This is the last of a five-part series on how God invites us to pray. Be sure to check out the previous four posts here:

  1. “Why Do We Find It So Difficult to Pray?”
  2. “Pray Desperately”
  3. “Pray Boldly”
  4. “Pray Persistently”

From this short series on prayer, the last thing I want you to carry away is the moral that God is a cosmic vending machine, with endless goodies to give us if we just push the right buttons with the right intensity. Yes, God wants us to approach him with shocking desperation, boldness, and persistence. But Jesus also reminds us that God answers us as a loving father does his children. Which is to say, sometimes he says no.

In Luke 11, Jesus says, “What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion?” (Luke 11:11-12 ESV) Translation? You give your kids good things, don’t you? Why would God the Father be any different?

Think about it. If your kid asks for a chicken nugget, you aren’t going to say, “Close your eyes, and hold out your hand,” then drop in a live scorpion. Bad practical joke. But what if your kid asks for the scorpion? If you care about your child, the answer is simple: No.

We ask God for what we think we need, but he gives us what we really need. When I experience a season of unanswered prayer, I remind myself that God often answers our prayers by giving us what we would have asked for if we knew what he knew.

Sometimes God isn’t saying, “No” but rather, “Not yet.” I know of one couple at our church, for instance, who prayed for their son for years, only realizing much later that they were the ones that needed to change. They thought their wayward son was the problem. But the more they prayed, the more God impressed upon their hearts that they needed to ask for forgiveness to reconcile the relationship.

That may be what God is doing in your unanswered prayers. It may not. We can’t always know for sure the reasons that God delays or says, “No.” What we can know is that his apparent lack of an answer doesn’t mean he isn’t listening or that he doesn’t love us. God is our Father, and good fathers don’t just give their kids every thing they ask for. When Dad says, “No,” he is working for his children’s good.

You see, we tend to trust our sense of “the good” a little too much. We think we can always tell a “fish” from a “scorpion.” So when we ask God for an apparently good thing (a “fish”), we feel betrayed when we receive something that more resembles a scorpion. But what looks to us like fish is often actually a scorpion, and what looks like a scorpion may actually be fish.

Think of the cross. If there were ever anything that looked like a scorpion, it was the moment the Son of God was being nailed to a tree and left to die. But that poisonous scorpion sting was the moment of our salvation. When Jesus was crucified for us, he took the scorpion’s sting into his body, guaranteeing that we would get the good fish of God’s grace.

The cross is God’s eternal pledge that no matter how bleak the circumstance, God is still working for your good. We aren’t given a case-by-case manual for why God answers the way that he does. But we are given a portrait of the God who answers, a portrait so beautiful and trustworthy and good that we can say with the psalmist, “Those who seek the Lord lack no good thing!” (Psalm 34:10)