One of the topics that really tends to emotionally grip people is unanswered prayer. How can we continue to believe in the power of prayer if we don’t see results? God wants us to depend on Him, so why then does He not help out when I’m going through the most difficult times in my life? I’m not going to pretend to have the perfect answer to this difficult problem, but let’s look at this issue, and see what sorts of conclusions we can come to.
Before we begin, if you’ve ever wondered about what sorts of prayers are basically guaranteed to get answered, I addressed that in my last blog.
Difficult Passages on Prayer
Just so we’re clear, here’s some biblical passages that seem to be saying that our prayers definitely will be answered. These passages can be quite discouraging at times (even though they were clearly meant to have the opposite effect), because our experience tells us these verses are just obviously not the way things work.
Luke 11:9 – And I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.
Mark 11:24 – Therefore, I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.
John 15:7 – If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.
1 John 5:15 – And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him.
Jeremiah 29:12 – Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you.
There’s a bunch of other verses like this as well. These sorts of verses make it seem like, not only does prayer work, but if we ask God for something, we should get it. When thinking about how prayer works (or really, any theological issue), it’s important to get an overall picture of the issue, looking at all the data we have, rather than just cherry picking certain verses. With that in mind, there’s actually a lot of passages that tell us there are things that hinder prayer. If we’re asking a question about why our prayers don’t get answered, the Bible actually does give us a bunch of different reasons.
1. Sin “can” stop prayer
There’s quite a few verses that tell us our sin can hinder our prayers. Here’s just a few of them, but there are actually a lot more where these came from.
Isaiah 1:15 – When you spread out your hands in prayer, I hide my eyes from you; even when you offer many prayers, I am not listening. Your hands are full of blood!
Proverbs 28:9 – If anyone turns a deaf ear to my instruction, even their prayers are detestable.
1 John 3:21-22 – Dear friends, if our conscience doesn’t condemn us, we can boldly look to God and receive from him anything we ask. We receive it because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him.
Psalm 66:18 – If I had cherished sin in my heart, the Lord would not have listened.
There are two things to note here. Firstly, we should look at this issue when we evaluate “our” prayer life, not someone else’s. If your prayers aren’t being answered, reflect on what God wants for you, and think about whether you are in rebellion against what God has told us about morality. I would recommend in this situation, and just in general, that a constant thing you ask God for is something like, “show me the areas of sin in my life”. Then, when God reveals these areas of sin to you, actively work on them. Do not use this concept of sin hindering prayer to judge others, unless you have that authority in the person’s life. For example, if someone goes to my church, and we’re on a friendship level, but not super close, and they tell me their prayers aren’t being answered, my go-to response should not be “you must have sin in your life”. That’s insulting, inconsiderate, lacking in humility, and can end up damaging not just your relationship with them, but can even damage their faith. You want to be an encouragement, not a discouragement. That said, if you have a close friend, and you actually do know an area of sin in their life, then gently pointing that out can be beneficial (again, do it gently).
A second thing to consider is that sin is just one of the possible reasons for why a person’s prayers aren’t being heard. Just because you aren’t seeing immediate results to prayer doesn’t mean God must be scowling down at you from heaven, and that you’re a horribly evil person. Click To TweetWe all have sin in our lives, and we should all be constantly trying to become holy, but you don’t have to beat yourself up as if perfection is required in order to have God hear your prayers. You’ll notice the above verses say things like, “if anyone turns a deaf ear to my instruction”, and, “I had cherished sin in my heart”. This implies that it’s unrepentant sin, where the person isn’t giving it up to God, or trying to change.
2. Doubt “can” hinder prayer
James 1:5b-8 = God is generous to everyone and doesn’t find fault with them. When you ask for something, don’t have any doubts. A person who has doubts is like a wave that is blown by the wind and tossed by the sea. A person who has doubts shouldn’t expect to receive anything from the Lord. A person who has doubts is thinking about two different things at the same time and can’t make up his mind about anything.
This is another hindrance we have to be careful with. When I say that doubt “can” hinder prayer, that doesn’t mean that, if you don’t have your prayers answered, you must lack faith. There’s an extreme to be careful of here, where we treat faith as if it forces the hand of God. Having a lot of faith does not somehow guarantee you that you will get what you want, as if you’ve figured out how to get the magic genie to grant your wishes. Here’s an important point: Faith is not trusting that you’ll get something; it’s putting your trust in someone. Our goal should be to have faith in God, rather than faith that we’ll get what we want.
That said, doubt can be a hindrance to prayer. If we go into prayer expecting God to answer our prayer (why else would we pray for something?), but we also go into prayer expecting our prayers to go ignored, then we’re believing two contradictory things at once. Further, it does seem like faith is something God really wants us to grow in. God wants us to be dependent upon Him, and trusting in Him in all things. If we go into prayer assuming He’s going to ignore us, that can obviously put a damper on the whole thing.
3. Lack of Giving Hinders Prayer
Proverbs 21:13 = Those who shut their ears to the cries of the poor will be ignored in their own time of need.
This is an odd one, but when you think about it, it makes sense. Suppose you only ever think of yourself, ignoring your friends’ requests for help. Then, when “you” need help, your friends all ignore you. That just seems like commonsense. Jesus made another comment like this when He was talking about forgiveness.
Matthew 6:14-15 – For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
His point seems to be that, if you can’t bother to forgive other people, your plea for forgiveness will be ignored. It seems like the same concept applies to petitions for help. If you ignore other people’s petitions, then your petitions can be ignored as well.
4. Consistency in Prayer
1 Thessalonians 5:17 – Pray without ceasing.
This passage does not mean that we should constantly be in prayer, and never stop (that would be kind of impossible). The point is that we don’t stop bringing issues to God in prayer. We continue in our prayer lives without giving up. When I first heard this concept I thought to myself, “psht, yeah right, like just continuing in prayer will somehow make it work”. However, as I reflect on my prayer life, the things that I continually brought to God in prayer seemed to get answered! I’ve had times where I prayed for the same thing for years, and eventually I would see results! The only things that didn’t always get answered were prayers for someone’s salvation, which I would chalk up to the fact that people have freewill to reject what God does in their life. That said, even in those cases, I did see times where God would work in their lives, or give me opportunities to talk to them, so in a sense I could see that the prayers were being heard.
Now I’m not guaranteeing that if you continually pray, every prayer will always be answered the way you want (it’s not a formula or something). However, I have seen that consistency in prayer brings results. I recently asked a group of Christians how many of them had prayed for something for longer than 40 days. It was awesome to see that some people had, but also interesting to see how many hadn’t. If we just toss up a few random prayers, then neglect our prayer life because we get discouraged, we’re basically showing God we don’t really have faith in Him.
5. Bad Motives Hinder Prayer
James 4:3, “When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.”
This one can also be taken to an extreme. I’ve met people that will only ever pray for God’s will, and won’t actually bring requests to God. Praying for God’s will is a good thing! However, actually asking God for things is also good. Philippians 4:6 says God wants us to bring our requests to Him.
So what do good motives look like? It seems like sometimes we have good motives, like wanting a family member to be healed, or a ministry to succeed, and yet the prayers don’t get answered. While I don’t claim to have a perfect answer here, I do have something for you to consider. There have been times in my life where someone has requested prayer for something, and while I do pray for them, I feel hesitant. The reason is that I know the thing they want prayer for might actually be something God is using to draw them to Himself. For example, if someone wants healing, but they aren’t depending on God, even if God brought healing, they wouldn’t give God the glory, or increase in their dependency on Him. God allowing them to remain in their bad situation might actually cause them to commit themselves to God (and yes, suffering does often bring people to God). In reality, God cares more about your growth in faith and dependence on Him than He does about your comfort. While some things seem like good prayers, God might have other plans in mind.
What’s the Point of Prayer?
The above point about motivations leads me into my next point; what does it look like to have good motives when it comes to prayer? What’s the purpose behind prayer in general? I think that if we can answer these sorts of questions, our prayer lives will be substantially improved. That will be the topic for my next blog.