Thrive Part Six
Hear our Prayer
Many books and even more sermons have been written on the topic of prayer than almost any other topic in Christianity. It wasn’t until the mid-2000s that I heard a series from Dr. Tony Evans that started to make sense in my life. My family and I had been members of a para-church ecumenical charismatic community of believers called the People of Praise. Our meetings were considered ‘private’ because they didn’t want to biblically violate the 1 Corinthians instructions for church gatherings and order in services, but it was the kind of place where, like in any pentacostal gathering, people would speak in tongues (not biblical tongues, but a babbling “prayer language”, usually without an interpretation), be slain in the Spirit, there were occasionally legitimate healings taking place, but the were also those who needed to be healed of the same ailments over and over again week after week. I ran into issues when they would say, “We teach”, and I would respond “But the Bible says” and they would say, “But we teach.”
After all that, obviously, anyone might be confused about the true nature and purpose of prayer. This is also a place where, as I mentioned last week, people would take the LORD’s name and authority upon themselves, and when God didn’t act according to what they said his will was, the faith of individuals, like myself, would be injured and shaken. Around the time we left the People of Praise, I heard a sermon series by Dr. Evans on Moody Radio that started to make sense. The series was in essence, why God wouldn’t hear our prayer and how our prayer could be hindered. Since the early 2010s, I have seen more articles and books come out regarding hindrances to our prayer lives. You may have heard it said that God always listens to our prayers, but we can find evidence to the contrary within the scriptures. Our prayer lives can be disrupted, our prayers can be hindered, and there are times when God may not hear our prayers.
Last week, we focused read the brief passage from The Screwtape Letters, where Uncle Screwtape told his nephew, Wormwood, to have the patient focus on how he feels during prayer and what feels he is able to create within himself rather than being empowered by God through his prayer. We must all admit; God can seem far away when we pray. It can feel like I’m beating my head against a wall. My prayers feel repetitive, self-indulgent, short, and they seemingly go unanswered.
There are times when I pray, my prayers are often filled with a wish list of things I want. Instead of being a time of communion with my Savior, prayer becomes a means to an end, and that end is self. Instead of praying for God’s will to be revealed, I try to impress my will upon God. In Partners in Prayer, John Maxwell shares ten things that act as “prayer killers.” Other writers focus on fewer hinderances to prayer. Let’s look into scripture and see what we can learn about hinderances to our prayers.
The very first should be obvious and should go without needing to be said, but most of our culture misses this one. God is under no obligation to listen to or answer any prayers of those who have not accepted his gift of his Son’s death on the cross, his burial, and resurrection for the forgiveness of our sins. For God to hear our prayers, we must enter into a relationship with him. So for an unbeliever, the one prayer God is guaranteed to hear and respond to is one of confession, repentance, and surrender. As simple as, “God, I believe you to be who you say you are, and I know that I haven’t lived up to your perfect standards. I accept the forgiveness your Son, Jesus, has bought for me with his death. I want to turn my life over to your will and your ways, and I ask for your Holy Spirit’s guidance in my life from here forward.” Such is a prayer that God will always hear and respond to. It is not a sacri-magical cure-all and the exact wording doesn’t matter, but it must come from your very soul and be sincere.
Once we have gotten that far, what does scripture say about what can hinder our prayers?
1. Ignoring God’s Word
If one turns away his ear from hearing the law, even his prayer is an abomination.
If someone, even a professed believer, refuses to hear and heed God’s discipline and guidance, their prayers become detestable to the Lord.
This includes a rejection of the Bible’s authority as God’s revealed Word. If you reject God’s primary communication about Jesus and his work, how can you know him? You don’t love the real Jesus; your imaginary Jesus is powerless to answer prayers.
2. Loving Sin
“If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened.”
The New Living Translation says,
‘If I had not confessed the sin in my heart, the Lord would not have listened.’
Our prayers won’t be heard if we “cherish iniquity,” holding unrepentantly to some sin. This is loving our sin more than loving God. As we read the context of these verses, not only will he not listen and hear, he will also reject our prayers and will withhold his favor also translated “love” from us. This does not include a believer struggling with a recurring sin who regularly and humbly repents, but this is anyone who willfully harbors sin and refuses to repent. We always have the promise in 1 John to be restored and cleansed, being made righteous.
1 John 1:8-10 says,
‘If we say we do not bear the guilt of sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. But if we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous, forgiving us our sins and cleansing us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar and his word is not in us. ‘
To restore our right relationship with him, we go to him with a prayer of confession and repentance, and then those hinderances will melt away.
James, the half-brother of Jesus makes several points regarding prayer within his letter to believers.
3. Lack of Faith
‘But if anyone is deficient in wisdom, he should ask God, who gives to all generously and without reprimand, and it will be given to him. But he must ask in faith without doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed around by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord, since he is a double-minded individual, unstable in all his ways.’
This idea of being double-minded is a person like one with a split personality. Not only do they say one thing and do another, they are not even sure what it is they actually believe and follow the latest fads of faith and whatever suits what they want to believe rather than standing firm on what the Bible says. They are the house built on the sand that crumbles into the sea. They are incapable of hearing from God or receiving the gifts he has for them.
James makes two points in this next passage.
You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.
4. Not Asking
The first is that we don’t ask God for his help. I’ve fallen into this many times, either when I think my prayers are insignificant or selfish, or when I try to do things in my own power.
5. Asking with Wrong Motives
James’ second point speaks to our motivations. He writes this after saying that we’re too often ruled by our desires, and just as our unchecked passions may lead to quarreling and sin, they can inhibit our relationship with God, including his response to our prayers.
6. Lack of transparency with God and others
James 5:15-16 says,
‘And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick and the Lord will raise him up – and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. So confess your sins to one another and pray for one another so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great effectiveness.’
James is sharing a fundamental truth about God: When we confess our sins to one another, which requires us to be open and vulnerable, God is able to heal and cleanse us. We experience a spiritual, physical, emotional, and mental relief and restoration. This is why, in 12-step programs, the fifth step is to admit our shortcomings to God, to ourselves, and to one other human being. You don’t need to broadcast this on public radio, it’s about being transparent with someone. It also helps us have a sense of accountability before someone else and before God to not repeat the same mistakes.
7. Resentment and Unforgiveness
During the Sermon on the Mount, immediately after introducing the pattern for prayer that we know as the Lord’s Prayer Jesus says,
“For if you forgive others their sins, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, your Father will not forgive you your sins.’
Being forgiven and forgiveness are two sides of the same coin. By harboring unforgiveness in our hearts, by holding on to those resentments, we are also blocking God’s ability to forgive us and answer our prayers. By the same token, if we know someone has a resentment against us, we need to clear up our side of the street. Before Jesus teaches his disciples about prayer, after the Beatitudes, he teaches about anger and hatred, at that time he said,
‘So then, if you bring your gift to the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother and then come and present your gift.’
Not only are we making ourselves right with God and our fellows by doing this, we are also potentially helping the other person overcome some resentment or unforgiveness in their life.
These seven areas are areas of our lives that we can consciously submit to God in prayer and his Holy Spirit will empower us to have a more effective prayer life. There are other roadblocks and hinderances that can come into our lives when we pray. For instance, putting anything before God in our lives in the form of idolatry (Ezekiel14:3), living in disunity or being unloving toward our fellow Christians, dishonoring who God is, putting our will before his own, husbands should know the way they treat their wives could lead to their prayers being hindered (1 Peter 3:7), but the biggest thing that helps us is to really understand the purpose of prayer. The purpose in prayer is intimacy with God, understanding who God truly is, becoming the people God wants us to be, and following his will and ways more closely. Martin Luther said it well, “God wants us to pray, and he wants to hear our prayers – not because we are worthy, but because he is merciful.”
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