The mercy of no

My son has never met a rock he didn’t want to climb or a ledge he didn’t try to jump. The neighbors all know my house as the one with an underwear-clad toddler attempting to scale the wrought-iron fence separating our yard from a busy street. The boy knows no fear, and has two chipped front teeth to prove it.

A few weeks ago, our family visited Joshua Tree National Park. It’s a natural playground, rocks and boulders everywhere, all waiting for someone to stand on them. It was my little boy’s best dream come to life, except for one pesky detail: we his parents didn’t let him do as he pleased. We said no, not just once, but again and again and again and again. The list of places we wouldn’t let him climb or the ledges where we insisted he hold hands or the rocks where he needed a grown-up’s company—that list was long. We told him no, not because we wanted to kill his joy or because we are helicopter parents (just ask the neighbors, who can testify to the things they’ve seen us allow), we told our son no because we want him to live and to thrive.

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No is not pleasant to receive, and it goes against our understanding of what is best for us. At Joshua Tree, my son screamed and cried and, more than once, lay down in the sand and kicked his legs in anger. To which I say: “I feel ya, buddy.”

In many ways, this season has been one of no for me. As we have transitioned back to the States after several years overseas, I, like my son, have kicked in protest and anger as I watched many good things in my life disappear. It was not what I would have picked, but I couldn’t deny that this was the particular way God was leading our family. It has been a season of struggle. I believe his ways are better than my ways, and I’m writing this as a bit of a sermon to myself, an attempt to work out in words the things my soul clings to when I wake at 4 a.m.

It is good for God to tell me no. Why? Because he knows better than me. Like a kind parent who wants their child to be happy but also wants them to learn wisdom, God cares for me in his no as much as in his yes. When I give my children limits, I do so because I love them. God is the same, but unlike my husband and me, his no is never motivated by laziness, exhaustion or grumpiness. He is the perfect parent, who understands that some of our desires could choke us. He loves us enough to endure the inevitable tantrum, and to hold us through it. We don’t even know, really, what we want. We definitely don’t know what we need. Indulge me and follow this thought experiment: imagine that, in four years of high school, everything in your life happened exactly the way you wanted. You were never disappointed. For me, and I think for most people, if that was the case, our ensuing life would be wrecked by the shortsighted choices we made at the time. God is all knowing. He understands we need him to tell us no when we are unable to say it to ourselves.

This is all well and good, of course, for someone like me. Hard things happen, but I love and am grateful for my healthy husband and am mother to two sometimes naughty (but nearly always adorable) children. Life is pretty good, even when it’s hard. What if the husband leaves, the toddler gets terminal cancer, or your happy life turns into a constant struggle with unceasing and debilitating pain? I believe God is good and, although I don’t understand it, he is working even the bad into a tapestry that shows his love.

Even in difficult situations, God’s no is good because he loves me. More than I love myself, actually. A few centuries ago, John Newton wrote, “Everything is needful that he sends; nothing can be needful that he withholds.” God doesn’t skimp or make do with a less-than-ideal situation. If a situation or a person is in our life, it is there because God has allowed it. I am not saying God causes pain: I am saying that, for some mysterious reason, he allows the bad and then uses it to make good. Perhaps this sounds Pollyanna-ish; I understand the skepticism. But I believe God allowed his very own Son to die and then, through that horrible event, defeated death and redeemed a people for himself. Because of that, I believe that the times God denies our desires are evidence of his love just as much or even more than the times he fulfills our desires. Jesus said, “Which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone?…If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Mt. 7:9,11) God loves us enough to let his son die for us. Frankly: there are people for whom I would die, but there is no one for whom I would sacrifice my child. God did that. Shouldn’t we take him seriously?

I believe God tells me no because I am not the point. God is doing something better than making me happy; he is making me a reflection of himself. He is not in the business of making me happy, but the one of making me good and lovely. I don’t always believe this, but I would rather be whole and loving than temporarily cheerful. Sometimes that process is painful. Certain edifices in our life must be torn down that they may be replaced with something better. Some good things in life actually hinder me from knowing and loving God, who is much better than anything good I could hold for a temporary moment in time.

The Westminster Shorter Catechism tells us God made us “for his own glory.” John Piper completes that thought by writing that the way to glorify God is to find our satisfaction in him. The psalmist writes, “All my springs are in you.” (Ps. 87:7) When joy flows from God, then it is true joy. When happiness comes from material things or even from other humans, it is ephemeral and subject to change as our circumstances or surroundings change. God will complete the good thing he has started in us (Phil. 1:6). He will take every means possible of showing us, of showing me, that He is the true fountain and everything else will ultimately disappoint. It’s only when I stop pursuing my own pleasure that I will find it. It is when I embrace—not just grudgingly accept, but when I wrap my arms around and rejoice in the no that God has granted—that what seems to be denial is turned into glorious completion. I am not the point. He is! But I guess that’s the thing about real Christianity: the way up is down, and it’s only in losing life that we really find it. As C.S. Lewis wrote, “Look for Christ and you will find Him, and with Him everything else thrown in.”

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