The Bittersweet Answer


It feels as though, more often than not, answered prayers are bittersweet. From my mortal lens, I can’t tell if it feels this way because it’s true, the frequency of bittersweet answers outpaces the saccharine ones, or because we in our mortality are more likely to notice when things don’t go how we planned more often than we are to notice when everything is going exactly as we’ve planned. I suspect the reason may be the latter. The reason why is worth reflecting on but for now I want to talk about why the bittersweet answer stings and where we go after.

On the surface, we all claim to want clarity. Whether or not you’re a person of faith, we’re searching for answers on why we feel this way and what’s coming next for us. For example, just the other day, one of my friends asked the astrological expert of the group what the start of Gemini season means. “It’s bad. Probably fine for you, but not for us Pisces” she responded. Whether it’s the star season, or a closed door, clarity is sobering. It forces us to face a long awaited answer with the fullness of its truth. Sobriety, as any recovering addict will tell you, is great, but there’s a reason addictions are so common and why they last so long. We don’t really, truly want to face the world sober. It means the pain is in focus and we have nothing to buffer it.

A bittersweet answer can be the death of a dream. Maybe you have feelings for someone and you get the call that they’re moving away. Maybe you’ve been interviewing for that dream job and you get a rejection email. Maybe you miscarry a pregnancy. If we live our lives as instructed in Proverbs 3:5-6 then we bring all things to the Godhead and live according to the answers They provide. Yet that doesn’t always feel like good news.

In Isaiah 54:8 we are reminded that the Lord’s ways are not our ways. That disconnect often stings because we are so sure about that person, that job, that life, that plan and path for ourselves. And for some reason, even though we’ve thought of everything, even though we’ve seen how good and right that path is for us, God’s ways are higher and God disagrees. And it stings. It’s allowed to. The death of a dream is deserving of our grief for it. That’s the bitter.

A bittersweet answer can also be the belaboring of a nightmare. Maybe you’re in a relationship that makes you feel suffocated more often than held, but God asks you to stick through it. Maybe you’re at a job you hate or feel abandoned at, and while God is telling everyone else Go, God’s telling you, Stay. Maybe your kids are extra challenging these days and while all your friends are enjoying time with their kids, yours feel like a chore, and God is saying keep working. Things will get better, you’re certain, if you can find someone else, take a different position, or have healing for your kids. Yet God’s higher ways leave you where you’re at. The nightmare bites and it hurts and it’s allowed to. That’s the bitter.

The sweet is that God is answering at all. In the moment of clarity, it feels like slap in the face, and yet the alternative – abandonment – is not kind either. Recall the words of the Psalmist in Psalm 13. When God is silent, we are also stung by the silence. We long for God to deliver us and speak balm into our souls. The sweet is that even in a bold, red-lettered, capitalized no, God has heard us and answered. There is a miracle in that. Now that we have an answer, we can begin to pick up the shards of our broken dream and reimagine what they might form instead. Now that we have an answer, we can plant our feet to stay in the fight. We have a direction again. We know despite our circumstance we will see goodness while we are alive.

We can be confident of this goodness because after God tells us that Their ways are higher and better than our ways, God says:

For as the rain and snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

Isaiah 55:10-11 NRSV

The closed door does not mean God is done working. God is just not done working yet.


We are not alone in this tension between the bitter and the sweet. If you’ve been following along on Instagram, you might know that my morning devotional has had me in the Old Testament for a while, specifically Leviticus and Numbers, books I typically don’t read. As I’ve been going through, I’ve noticed a recurring theme: The Israelites constantly have their mouths full. They are either stuffed with heavenly manna (God’s provisions and fulfilled promises) or complaints (human anxiety that God will not deliver on said promises). I see so much of myself in that tension, caught between the dead dream and the hope for the new one. Throughout these two books, the Israelites have repeatedly complained to their leaders that they should have been left to die and rot in Egypt. They are so consumed with the promise not coming at the right time, not being the right thing, that they are willing to trade in the coming glory for the devil the know.

It is a timeless human temptation to cling to the dead dream and bemoan the continuing nightmare. Yet I believe that the love we invest in unrequited people and stillborn babies is not wasted. I believe that the interviews and the jobs we endure will teach us skills for our career. I believe that the patience we give our children will make the waiting worth it. Our dreams are dead, yes, but they taught us to reach for more. Their fantasy gave us a taste of the coming glory and for that I am thankful. Our nightmare continues yes, but the struggle will give us the tools to climb the mountain so that we may enjoy it when we reach the top.

I leave you with two reminders from the Psalmist about the relationship of sorrow and joy. Sorrow is defeated by joy in the morning and sorrow is used to water the plant that brings joy. Mourn for your dream for those tears will fertilize an even better one. Endure the nightmare because the morning always wakes us from our slumber. The bitterness and the sweetness.

Bryce Van Vleet is the #1 selling author of Tired Pages and Before We All Die Let’s Have One Last Chat by the Fireside. He also hosts the podcast Death in Dakota and sells poetry art here. You can support him by clicking through blog posts or donating (scroll to the bottom of the page).

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Curious why we don’t use he/him pronouns for God in this post? Click here.

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