When we want something, the last thing we want to hear is, “No.” However, sometimes we must hear it, because what we’re asking for is not good for us. Other times it’s because the person in question can’t deliver it. God is all-powerful and there are times even He doesn’t deliver what we ask for despite all that power. That seems like a contradiction, but it isn’t.
God will not deliver on something that is contrary to His character. If a request would require such, forget it. It’s not going to happen. And then there are some things that we think we want God to give us, but if we knew what He knew, we would quickly change our minds. Such was the case with the request of James and John:
And James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came up to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What do you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” And they said to him, “We are able.” And Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized, but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” – Mark 10:35-40, ESV
At first glance, we are struck by the arrogance of James and John, because they are requesting to be first and second in the Kingdom when Jesus takes over. In fact, that’s what is often preached on. However, Dr. Tim Keller pointed out something we often overlook. They were asking to be on Jesus’ right and left when He came into His glory. Jesus responded back that He could not give them such places because those places had already been set aside. Indeed they were. More on that in a bit.
The rest of Jesus’ response indicates that James and John were going to suffer with the pain and suffering Jesus Himself had experienced and was about to experience with the Cross. We know James was the first martyred and that John died in exile, knowing that his compatriots had been martyred for their faith. They would both undergo ridicule, derision, anger, violence, and hatred. The brothers would indeed drink from the same cup as Jesus. However, they were not given Jesus’ right or left. So who was?
Those places were given to a couple of thieves as Jesus hung between them on the Cross. James and John had more to do. It wasn’t their time or place to die beside Jesus. In hindsight, if they knew that’s what they were asking for, I think they would have forgone the request. Also, there was a critical testimony to still be delivered as one of the two career criminals would repent of his life of sin, receive Jesus’ words of forgiveness, and enter into paradise through the grace of God.
When God says, “No,” He has very good reason to do so. He isn’t doing it to be capricious or because He takes delight in our suffering. Sometimes it is because our request is for something against the character and nature of God. Sometimes it’s because we don’t know what we’re asking for, as was the case with James and John. And sometimes it’s because He has something bigger planned, like a thief finding grace. And sometimes it’s all three things. We should not get discouraged when He tells us, “No.” Instead, we should rejoice that He cares so much about us that He takes all of these things into account. Praise God even when He says, “No.”