Reflections: Learning to believe in a God of ‘Yes and No’

I often wonder about those who have only a “God of Yes” theology. When the crops are plentiful, the prayers for successful children are answered, the business thrives and the team wins, they believe everything is the result of God saying “yes” to their sincere appeals.

Bishop Woodie W. White

Most of us are genuinely eager to give God praise and thanksgiving for what we consider to be the blessings we have received. Each blessing is God’s “yes” to our appeal, and our prayer in return is an expression of gratitude.

Yet, there must be times when God says “no”! The difficulty for me comes in knowing how to discern God’s “no.” Surely God does not say “yes” to every prayer however sincere, or every plan however well intended. But how do we distinguish, for instance, between God’s “no” and human (or even “devilish”) mischief?

What does God’s “no” look like?

Some people, I suppose, try to disregard even the possibility of a “God of No.” To them a “yes” is God’s will, while a “no” is chalked up to human imperfection. When a candidate is elected, it is a sign of God’s sacred approval; when a candidate is not elected, it is the result of organizational failure, or limited campaign funds, or “dirty tricks” or media domination. And it might well be.

But how do we recognize a “no” that comes from God? For all of us, that is a profound question.

Often, faith depends upon our understanding of human struggles. Mildred is healed of cancer, while Paul is not. Has God said “yes” to one and “no” to the other, despite sincere prayers that were said by and for both of them?

Faithful people often differ in what they ask of God. Each person is sincere, and each would affirm that their request is based on their faith and theological beliefs. Yet they desire different outcomes.

God listens, and loves all of the petitioners equally. But when do we know that God has said “yes”? And when do we know that God has said “no”?

Those are not simple inquiries, and I struggle with them, along with other believers. I must be careful, however, not to jump too quickly to the answers. Sometimes it is tempting to do so, especially when the results have lined up with my desired outcome. But when that doesn’t happen, it can be very troubling.

The task for me is to remember that God does not exist to guarantee that my wishes, dreams and hopes are realized; even when I believe they are in fact in harmony with God’s!

I have been struggling with some faith questions recently. I keep saying, “God, I am not going to let you go until you promise to say ‘yes.’” Then I realize what an utterly selfish prayer that is. And in some ways it is also foolishly presumptive, even if what I have been praying for is objectively consistent with all I know about God.

As some might say, The prayer is of God. I must deal with the awesome reality that God might say “yes” or God might say ”no.” Or is it possible that God might say “wait”?

My problem—and that of the whole human family—could be that we want God to be only a “God of Yes.” It is often too painful to accept the possibility that God can also be a “God of No.”

Well, I still wrestle with God. But holding on to God is not conditional. “Yes” or “no,” I’m holding on!


Retired Bishop White is the denomination’s Endorsing Agent for Chaplain Ministries and bishop-in-residence at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, in Atlanta.

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