Have you been praying about something for ages with no apparent results? Are you beginning to wonder if anyone is listening to your prayers? The frustration of unanswered prayer is pretty common but there is much that the Bible has to say on the matter. Do not despair! There are good reasons for God’s choices and there is much hope for you. God is good, He loves you, He is powerful, and He is listening. So what’s going wrong?
Jesus assures His disciples in John 16:23-34 that whatever they ask of the Father in His name will be given to them. Later, John writes from experience that asking in the name of Jesus means in line with His will:
And this is the confidence that we have toward him, 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)
This is a concrete biblical promise, but there are a number of reasons why we might not see immediate breakthrough.
The first is that we may be mistaken about what God’s will is in a situation. Sometimes God has a better idea. It could be that what you’re asking is not in line with God’s plan and will, because He’s cooking something superior up instead. I have certainly experienced this myself, and even had the privilege of being able to see with hindsight the breathtaking wonder of His genius plan. This removed any hint of disappointment that God didn’t go with my feeble ideas. We don’t always get to see why God chose differently, but as He says in Isaiah 55, His ways are higher and better than ours—God thinks on another level. So that’s the first thing. Sometimes it’s a no, but a no you’ll appreciate later. We can take our prayers to God but it’s always good to go in humility, seeking His will and plan in a situation. But I think you already know that.
Secondly it could be a matter of persistence. If a prayer isn’t answered with a direct yes or no, it could be that God is simply saying “wait”. The reason for the wait could be that His perfect timing involves more elements coming together than just the one thing you are focussed on. It could be that He is asking us to persist with increasing faith, since it takes greater and greater faith to keep going in the absence of visible change. Sometimes there is a tipping point of collective prayers which God waits for before He acts. Prayer is a choice and one that is not always easy to make, and our collective will and persistence to keep praying over time can mean the difference between something happening… or not. God invites us to take part in His actions in the world in this way. Jesus encourages us in Luke 18 to pray and not give up. It’s a chapter worth reading if you find yourself in this predicament. Take encouragement from saints in the past who saw prayers answered after decades of perseverance, because it does happen. If there’s not immediate result or reason to think the answer is “no”, then keep going! But I think you know that, too.
Thirdly there may be a blockage. Isaiah describes it like this:
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 59:2)
In the previous chapter, God exhorts Israel to make sure that their walk matches their talk as they pray and fast. Otherwise it won’t count for anything.
“Fasting like yours this day will not make your voice to be heard on high.” (Is 58:4b)
According to this passage, we learn that fasting should generally make our voice heard on high, but the way they were going about it was wrong and was not going to achieve results. Soberly take note as God talks to Israel in this way, as a window into how things work from God’s point of view. We need to be walking rightly with God and with our fellow man in order to be heard on high. And in case you’re wondering if this is just a problem for the Israelites in the Old Covenant, the same principles apply in the New. Peter admonishes married men in this way:
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)
Clearly, Peter believes that treating your wife wrongly can actually hinder your prayers. God won’t listen to you until you put things right!
It is even spelled out for all of us—male, female, married and single—a few verses later:
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 3:12)
Again in the next chapter, Peter makes it plain that God’s response to our prayers is affected by the way that we live:
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)
Powerful and effective prayers
James, brother of Jesus, gives Elijah to us as an example of what God can do in response to the prayers of someone who is taking Him seriously. In the last chapter of his book, James draws a correlation between confessing our sins and being healed, seeing answers to our prayers. His conclusion is that Elijah was just an ordinary person like us, but that the prayers of a righteous person are powerful and effective (James 5:15-20).
How do we become righteous like Elijah?
Confessing our sin is highlighted as being of the utmost importance. We have another concrete promise here in 1 John 1:9 that confession, agreeing with God about our sin, leads to God cleansing us from all unrighteousness.
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
The anchor for this promise is in God’s character: He is faithful and just. It is a promise. It is also conditional—we are only cleansed if we confess our sin. But this will definitely do the trick, thanks to Yeshua’s sacrifice on our behalf which took our sin away as far as the east is from the west. Thank you, Jesus! Something I have done from time to time is invite the Holy Spirit to highlight anything that was displeasing to Him in my life, written it all down, written 1 John 1:9 over the top of it, and destroyed the list completely. Gone. If we do this on a regular basis, even just mentally, whenever we become aware of sin, then we are walking in the light. Walking in righteousness.
There is a beautiful illustration of this in the book of Zechariah. Joshua, the high priest (the high priest!) was dirty with sin and Satan, the accuser, was pointing it all out. Here’s what happens:
Then he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the Lord, and Satan standing at his right hand to accuse him. And the Lord said to Satan, “The Lord rebuke you, O Satan! The Lord who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you! Is not this a brand plucked from the fire?” Now Joshua was standing before the angel, clothed with filthy garments. And the angel said to those who were standing before him, “Remove the filthy garments from him.” And to him he said, “Behold, I have taken your iniquity away from you, and I will clothe you with pure vestments.” And I said, “Let them put a clean turban on his head.” So they put a clean turban on his head and clothed him with garments. And the angel of the Lord was standing by. And the angel of the Lord solemnly assured Joshua, “Thus says the Lord of hosts: If you will walk in my ways and keep my charge, then you shall rule my house and have charge of my courts, and I will give you the right of access among those who are standing here.”
In the same manner, even if you’ve been a believer for ages, you can still have filthy garments of sin. But God can give us brand new robes of righteousness and stop the voice of the accuser. Moreover, see what God says next to Joshua: “If you will walk in my ways and keep my charge, then you shall rule my house and have charge of my courts, and I will give you the right of access among those who are standing here.” Once again, there is the condition, “if”… but not only has he got new clothes appropriate for being in heavenly places with God, he is given responsibility, authority, and access by God. If we will walk in God’s ways.
Keep in step with the Spirit
Learning to walk in God’s ways is a lifetime journey and of course cannot—simply cannot—be done without the power of the Holy Spirit. But as we learn to walk in God’s ways, with His help, we are changed from glory to glory, from the inside out. We grow in family resemblance to our Father God as we spend time with Him. We become more and more familiar with what makes Him happy or not, and more attuned to His perspective as we meditate on His word. We understand better who He is, and the authority that He has over the universe. We start to appreciate what it means that He has given all authority to Jesus, and that we are also sent in His name. We understand that the laws of nature do not apply to Him; that all of creation is under His feet. We adjust from being the most important person in our lives to allowing Him to call the shots, and maintain a posture of readiness to obey, ready to leap into action at His word, like an athlete poised at the starting blocks, just waiting for the signal. We get to know who we really are as His children, who He is as our Father, and what it means to have been adopted into the most royal family there is! We slowly absorb what we have inherited in our Messiah, and learn how to appropriate the authority entrusted to us in His name. Eventually, the word “impossible” becomes irrelevant.
“The wonderful thing about praying,” said Corrie ten Boom, “is that you leave a world of not being able to do something, and enter God’s realm where everything is possible”.
Teach me your way, O Lord,
that I may walk in your truth;
unite my heart to fear your name.
Photo by Nick Page on Unsplash