If you’ve ever felt as if God isn’t listening to your prayers, you’re not alone. In fact, you’re just like every other Christian!
Job knew this experience well. So did David, a man after God’s own heart, who prayed in the Psalms, “How long, O Lord?” (Ps. 13:1)! Habakkuk the prophet also cried, “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear? Or cry to you ‘Violence!’ and you will not save?” (Hab. 1:2). Don’t discount these frustrated cries—the dual authorship of the Scriptures means that it wasn’t only Job or David or Habakkuk penning these prayers but also the Holy Spirit Himself. God knows your frustration and gives you words to pray, and examples to follow, when you feel alone in the dark.
Why do we sometimes experience silence from God? Is God cruel? Does He just like to mess with us? Or are there other reasons and greater purposes in God’s mind that we don’t know about?
Thankfully, there are some easy answers when you feel as if God isn’t receiving our prayers. Let’s look at them.
We Aren’t Christians
In chapter 1, we saw how Jesus gives us the confidence to pray and makes God accessible to sinners. One of the scariest truths found in the Bible is that many people think they have saving faith in Jesus Christ but actually don’t. Jesus warned about fake believers in Matthew 7:21: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven.” People like this may have grown up in church, know all the right answers to theological questions, be the first to arrive at church on Sunday, and act like Christians outwardly. But they remain unbelievers, and thus God has no obligation to listen to their prayers.
If you have no desire to know God through prayer, examine yourself to see whether you are in the faith (see 2 Cor. 13:5). The desire to pray is hardwired into the soul of the believer. Does it pain you to know you have sinned against a holy God? Do you put your trust in Jesus for the forgiveness of your sins? If you question the veracity of your faith, trust in Jesus—He turns no one away who comes to Him in faith and repentance.
We Lack Faith
Prayer without faith isn’t prayer; it’s talking to ourselves. Don’t forget that “without faith it is impossible to please” God (Heb. 11:6). Impossible doesn’t come with qualifiers. Faithless prayer displeases God. James 1:7–8 says that the doubter “must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.”
When we go on autopilot during prayer and merely recite words while thinking about something else, we lack faith. When we ask God for something legitimate but are convinced that He won’t answer, we lack faith. The same is true when we pray in order to be seen by others—we put our focus on the reactions of people instead of on God.
Instead of praying this way, simply look to your heavenly Father, trust the promises of His Word, which help to stir your faith (see Rom. 10:17), and speak to Him.
We’ve Turned Our Back on God and His Word by Embracing Sin
Just as a child’s deliberate disobedience grieves his or her father, our sin grieves God (see Eph. 4:30). The psalmist wrote, “If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened” (Ps. 66:18). Our sin shapes the attitudes we have about God and our motives for praying. Living in sin is the opposite of loving God, for “the fear of the Lord is hatred of evil” (Prov. 8:13). Proverbs 28:9 says this truth in a different way: “If one turns away his ear from hearing [God’s] law, even his prayer is an abomination.”
If you find yourself treasuring sin and avoiding God’s Word, repent! And then ask Him to create in you a clean heart and a right spirit (see Ps. 51:10). Confess your sins to God, and to a trusted friend, and start praying again.
We’ve Treated Others Wrongly
If breaking the Greatest Commandment, by not loving God (see Matt. 22:36–38), can hinder your prayers (as the last point taught), it shouldn’t be a surprise that breaking the second Great Commandment, by not loving others (Matt. 22:39), can as well. This is essentially cherishing sin in your heart (see Ps. 66:18) regarding your duties toward other people.
The Bible explicitly identifies the marriage relationship as one place where this may happen. First Peter 3:7 says, “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.” At first this seems kind of random. Why would God hinder the prayers of knucklehead husbands? The reason is that He wants to lead them to repentance so that they will better care for their wives and honor Him more in their marriages. (While this is not explicitly stated in Scripture, I think that if a wife does not fulfill her role in marriage, her prayers have the potential to be hindered as well, because she is likely treasuring sin.)
The Bible is also explicit in saying that our prayer also may be hindered when we do not offer forgiveness and reconciliation (see Matthew 5:23–24; Mark 11:25; see also 1 Tim. 2:8) or when we neglect our duty to the poor (see Prov. 21:13).
We Are Prideful
The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector found in Luke 18:9–14 contrasts two postures that we can take toward prayer. The Pharisee strutted around like a spiritual giant, flexing his spiritual muscles and praying, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get” (vv. 11–12). He approached God on the basis of his works, not God’s mercy. But God doesn’t want us to pat ourselves on the back for how good we are; He wants humble hearts from us that understand our continual need for grace. That’s what the tax collector’s prayer reflected: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (v. 13).
Jesus’s conclusion to this parable sent shock waves to those who were listening: God accepted the socially unacceptable tax collector’s prayer while rejecting the admired Pharisee’s self-righteous prayer. “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted” (v. 14).
We Are Experiencing God’s Discipline
Knowing God as our Father means that we receive the Father’s loving discipline. Receiving God’s loving discipline might mean not hearing from Him as we’d expect. He may want to convict us of sin, test us to see what is in our hearts, or cause us to seek Him more fervently; but His firm and gracious hand always has our growth and our good in mind—even when He doesn’t answer us as we’d like him to. Realizing this allows you to say, along with H. B. Charles Jr., “God has done great things in my life through an unanswered prayer.”
No Such Thing As Unanswered Prayer
There is a crucial difference between God rejecting our prayers, for the aforementioned reasons, and God not answering our prayers. I’m convinced there is no such thing as an unanswered prayer for a Christian.
God is the perfect Father, and we are His beloved children. What earthly father would reject the pleading of his child? Not a good one. And yet what earthly father always immediately answers his child’s request in exactly the way that the child wants? One who is either shortsighted, lazy, or both. But our heavenly Father is good and is not shortsighted or lazy. He always has greater purposes than simply being a genie who will grant our wishes. God always answers our prayers but often doesn’t do so in the timing we want or the ways we prefer. His answers may come as a “Yes,” or a “No,” or a “Wait.”
The waiting is the hardest part. I can usually deal with a no. But waiting for answers to life’s deepest prayers hurts. Will my loved one ever follow Christ? Will healing ever come? Will I ever get the new job that I need so badly?
Even if all we hear is crickets, having confidence in the love and sovereignty of God will provide us with fertile ground for persevering prayers.
This is an excerpt from Kevin’s new book When Prayer Is a Struggle: A Practical Guide for Overcoming Obstacles in Prayer, a book full of gospel encouragement and practical tools for growing in prayer.