It’s one thing to talk about hard things; it’s quite another to live them.
When, last week, I wrote in the wake of my cousin’s eighteen-year-old son’s death, about how God could answer NO to our family’s fervent prayers for healing and we could still love Him and consider Him faithful to His promises to us, there were a number of challenging things to accept.
This being a Christian is not easy business. Let no one ever tell you that once you are a Christian your life is a cakewalk. No, the life of the Christian in this world is filled with every hardship, every challenge, ever malady, every tragedy, which any person on earth might experience, and the Christian works to see the Lord’s goodness to her or him come what may.
When it comes to talking about God saying NO to fervent prayer, I have walked the walk. Here are the three major times that God did not answer my prayers as I requested. In each one, after I got over His NO, He dazzled me with what He had in store for me.
The death of my son
I have written about Johnathan’s birth and death here and thus will not cover those details.
Naturally, my first wife and I prayed like crazy after Johnathan took ill. Our pastor was quick to come to the hospital, and he prayed with us. As word spread, I am confident that relatives and friends were with us in our petitions to the Lord to spare Johnathan’s little life and us the heartbreak of possibly losing our newborn, firstborn child.
God said NO.
We were, of course, devastated. More than leaving the hospital with empty arms, we returned home with empty hearts.
A funny thing happened on the way to what could have been hard hearts toward God. The Lord healed us. We lost neither heart nor faith. Soon, Kim was longing to carry another child. Ten months and ten days after the birth of Johnathan we welcomed Erin. Two years later came Jackie. Almost three more years till Addison greeted us, and another nearly three years until we wrapped up our child-having years with Alex, in 1989.
Over the eight years since Johnathan, the Lord had worked great growth of faith in me. I had gotten very involved at church. I began reading the Bible on my own. My prayer life was vibrant. I was in Bible study and loved it.
Bitterness over Johnathan never entered my heart. Quite the opposite, I have been able to say that it’s all good. I know that Johnathan belongs to the Lord, that his soul is before the throne of the Lamb of God in heaven, and that on the Last Day he will be raised from the dead in a perfected, eternal, adult body to live forever.
When one argues the joys of earthly life with the bliss of eternal life, there is no comparison. It’s not even a fair fight, whether a person lived one hundred years or one day.
When God said NO to our prayers for healing Johnathan, He both kept Johnathan safe for eternity and blessed me in my earthly walk, increasing my trust to the point where I was able, at age thirty-five, with a wife and four young children, to quit my excellent job, uproot my family, and head off to seminary to study for the ministry. The Lord prepared me for the work, I loved it, and He used me to do well ministering to His people.
Truly, the Lord’s NO had YES written all over it.
The death of my marriage
But didn’t my becoming a pastor result in the undoing of my marriage? While I cannot know how our lives would have gone had we stayed in Montague, I know the things that fell into place which resulted in the divorce, and key things were related to my becoming a minister.
I really should have been out of the ministry before I hit the five-year mark. My church body, the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, takes very seriously the divorce of a pastor. I had only been at Port Hope two months—this was April, 2001—so the congregation barely knew me. I offered to resign from the ministry. When it came to a vote by the congregation, they rallied to me, and for all of my thirteen years with them they were wonderful to me.
The death of my marriage almost destroyed me. Guilt and shame and rejection sent me into deep depression. I was glad that I was still in the ministry—if I had resigned, I had no idea what I would have done, where I would have gone, how I would have supported my kids—but I was one lost, sorry soul.
Though the prayers for my marriage came up NO, I kept praying. I turned the final verse of Psalm 27 into my ardent plea. The verse is this, “Wait for the Lord. Be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord.” I prayed it this way, “You are the only strength I have, Lord. I take heart in all of your promises. But I am hurting so badly. Please don’t make me wait long to feel better.”
I suppose I began praying that in May. In mid-August, I told my boys, who lived with me full-time, that I would not date, that I would not even look at women, until I got them graduated from high school. Six more years.
I have previously written about how Julie and I met, and how we both were going through divorces and were emailing each other. Find the full story here.
Wow, did I not have to wait long to begin feeling better!
Not even a week after my vow to my boys, I found myself falling for Julie. When I admitted it to her, she reciprocated. Living 950 miles apart, we couldn’t date. We saw each other precisely four times before I retrieved her from Iowa the beginning of December. We were married on December 30.
Not only did the Lord turn His NO to my prayers for my first marriage into the most dazzling YES in Julie, so many other good things surrounded it. Kim and her husband, and Julie and I, would come to have an excellent relationship, which was especially important for the sake of our kids. We had them for family gatherings at the parsonage, even staying with us for holiday weekends. They reciprocated at their place.
As for Julie, she had the ability to accept my gender issues and, in 2013, when I had to tell her that I finally had been crushed by self-hatred at being a male, informing her that I might not survive if I don’t transition, she responded this way: “Then we will figure it out.” And we did.
Clearly, the Lord’s NO to my first marriage had His own YES written all over it.
The death of me
The title is an overstatement, but in many ways it hits the mark.
Ever since my gender identity issues took root when I was in sixth grade, I prayed to be rid of this. I spent my life believing I was the most despicable sinner. I was a freak. Nothing but weak.
For about a year, when I was in my mid-teens, I lay in bed every night as I waited for sleep to come pondering what damnation in hell would be like. I was sure I was going there, because how could God love someone like me? I tried to ponder eternity in torment. I would think, “But then there will be one more day. Then one more day. Then one more day.” I was scared stiff.
I tried everything to get rid of my desire. As with so many like me, I hoped love would cure me. Then, I hoped becoming a minister would cure me. Both were naive notions.
I constantly repented. When I owned some women’s clothes, after awhile I would throw them out. I would dig in and try to put this thing to death. I confessed to God what I could only reckon was sinful behavior and tried to live in a manner which He would approve.
I prayed and prayed and prayed and, as far as I am concerned, God kept saying NO: “Nope, Greg, I’m not taking this away. You’re going to deal with it.”
What I did not know until 2013 was that the cause of my disorder was a real, physical malady. I have written plenty about that, so I won’t cite a specific blog post.
In short, I hated being a male because my endocrine system—the body’s hormones—had been disrupted and there was no fix for it to get me to feel like a male. For over two years, I went back and forth—I will transition, I will not—and getting worse along the way.
I prayed more than ever. God continued to say NO, I will not remove this. More than the NO, the answer He had in mind grew in real events and in my faith in Him. Yet, how on earth could it be my Lord’s good and gracious will that I be transgender, that I leave the ministry, that I risk offending so many family and friends and fellow Christians? It made no sense for a long time.
He has indeed answered YES to a huge aspect of my prayers: “Lord, if I have to transition, then please use me to glorify Christ and proclaim the Gospel.” This, I have been able to do, even as I also have educated regarding gender dysphoria and what it means to be transgender. The Holy Spirit has clung to me, always directing me to the Father’s mercy for me in His Son, Jesus Christ.
I want to do so much more educating, especially of my fellow Christians. The Lord continues to open doors. I cannot imagine what the future holds. I know that I cannot imagine it, because I could never have imagined the life the Lord carved out for me.
As with my son’s death and the end of my first marriage, the Lord has dazzled me with how His ways are not my ways, nor His thoughts mine, but as the heavens are higher than the earth so are His ways and thoughts higher than mine (Isaiah 55:8-9). I could only view the finite film of my life—with my son in it, and my marriage not becoming my “first” one, and my remaining a male and a pastor—where my Lord always sees the big picture and the good things He intends to do with the bad things in my life.
It takes faith to hold on. He gives the faith. He sustains the faith.
I hope that looking at the NO answers I received from the Lord when YES seemed the only possibility, and what the Lord did to turn those traumatic, tragic, terrible situations from bad to good, gives you hope if you are in a tough spot right now, or whenever you might be.
We know that tough spots will come. My prayer for you is that you are able to lean on the Lord Jesus Christ with your entire life so that, whatever the immediate result, you might be able to trust Him to have in store for you a healed heart, a full life, and a hopeful future, both in this world and in eternity.