Last week we looked at our need to pray so that God can work through us here to grow his kingdom. Today, I want to continue on this theme and offer some teaching that I hope will help equip us to be better pray-ers under the title, “Overcoming Barriers to Effective Prayer” We’ll look at three barriers today – things that hinder our prayers from being effective or even heard, and next week, I hope to share more on this topic.
1. Harboring unrighteousness in our lives
Sin blocks our relationship with God. As Isaiah 59:2 says, “Your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear.” In this situation, God doesn’t hear us when we pray.
And that’s because it’s hard to communicate with someone when you don’t have a relationship with them, or especially when there is a broken relationship, unless, of course, you are talking about that brokenness and trying to fix it.
And let me be clear, God’s ears are always open to hear prayers of confession and repentance! No matter what you’ve done. No sin you have committed, no wrong you have done is too great that God cannot give you the mercy of his forgiveness.
But, if we stubbornly hold on to our sin that’s a different thing. I’m not talking here about being perfect. I am talking about willful, known sin that we choose to do and cling to it. We are just plain choosing not to obey. If we hold stubbornly to these sins God will not hear our prayers. God will not respond to us.
- The blind man whom Jesus healed expressed it well when he said in, John 9:31 – “We know that God does not listen to sinners . . .” that is, those who choose to disobey God.
- In Psalm 66:18, talking about prayer, the psalmist says, “If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened.”
Well, if God doesn’t hear us when we cling to our sin, we can say with confidence that God does hear us when we confess and find forgiveness for our sins and when we walk in God’s ways
There are many scriptures that speak to this.
- The blind man whom Jesus healed also said in John 9:31, “. . . if anyone is a worshiper of God and does his will, God listens to him.”
- 1 John 3:22 – “And we receive from God whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him.”
- 1 Peter 3:12 – “For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and his ears are open to their prayer.”
- James 5:16 – “The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.”
All of these passages teach us that the way we live our lives does make a difference in our prayer life.
If this is an obstacle to your prayers, I encourage you, seek forgiveness and then choose to walk in God’s ways. And then, as 1 Peter says, “his ears (will) be open to (your) prayer,” and as James 5:16 says, your prayers will be “powerful and effective” as well.
We’re talking about “pride” here; a wrongful overestimation of who we are and how good we are. This is the artificial substitute for what we just looked at. It is not the righteousness that comes from God working in us as he transforms our lives, but rather our own deeds done in our own strength to try to impress God and others, accompanied by the attitude that we are better than others.
Please turn to Luke 18:9-14. v. 9 tells us, “He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt.” So this is definitely about self-righteousness.
Let me read for you vs. 10-13
“Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘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.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other.”
So both men came to the temple, the place of prayer. And they both offered up to God their prayers. And as the story tells us God heard the tax collector’s prayer, but God did not hear the Pharisee’s prayer. Why? God does not respond to pride and arrogance
As v. 14 of our passage says, “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled.” The Pharisee received nothing from God. But God does listen to those who humble themselves before him. Again v. 14, “But the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
It is as Psalm 138:6 says, “For though the Lord is high, he regards the lowly, but the haughty he knows from afar.” When we are self-righteousness, God keeps us at a distance. But God listens to the lowly when they call out to him.
A final barrier for today is –
3. A selfish focus to your prayers
This is where prayer is really all about you and your desires. James 4:3 says, “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.” The context of James 4 has to do with the people’s selfishness, worldly desires, and ambitions. And the point is that God doesn’t answer these kinds of requests.
A good example of this is from Mark 10:35-45. In v. 35 James and his brother John say, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” Wow! Doesn’t this sound like a lot of what goes for prayer today? And there are some who teach Christians to pray this way.
What did they want? v. 37, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” In v. 40 Jesus tells them no. Only God can determine who will be exalted in this way. And in vs. 42-45 he teaches his disciples to forsake this kind of worldly ambition to be over others. Rather they are to lower themselves and serve others.
James and his brother John asked, but they did not receive. And that’s because God doesn’t answer selfish requests. (Or if he does it tends to be in the form of judgment – Numbers 11).
Prayer is about God’s will, not just what we want. What we have to learn and remember is that God is not a Cosmic Santa Claus. And the point of prayer is not to give him our daily Christmas list of gifts we want. God is not here to cater to our dreams, our ambitions, our cravings, and what we covet. The point of prayer is to have God’s will be done.
The second petition of the Lord’s prayer sums this up. Jesus taught us to pray, “your will (God) be done on earth as it is in heaven.” And although God allows us to ask for a change in his will or to reconsider the details, and God may or may not grant it – we ask not out of self-centered ambition, but because we are seeking out God’s mercy and glory in a situation.
Alright, we have looked at three barriers to effective prayer and how to overcome them:
1 Harboring unrighteousness – seek forgiveness and walk in God’s ways
2. Self-righteousness – humble yourself before God
3. A selfish focus – pray for God’s will to be done
We’ll pick this up again next week and look at how to overcome several other barriers to effective prayer.