Sometimes God says “no.”

I was so looking forward to visiting a dear friend, but a gut feeling told me not to go. I reluctantly canceled. Two days later, I tested positive for COVID-19. My friend is immunocompromised, and I would have exposed him to the virus had I not accepted God’s unwelcome “no.”

This month’s lectionary readings from Acts include the second halves of vision stories that begin with a holy “no.” Before Paul and his companions turn west toward Macedonia, they try to head east, “but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them” (Acts 16:7). One Sunday and a few chapters earlier, Peter informs his critics of his vision of unclean foods. He obediently refrains, three times standing firm in his faith, but God refuses his religious certainty. The Spirit is for Gentiles too.

Both stories illustrate that behind every “no” from God lies a deeper, wiser, better “yes.”

Good parents, partners, coaches, teachers, medical professionals, managers and others understand this. “No” to junk food is “yes” to a healthy body. “No” to one request can be “yes” to a greater benefit for more people. Saying “no” to bullies, addicts and narcissists can help them as well as those they hurt.

But this can be hard to remember and accept on the receiving end of a disappointing or disillusioning “no,” especially when we can’t yet see the “yes.” It requires—and builds—faith. Because God ultimately says “yes” to us, God weathers our hesitancy, frustration and defiance. Peter and Paul didn’t get it the first time. Who does?

“No” to junk food is “yes” to a healthy body. “No” to one request can be “yes” to a greater benefit for more people.

A few years ago, when my father died, I was torn about flying home to attend the funeral. Haunted by Jesus’ harsh rebuke of the man who says, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father” (Luke 9:59), I fretted about misplaced priorities and the ministry commitments I would be abandoning. They seemed so important at the time, but now I can’t even remember what they were. What I do remember is the rare experience of clearly hearing Jesus speak to me.

“When did I say that?” Jesus asked.

“Right after you set your face to go to Jerusalem to die.”

“And why was I so insistent that I must die on the cross?”

The risen Christ listened patiently as I wasted several minutes trying to bring him up to speed on Lukan theology and atonement theories. Finally it dawned on me that he probably knew better than I did. I acquiesced.

“Why?” I asked.

I felt Jesus reply: “Because I love my dad.”

Love is the deeper “yes.” When we nailed it to a cross, God said an emphatic Easter “no” to our inclination toward cruelty, violence, disconnection, religious certainty, and other small gods and bright ideas that threaten and diminish life.

Whenever God says “no,” give thanks. Then start watching and digging for the deeper “yes.”

Brian Hiortdahl
Brian Hiortdahl is pastor of St. Luke Lutheran Church, Sacramento, Calif., and an avid baseball fan.

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