Is there something wrong with our prayers? I have to say "yes," for this reason: Jesus gave us some wonderful promises concerning prayers and getting prayers answered, and most of us are not seeing those promises fulfilled in our prayer lives.
I know I'm not the only one who has a problem with unanswered prayer. But too many of us respond to this problem, not by seeking and fixing the root of it, but by lowering our standards. For instance: our church has a list of answered prayers that's updated every quarter. It's full of things like "so-and-so's cancer tests were negative," or "so-and-so got a job," or "so-and-so recovered from surgery" - these are all great, but did so-and-so ever have cancer to start with? Don't Hindus and Mormons get jobs, too? Don't atheists recover from surgery sometimes?
Where are the real answers? Where are the unmistakable signs that God has been at work? Where are the answered prayers that the world can't write off as coincidences or as triumphs of modern medicine? Why doesn't our list say things like, "so-and-so's terminal cancer disappeared without a trace," or, "so-and-so repented of years of living in sin and reconciled with his wife," or, "so-and-so's parents got saved and now they're living for the Lord?"
The problem does not lie with God. The problem, as the title of this sermon suggests, is that there is something wrong with our prayers. I've found 20 Scriptural reasons why prayers may not receive an answer, and every one of them lies at our doorstep, not at the Lord's.
If you walked into the main office of a big company and asked the president for a job, the best you could hope for would be directions to the personnel office; more than likely, you'd be escorted out of the building. You don't get a job that way. Unless, of course, the president of the company happens to be your father. Then your request will be heard, because of the relationship you have with him. It's no different in the spiritual realm. God cannot answer prayers from those who do not know Him.
I have to assume that most, if not all of you already believe that you are sinners in the eyes of God, that you can't save yourselves, and that your only hope of Heaven is by believing that Jesus died to pay for your sins - saved by grace, through faith, plus nothing. But I would be remiss if I didn't offer you the chance to be saved if you are not. There may be someone here who has been trusting in Jesus plus a few of his own good works to get him to Heaven. I'm here to tell you that if you are rejecting God's plan for saving your soul, He cannot hear your prayers -
He that turneth away his ear from hearing the law, even his prayer shall be abomination. (Proverbs 28:9)But worse than that, He cannot allow you into Heaven on those terms. So if you have any doubts at all, please talk to me, or your pastor, or someone else here whom you respect as a man of God. This is more important than prayers and answers. This is a matter of life and death. Eternal life and death.
One reason people don't get answers to prayer is because - surprise! - they haven't asked. That's just common sense, right? Should I even have to bring this one up? But you all need to be aware that there's more than one way to "ask not." Some of you might protest, "I've prayed for this-and-that request every day for years!" But I'd like to point out that it doesn't say, "ye have not because ye pray not." It says, "Ye have not because ye ask not." I'd like to suggest that you can pray your knees off without asking for anything at all.
For example, how about "Lord, please bless all the missionaries?" How many of them does God have to bless before you call it an answered prayer? And what kind of a blessing will you accept as an answer? Ten souls saved? One soul saved? Continued good health? The chickens are laying? Just what have you asked God to do, anyway? What have you prayed for? And how will you know if your prayer has been answered?
How about that old favorite, "Lord, please be with our pastor?" What does that mean? Isn't God always "with" those who are saved? That's kind of like praying, "Lord, please cause Pastor Dave to breathe. Lord, please cause Harold Crowell to eat." What are you asking God to do? And how will you know if He does it?
Or how about, "Be with so-and-so in a special way?" Again, what have you asked for? If you want God to give your pastor strength during a time of crisis, say so! If you want a missionary protected in a land where there's political unrest or persecution, tell God that's what you want! Please, be careful with these thoughtless "bless everybody" prayers. I don't see them in the Bible, and I don't see them getting answered in the here and now. Ye have not, because ye ask not.
Maybe you haven't gotten your answer because you haven't persevered in prayer. You asked once or twice, it didn't happen, so you got discouraged. Scripture is full of examples of people who didn't get their prayer answered the first time they prayed, but they kept at it until they did. There's an old term for it - they called it "praying through." How many times do you have to pray? Until you get the answer you've asked for. Sometimes we don't have to wait, but we can't put God in a box and say, "He answered so-and-so's prayer that same day, so He ought to do the same for me." Maybe He's got some more arranging of events to do before He can answer your prayer.
There's a nice example of this in Genesis 15:13-16 -
And he said unto Abram, Know of a surety that thy seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them four hundred years; 14And also that nation, whom they shall serve, will I judge: and afterward shall they come out with great substance. 15And thou shalt go to thy fathers in peace; thou shalt be buried in a good old age. 16But in the fourth generation they shall come hither again: for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet full.God had every intention of giving the land of Canaan to Abraham and his descendants, but it would not have been right for Him to destroy and cast out the Amorites at that time. But when the iniquity of the Amorites was full, when they were so wicked that God was totally just in destroying them, that was the time God had set for the deliverance of His people. And how long did they have to wait? Four hundred years. And all that time,
the children of Israel sighed by reason of the bondage, and they cried, and their cry came up unto God (Exodus 2:23).In other words, they prayed through.
Unconfessed sin. Personally, I believe this is one of the biggest reasons why prayers don't get answered.
You might be telling yourself that the sin you're harboring isn't related to your request, so it shouldn't affect your prayer. Or maybe you're telling yourself that God wouldn't be so harsh as to hold it against the person you're praying for, just because of what you're doing. Dream on. But give up any hope of getting your prayer answered. That Scripture does not say that God won't answer your prayer. It says He won't even hear it! He can't! He is perfect and holy, and if you think you can approach the throne of grace with dirty hands and muddy shoes, and make your requests to the King of Kings, and He'll hear you... think again, my friend, think again. Clear up your sin before God, and then make your requests.
Just to make sure we got the point, God said it again in 1 John 3:22 -
And whatsoever we ask, we receive of him, because we keep his commandments, and do those things that are pleasing in his sight.John wasn't talking about salvation by works here; he's telling us about the prayers of believers. So if you are not keeping His commandments, and you are not doing those things that are pleasing in His sight, then you have no claim on asking and receiving. Like most of God's promises to us, it's conditional. You can throw away your access to the throne room of God, if that's what you really want to do. The good news is, you can get it back any time you want. Just confess those sins and renounce them. So simple. So necessary.
God threw this one in especially for us men, the husbands, the heads of households. We have been given a relationship with our wives, which is supposed to show a picture of Christ's love for His church. Supposed to. If it doesn't, through something of our own doing or through our neglecting something, then our prayers will be hindered. It says so right here in black and white. There's no room for argument, no place for excuses, and no grounds for saying, "It's her fault!" Adam tried that, and where did it get him? Evicted from the Garden, cut off from fellowship with God, condemned to spiritual death, and sweating for a living in cursed fields. Is that the role model you want to follow?
Some of your domestic difficulties may, indeed, be your wife's fault. I have heard, from men of God whom I greatly respect, that not all women are perfect. But that's not the issue here. No matter what she's done, you treat her right, you treat her the way Christ Jesus wants you to treat her, or your prayers will just be bouncing off the ceiling.
Our key words here are, "If ye abide in me." If you don't, this is called a failure of fellowship. Fellowship with God.
How's your quiet time lately? Are you spending time with the Lord? Quality time, or distracted time? Expectant time, or let's-get-this-over-with time? Regular time, or I'll-fit-it-in-when-I-can time? Abiding in Him means staying in Him. If you don't, then you're addressing your heartfelt prayers to someone you barely even know. As I've said before, God is not an impersonal force. He is a person, and He wants us to get to know Him. He doesn't just want us to, He has commanded us to.
This can also be a failure of fellowship with God's saints. This kind of abiding is called church attendance. Church isn't just about preaching. It's about corporate worship, it's about servanthood, and it's about fellowship. Jesus never called anyone to be a Lone Ranger Christian, and if you aren't regularly part of a church, then you're turning your back on a big part of God's plan for your life. The church is the body of Christ, and if you're not functioning in the body, then you aren't abiding very well in Him.
That doesn't mean you come once on Sunday morning, and check off "God" on your list of things to do. The body of Christ is a living organism like our bodies. Now if I had the use of my hand for only a few hours a week, that would not make me happy. Does Jesus have the use of you for only a few hours a week? And then you're going to ask Him to do a miracle for you? I salute your audacity, but I won't hold my breath until you get your answer.
Same verse, but this time, we'll look at the "and my words abide in you" part. This is a failure of Bible study. How can you pray Godly prayers if you don't know what a Godly prayer is? And how are you going to find out, outside of this Book? You can't just skim it. You can't speed-read it. And, I'm sorry to tell you this, but a page of "Our Daily Bread" in the morning is no substitute for truly reading the Bible. Consistently. Repeatedly. Carefully. Expectantly. Read it, and then meditate on it. Consistently. Repeatedly. Carefully. Expectantly. The promise in Scripture is for those who allow His Word to abide in them. There is no promise for those who do not.
Unbelief. The prayer-killer. How many times have you heard someone testify to a prayer being answered, and what do they always say? "I can't believe it!" It amazes me that these people get their prayers answered at all. God places great value on our believing that He can and will answer our prayers. For instance:
Matthew 9:28-29 - And when he was come into the house, the blind men came to him: and Jesus saith unto them, Believe ye that I am able to do this? They said unto him, Yea, Lord. 29Then touched he their eyes, saying, According to your faith be it unto you.While Jesus was on earth, the only things that ever amazed him were great faith, and great unbelief. Just speaking for me, I'd like to amaze Jesus, and I don't want to do it by unbelief. But if you're asking God to do something, and you don't believe that He can do it, then why are you wasting your breath? Or maybe you know He can, but you don't know if He will. Then what do you do? You ask Him anyway, "nothing wavering." There's nothing wrong with asking, "If it be Thy will," if you've tried to find out what His will is and haven't found out for sure yet, or if you're wrestling with it. There are prayers like that in the Bible, one of them from Jesus Himself in the garden, so it's no sin. "But without faith it is impossible to please Him," and if you aren't pleasing Him, "let not that man think that he shall receive any thing of the Lord."
"You'll never be discouraged, you'll never be upset.
If you pray expecting nothing, that's exactly what you'll get."
This verse shows one advantage of the King James Version: that word "ye." It's a plural noun, like the Southern "y'all;" it means "all of you." James is talking to all of the readers of his letter as a group, and what he's telling them is this: if you want to be part of the "ye" who are getting healed, then you need to be part of the "one another" who are praying for each other.
It's always bothered me that some people are very quick to ask for prayer, but they don't come out to prayer meeting themselves. I'd go so far as to call it selfish. It's certainly one-sided, and this verse suggests that if you aren't in on the prayer, you may not be in on the answer. So ask yourselves, are you someone who can be approached for a prayer need, or are you keeping your distance? Are you as interested in what you can give as in what you can receive? Prayer was never meant to be a one-way street. Corporate prayer is a vital function of this living organism we call the body of Christ. And I can't see any verse in this Bible that suggests that it's optional for some people. That verse I just read in James is not a suggestion. It's a holy command.
Same verse, but with a different emphasis; we'll look at the second half of the verse. It tells us that the effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much. So, logically speaking, the ineffectual half-hearted prayer of a righteous man availeth not much. Right? So the question is, how much of your heart are you pouring into your prayers? How badly do you want those answers?
I've been in shopping malls at Christmas-time, and heard children telling Santa Claus what they want, with more fervor than a lot of Christians show in their prayers. Why? Because they know what they want, and they think they know who can give it to them. Well, we know what we want, and we know who can give it to us. Our requests should inspire a little more passion than just reading a shopping list, you know?
I'm not suggesting that we have to get all emotional. Some people weep easily, and some don't. Some people are demonstrative, and some aren't. But if you tend to yawn during your prayer time, that might be a really good sign that something isn't right in the effectual fervent department.
This is the opposite of number nine, the one about praying for other people's requests. If you've got a prayer that you want answered, and I mean you really want it, then I hope you aren't praying about it alone. There is power when more than one believer prays. There is no promise of power if you keep it to yourself. Your brothers and sisters aren't there for window dressing. We don't go on a men's prayer advance every year just for the food. We're here to pray with each other. We're part of one body, the body of Christ, and we're supposed to function together. God made us in such a way that we work better together.
And in a similar vein (and this is one of my own personal pet peeves, but I believe it's Biblical): where is the Scriptural basis for asking someone to pray for you, and then refusing to tell them what to pray for? Where did we come up with the idea of "unspoken prayer requests?" How can your brothers and sisters pray for something if they don't know what it is? Is there a Biblical example of this? I can't find one. The prayers in the Bible that got answered were the specific ones. When Paul wrote in his epistles and asked people to pray for him, he asked for very specific things. If your request is too personal to take before the entire church, then keep it to a few trusted friends and family members who can pray effectively, because I don't see how people who don't know what they're praying for can pray effectively. Now, this is strictly my own opinion. If anyone can show me from Scripture where I'm wrong on this, I'll take it back publicly. But if you can't show me from Scripture where I'm wrong, then maybe you ought to think about it.
Unforgiveness. We've established, a few reasons ago, that God can't hear your prayers if you're harboring sin in your life. These verses tell us that you won't be able to clear up your accounts with God if you're harboring a grudge against a brother or a sister. And if you can't clear your accounts with God, then He cannot hear your prayer. That unforgiveness you're holding onto can be a root of bitterness that will defile many, and it can also be the principal reason why your prayers are bouncing off the ceiling.
You may be mad at someone who's entirely separated from the situation you're praying for. But God requires holiness and purity in His children, without exception. And unless you've already forgiven your brother more times than God has forgiven you, then the Lord doesn't want to hear your excuses and your justifications and "what that guy did to you." Just forgive him, like the Bible tells you to, and see what happens. It sure can't hurt!
This is what happens when there's a failure of a relationship with a brother. God doesn't want your worship or your offerings on those terms, and if He won't receive your worship, then He sure won't receive your prayers. We're a body. We're supposed to function like parts of one body. If one part has a problem with another, that can bring everything to a crashing halt. If you don't believe me, ask someone with arthritis - pain in the joints, where one bone meets another incorrectly. It's awfully hard to concentrate on what you're reading when your body is in pain. And yet you think God is going to hear you when there's pain in the Body of Christ, a pain that's in your power to set straight? You'll go merrily on as if there's nothing wrong, when in God's eyes, the body is malfunctioning, one part against another? Do you seriously believe that this can happen?
This isn't a question of who's at fault. This is a question of who has tried to make things right. Remember what Jesus said near the start of this chapter of Matthew? "Blessed are the peacemakers." Would you agree with me that getting your prayers answered is a blessing? Then be a peacemaker, and fix that relationship with your brother or your sister, or at least try. And then bring your requests to the throne of grace. It'll work a lot better that way.
Asking amiss. Asking selfishly. This one comes in many flavors. There are the obvious ones, like, "Lord, please give me a brand-new car, and a nice house, and a great job, and a lot of money so I can spend it on my model trains." But asking amiss can be subtler than that.
How about someone who prays for a position of responsibility in church so he can look like somebody important? How about someone who's praying for the soul of someone who's lost, so other people will call him a good soul winner? We're not called to put notches in the covers of our Bibles for each soul we lead to Christ, are we? But I've read of some Christian men who seem to boast about how many people they've led to the Lord, or how big their churches are, and to me, that sounds an awful lot like selfishness. And what is selfishness? Your eyes are on yourself instead of being on the Lord first and on other people second. It's not enough to pray for the right things. We have to pray with the right motives, too. And that brings me to my next point.
Not asking in His name - what does that mean? I preached a mini-sermon on this some time ago, but the summary of it all is this: it does not mean saying "in Jesus' name" at the end of every prayer. I know that's not what it means because no one in the Bible ever prayed that way. I also know that's not what it means because if it was just a question of saying the right words at the end of the prayer, then the holy name of Jesus becomes nothing more than a magic charm to get your prayer answered, kind of like a Baptist novena.
I once knew a Christian woman who prayed that her husband would cheat on her so she would have an excuse to divorce him. That woman could say, "In Jesus' name, amen" until her lips cracked and bled, but as long as she was praying contrary to the will of God, she was not praying in Jesus' name. (Just to reassure you: he didn't cheat, she repented, he changed a few things in his own life, and they have a fine marriage now.)
What it means to pray in Jesus' name is this: we are to pray the kinds of prayers Jesus prayed when He was on earth, in accordance with His will, and for His benefit. He never prayed for any reason except to know the will of His Father, and that His Father might be glorified. We are to pray (1) according to His will, (2) for His benefit, and (3) without regard to our own benefit.
The example we can all understand is where a Christian marriage has broken up. Of course, we pray that the husband and wife will be reconciled to each other, but why? If our primary concern is the restoration of the marriage, then we aren't praying in Jesus' name, we're praying in the name of those two Christians. We need to pray that both of them will turn back to God and seek His forgiveness for their own sins, and then work on the marriage, so that God will be glorified. His glory first, our benefit second. If we get it backward, then we aren't praying in Jesus' name.
We always remember the first part, about being careful for nothing. We always remember the part about giving all our troubles to the Lord. We always remember the part that comes in the next verse, the part about the peace of God that transcendeth all understanding. How often do we just gloss over that word in the middle of the verse? Thanksgiving. I think God knew we'd miss that as being a key to prayer, so He gave it to us twice. The second reference is in I Timothy 2:1 -
I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men;Jesus once healed ten lepers. Nine went merrily on their way. The tenth came back to thank Jesus, and that tenth one was the only one whom Jesus commended. We know we're supposed to be thankful. But these verses make it clear enough that thankfulness is an integral part of prayer. Which means that unthankfulness is a good way to weaken your prayer. Are you showing your gratitude to God for all that He has done for you? Are you thanking Him, even in the midst of trying circumstances? Remember, it says, "In every thing give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you." Sometimes you don't choose your circumstances, but you always choose your reaction to them. The reaction God requires of us is "be ye thankful." And we just learned that being thankful is an important part of prayer. So the next time you read that verse, don't gloss over that word. Live it. Thankfulness.
This passage of Scripture teaches us some surprising things. It teaches us that there are times when praying is not the right thing to do. And it teaches us that there are times when someone else's actions can hinder our prayers. Now, we can't draw too many automatic conclusions here, because this passage is about God dealing with Israel, not with the church. But the principle is one that's worth thinking about. If there is flagrant sin in a local church, then the prayers of that church body may very well be hindered. Why should God honor a church that's dishonoring His holy name?
And if it's true for a church, then how about for a family? We men are the heads of our households. We are responsible before God for the conduct of our families. And if one of our children is running rampant against God, and we aren't addressing the issue, then how much hope should we have that God is hearing and answering our prayers? We can be praying our knees off, but it may not be time to pray. It may be time to deal with sin in the camp first, and then get down and pray.
This one isn't quite the same as point #3, the one about persevering in prayer. In this case, Elijah already knew that his prayer was about to be answered. It was just a question of exactly when and how. And he waited until he got his answer. If he had walked away in discouragement after the second or third time, he would have missed it. This is the problem of impatience.
How many blessings have we walked away from, that we could have received if we'd waited on the Lord just a little bit longer? It's not a happy thought, is it? God has His timetable for all things, and He's never a moment late. By His standard. But by our standard, He often seems to be dragging His feet, doesn't he? Remember, patience is one of the fruits of the Spirit. It doesn't come naturally. But it's something that God wants to develop in us. We've all seen that refrigerator magnet that says, "Lord, give me patience, now!" But aren't we equally guilty of saying, "Lord, answer my prayers, now!" Let's show Him that we trust Him to answer in His perfect timing. We do trust Him, don't we?
These people were praying that Peter would be released from jail. Peter was released from jail. When these people heard about it, they said, "No, he hasn't been released from jail." What's this about? Simple: you got your prayer answered, but you don't recognize it. This one can be a hard one to recognize all by yourself. You often need someone else to point it out to you, because we tend to make up our minds how God ought to answer our prayer, and when He does it His way instead, we overlook it or reject it because it doesn't suit our preconceived notions.
An example of this happened right in our midst. Pastor Tom prayed very fervently that Jane would be healed of her cancer. As we know, God took her home. Was this an answer to prayer? Tom himself has pointed out that his deepest prayer, and hers as well, was that souls would be saved in New England. And at least two men have come to faith in Jesus after hearing the message preached at Jane's funeral. Tom didn't recognize that at first. But God did, indeed, answer his heart's cry. And He often gives us answers in ways that we don't expect and don't recognize.
I'd also like to suggest that we won't recognize a lot of those answered prayers until we get to Heaven. I have no doubt that when we ask God why He didn't answer such-and-such a prayer, His reply will be, "I did." Say you're praying for safety and protection for a particular missionary, and instead, his car breaks down. God may have caused that breakdown because He knew that, if the missionary kept driving, a drunk driver would have hit him a mile up the road. This can be a hard one to accept in the here and now. Sometimes we just have to trust that God has everything under control. I assure you, He does. So trust His timing.
Naaman had a prayer request - he wanted to be healed of his leprosy. Naaman got his prayer answered - Elisha told him exactly what he had to do to be healed. But Naaman didn't like the answer he got. He knew what he wanted from God, and he didn't get it his way, and he "threw a hissy fit," as they say nowadays. If you read further, you find that his servants talked some sense into him, he did what Elisha told him to do, and he was healed. But he almost walked away from the very blessing he had asked for.
Have you all heard the joke about the man trapped in his house by a flood, waiting for the Lord to rescue him? [tell it if needed] It's the same thing as Naaman - God answers our prayer, but we don't like the answer He gives us. It's our preconceived notions getting in the way again. Sometimes I think we start expecting God to do things our way, instead of asking that His will be done. At least, that's the way we react when we don't get exactly what we think He should have given us.
If we are going to pray, "Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven," then we had better get used to the idea that His will isn't always our will, and that His ways are definitely not our ways. God resists being put in a box. He is infinite, and finite beings like us cannot begin to predict what He will do in answer to our prayers. We know He will always do what is best. If what we get isn't what we expected, then maybe - just maybe - we could show a little faith and thank the Lord for it on principle. What a concept! "In all things give thanks." Who would of thought of such a thing? I'll tell you who: the same God who answers our prayers out of His perfect wisdom. So be awfully careful when you're tempted to reject God's workmanship out of hand, just because He didn't do it your way.