When God says ‘no’

Now, when they had gone through Phrygia and the region of Galatia, they were forbidden by the Holy Spirit to preach the word in Asia. After they had come to Mysia, they tried to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit did not permit them.  Acts 16:6-7

I was 33 years old and minister of evangelism at the largest, most prestigious church (of our denomination at least)  in the state.  A few months earlier, our pastor had left and the leadership had handed me the assignment of preaching every three Sundays, every Wednesday night, and doing the Tuesday men’s Bible study for 150 fellows. All of that in addition to my regular duties.

I loved it.

One day, the chairman of the pastor search committee visited my cubby-hole of an office.  “Joe,” said Paul Moak.  “Do you believe God wants you to be pastor of this church?”  What a question.  Definitely a stunner that caught me off guard.  But I knew the answer.

“No, sir,” I said without hesitation.

“Neither do we,” he said.  (That seems funnier now than it did at the time.)

“But there’s a movement to make you the pastor of the church,” he said.

News to me.  I had not heard of it.

He continued, “We need you to stand in the pulpit and ask them to stop it.”

I assured him I would be happy to do that, and I did.

A few weeks later, he came back.  “We need you to make that announcement again.”  I did. And heard no more about it.

A couple of months after this, I accepted the invitation of another great church in our state to become their pastor.  When I announced my resignation, people were so gracious.  The church gave me a set of commentaries as a gift.

Two weeks later, the new pastor, Dr. Frank Pollard, arrived at that church.  He and I always had the best of relationships.  In fact, during his quarter-century pastorate, on several occasions he had me back to fill the pulpit.

I’m a member of that church today in my retirement years.  I love the First Baptist Church of Jackson, Mississippi.  Our pastor is Chip Stevens, and he’s as fine as they come.

I was thinking of this recently, how knowing and doing the will of God not only involves saying ‘yes’ to His leadership, but includes knowing when the Lord is erecting a fence saying a definite ‘no.’

Pastors can tell about the times the Holy Spirit has led them from Church A to Church B.  But that’s only one half of the story. Just as important are the times the Lord has closed the door to Churches X, Y, and Z.

The chairman of a pastor search committee phoned to say, “We think you’re the one.  The ball is now in your court.  We need an answer as soon as you can give it.”

I assured him I would be calling him just as soon as the Lord told me.  My wife and I had had several conferences with that committee, a number of phone conversations, and a quick visit to the campus.  Everything about it was impressive.  And now, when I told her the committee had settled on us, she said, “I think the Lord wants us to go there, too.”  I said, “Well, pray He will tell me.”

When no answer seemed forthcoming, I called my mentor, Pastor James Richardson, on the other side of the state.  Seventeen years my senior, he was a fountain of wisdom and a bottomless pit of insight and friendship.  After hearing of my plight, he gave me advice which I took, which I did, and which I have recommended to countless others in the same shape ever since.

“Shut yourself in your office with no interruptions.  Get on your knees and start praying.  First, pray that you will want God’s will and nothing else and stay there until you’re confident that’s all you want.  Second, then, start praying Choice A, to go to that new church.  Imagine yourself traveling there, preaching for the congregation, resigning at your present church, and so forth.  Pray about every aspect of this. Then, at the end of five minutes, start praying Choice B, that you will remain at your present church.  Imagine yourself calling the chairman and shutting down negotiations, calling your wife to tell her, and dedicating yourself to become the best pastor possible for your present church.  At the end of five minutes of praying this way, stop.  One of those will be obvious to you, that this is God’s will.  The other will not.”

I had probably been praying three minutes about resigning and moving to the other church when I realized I was having to force myself even to imagine that happening.  That was not going to happen. I would remain here in this church.

As soon as I made that decision, I knew it was right.

That was many years ago, and I never looked back.  Not once have I second-guessed not moving to the outstanding First Baptist Church of Opelika, Alabama.  I remained at FBC of Columbus, Mississippi for several more years.

Every believer with a few years as a disciple of the Lord Jesus knows what it means to hear God’s ‘no’ to a question.  That’s how we know not to marry that person.  “It wasn’t anything you did or did not do,” we say to that shocked individual.  “It was simply the Lord telling me that this was not right.”

I’m not saying that he/she will agree with you, but each of us has to make this decision for ourselves.  Woe to one who marries because “the other person assured me it was God’s will.”  Not good.

On another occasion, I visited a church at the invitation of the pastor search team.  The interview went great and I was quickly in love with the church.  Everything inside me said the Lord was leading me to pastor this congregation.  That’s why I was shocked six weeks later to read in our state Baptist weekly that someone else had moved to that church as pastor.  I could hardly believe it.

“Lord,” I said, “what am I to do with this?  You told me I was to pastor there.”  The Holy Spirit said to me (not in words, but in a definite way), “Sit tight.  Just wait.”  That came with peace, so I left it with Him.

Five months later, that pastor abruptly left that church.  It turned out there were serious moral issues that would put him out of the ministry altogether.  That church elected a new search committee and in short order, I was back on their list.  I became their pastor and remained there for a dozen years.

Sometimes the Lord says, ‘yes,’ sometimes ‘no,’ and sometimes, ‘hold on; sit tight; remain in place.”

It’s so critical to be able to hear the voice of God and know what He is saying.  Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice and they follow Me” (John 10:3,27). It’s standard procedure for His disciples. 

The president of my seminary invited me to become his vice president in charge of fund-raising.  The position came with an impressive title, something like “Vice President for Advancement,”but it was all about generating funds.  I loved my school and admired the president so much that Margaret (my wife of 52 years) and I traveled the 350 miles to be interviewed and learn the details.  At the time I had been going through something of a mid-life crisis, and was thinking the time had come to quit pastoring and start doing something else. (Yes, pastors have these dark tunnels too. Pray for your ministers!)

We made our visit, talked to the president, someone showed us the on-campus housing available, and we learned all the perks and benefits.  As we left town that day, I said to the president, “I’m 95 percent sure I will take it.  I’ll call you.”

And on the drive home, something happened.  First, Margaret wept.  She was frightened about this change and did not like any of the available houses.  And second, I noticed my heart changing.  I had been in a dark space, some kind of depression of a sort, for weeks, as I tried to sort out what the Lord wanted me to do with the rest of my life.  And now, I began to see.

I was to remain at that church and pastor those people.  I was to devote myself to being a better husband and father, and work at becoming a better pastor.  I called the seminary president, thanked him profusely,  and turned down the offer.

I never told him what a gift he had given me.  It’s hard to make a choice to remain where we are when we feel we have no other choice.  Being able to back off and look at the options objectively was a luxury.

That was many years back and I can still recall the pure joy of knowing God’s will, knowing what I was to do, and having His assurance that He was with me in this.  I never became vice-president of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, although President Landrum Leavell and I remained great friends the rest of his earthly life.

Hearing the Lord’s ‘no’ is every bit as critical as hearing His ‘yes.’

When we thank Him for all the prayers He has answered, we should also thank Him for those to which He said ‘no.’

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