"Why are so many prayers unanswered? Well, the fact of the matter is -- God completely ignores some people's prayers. "
(adapted from a sermon by Rick Warren & from "Invited into His Presence" by Gene Barron)
You've probably had people say to you, "I tried prayer and it didn't work. I had a need and prayed about it. After I'd prayed for a while, nothing happened and I didn't see any results. I'm disappointed and I don't believe in prayer."
The fact is, there are thousands of prayers that go up every day but there are very few answers that come down. Why is that? What causes that? Is prayer a farce, a superstition, something we just con ourselves into and pretend that it works -- but it really doesn't?
Why are so many prayers unanswered? Well, the fact of the matter is -- God completely ignores some people's prayers. The Bible says: "If I regard wickedness in my heart, the Lord will not hear." (Ps 66:18)
In fact, the Bible says that God has laid out several conditions for answered prayer. Today we’re going to consider five of those conditions -- because unless you meet the conditions for answered prayer, you're wasting your breath. If you meet the conditions you have every right to expect that what you ask for in prayer will be answered.
The first condition for answered prayer is in John 15:7 …
I. You must have an honest relationship to God.
Jesus says: "If you remain in Me and My words remain in you, you can ask whatever you wish and it will be given to you." That's a beautiful promise. But in Scripture every promise has a condition. An easy way to remember it is that every promise has a premise.
The promise here is, "I will give you whatever you ask in prayer." The condition is: "If you remain in Me."
How do you remain in Christ? The next sentence tells us. When Christ’s words remain in you. In other words, God says if we saturate our lives with Scripture, the word of God, then we will be abiding in Christ.
God requires that we listen to Him first before He listens to us. God says: "He who turns away his ear from listening to the Law, even his prayer is an abomination." (Prov 28:9) If I don't pay attention to what God says to me in His word, why should He pay attention to me when I talk to Him?
The starting point is to have an honest relationship to God. How? Through the word of God. That's why Bible study is important. The more you understand the Bible, the more you know the mind of Christ, the more you'll know how to pray effectively.
How can I know if I have an honest relationship to God? The apostle John gives us three questions that help us to evaluate whether or not we have an honest relationship to God.
The first question comes from 1 John 1. "If we say we have no sin, we are only fooling ourselves and refusing to accept the truth. … If we claim we have not sinned, we are calling God a liar and showing that His word has no place in our hearts." (1 Jn 1:7, 9) Question one:
A. Am I willing to admit things that I have done wrong in the past?
If I’m going to have an honest relationship with God, it has to begin with confession. I must be willing to acknowledge and accept responsibility for my sins.
It may be an activity, an attitude, a habit. When we go our own way and do our own thing it breaks the connection between God and us. When we try to cover up things that we know are wrong then that honest relationship is broken. There's falseness, a con, a fraud. We’re trying to live two different lives at once -- live for God and live for self. So the first thing I ask if I'm really being honest with God is: Have I admitted what I've done wrong?
Psalm 66:18 says that if I regard or cherish or try to hide sin in my heart the Lord will not hear.
Unconfessed sin ruins our relationship with God. Isaiah 59:2 says our sins separate us from God so that He does not hear. Solomon says "He who tries to conceal his sins cannot prosper but he who admits them, confesses them, forsakes them will have mercy." (Proverbs 28:13)
God says: "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness." (1 Jn 1:9) What is confession? Confession is simply being honest with God. It's saying, "God, You're right. I was wrong. That jealousy or that impatience was wrong. Please forgive me."
The first way we can tell if we have an honest relationship with God is that we are honest when we make mistakes. We acknowledge and accept responsibility for our sins.
A second question comes from 1 John 3.
B. Am I currently ignoring any of God's principles?
In other words, when God tells me to do something, when I know I'm holding on to something that God wants me to let go of and I continue to hold on to it, that breaks the prayer chain, the connection with God. Listen to John:
"Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us we have confidence before God and we receive from Him anything we ask
[That's the promise – now here’s the condition] because we obey His commands and do what pleases Him. This is His command: To believe in the name of His Son Jesus Christ and to love one another as He has commanded us." (1 John 3:21-22)
You say, "How can I keep all of God's commands. Nobody's perfect. How am I ever going to get any answers?" God does not demand perfection. He simply demands obedience. And obedience is an attitude: I want to do what's right.
God doesn't expect perfection, but He does expect you to obey. For example, when our boys were young I might tell one of them, "Go clean up your room." If I go in thirty minutes later and the room is halfway clean but not immaculate, do I get upset about it?
No. He’s only a child. He did the best he could. He's not perfect. But if I come in a half hour later and he's still playing games, then I get upset. Why? Because as a parent, I don't expect perfection but I do expect obedience, an attitude of "I want to do what's right."
So we ask, "Am I hiding something from God in my relationship? ... Am I doing what I know He wants me to do at this point?"
A third question to evaluate the honesty of my relationship with God is this …
C. Do I really want God's will for my life?
1 John 5:14-15 says, "We can be confident that He will listen to us whenever we ask Him for anything in line with His will. And if we know He is listening when we make our requests, we can be sure that He will give us what we ask for." When we ask according to God's will then we have confidence in prayer and we know He's going to answer.
Most Christians make a big mistake in prayer. They go around constantly saying, "God, is it Your will that I ask for this?" over every little item. The real issue is not "God, what is Your will regarding this specific circumstance?" The real issue is "Am I in God's will as a person?" If my life is in harmony with God, then my desires are going to be in harmony with God.
Augustine said: "Love God and do as you please." Why did he say that? Because if you really love God with all your heart, you're not going to want to do what displeases God. So you don't have to constantly ask, "Is it Your will?"
"God is it Your will that I buy a brown Chevy or a gold Mercedes? God, is it Your will that I order the steak or the pork chops?" No, you don't have to ask God's will on every little item like that. You live your life in God's will and say, "To the best of my knowledge, I'm trying to do what's right, Lord. I want to live in Your will."
Then you ask according to your desires. You live in God's will.
How do you know if you really want God's will for your life? It’s fairly simple. How eager are you to read the Bible? The only way you can know the will of God is by reading the word of God. God's word tells you God's will. If you have a desire to read it, to study it, then – obviously – you want to know God’s will.
So the first condition to answered prayer is this: You must have an honest relationship to God.
Jesus lays out another prerequisite for having your prayers answered in Mark 11:24-25.
II. You must have a forgiving attitude toward other people.
"You can pray for anything, and if you believe, you will have it. (That’s the promise – the condition comes next) But when you are praying, first forgive anyone you are holding a grudge against, so that your Father in heaven will forgive your sins, too."
Over and over again, when Jesus talks about prayer, He talks about forgiveness. Why? Because nothing will kill your prayers faster than resentment – a lack of forgiveness. When you hold a grudge, when you nurse an ill feeling, when you allow bitterness to grow in your life, it hinders your prayers.
Maybe you're praying and not getting an answer because you're holding a grudge against somebody. In Matthew 5, Jesus says, "If you are standing before the altar in the Temple, offering a sacrifice to God, and you suddenly remember that someone has something against you, leave your sacrifice there beside the altar. Go and be reconciled to that person. Then come and offer your sacrifice to God." (Matt 5:23-24)
Before you worship get things right with others -- make harmony in the relationship -- then come back and give your gift to the Lord. Why? Because God says you can't love Him and hate your brother. One of the primary reasons why people never see answers to prayer is because they allow bitterness to spring up in their lives. They allow their relationships with people to affect their relationship with God.
The Holy Spirit warns us: "Watch out that no bitterness take root among you for as it springs up among you it causes deep trouble, hurting many in their spiritual lives." (Hebrews 12:15) Bitterness is like a poison -- it will eat you alive. You can't have unforgiveness in your heart and have your prayers answered.
What do you pray every time you pray the Lord's Prayer? "Father, forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors." You're saying, "God, I want You to forgive me as much as I forgive everybody else." Do you really want to pray that? Unforgiveness is a major prayer buster.
That is true in the marriage relationship as well. I suspect that many don’t have their prayers answered because of problems in that relationship. One of the easiest places to have resentment build up is in families. Family members hurt each other's feelings, husbands hurt wives, wives hurt husbands, parents hurt their children and vice versa. Bitterness and resentment are a common experience in family relationships.
Listen to 1 Peter 3:7 – maybe this is why you haven't had many answers to prayer. "You husbands must give honor to your wives. Treat her with understanding as you live together. She may be weaker than you are, but she is your equal partner in God’s gift of new life. If you don’t treat her as you should, your prayers will not be heard."
Did you know that the Bible says that disharmony in the home blocks answers to prayer? How you treat your spouse influences your prayer life. That's pretty strong. If your home is full of tension, your prayers will be ineffective. That’s not my idea, that’s what God says. It's a great motivation to get harmony restored in your marriage.
So – if I want my prayers to be effective, I must have an honest relationship to God. Secondly, I must have a forgiving attitude toward other people. Next …
III. You must be willing to share God’s blessings with others.
This is the principle of generosity. "He who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly." (2 Cor 9:6) "Give and it will be given unto you." (Lk 6:38) If you expect God to bless your life you must be willing to bless other people's lives with the same benefits God has given to you.
Proverbs 21:13 says it succinctly: "If one shuts his ears to the cry of the poor, he too will cry out and not be answered." That's a fact of life. God says if you pay no attention to other people's legitimate needs, why should He pay attention to your needs?
He wants us to be like Him. He says a pre-requisite for His blessing in our lives is that we must be a blessing to other people. If we ignore those who are in obvious difficulty around us, what right do we have to expect God to bail us out?
We've read the verse that says, "We receive from Him anything we ask because we obey His commands." (1 Jn 3:22) What are His commands? The very next verse tells us: "And this is His commandment: We must believe in the name of His Son, Jesus Christ, and love one another, just as He commanded us." (1 John 3:23)
One of the ways we obey His commands is by loving other people. He explains this in verse 17 of chapter three:
"If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?" One of the ways we prove our love for others is by our generosity, our willingness to share.
God blesses us so that we may bless others. This is the principle of stewardship. It's all through Scripture -- that God blesses us in order that we might be a blessing to other people.
We are a channel. I would not presume to ask God to bless my business if I were not willing to at least return to Him a generous percentage of that with which He had blessed me. You say, "I ask God for good health." What are you going to do with that healthy body after you've got it? Are you going to spend all the effort and energy on yourself or are you willing to help other people? One of the conditions for answered prayer is to be willing to help those less fortunate with the blessings which we are given.
James mentions another reason why our prayers are hindered: "You have not because you don't ask God. When you ask you don't receive because you ask with the wrong motive that you may spend what you get on your own pleasures." (Jas 4:2-3)
Motive is important in prayer. Why you pray is more important than what you pray for.
Is it possible to pray for the right thing with the wrong motive? Sure. I'm not saying that you should never pray for your own personal needs. Jesus encourages us to pray for our own needs. He taught us to pray, "Give us this day our daily bread." (Matt 6:11)
God even says it’s OK to pray for the desires of our heart. (Ps 37:4) But our motive must not be selfish. Are you willing to share your blessing with other people or are you going to hord it all to yourself? God is not interested in simply satisfying our selfishness. If you want God to bless you, you must be willing to be a channel of blessing to other people.
The fourth condition for answered prayer is …
IV. you must Pray in faith.
James writes: "But let him ask in faith without any doubting, for the one who doubts is like the surf of the sea driven and tossed by the wind. For let not that man expect that he will receive anything from the Lord, being a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways." (James 1:6-8)
One day I was driving down a two-lane highway where someone had thrown garbage onto the road. Most of it had been scattered off the road except one plastic cup. This cup was positioned right in the middle of road. In fact, it was in the center of the two yellow lines.
The road was straight enough that I noticed the cup long before I got to it. Every time a car passed by the cup, it would simply roll to the opposite side without moving from the center. When another car from the other direction came by, the force of the wind would blow the cup to the other side.
When two cars passed at the same time the cup went wild. It did not know which way to go. This is an appropriate illustration of the double-minded man who constantly vacillates between faith and doubt, between belief and unbelief. His prayers are about as useless as that cup!
Inadequate faith is a real prayer buster! Do we really believe that God is all-powerful ... that He "is able to do exceeding abundantly beyond all that we as, or think?" (Eph 3:20) If you don't own that doctrine, you might as well pitch prayer. If your prayers have clouds of doubt hanging over them, they won't get anywhere.
The story is told of a small town in which there were no liquor stores. Eventually, however, a nightclub was built right on Main Street. Members of one of the churches in the area were so disturbed that they conducted several all-night prayer meetings, and asked the Lord to burn down that den of iniquity.
Lighting struck the tavern a short time later, and it was completely destroyed by fire. The owner, knowing how the church people had prayed, sued them for the damages. His attorney claimed that their prayers had caused the loss.
The congregation, on the other hand, hired a lawyer and fought the charges. After much deliberation the judge declared, "It's the opinion of this court that wherever the guilt may lie, the tavern keeper is the one who really believes in prayer while the church members do not!" We may smile at this story, but it suggests how faithless we sometimes are in offering our petitions to God.
The bottom line is this: we can pray, believe, and receive - or - we can pray, doubt, and do without! If our prayers are to be effective there must be no doubting of His power, His love, His wisdom, or the integrity of His character.
E.M. Bounds writes: "Prayer is absolutely dependent upon faith. ‘Without faith it is impossible to please God, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him.’ (Heb 11:6) Before prayer ever starts toward God; before its petition is offered, before its requests are made known -- faith must have gone on ahead … (and) … given its assent to the gracious truth that God is a rewarder of those that diligently seek His face.
This is the primary step in praying. It is the one great condition of prayer; the lack of faith lies at the root of all poor praying, feeble praying, little praying, unanswered praying."
Jesus told His apostles: "Truly I say to you, if you have faith, and do not doubt, you shall … say to this mountain 'Be taken up and cast into the sea', it shall happen. And everything you ask in prayer, believing, you shall receive." (Matthew 21:21-22)
Since Jesus was not in the excavation business, His main concern was those "mountains" that we face in our lives. But His point is that the prayer of faith involves focusing on God, not on the mountain. The Bible never tells us to have faith in any other object than God or Christ. Faith verges on magic (and superstition) when we have faith in faith, or faith in prayer. Faith is to be in God -- He is the one who answers prayer.
There are those today who tell us to have faith in our prayers and in our own wisdom. "Decide what you want," they say, "and then believe that you will get it. Name it and claim it." Then, if you don't get it, they say it is because you didn't believe enough that you would get it. In other words, you didn't have enough faith in the answer to your prayers.
But our faith is not to be in the answer of prayer. It is to be in the Answerer of prayer. Faith is ever to be in God and, if our requests are not consistent with what God, in His wisdom, has revealed ... then no amount of faith in our prayers will help us. Such praying -- putting our faith in any object other than God -- is much more foolishness than faith.
Three Korean girls were attending a Christian camp. The stream that separated the camp from the small town nearby had flooded. The girls needed to get to the town, and they knew the Bible story of Peter walking on water. So they knelt and asked God to help them walk on the water. As an evidence of their confidence, they told their friends they were going to walk on the water. They felt they must demonstrate their faith because they had asked God for a miracle.
They put their faith in their desire. When the floods subsided, three bodies were found washed ashore downstream. The newspapers printed the complete story on the front page, in essence mocking Christianity. To the Orientals, who are so concerned about "saving face," the church was humiliated in the eyes of the unsaved.
In prayer we must never doubt or question God's power or ability to accomplish what we've asked -- He can do anything.
We must pray and not doubt, but our faith is not in prayer – or in the answer to prayer. It is in Him who specializes in the impossible.
So, as we consider our prayer life, there are four conditions we’ve looked at: We must have an honest relationship to God. We must have a forgiving attitude toward others. We must be willing to generously share God’s blessings with others. And, we must pray in faith.
A fifth condition we want to consider today is found frequently in Scripture …
V. You must pray in Jesus' name.
In John 14 (v. 13-14) Jesus says: " I will do whatever you ask in My name so that the Son may bring glory to the Father. You may ask Me for anything in My name and I will do it." What is so special about Jesus' name?
I remember as a kid, I’d hear everybody end their prayers, "In Jesus' name. Amen." I thought it was a signal that the prayer was over; kind of a spiritual sign off. Like a trucker on his CB -- "Ten-four, good buddy." Or like Paul Harvey, "And now you know the rest of the story." But praying "in Jesus’ name" is not just an addendum we use to close our prayers.
I heard a story once that illustrates what it means to pray "In Jesus' name." A pastor took his young son and about fourteen of his son's friends to the carnival for a birthday party. He bought a roll of tickets and he'd stand at the front of every ride and as the kids from the party came by -- he would give everybody a ticket.
They got to one ride and he realized there was a little boy that he'd never seen in his life with his hand out asking for a ticket. He stopped and said, "Are you with my son's party?"
"Then why should I give you a ticket?"
The young boy turned around and pointed to the man's son and said, "Your son said you'd give me one." So he gave him one.
Here's the point. I don't have any right to get any answered prayers from God. What makes me think I should get my prayers answered? God doesn't owe me anything. I owe Him a lot but He doesn't owe me anything. When I come and pray to God for something, I don't ask on my own merit -- I come on the merit of Christ: "Father, I'm coming to You because Your Son said to. I'm coming because of what He has already done for me on the cross and because He said I can ask You anything in His name. God, I'm coming in Jesus' name."
Another way to illustrate it is with a banking metaphor. I can draw money from my bank only up to the amount I have on deposit there. Even though when I opened the account, I told them I wanted a joint account with someone who was rich! In my own name I can draw no more than what is in my account.
But, suppose someone who has a big account takes a liking to me and gives me a check that is far more than I have in the bank. If I take it to the bank they will cash it, because it's not based on my puny deposit there, it's based on his.
When I go to God in prayer -- I have nothing deposited in heaven's bank. I have no credit there. If I go in my own name I will get absolutely nothing. But Jesus has a vast storehouse of unlimited resources laid up in heaven's bank -- and He has granted us the privilege of going to God in His name to draw from His account! To pray in Jesus' name is to approach God not on the basis of my merits but on His.
Praying "in Jesus' name" is not a mechanical password that, if used faithfully, guarantees automatic acceptance of all our petitions. Instead, it should come from a deeply felt sense of our own unworthiness and Christ's supreme worthiness. We can pray "in His name" without saying those words to close our prayers.
In fact, praying "in Jesus’ name" is far more than using the words. To pray 'in His name' is to pray in His character, as His representative sent by Him. It is to pray by His Spirit and according to His will; to have His approval in our asking; to seek what He seeks; to ask help to do what He Himself would wish to be done, and to desire to do it not for our own glorification, but for His glory alone. Self and its aims and desires must be entirely controlled by God's Holy Spirit, so that our wills are in complete harmony with Christ's will.
When we submit ourselves to Jesus' Lordship, commit our way to His way, seek to do His will, and put our confidence in His death for our sins -- we are "in Christ" -- and, when we are "in Christ," we offer our prayers "in His name," for His sake, and to His glory.
Are you receiving answers to your prayers? When our prayers are not answered, most people want to know what's wrong with God. This is a normal human response. It's a lot easier to blame God than to look in the mirror and say, 'Maybe I'm the problem.' Me -- my personal character -- may well be the biggest hindrance to effectiveness in prayer. Maybe I am overlooking some of these conditions of answered prayer. Could that be why you haven't been getting answers to your prayers?
Maybe you've been holding a grudge. Maybe you've been nursing a resentment and you have allowed bitterness to build up in your life. It's no wonder you don't have answers to prayer.
Maybe you've been refusing to admit some wrong in your life. You've known it was there but you didn't want to go to God and say, "You're right, God, that's wrong. I admit it." You are hiding unconfessed sin in your life. We think Watergate was a cover up. It's nothing compared to some of the things we try to pull over on God. You need to be honest with Him.
Maybe you've prayed but you've never really expected God to answer. You’re not praying in faith. If you don't believe God, you're just wasting your time.
Maybe you've been unwilling to share God's blessing with other people. Maybe you've been hesitant to give back to God a percentage of all the things He's been blessing you with.
Perhaps you haven't been abiding in Him -- abiding in His word, reading the Bible, learning from Jesus, obediently seeking His will.
Have you been praying in Jesus' name? You can't pray in Jesus' name unless you know Him as a friend, as your Lord, as your Savior, as the director of your life. The most important question is, "Do you have an honest relationship with God?"
I'm not talking about church membership. I'm not talking about being religious. I'm talking about a relationship. God wants me to know Him personally. That's why He sent Christ to earth, so we could know what God is like. Jesus said, "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through Me." (Jn 14:6)