The Lord is patient and trustworthy, but his people are not equally serene and reliable. When God is slow to answer prayers by our estimation, we wonder why he has not answered and what is preventing him from giving us what we ask for. The answer could be that unrepented sin is getting in the way.
The Answer to Our Prayers
First, though, what is an answer to prayer? Often, believers assume that God has only answered if he has given his “yes” to a petition. The implication of a request is that the response could be “no” or “not yet.” This is still an answer.
All Christians benefit from revisiting their prayer practices regularly and realigning them with the Lord’s perfect prayer. This begins with honoring God’s holiness. He will do as he pleases, not as we please. “Your kingdom come, your will be done” (Matthew 6:10).
Jesus’ prayer reminds us that God is King, not a genie at our disposal. But his steadfast and unchanging nature is also reassuring. His promise of steadfast love can be trusted.
Are We Really Praying?
As we wait for answers, we might also wonder “did we really pray?” Prayer is a request, a petition. Certainly, “we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (Romans 8:26).
When we come to the Lord with desires but cannot speak because our emotions are too full, or perhaps too raw, the Spirit will speak for us. But if we have something to ask of God, we must ask it. When we are afraid to ask, this could be a sign that the Holy Spirit is telling us that our desire is sinful.
Prayer is a conversation with God and should not be taken for granted. The Lord is holy; he will not countenance a lackadaisical attitude in which prayer is an afterthought. Prayer should be intentional.
And the Lord wants us to be grateful that he comes close to us because of Christ’s sacrifice. When we are joyous and grateful in prayer, this suggests that we understand its value.
Good communication involves as much listening as talking, so the Lord must have our undivided attention. We must listen for his answer and receive it with humility, even if the answer is not what we wanted.
Are We Satisfied with God Himself?
Jesus’ perfect prayer also reminds us that the need we so seldom recognize is already fulfilled for us. God is on the throne, immutable and omnipotent. We can have faith that he is working in the world according to his will. “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17).
The ideal prayer finds its “yes” in Jesus, not in healed bodies, restored marriages, financial relief, etc. Though we are invited to continue asking for those things, our peace and joy are fastened to Christ.
If he does not heal bodies, open career opportunities, or relieve financial distress, God is not punishing the petitioner. Christ received the punishment we deserve because he was the only one who could take it.
The Lord might choose not to provide what we have asked for because he wants us first to experience what we truly need: a relationship with him as our Father.
What Happens to Our Prayers When We Sin?
Yet, there is a possibility that sin is interfering with prayer. Sin is literally an obstacle between us and God; a wall, which prevents us from approaching him. One might compare it to the attitude, which stands in the way of true conversation between two individuals.
If one asks his friend a question and does not wait to hear the answer but lets his mind wander or assumes the answer before it is given, this attitude is arrogant, disrespectful, demanding, and demeaning.
The other person will recognize this pattern and cease to engage. We often approach the Lord in a similar fashion, heedless of his responses, entitled rather than expectant. Of course, God will not stand for such a thing. If one’s prayers are greeted with silence, this could be the reason.
Moreover, the Lord has said that if we do not forgive others, he will not forgive us. Jesus explained that “if anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen” (John 4:30).
One’s posture might be completely respectful towards the Lord but there is unrepented sin in a person’s life. “First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:24).
Prayer is a form of worship, an offering, but the Lord wants our hearts to be right with one another before he will accept it. If we are aware of conflicts, which need to be resolved, it is our responsibility to resolve them if we can.
But “if God correlated the answers to our prayers precisely to our sins, we wouldn’t get any answers to prayer. So, we should never think that an answer to prayer signifies sinlessness.” The plain fact is that we all sin, all day long, often without stopping to think about it.
The Father still responds to our requests, even sometimes giving his “yes” in spite of recurring sin. His will is going to be done whether we like it or not.
Repentance and Prayer
Any sin is first an act of rebellion against him and a sign that we are living to fulfill the flesh and not in the Spirit. We are not putting God first.
True repentance is necessary as this is our indication to God that we want to be sanctified; we love Jesus more than we love alcohol, exercise, pornography, or getting our own way.
There are sins which one might fall into over and over, such as substance abuse, yet God is slow to anger and rich in love (Psalm 145:8). We can come back to him over and over with repentant hearts, begging to be set free, and he will always help us.
2 Corinthians 7:10 reassures us that repentance leads to salvation if it is godly if we truly want to break free. Certain sins will remain troublesome throughout our lives or for many years.
Others will be taken from us the instant we give our lives to Christ, or immediately after we pray about them. Either way, God stands by us as we are refined to look more like our Savior.
But there are conditions under which our Father will not respond positively to personal prayers. For example, “failures of love at the horizontal level signal a breakdown of love toward God,” says John Piper.
The second commandment is to love others as ourselves: are we obeying? Piper also says that motives can be a problem in our prayer lives. We want good grades so we can get into good universities and achieve personal glory, not in order to submit our talents to God’s purposes.
Worse still, if “you hold a grudge [...] or treat other people unmercifully and then cry out to God for mercy, you’re simply making a mockery out of God. And God will not be mocked.”
There is no easy answer to this question: sometimes sin is an obstacle; sometimes the Lord wants to show his mercy in spite of us. The best way to address this question is to search our hearts for unrepented sin, for unrighteous desires, and to allow the Holy Spirit to convict us.
Furthermore, we can always benefit from remembering to trust God: he will never send us where he will not also follow. And in prayer, we have immediate access to our Father. Prayer always “works” because God is always available.
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Candice Lucey is a freelance writer from British Columbia, Canada, where she lives with her family. Find out more about her here.