There are several causes for the frustration and confusion many believers have with prayer. But those causes do not occur individually, rather combining in a variety of number and proportion in each person and situation. “They are, of course, to some extent mutually inclusive. They might, indeed, all be gathered up in one.” Yet theoretical fragmentation of an object of knowledge for study of its details, with a view to a better understanding of it as a whole, is both a human need and a natural requirement of complex objects.
All causes of frustration and confusion stand on the human side. All are human weaknesses. There is no such thing as apathy or injustice with God. If the Old Testament contains many instances of his indisposition to hear supplications from his people, the reason is not indifference on his part, but unrighteousness on theirs. As Moses declared in the canticle before his death about God: “He is the Rock, His work is perfect; for all His ways are justice, a God of truth and without injustice; righteous and upright is He” (Deut. 32:4). So if God said that he was to hide his face from his people (v. 20), the motive for such silence was not in him, but in them: “They have corrupted themselves” (v. 5). Though we should not question God’s justice explicitly, we customarily ask, when something goes wrong: “Why, Lord?” God could well reply, with an eye to the tragedy in Eden, the origin of all disgraces: “Why, creatures?”
One cause of frustration, especially in case of tragedies, is conceptual: we ignore, do not understand, do not accept, or simply forget that the time of universal physical redemption did not come with Christ’s first coming, but will be brought about when he comes back. We shall deal with this in a section of the next chapter, which is a continuation of this one. Together, these two chapters provide an overview of the causes of unsuccessful experiences with prayer, which will, then, be analyzed in detail in the chapters that follow.
(a) A life unpleasing to God
The apostle John wrote in his account of the gospel: “Now we know that God does not hear sinners; but if anyone is a worshiper of God and does His will, He hears him” (John 9:31). The apostle Paul teaches that experiencing the perfect and pleasing will of God is for those who present their bodies as a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, and are not conformed to this world, being, rather, transformed by the renewing of their minds (see Rom. 12:1). Also, the author of the letter to the Hebrews wishes that God may make us “complete in every good work to do His will, working in you what is well pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ . . .” (Heb. 13:21). Scripture is clear that God does not honor the supplications of unredeemed sinners, those who are “lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God” (2 Tim. 3:4). “The Lord is far from the wicked, but He hears the prayer of the righteous” (Prov. 15:29). “One who turns away his ear from hearing the law, even his prayer is an abomination” (Prov. 28:9). God’s ears are closed to those who have not yet been reconciled with him by faith in his Son.
The wicked say: “Who is the Almighty, that we should serve Him? And what profit do we have if we pray to Him?” (Job 21:15). Indeed, it is of no use that they pray to the God in whose divinity and power they do not believe. The result is the same as that of praying to something regarded as god, but not being anything: none. “And the rest of it he makes into a god, his carved image. He falls down before it and worships it, prays to it and says, ‘Deliver me, for you are my god!’” (Isa. 44:17).
The prayer of salvation—“Save me by your grace and mercy. I’m a sinner but believe that your Son died for my sins and resurrected for my justification”— is the only prayer of unbelievers that God allows to enter his ears and that, as a key, opens his ears completely to all the other prayers they will address to him in the course of their life as believers. “The type of prayer that God desires from the person living in sin is not petition but confession” (Stanley J. Grenz).
God stands for those who put themselves under the saving lordship of him in whom “dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily” (Col. 2:9), Jesus Christ, and who live accordingly a life of devotion, holiness, love, and service. True and effective prayer is for those in whom Christ dwells: “If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, you will ask what you desire, and it shall be done for you” (John 15:7). Obedience to the Lord indicates whether someone abides in him and his words abide in someone. Accordingly, the apostle John, who recorded those words from Jesus, says elsewhere: “And whatever we ask we receive from Him, because we keep His commandments and do those things that are pleasing in His sight” (1 John 3:22).
We should not forget, however, that God may deny believers what they ask for, as the case may be, to show his dissatisfaction with their incidental profanity. The believer may ask (ignoring his or her unholy behavior): “Why does God not answer my prayers?” God might well answer, “Why should I?” Several times, he said to his disobedient Old Testament people that he would not hear their prayers:
“When you spread out your hands, I will hide My eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not hear. Your hands are full of blood.” (Isa. 1:15)
“Behold, the Lord’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save; nor His ear heavy, that it cannot hear. But your iniquities have separated you from your God; and your sins have hidden His face from you, so that He will not hear.” (Isa. 59:1–2)
“Therefore I also will act in fury. My eye will not spare nor will I have pity; and though they cry in My ears with a loud voice, I will not hear them.” (Ezek. 8:18)
“Therefore do not pray for this people, nor lift up a cry or prayer for them, nor make intercession to Me; for I will not hear you.” (Jer. 7:16)
“So do not pray for this people, or lift up a cry or prayer for them; for I will not hear them in the time that they cry out to Me because of their trouble.” (Jer. 11:14)
We learn from the last two verses that God is not willing even to hear intercessory prayers (of true believers) on behalf of someone else who is disobedient. God’s reason for his wrathful statement in the last verse is this: “They have turned back to the iniquities of their forefathers who refused to hear My words, and they have gone after other gods to serve them; the house of Israel and the house of Judah have broken My covenant which I made with their fathers” (Jer. 11:10). And after announcing a time of calamity, God repeats: “. . . and though they cry out to Me, I will not listen to them” (v. 11).
In order that God may hear our voice in our sorrows, we must hear his when everything runs well: “I spoke to you in your prosperity, But you said, ‘I will not hear.’ This has been your manner from your youth, that you did not obey My voice” (Jer. 22:21). And, aware that God was punishing his people for the sake of apostasy, the author of Lamentations cried: “You have covered Yourself with a cloud, that prayer should not pass through” (3:44). Jeannette Clift George says finely in her book Troubling Deaf Heaven: Assurance in the Silence of God: “Not all the silences of God are the result of sin, but it is dangerous to overlook its possibility.” She remarks that certain matters may need our critical attention because they, as sins. have blocked our contact with God.
We should humbly admit our faults before God and appeal to his mercy: “O my God, incline Your ear and hear; open Your eyes and see our desolations, and the city which is called by Your name; for we do not present our supplications before You because of our righteous deeds, but because of Your great mercies” (Dan. 9:18). God forgives and restores us when we recognize our misdoings and accept his fatherly discipline, as in the case of Ephraim: “I have surely heard Ephraim bemoaning himself: ‘You have chastised me, and I was chastised, like an untrained bull; restore me, and I will return, for You are the Lord my God’” (Jer. 31:18).
We ought to never forget that prayer is a gracious gift from God—a privilege—to believers, not a right of them. Therefore, the appropriate attitude is of humility and gratitude: “Hear me when I call, O God of my righteousness! You have relieved me in my distress; Have mercy on me, and hear my prayer” (Ps. 4:1). Here the psalmist mentions with gratitude a former benevolence of God and appeals confidently to the divine mercy for further blessings and deliverances. This is an excellent model for believers.
William Law wrote in his classic A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life that “unless the common course of our lives be according to the common spirit of our prayers, our prayers are so far from being a real or sufficient degree of devotion, that they become an empty lip-labour, or, what is worse, a notorious hypocrisy.” Law also made these quite wise and most finely written remarks:
As sure as it is our duty to look wholly unto God in our Prayers, so sure is it, that it is our duty to live wholly unto God in our lives. But we can no more be said to live unto God, unless we live unto him in all the ordinary actions of our life, unless he be the rule and measure of all our ways, that we can be said to pray unto God, unless our Prayers look wholly unto him. So that unreasonable and absurd ways of life, whether in labour or diversion, whether they consume our time, or our money, are like unreasonable and absurd Prayers, and are as truly an offence unto God.
Blessed and happy is the believer who, knowing the word of God and being spiritually zealous, sings: “I cried to Him with my mouth, and He was extolled with my tongue. If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear. But certainly God has heard me; He has attended to the voice of my prayer. Blessed be God, who has not turned away my prayer, nor His mercy from me!” (Ps. 66:17–20).
We shall see in the next chapter that we also displease God, making him unwilling to hear our prayers, when we are merciless toward those in need and when we leave conflicts with others open.
(b) Disinterest in prayer
The apostle James stated: “Yet you do not have because you do not ask” (James 4:2). If we pray for something, we (may) get it. If we do not pray, we will surely not get anything. Obviously, we cannot be shocked by prayers not answered, which were not made; but we do get shocked with negative results of our uncommitted prayers, which are not, for that matter, any different from not praying at all.
Many believers are so absorbed by the interests of this world and so unaware of the blessings from God, that they do not think of returning often to him in gratitude and for further supplication (as he is our fountain of everything—see Psalm 87:7). John Charles Ryle, from whom we will quote somewhat extensively in this study, wrote: “Faith is to the soul what life is to the body. Prayer is to faith what breath is to life. How a man can live and not breathe is past my comprehension, and how a man can believe and not pray is past my comprehension too.” Ryle makes a well-argued, strong, and very shocking comment on those who do not pray:
I believe that thousands never say a word of prayer at all. They eat; they drink; they sleep; they rise; they go forth to their labour; they return to their homes; they breathe God’s air; they see God’s sun; they walk on God’s earth; they enjoy God’s mercies; they have dying bodies; they have judgment and eternity before them. But they never speak to God! They live like the beasts that perish; they behave like creatures without souls; they have not a word to say to Him in whose hand are their life, and breath, and all things, and from whose mouth they must one day receive their everlasting sentence. How dreadful this seems! But if the secrets of men were only known, how common!
How can a believer expect to find grace in the eyes of God if, like an unbeliever, he or she lives as if God does not exist as far as prayer is concerned? We need to talk to God constantly. As Symon Patrick wrote, we should seek God in prayer and praises, “because we are weak, and in want” and “it is a most noble privilege to be admitted into God’s presence.” Patrick also recommends that you should do it frequently, because “you will be so much the more happy; by having him oft in your thoughts, and by being much in his Blessed presence; who is able to impart everlasting felicity to his devout and faithful Worshippers.”
Christian life without prayer is dry, graceless, powerless, disoriented, unfruitful, and fearful. It could not be otherwise since the person loses the notion of the presence of God, hence does not draw from the One who is our source of life, grace, power, orientation, fruitfulness, and courage. John R. Mott, the great twentieth-century mission statesman and Nobel Prize winner (Peace, 1946), said at the close of an International Convention of the Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions: “. . . the students who do not know this habit of talking unhurriedly with God for some time every day lose their consciousness of His voice. They become unfamiliar with it. It ceases to move them deeply, and it does not command them. Therefore they are lost, in the true sense of that word. They do not find His will with reference to their own character, and their own duty.” And Ryle describes brilliantly the cold spiritual condition in which many Christians find themselves: “Partly from ignorance, partly from laziness, partly from fear of man, partly from secret love of the world, partly from some unmortified besetting sin, they are content with a little faith, and a little hope, and a little peace, and a little measure of holiness. And they live on all their lives in this condition—doubting, weak, halting, and bearing fruit only ‘thirty-fold’ to the very end of their days!”
Praise, meditation on the Scriptures, prayer, service, and witness are together the exercise of our communion with God, hence of our spirituality. It is through these disciplines that we stay in his presence and do his will wherever we go. If we do not cultivate our communion with him regularly by praising him, learning from his written revelation, talking to him, serving the needy in his name, and witnessing of his Son, we will only find our occasional prayer feeble. “Disgruntled with God, I can so easily call my occasional prayer empty and grouse about its ineffectiveness” (James Long).
Prayer energizes the soul. It is “the very pulse of the regenerated heart; it is the quickening of the Spirit in the new birth—the breath of the life of God in the soul” (John. M. Hiffernan). For all that, it should be easy to pray. But how difficult we let it be! James Douglas analyzed the matter very well:
Of all things, prayer is the most easy and the most difficult. In its own nature, it is most easy. It is but raising up the heart to Him who is not far off from any one of us,—to Him in whom we live, and move, and have our being,—who is reconciled to us by the death of Christ,—who, having given us his beloved Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life, hath given us an infinite proof, that with Christ he will freely give us all things. And yet, to our fallen nature, prayer is most difficult. Here we have a strong proof how far human nature is alienated from God. We are carnal. Prayer, though an easy, is a spiritual exercise. It appeals to no visible object, and receives no audible answer.
We must be aware that the devil is very committed to distract us and prevent us from praying. We must resist him consciously and deliberately all the time. Prayer itself plays a vital role here. Speaking more generally, we have to firmly remove all things that get between us and prayer, which impede us to be consistent in the practice of it. Edward Bickersteth spoke remarkably of the devil’s strategic interest in keeping the believer far from prayer and his strategic “suggestions” to achieve it:
There is a powerful spiritual adversary of man, “who goeth about as a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.” Here is your great enemy. Other things are but his engines.—His object in other things is to keep you from or hinder you in prayer. “Be not ignorant of his devices.” He will suggest that prayer is a dull and gloomy service, or useless and vain. If these do not succeed, he will suggest the putting off the duty to another opportunity, on account of some other employment: some favourite book to be read, some letter perhaps to be written, or some other business which he will propose to your mind, important perhaps in itself, but not good for this time.
It is alarming how prone we are not to do to our souls what we do to our bodies! We nourish our bodies quite regularly and with pleasure. When it comes to our souls, however, we tend to leave them hungry . . . then weak . . . then sick. Prayer, instructed by the Scriptures, is fundamental to our spiritual wellbeing. The more careless we are about it, the more vulnerable we will be in this challenging world. Prayer is our main resource to endure and overcome adversities in this fallen world. Hiffernan wrote this about it:
But especially should we be impressed with the deep importance of this duty of continual prayer, to meet all the changes and chances of this mortal life. Everything here below—need I but to state the well known fact?—is imperfect, mutable, and transitory. Where is the man who has found that solid rock on which to base his happiness, that can resist the wasting hand of time, or the more sudden and violent shocks of adversity?
(c) Syndrome of “second-class saint”
Many believers chronically deem themselves unable to become spiritually powerful. They think that really effective prayers are reserved for the great saints, not for common believers. So, they block their spiritual progress at the root. Ryle commented about this self-diminishment: “I have little doubt that many look on eminent holiness as a kind of special gift, which none but a few must pretend to aim at. They admire it at a distance, in books: they think it beautiful when they see an example near themselves. But as to its being a thing within the reach of any but a very few, such a notion never seems to enter their minds. In short, they consider it a kind of monopoly granted to a few favoured believers, but certainly [not] to all.” Ryle considers it a “most dangerous mistake” and rightly maintains that spiritual greatness “depends far more on the use of means within everybody’s reach, than on anything else.” In his opinion, whether a believer will become “eminently holy” or not depends mainly on his or her diligence in the use of the means appointed by God, the principal of which is exactly prayer—“diligent private prayer.”
There are many Christians everywhere, but usually in the poorest regions of the world, who so believe in the very central truth of the gospel—Jesus is Lord—that, notwithstanding their lack of a more elaborated doctrinal body, they respond with a non-negotiable faith to anything they cannot understand. They “simply” believe. This may sound intellectually simplistic, but faith is not essentially and ultimately a rational matter. We may consider them ignorant, but they might in turn consider us too rational. They are, despite their simplicity, spiritually strong and have no complex of spiritual inferiority. It is doubtless beneficial to know the aspects of prayer in more detail. Yet those “simple” Christians teach us that we should believe wholeheartedly in God no matter what happens and whatever be the measure of our understanding of what happens.
We shall see later why a faith that is able to work wonders is not a privilege of a few chosen believers, as many think, but rather, a possibility to which all believers are called.