Overcoming barriers to effective prayer (pt 2)

Last week we began looking at barriers to effective prayer, things that keep us from getting our prayers answered, and also how to overcome these obstacles. Today we look at several more, and we begin with –

4. Wrong relationships with others

What I’m saying here is that we can’t be in right relationship with God, if we’re not in right relationship with others, or at least having done all that we can to be in right relationship with them. Our horizontal (as it were) relationships with other people, affect our vertical relationship with God. They are interconnected. And so broken relationships with others, hinder our relationship with God and thus our prayers to God.

Here’s an example that Jesus taught about, when we wrong someone. Matthew 5:23-24 – “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister and then come offer your gift.” He’s talking about coming into the temple to offer a gift, to worship, to pray to God. And if while you’re doing this you remember that there’s a broken relationship with others, and the context here is that it’s broken by your angry, hurtful, damaging words, go make it right with the other person first, and then come to relate to God. Why? Because it affects your ability to pray and worship.

Another example is mistreating your spouse. Peter says in 1 Peter 3:7 – “Husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman . . . so that your prayers may not be hindered.” What’s he saying? If you’re mistreating your wife; if you’re harsh in your words or violent in your actions, your prayers will be hindered! [See also 1 Timothy 2:8 speaking to husbands]. And this certainly applies the other way around as well, wives don’t mistreat your husbands.

Indeed, it applies to all our relationships with others, family, neighbors, coworkers, strangers, enemies. How you interact with them can affect your prayer life – if you are treating them wrongly. And so to be effective pray-ers; to be in right relationship with God, so that your prayers are heard you must tend to your relationships. Make sure you are in right relationship with others. And if there’s a problem, do all you can to make it right, from your end of the relationship.

5. Asking God for things, that we don’t give to others

We say, “Oh God, I need your help with this and that. I need your mercy; I have done wrong. Lord, I need you to provide for my material needs.” But then, when others come to us and say “I need your help, I need your mercy, I need assistance with my material needs” – we say “No way!”

There’s a principle here, God won’t give us, what we won’t give to others. God doesn’t tolerate such double standards.

A clear example of this is asking God for forgiveness. Jesus said in Matthew 6:15, “If you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”  We can ask God for forgiveness all day long, but if we’re not giving it to those who have done harm to us and have come to us seeking mercy – we will not get it from God. As the passage says, “neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”

But the promise in Matthew 6:14 is that, “If you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.” If you give mercy to those who seek it from you, God will give you mercy when you seek it from him.

This principle that, God won’t give us, what we won’t give to others, is also true in other areas. Take for instance asking God to provide for your needs. Proverbs 21:13 says, “Whoever closes his ear to the cry of the poor will himself call out and not be answered.” If you’re someone who turns away others who come to you with legitimate needs, God will not hear you in your day of trouble; God will turn away from you.

But on the other hand, the psalmist says in Psalm 41:1– “Blessed is the one who considers the poor! In the day of trouble, the Lord delivers him.” If you help the one in need, God will help you in your day of need. So we should give freely to others, mercy and help, and God will give generously to you.

6. Doubting God and God’s promises

God gives us, in the words of 2 Peter 1:4, “many great and precious promises” that God will care for us; that God will give us his mercy. James 1:6-8 talks about one such promise, praying for wisdom from God. It says, “But ask in faith, never doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind; for the doubter, being double minded and unstable in every way, must not expect to receive anything from the Lord.” When we doubt God and God’s promises, it makes us unable to receive what God wants to give us.

Here’s an example of doubt as a hindrance to receiving what God want to give us. Turn if you will to Mark 6:1-6.

1He went away from there and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. 2And on the Sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astonished, saying, “Where did this man get these things? What is the wisdom given to him? How are such mighty works done by his hands? 3Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. 4And Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor, except in his hometown and among his relatives and in his own household.” 5And he could do no mighty work there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and healed them. 6And he marveled because of their unbelief.

Faith in God and God’s promises is what opens the door for God to work in our lives. So if we want our prayers answered we need to lay aside doubt, and choose to have confidence in God and God’s promises; to rely on God, who is more reliable than anyone. As 1 Thessalonians 5:24 says, “He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.”

7. A lack of persistence in our prayers

Jesus talks about the importance of this in Luke 18:1-8. This is the story of the woman who kept coming to the judge to ask for justice, who finally received an answer because of her persistence. Luke tells us that Jesus taught in this parable that “we ought always to pray and not lose heart” – v. 1. He taught us in this story “to cry out to God day and night” – v. 7

It’s one thing if God says no, and in biblical tradition you can press God up to three times when he says no – e.g. Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, and Paul praying about his thorn. But if there isn’t a no, go for it!

Why is persistence important? Firs of all, God wants to see where our heart is. Deuteronomy 4:29, says, you will seek and find the Lord, “if you search after him with all your heart and with all your soul.” Is this a casual thing, or are we really seeking God for an answer? Our heart is made known in the persistence or lack of it in our prayers.

And also, we are involved in spiritual warfare. There’s a third party involved, and Satan and the powers of evil resist God’s will being done on earth. And our persistent prayer plays a role in overcoming this spiritual opposition.

So let’s not give up as we seek to have God’s will come to pass in our lives and in our congregation.

Overcoming barriers to effective prayer (pt 1)

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.

2. Self-righteousness

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.