelle Kruger, When God Says ‘No’ (thegospelcoalition.org).
 J.I. Packer, Knowing God, 91.
 Could this difference in wording be a mere literary choice? Perhaps. But John’s use of ἀγαπάω throughout his Gospel suggests that he is showing the depth of Jesus’ love for Lazarus, not simply using a synonym for φιλέω (cf. John 3:16, 19, 35; 8:42; 10:17).
 Matt Carter and Josh Wredberg, Christ-Centered Exposition: Exalting Jesus in John, 228.