Unanswered prayer will test our faith. Weeks, or months, even years, of waiting on some particular request can tempt us to despair. Jesus, our compassionate Lord, knew this and told a parable to encourage us to endure in prayer and not lose heart (Luke 18:1–8). All of us need such encouragements.
Yet God also gives other graces to help us along in our prayer lives: he teaches us what hinders them. With all the good that unanswered prayer can provide, Scripture also has another category of unanswered prayer: the kind we ourselves have caused. Sometimes we are the architects, building the ceiling our prayers hit.
How to Sabotage Your Prayer Life
More often than we might consider, Christians sabotage our own prayers. Periodically in his word, God prompts our weary eyes from staring into the heavens wondering why the floodgates haven’t opened, to gaze at our own lives, our own hearts, and our own prayers. Sometimes the reason lies closer to us than to him.
“The quickest way to sabotage your prayers is to live in unrepentant sin.”
God does not mean for his warnings for hindering prayer to cause the fretful to feel more unworthy and thus less likely to pray. The point is not praying perfect prayers — all our prayers require the blood of Christ. The point is to encourage us to cast off the weights of sin and carelessness that cling so closely that we might again run unfettered to God. To show that how we live does affect how God hears our prayers.
This short catalogue of biblical hindrances are given so that we might pray more — more heartily, more joyfully, more powerfully, more boldly — not less, remembering that boldly never means recklessly.
1. Live in Unrepentant Sin
The quickest way to sabotage your prayers is to live in unrepentant sin. God has informed his people of this at many times and in many ways, confronting our presumption that he must hear us no matter how we live. Consider a few examples:
If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened. (Psalm 66:18)
Behold, the Lord’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save,
or his ear dull, that it cannot hear;
but your iniquities have made a separation
between you and your God,
and your sins have hidden his face from you
so that he does not hear. (Isaiah 59:1–2)
Whoever desires to love life and see good days, let him keep his tongue from evil and his lips from speaking deceit; let him turn away from evil and do good; let him seek peace and pursue it. For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and his ears are open to their prayer. But the face of the Lord is against those who do evil. (1 Peter 3:10–12; Psalm 34:12–16)
A drunken, undisciplined life makes for belligerent prayers — prayers God does not answer. “The end of all things is at hand; therefore be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers” (1 Peter 4:7).
2. Ignore God’s Words
Note well: “If one turns away his ear from hearing the law, even his prayer is an abomination” (Proverbs 28:9).
Dusty Bibles stir God’s allergies to our prayers. To understand why, ponder the privilege of prayer. As with a frightened child on a stormy night, God graciously leaves the door open for his people to come to him at any time for help, comfort, and joy. Glorying in this — that his problem with us is never that we come to him too much but too little — far be it from us to make prayer something that God must always hear from us while we can choose whether or not to hear from him. If one ought to be heard, it is God’s voice. If one ought to only listen, it is us.
Conversely, when we steep our souls in his word and ask according to his will, our confidence will increase “that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. 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” (1 John 5:14–15).
3. Pray for Your Own Praise
When you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. (Matthew 6:5)
“God’s problem with us is never that we come to him too much but too little.”
Make impressive prayers within the earshot of others, but let all be silent when only God is left to hear? In effect, you are praying for the sake of your glory, for your name to be hallowed among the hearers, for your kingdom to come on earth as it is in your mind. Praying for the sake of your reputation — praying to be admired, respected, and seen — strips prayer of its power.
4. Harbor Doubts About God’s Goodness
Prayers springing from our lips, while our hearts only mumble, ask not to be heard. When our hearts roll their eyes as we half-heartedly ask for what we don’t expect to receive, we dishonor God and anchor our prayers to earth.
If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord. (James 1:5–7)
Prayers of faith that draw near to God know not only that he exists but that he is good — that he rewards those who seek him (Hebrews 11:6).
5. Pray Like an Adulteress
Sometimes God does not answer us because we ask for what we shouldn’t: “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. You adulterous people!” (James 4:3–4). What business does an adulterer have to ask her husband for a gift she means to pass along to another lover?
“If we are living lives in which God does not have our highest allegiance,” writes Tim Keller, “then we will use prayer instrumentally, selfishly, simply to try to get the things that may be already ruining our lives” (Prayer, 138). If he loves us, he will not fund adulterous romances.
All prayer concerns the Father’s glory in Christ: “Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it” (John 14:13–14). Prayer orbits around this Bridegroom and not our own fallen lusts and desires.
6. Belittle God’s Daughter
Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered. (1 Peter 3:7)
Why would a man, much less God, listen to another man who bullies the first man’s daughter? If he expects anything it’s retribution, not blessing. For a man to use his strength against a daughter of the King, to regard her as less than a co-heir, and deal harshly with her, harms his prayers just as he does his wife. If we mistreat those God has given to our protection — especially a wife — we hinder our prayers.
7. Come Casually
Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven and you are on earth. Therefore let your words be few. (Ecclesiastes 5:2)
We pray to our Father but our Father is also in heaven and has a kingdom and is its King, our King. Not thinking while in prayer, uttering many words as casually as you would a text message to a close friend, minimizes the majesty of the one whom we address.
“Sometimes God does not answer us because we ask for what we shouldn’t.”
If anyone had the right to come casually in prayer, it was the eternal Son of God. He did use the term of endearment Abba, but he was no less reverent for it. “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence” (Hebrews 5:7).
God’s Breath Returning
If prayer is, as George Herbert so elegantly stated, “God’s breath in man returning to his birth,” we will want to ensure that breath is not befouled by the stench of unrepentance or worldliness. We go to him in prayer, broken and contrite over our sin, but not while we are content with careless hearts and reckless lives. As John Piper paints with vivid imagery:
Jesus does not kiss a drunk wife. He may carry her off the street and back to bed. He may be utterly patient with her, and set before her hot coffee and fresh starts. But he will not kiss a drunk wife.
What do I mean? I mean that when the bride of Christ, the church, is drunk with the world, she may turn to him for a brief kiss of prayer, but her breath reeks so bad of worldliness that he turns his face away.
So, we pray, and keep on praying, not losing heart and not losing a careful watch over our lives. Prayers soar from our lips when we live in repentance, devouring God’s word, seeking his glory, loving those for whom we are most responsible, and beyond. We go to our heavenly Father consistently, expectantly, reverently, and press on towards the place where prayer becomes a most precious pastime.