God can seem far away when I 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.
When things are good, or when I have plenty, or even when I’m distracted, God gets too little of my time. When I do 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.
Four Hindrances to Prayer
I’m sure these are common problems for many believers: that praying is difficult and self-centered, and that our prayers seem hindered. Let’s look at the latter difficulty: 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. (Proverbs 28:9)
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; you love a made-up Jesus. This fabricated Jesus doesn’t even exist, so he obviously can’t answer prayers.
2. Loving Sin
Psalm 66 points out another issue that restricts the reception of our prayers: “If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened.” (Psalm 66:18).
Our prayers won’t be heard if we “cherish iniquity,” holding unrepentantly to some sin. 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.
3. Desiring Wrongly
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. (James 4:2-3)
James makes two points here.
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.
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.
4. Doubting God
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)
God wants to give his children good things. Since he gave us his Son, the greatest gift of love and goodness and mercy, can we then believe he would withhold any of his love and goodness from us (Romans 8:32)?
It may seem that evil in the world and the unending worries of life are too overwhelming to address in prayer. We would be constantly asking for help, and God would get sick of us, we think—
Or we get overwhelmed by our sin. We know the things we’ve done, we know how unlovable we are. God may have given us his Son, but we certainly don’t deserve any more than that, we think…
Both of these are examples of how doubt can creep into our prayer life. Doubt lies to us that God’s love, patience, and power have limits. James states clearly that actively doubting God’s graciousness and providence can impede our prayers.
Prayer That Delights God
In order to avoid blockades to prayer, it helps to know prayer’s purpose. Wonderfully, Jesus explains:
If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. (John 15:7-10)
To abide in Christ’s love, we follow his commands, which means knowing Scripture, “the word of Christ” (Colossians 3:16). As we increase in the knowledge of Jesus, we will also increase in love for him, which drives us to our knees in repentance. When you know Jesus and what he has done for you, it becomes progressively easier to turn from the ugliness of sin to the beauty of the Savior.
As we come to know and love Jesus, our prayers will be increasingly transformed. This will change how, why, and what we ask of him. We will love what he loves, hate what he hates, and desire what he desires. We will learn to submit to his timing in answering because we are learning to trust him more.
A Praying Faith
As our Father, God delights to give good gifts to his children (Luke 11:5-13). Knowing we ask according to his will, we can have faith that he will answer us, even when his answer doesn’t align with our understanding or timetable. When doubt still comes, we reject it and turn to our forgiving and compassionate God who will bolster our faith. We come to God humbly in prayer through Jesus, who opened the way for us to do so by removing all blockades to communion with God when he defeated sin and death.
Yes, we will still struggle with the flesh and the world; therefore our requests may be tainted, and our ability to notice God’s answers may be clouded. So we cling to Psalm 37:4: “Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.”
Jesus has changed those who love him, delighting us in himself. Even when we don’t know how to ask or receive, he sees what we truly want—to know him, love him, and bear fruit for him—and knows how and when to provide and answer.