When God says “no”

When I was 27, and God said “no” through an empty womb, I had more life ahead of me than behind me—more dreams on the horizon than stories lived in grit (where dreams meet the road). Everything felt like possibility — every new friendship, every neighbor that moved in, every 5K running training group, or book club, or Thursday afternoon Bible study felt laden with potential.

Life held promise, when it felt like God broke His to me. So, in some ways, the “no” was cushioned by so many other potential “yes’s” in my life. It didn’t echo deep.

But here I am, 20 years later, realizing that a “no” from God feels much different when surrounded by a life with less felt potential. We’ve had friends lose spouses to death … or to another man or another woman. I’ve had friends stand at their child’s gravesite and watched children stand at their mother’s gravesite. I’ve prayed friends through bankruptcy and cancer. When surrounded by more life behind me than (potentially) what is ahead, those “no’s” from God … they echo.

What do we do with ourselves when God says “no”?

Well, I know what we do, because I’ve done it — alongside many of you who’ve done the same: we wake up the next morning and fix our coffee in a daze and answer questions from our kids and drive them to their sports and we call our moms or dads to chat … all while feeling hollowed. We throw dinner parties and birthday parties and put on party faces on the sidelines of soccer games and party hats when our child turns six, not naming the ache but living underneath its thumb. Dazed. (And years or a decade like this — of not actively responding to the questions, emotions, and fears that come with a heavy “no” — produce lives that can look successful but which are vacant of true life.)

What do we do with ourselves when God says “no”?

After twenty months (and longer) of living one of the hardest “no’s” I’ve ever known — a “no” I never, ever anticipated — I’m looking back (with Nate), and here’s what we see:

I see my three-year-old and her response to “no.” Three seems to be the age when all of life’s desires culminate into unadulterated delight — pure glee — yet they also mingle with unfiltered emotion. (Let the reader understand.)

Her three is my 27 with a barren womb. I didn’t have profound loss, yet, in my landscape. My dad hadn’t died yet. This was a blip — a profoundly painful blip — but within my unspoken and unnamed worldview, then, all of life (mainly) was trending upwards. Much like with my three-year-old, tomorrow forgot yesterday’s sorrows. And thus, the profound sadness of not being able to bear a child stood on stage alone. I didn’t have to think about what all the losses of those nearest me and my own might mean for how I saw God. I had time to cry and a hands-free life, as this was in the days of thumbing the #1 three times to get a “C.” (I didn’t need to find time to cry.)

My questions of God were more near the surface, not calcified. So I asked them and lived them and experienced the roller-coaster of Psalm 30:5 tears and joy.

For my three-year-old Charlotte, “no” is hard. Perhaps harder than for any other of my children; she’s a determined one. One might call her a threenager, but we see underneath the surface a child with her gaze set on what she wants to do, who has great difficulty when her systems and plans are disrupted. This isn’t an email about parenting strategies; it’s about the human heart.

Charlotte hears no and she devolves, but it’s not too long before her next response: “Mommy, hold me. Daddy, hold me.” She tucks her curly head underneath my neck, wraps her left arm around my arm, and presses her body against mine. Sometimes, I can feel the fast flutter of her crestfallen heart. This child finds her calm wrapped tight in the one who delivered the “no.” And five minutes later … she’s digging her nubby fingers into the earth, searching for worms.

I did this better — I was more like Charlotte — when I was 27 and hearing “no.” A year ago, I told Nate, “I wrote a book about finding God in loss and yet here I am again, nearly fifteen years later, with an even greater ‘no,’ and I’m fumbling to find my way back there.” Fifteen years of life between that loss and this one means fifteen years less of the youthful optimism that fast-tracked that path. Fifteen years more funerals, more diagnoses, more “Did you hear that so-and-so got divorced.” Fifteen years more grit rubbed against my dreams.

This note isn’t just for the forty-somethings or fifty-somethings or sixty-somethings that have known more loss than you twenty-somethings — because all of life is fast-tracking toward loss in a way we didn’t conceive in the 90’s and early 2000’s. This note is for those of us who need reminding that the old path takes a little more time to find, but it’s the same:

Cry it out with God … but in His lap, with your head buried in His chest.

And you won’t regret the time spent there.

When I realized my no was a hard-no, possibly a no-never from God (gulp, tears flood my eyes as I type), I started not only to ask: What do we do with ourselves when God says a “no”? but also, is it possible for things to be “right” when they are not? … really, will I ever know peace or joy again while up against this “no”?

And I suppose I’m writing today to tell you that the answer I’m finding is … yes.

Because just like Charlotte, I’m finding that the same One who delivered a “no” can bring every inkling of myself into the safety that feels threatened by that “no.” God can say no, and yet at the same time give me that which I want most (which I thought would come from the “yes”), in Himself.

What a weird, wild concept: I mostly don’t realize that what I want most can be had in His lap, being held.

I was made to be held.

I come most alive when I’ve been held.

Life makes sense when I’ve let God wrap His arms around my life.

I find myself and God inside of His arms.

(And … and … I am most inclined to need His arms when He has told me no.)

So, I suppose this email has two parts: one is to say that some of you need to cry it out. You need to scream and cry and pout and pound God’s chest. Be a psalmist. We try to coach ourselves into a “right” response toward suffering when the best obedience and trust comes after a long, weepy, messy cry where we find God safe enough to handle and hold our big emotions.

And others of you, with tissues tucked in your couch pillows and mascara stains on your pillowcases — at the end of your tears and slowly, slowly starting to look for sunrise again — there’s a different kind of being held that happens for you, and for me. We’re here because we’ve cried it out on His chest, but the holding doesn’t end here. It’s here that we learn the story from His angle. It’s here that we start getting perspective. It’s here that the questions — though perhaps still without answers — can get turned into wisdom.

“And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.” I Peter 5:10

I am coming to terms with this: we can’t live fully alive in this life without the hard (the hard of hearing “no” from God) … and this hard is the seat from which the best of life begins.

The best wisdom, the best life-endurance, the greatest hopefulness and joy and peace and confidence and kindness and generosity — the things we all want most in life  — come out of what can happen after God says no, and we stay for a while in His lap.*

There is hope for you who are fielding a “no” … wild hope.