When the door shuts

You’ve prayerfully and thoughtfully considered the decision. It seemed clear that this was the path to take. Doors were opening, people were supportive. The decision seemed to be in line with God’s good purposes for you – and then it’s a ‘no’. The door shuts.

For me, all too quickly the questions come. Why did God do this? How can I trust him? God seems silent. So I supply the answers:

Maybe I deserved this. What have I done wrong? I’m not good enough.

It happens in all kinds of decisions. Preparing for a baby, wondering about marriage, or perhaps thinking through how God can use your gifts in ministry, or work – or even a decision towards the restoration of a friendship.

Two moving stories in Scripture capture some of the extraordinary workings of our God when the answer is ‘no’.

In refusing to come quickly, Jesus said ‘no’ to the good request from Mary and Martha to come immediately to Lazarus, his sick and dying friend (John 11). The anguish of the sisters is clear – ‘Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died’. Jesus, in his humanity, feels something of the pain and the consequences of his own ‘no’. He weeps and is deeply troubled. Even so, Jesus’ ‘no’ to Mary and Martha foreshadows the ‘no’ that Jesus himself will receive. Perhaps one of the most moving responses to a ‘no’ in Scripture is Jesus’ cry for his Father to take the cup of suffering away from him. Though grieved and troubled by his Father’s ‘no’, he willingly and obediently accepts it.

These stories show us how hearing ‘no’ can hurt. It is not wrong to express that hurt in honest tears and grief. But how do they help us when we feel God is silent or distant, or that we deserve this?

God is with us and weeps with us

Notice Jesus’ response to Mary and Martha’s grief. He does not judge their grief or tears. He does not condemn them for expecting him to meet their desires. He doesn’t preach stoic indifference, ‘this is God’s plan – you must learn to live with it’. He doesn’t walk away from them when they are incapable of responding calmly and quietly to his ‘no’. Instead, he moves towards them, weeps with them and loves them deeply. This is what we really need to know. Can we continue to believe that we are still loved, that the ‘no’ ultimately comes from our Father who is close to us and weeps with us in our pain, and who longs to reveal his glory through this and in us? This grows not only our faith, but Christ-likeness. Nothing grows our own compassion and love for others more than experiencing his compassion and love for us.

God is actively working for something bigger, deeper and richer

These stories challenge our assumptions of how God works. Much of the difficulty is because we thought we could discern God’s will and were confident that it would lead to something good, according to our understanding of what is good for us. In both these stories something surprising and astoundingly better was to come. In both stories the closed door became life-giving. For those mourning at Lazarus’ tomb, Jesus’ ‘no’ led to the revelation of God’s glory, power and character. For Jesus, the Father’s ‘no’ meant a ‘yes’ for all of those who were to come to believe in him.

When we stare in confusion and consternation at the door that has just closed on us, we can take comfort that the closed door is God’s loving preparation for a destination that will be beautiful beyond our wildest dreams. It’s a ‘no’ that tests our faith and enlarges our vision. God is not messing around with us when what appears to be good becomes a ‘no’. He is doing something, but it is probably nothing like what we imagined or thought.