(d) A conflictive and unforgiving spirit
Our attitude toward other people bears sensibly on the acceptability supplications can go unheard if we cause conflicts and leave them open. The blessedness of peacemaking is an essential part of the identity of God’s children (see Matt. 5:9). Yet, many times, we are instead promoters of conflict! And we pray as if we were innocent—“I did nothing wrong.”
If we make someone sad or are in conflict with someone, we will not find ourselves in the appropriate condition to praise and pray. God spoke to the men of his Old Testament people through the prophet Malachi: “And this is the second thing you do: You cover the altar of the Lord with tears, with weeping and crying; so He does not regard the offering anymore, nor receive it with goodwill from your hands. Yet you say, ‘For what reason?’” (Mal. 2:13–14). To what did the prophet refer? He said: “Because the Lord has been witness between you and the wife of your youth, with whom you have dealt treacherously; yet she is your companion and your wife by covenant” (v. 14). Their worship was disqualified by their unfaithfulness to their wives. The apostle Peter similarly exhorted the believing married men: “Likewise you husbands, dwell with them with understanding, giving honor to the wife, as to the weaker vessel, and as being heirs together of the grace of life, that your prayers may not be hindered” (1 Pet. 3:7). And the Lord Jesus taught: “Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Matt. 5:23–24). Note that the Lord begins with “therefore.” He is concluding a lesson. What is it about? He reminds his hearers of the prohibition to kill in the Old Testament law. Then he reveals to them the full meaning of “killing”: “But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment. And whoever says to his brother, ‘Raca!’ shall be in danger of the council. But whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be in danger of hell fire” (v. 22). The tongue as a tool of death—or life—had already been contemplated by the book of Proverbs: “Death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Prov. 18:21). Raca is an Aramaic term of verbal insult, meaning literally “empty,” used to call someone an idiot. For Jesus, killing means more than putting someone to death physically; it includes killing the person’s courage and sense of dignity. In a word, humiliation. This comprehensive meaning of killing must be integrated into the ethics of Christ’s disciples, whose justice is required to exceed the questionable justice of the scribes and Pharisees (see Matt. 5:20).
After taking the meaning of killing to its fullness, the Lord utters a practical guidance for those who want to approach God for worship or, for that matter, prayer: Do not do it before having a conflict settled. Prayer is idle if we have a dispute with somebody but attempt to approach God naturally, as if all were well. Unless—we can assume—prayer is exactly a preparation for reconciliation. True spirituality does everything to avoid conflicts and, when they take place, to resolve them promptly. Apostle Paul prescribes: “‘Be angry, and do not sin’: do not let the sun go down on your wrath, nor give place to the devil” (Eph. 4:26–27). This entails, on the one hand, humility to recognize our mistakes and plead for pardon, preferably without delay caused by whichever pride or shame, and, on the other hand, readiness to forgive.
(e) Superfluous petitions, unworthy of Jesus’ name
The apostle James described perfectly our most natural tendency concerning prayer: either we do not pray, or we pray unwisely. First, he affirms, as we have seen, that we do not have because we do not ask (see James 4:2). Then he adds that when we pray, we still do not receive because we ask with the wrong motive: to spend on our pleasures (v. 3). “Pleasures” here means luxury, superfluous amusements, “pleasures of life” (Luke 8:14). Unsaved sinners are enslaved by “all kinds of passions and pleasures” (Titus 3:13 NIV). This is not—or should not be—the case with believers. In any case, what Thomas Manton said applies: “Speaking to God may be prayer, if it come from zeal; it may be howling, if it come from lust . . .” Manton also said appropriately: “A carnal aim expressed, is but a supplication with a confutation; it is the nearest way to be denied.” Because of who God is, it is by definition improper to ask vain things of him. God only gives things that are worthy of being offered to himself. Vanity is meaningless and meaninglessness cannot come from God or be offered to him. We should offer him everything we receive from him, by using it according to his truth and will. This means that the glory of God should be the end of our prayers. Manton expressed that well: “It is not enough to make God the object of the prayer, but the end also.” Accordingly, he instructs: “All pleasures, honours, profits, are to be refused or received, as they make us serviceable to the glory of God.”
James and John, disciples of Jesus, once asked him that they might sit with him in his glory, one on his right hand and the other on his left (see Mark 10:37). The human passion for superiority and glory! The Lord rebuked them by asseverating that they did not know what they asked (v. 38). Glory is not something the believer asks for. Jesus added to his response to them that glory is not for those who want it, but “for those for whom it is prepared” (v. 40). Who are “those” for whom glory is reserved? The Lord taught that glory is for servants: “Whoever of you desires to be first shall be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (vv. 44–45). Glory is given to the one who does not seek glory, who finds no grace in glory for glory’s sake, which is vainglory—vain glory. Glory is for those who are protected from vanity by humble and disinterested service.
We let ourselves be easily convinced, by way of rationalization, that something truly of secondary or still lesser importance is a necessity. And we pray accordingly. Jesus indeed promised his disciples that they would be heard in whatever they asked for. But “whatever” must refer to things for which the name of Jesus stands. They may be complex or simple, grave or not so much, but never futile.
The apostle Paul qualified God’s will as “good, pleasing and perfect” (Rom. 12:2 NIV). If we think God is a wet blanket, this indicates how inadequately we know him and how strongly we are flesh driven. Before we were saved by God’s mercy, we lived “in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind” (Eph. 2:3). “For all that is in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—is not of the Father but is of the world” (1 John 2:16). “Because the carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be” (Rom. 8:7). But now that we have been reconciled to God by his grace, will we still live like the children of the darkness?
(f) Arrogance in addressing God
The letter to the Hebrews invites: “Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (4:16). Only we cannot confuse boldness to approach God with arrogance. We cannot say to him: “Are you not seeing my problem? Don’t just stand there! Do something!” God is faithful to his promises, and we can fearlessly appeal to them. But this does not mean that we have our “rights” to reclaim before him. We depend on his grace, not on rights of our own. We rely on Christ’s merits and name, not on our own. There is no place for irreverence and presumption before God. He is love but is also the Sovereign. John Charles Ryle wrote:
Let us never forget what we are, and what a solemn thing it is to speak with God. Let us beware of rushing into His presence with carelessness and levity. Let us say to ourselves, “I am on holy ground. This is no other than the gate of heaven. If I do not mean what I say, I am trifling with God. If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me.”
(g) Lack of openness to the will of God
Indisposition toward the will of God condemns a petition to failure. Likewise, the “Do it now, God!” kind of petition will fall to the ground for disregarding that God has his wise timing—his kairos, the Greek term for God’s appointed time for each thing. And indolence toward prayer easily develops if the believer fails to learn to never deem his or her will better than God’s.
We tend to fear the will of God. The reason seems to be the sensation, from our (fallen) observation of life, that his will represents a moralistic bent to less attractive and pleasing things. This could apply to everything from health to goods, from vocation to love. We worry that he may not pay attention to the car we would love to own, the kind of woman or man we would like to marry, the job we long for, the travel of our dreams, etc. As if God were a killjoy, a moralist, or a boring old man. Thus, we often resist saying: “Your will be done,” “Show me the way” or, as Saul of Tarsus did, “Lord, what do You want me to do?” (Acts 9:6). Once I said rhetorically to Christian teenagers: “It’s too risky to leave your lives entirely to God. Do you know why? Because, for example, God loves equally the most and the least beautiful people. So, he may cause you to fall in love with, and be fully happy in the arms of, someone you would never consider ‘eligible’ to marry.” They all laughed, naturally. I went on: “God does not manipulate our hearts. But he can convince us by his Holy Spirit. If you are serious about seeking the will of God for any particular area of your life, you may eventually come to admit that he showed you important values where you did not find any before.” My young listeners were now pensive. I concluded my speech: “You may not inquire about the will of God, fearing surprises. But know that only his will can guarantee you happiness.”
Many missionaries have worked in dangerous and uncomfortable conditions. We admire them. We see them as heroes. But deep in our hearts we think that they have lost their lives, from the point of view of comfort, modernity, professional career, financial growth, safety, etc. We ask ourselves, “How can someone, who grew up in a city, spend most of his or her life in a forest, without practically anything?” Truth be told, it really is hard for us to understand how a man can say, “But none of these things [chains and tribulations, mentioned in the previous verse] move me; nor do I count my life dear to myself, so that I may finish my race with joy, and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God” (Apostle Paul, Acts 20:24). We should learn as much as possible from believers who take the will of God seriously and experience exceeding joy in following it, whatever the circumstances. God is so pleased by their unconditional obedience that he will reward them accordingly—with exceeding glory and joy.
We often declare what we plan to do on the next day, week, month, or year. James teaches in this respect: “Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that’” (4:15). Paul wrote to the Corinthian believers: “But I will come to you shortly, if the Lord wills, and I will know, not the word of those who are puffed up, but the power” (1 Cor. 4:19). Fearless submission to God’s will is the ideal attitude of the believer in planning anything and praying for whatever. This, of course, requires faith.
(h) “Little faith”
The most common reason alleged for failure in prayer is lack or littleness of faith. Truly, if we doubt as we pray, we will get nothing. To have faith means not doubting. Jesus put the two together to reinforce his message: “if you have faith and do not doubt . . .” (Matt. 21:21). This is indeed a most critical issue. How can a believer, any believer, not have faith like a mustard seed (see Matt. 17:20; Luke 17:6), which stands in Jesus’ analogy for the least faith, if he or she is a “believer”?
Sometimes, the believer says, when his or her prayer fails to attain the desired end: “I knew it would happen that way.” Or: “I was sure that my prayer would not change anything.” This attitude denounces the very incredulity that made prayer ineffective. Or it indicates the believer’s spiritual immaturity of not reaffirming trust and ultimate hope in God. In either case, a repentant believer can count on God’s mercy for pardon and help to grow stronger spiritually.
We have faith if we have believed in Jesus Christ for our salvation. Now, is faith for salvation any different from faith for wonders? Is the former “easier” than the later? What does faith consist of? Insistence? Mental force? Positive thinking? How do we augment our faith? Is faith a special spiritual gift conceded to some believers only, like any other gift, as 1 Corinthians 12:9 seems to teach? What makes the great men and women of faith such? We shall deal with these questions in the chapters devoted to the subject of faith.
(i) Ignorance about the nature of the dispensation in which we live
We live in a dispensation in which evil is still present and the redemption of our bodies has not been accomplished yet. We are naturally implicitly vulnerable to all sorts of sufferings. They are not flaws in our salvation, but rather the remaining consequences of the tragic fall in the beginning. Pete Greig points out, in God on Mute, that some prayers are not answered because creation is (still) “‘subjected to frustration’ and has not yet been fully ‘liberated from its bondage of decay’ (Rom. 8:20–21). Tragically, life in such an environment is inevitably going to be acutely difficult at times.” We are saved in hope (see Rom. 8:24), not “in reality,” as far as our physical existence is concerned. Now is not the time of the definitive solution for every imperfection in the world and in our lives. God’s will for us can only be wholly free from troubles in the “new earth” (Isa. 65:17; 66:22; 2 Pet. 3:13). Therefore, we cannot expect prayer to do what is not generally for the present age.
Wonderful things can exceptionally happen according to God’s wisdom. There is no limitation to his power. He can fix any problem in anything with the same creative power with which he originally made it. He created the donkey, didn’t he? And he could have created it as a speaking animal in the same way he could have created the parrot without the ability for which it is especially known, couldn’t he? Why then could he not extraordinarily make a donkey speak, as reported in Numbers 22:28? Why could Jesus not make wine out of water, without any grapes and without any process, if all things were originally made through him (see John 1:3), including the grapes themselves, from nothing—a far greater doing? God can easily heal someone who has a lethal disease or who was born with a dysfunction—blindness from birth (see John 9:1–7), for instance. Healing miracles are not, however, the general rule for this preparatory dispensation. Just think of how many truly pious Christians are not healed from their illnesses.
The “day of all miracles,” when all evil will be conclusively banished from creation, is the day of Jesus’ glorious return. For this sake, “Come, Lord Jesus!” (Rev. 22:20) is the prayer of prayers. The supplication for Jesus’ coming is the supplication for the ultimate solution, the hope of which guards our life against despair when we cannot now be answered in the terms of our asking.
Another very important point is that a number of our supplications, which we may regard as unsuccessful from the viewpoint of their immediate objectives, will be answered when Jesus comes back. In fact, they will be, by the grace of God, instrumental in bringing about events on the day of the fulfillment of his promises. The book of Revelation has a say in this regard, as we will see in chapter 14, “The Eschatological Impact of Believers’ Prayers.”