Before you give up on getting God to listen, see if you’ve closed the doors.
PRAYER CAN be one of the most exciting adventures of the Christian life. But for many it’s a drudgery. It seems God just doesn’t listen to them. They go through life wondering if God will ever answer their prayers. They’re not alone.
Many conditions for fruitful prayer are revealed in Scripture, including praying according to God’s will (1 Jn. 5:14, 15), praying with pure motives (Jas. 4:1-3), with unwavering faith in the goodness of God to hear and answer (Jas. 1:5-7), with hearts shaped by God’s Word (Jn. 15:7), and others. Failure to meet these conditions can rob our prayers of fruit.
But one of the most common hindrances to fruitful prayer is sin. “If I had cherished sin in my heart,” David wrote, “the Lord would not have listened” (Psa. 66:18). Unrepented sin stands in the way of answers to prayer.
Over 30 times in the Bible we find instances in which God didn’t answer someone’s prayer. Usually it was because of sin. For instance, about twenty years after Saul became king, he was confronted by a huge army of Philistines. He was filled with fear. “He inquired of the LORD, but the LORD did not answer him by dreams or Urim or prophets” (1 Sam. 28:6). In desperation Saul turned to a witch for guidance.
Earlier Saul had disobeyed God and was rebuked by Samuel: “Does the LORD delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the voice of the LORD? To obey is better than sacrifice (1 Sam. 15:22). Before that the Israelites had failed to trust God: they demanded that He give them a king like those who ruled over other nations. He granted that request but warned that their rebellion would cost them dearly when their king would begin to oppress them: “When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, and the LORD will not answer you in that day” (1 Sam. 8:18).
Curiously, God singles out husbands who dishonor their wives as likely to suffer fruitlessness in prayer: “Husbands, … be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers” (1 Pet. 3:7).
Yet another hindrance to prayer is pride, for “God opposes the proud” (Jas. 4:6). Still another is selfishness: “You do not have, because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures” (Jas. 4:2b-3).
OVERCOMING HINDRANCES TO PRAYER
There are other sins that stand in the way of our prayers. And as David said, anysin to which we cling, refusing to repent, will interfere with our prayerful communion with God. But what can be done about these hindrances to prayer? How can we overcome them?
The Israelites refused to trust in God when they asked for a king. They followed a man instead of the Lord. In contrast, we are to trust in the Lord. We are to remember, “the LORD is good; blessed is the man who takes refuge in him” (Psa. 34:8). “Trust in the LORD and do good,” David wrote; “dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture. Delight yourself in the LORD and He will give you the desires of your heart” (Psa. 37:3-4).
Saul rebelled against God, disobeying His direct commands. We, instead, are to obey God, and so we may have confidence in prayer. “The eyes of the LORD are on the righteous and his ears are attentive to their cry” (Psa. 34:15).
Saul refused to acknowledge the sin in his life when Samuel confronted him, and so God’s ears were shut to him. But there is a remedy for sin. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn. 1:9). When we confess our sins and God removes them from us, we can join David in saying, “If I had cherished sin in my heart, the Lord would not have listened; butGod has surely listened and heard my voice in prayer. Praise be to God, who has not rejected my prayer or withheld his love from me!” (Psa. 66:18-20; emphasis added).
David gives us a marvelous example of how confession opens the way for fruitful prayer to God:
Blessed is he whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the LORD does not count against him and in whose spirit is no deceit. When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night Your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer. Then I acknowledged my sin to You and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD” – and You forgave the guilt of my sin. Therefore let everyone who is godly pray to You while You may be found… (Psa. 32:1-6)
Peter warned that men could hinder their prayers by failing to honor their wives (and I think the same is true for wives who fail to honor their husbands, but perhaps the warning is needed more by husbands because they are more vulnerable to this sin). If we wish, then, to have our prayers heard, we can give proper respect, honor, and service to our wives or husbands.
Instead of lifting ourselves up in pride and so meeting God’s opposition when we pray, we can humble ourselves, confessing our own weakness, sin, and filthiness in comparison with the splendor of God.
One of the most disturbing instances in the life of Jesus illustrates this need for humbling ourselves when we pray. A Canaanite woman had come to Him to ask healing for her daughter. “Jesus did not answer a word.” Soon “The woman came and knelt before him. ‘Lord, help me!’ she said. He replied, ‘It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.’ ‘Yes, Lord,’ she said, ‘but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’ Then Jesus answered, ‘Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted’” (Matt. 15:23-28).
What an illustration of James’ admonition and promise, “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and He will lift you up (Jas. 4:10)! We need to remember that we are God’s servants; He is not our servant.
Rather than asking selfishly, we should ask for what will glorify God and extend His Kingdom. Before we pray “Give ustoday our daily bread. Forgive us our debts … And lead us not into temptation” (Matt. 6:11-13), pray, “…hallowed be Your name, Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt.6:9-10). Jesus focuses our thoughts on God and His Kingdom rather than ourselves, preparing us for the promise, “…seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matt. 6:33) – all the things we really need.
When Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, He said, “Father, I thank You that You have heard Me. I knew that You always hear Me…” (Jn. 11:41-42). What confidence! Wouldn’t it be great to have that kind of confidence in prayer?
When we trust in God instead of in man, submit to Him instead of rebelling against Him, confess our sins, honor our mates, humble ourselves, and ask with God’s glory in mind and not our own selfishness, “…we [can] have confidence before God and receive from Him anything we ask, because we obey His commands and do what pleases Him” (1 Jn. 3:21-22).
Russell J. Asvitt, Discipleship Journal