It’s easy to get frustrated at God and the way he appears to be ignoring our plans and prayers. But God’s ways are not, so Isaiah informs us, ours. And it’s interesting what can happen when we look back at unfulfilled ambitions, unplanned occurrences, and unanswered prayers.
Sometimes we can see God winking at us through the supposed disappointment. Why? Because in retrospect it all turned out so much better than we had hoped.
If we think about it, we all have a dozen examples from our own lives. One of the first Christians to record such a retrospection was Augustine in his classic Confessions. In rereading the book I see at least three ways in which God’s mysterious methods work for our benefit.
1. God uses bad for good
In Book 5 of the Confessions, Augustine mentions getting a job offer from Rome. He was then an unbeliever, living on the other side of the Mediterranean in Carthage. As he recalls the events, the offer came from sinful men with no interest in the things of God. They lied to him about the conditions of the job, something he discovered of course after taking the position.
Despite the negative turn, Augustine could later see God working through the offer for his good. In the events of Augustine’s conversion, leaving Carthage for Rome was pivotal to his salvation. While the move came about through lies, God made use of man’s perversity to bring about divine blessing.
2. God uses no for yes
Augustine’s mother, the devout and godly Monica, did not want her son to leave home. Augustine says that she went to the shrine of the famous Carthaginian saint, Cyprian, to pray that her son’s boat would not sale for Rome. But God did not affirmatively answer her prayers.
Monica wanted nothing more than her son’s salvation. She prayed for it constantly. But since God’s plans for Augustine’s salvation included Rome — something Monica’s limited view could not factor — God told her no so he could tell her yes.
Looking back, Augustine says that God denied her petition so that he could grant her greater wish. If Monica’s prayer had been answered as she pleaded with tears at Cyprian’s shrine, Augustine would have missed Rome and, subsequently, Milan, where he came under the influence of the great Christian pastor, exegete, and bishop Ambrose, a move instrumental in his conversion.
God does not answer some prayers because he is busy answering other prayers. Sometimes to affect the ends he has in mind, he must tell us no.
3. God uses rejection for grace
In Book 6 of the Confessions Augustine speaks about his wordily desire for money, honors, and matrimony. These things are not wrong in themselves of course. But God does not deal in generics; he’s interested in our particular good, our individual salvation, the special grace and gifts that he intends for each of us. And these things were not part of God’s plan for Augustine’s life.
God shelved Augustine’s agenda so that Augustine might follow God’s agenda, despite having no notion that was happening at the time. God works his plan, not ours, and ultimately his agenda is what’s good for us, though it feels like requests and blessings are being withheld from us.
James tells us that every good gift is from God (1.17), and Paul says that God disposes all things for our good (Rom 8.28). As we look at bad turns, unanswered prayers, and rejection in our lives, it’s imperative that we remember such things are used as part of God’s surprising and gracious provision for our ultimate good.