“How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?”
(Psalm 13:1 ESV)
One of the questions that I hear most often from other Christians is, “Why doesn’t God answer me when I pray?” To think that God does not hear, or that He hears but does not answer, can be crushing. I know the pain and frustration of unanswered prayer, so I am always sympathetic with their situation. Still, this is not a new question, it’s asked repeatedly in Scripture. Listen to the anguish of David in Psalm 13:1, “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?”
We’ve all heard it said that sometimes God answers our prayers like a stop light. At times we get the green light of God’s “Yes,” and we can move forward. Other times, there is the red light of God’s “No,” and we know to look elsewhere. Then there are times when we get the yellow light, God saying, essentially, “Wait here.” But there are other times when we feel like all the lights are off, that we’re making no connection. As the King in Hamlet said after his anguished prayer, “My words fly up, my thoughts remain below; Words without thoughts never to heaven go.”
What I want to offer today is a brief list of possible reasons why we feel as though God does not answer our prayers. This is by no means exhaustive, and I hope to return to it later and maybe expand upon these points (who knows, this could be the start of a book.) If you think of other things that stand in the way of prayer, email me or comment on this note, I’d be happy to hear your thoughts as well.
We are looking for an “experience” in prayer
There are moments in prayer when we “feel” God’s presence. I don’t know that I’ve ever tried to describe the experience, but as soon as I say it, you know what I’m talking about. Maybe it feels as though the room is spinning, our you feel a rush of warmth, joy, and peace. These moments in prayer are electrifying, and when they don’t happen, prayer can seem disappointing, as though maybe we’ve done something wrong.
I suggest that these experiences in prayer are not the norm, and should not be looked for in every moment of prayer. The ecstatic experience should be celebrated when it comes as a blessing, to be sure, but the invitation to commune with God in prayer is a gift in itself.
We don’t pray with persistence
When facing trials and hardships, we turn to the Lord in prayer; but how long do we give God to answer us. A week? A day? Before I say “amen”? When we don’t hear an answer when we expect an answer, we give up too quickly and say, “God isn’t listening to my prayers.”
If your concern is of great importance to you, persist in prayer. Like the Israelites who had to march around Jericho for seven days, like Naaman who was told to wash in the Jordan seven times to be cleansed from leprosy, like the widow in Jesus’ parable who kept crying out for justice, we are encouraged to be persistent in our prayers. Even when it may seem like our prayers are going nowhere, keep praying. We don’t know God’s timeline, but we know that He is faithful and just. “And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night?” (Luke 18:7)
We don’t expect Him to answer us
Maybe part of our problem in prayer is that we don’t really expect God to answer our prayers. We pray to God, but we don’t act as if God is going to respond. We tell God our problems, but we have no faith in God to deal with them. I heard a Pastor in a church one day tell his congregation, “Don’t ask me to pray for rain if you aren’t going to bring your umbrellas.”
We don’t ask
James 4:2 critiques the church saying, “You do not have, because you do not ask.” Prayer is the offering up of our desires to God, and seeking all that we need from His hand. How many times, though, when someone asks if you have any prayer requests, your reply is, “No, I’m fine.” We go through life as if we need nothing from God, as though we can provide for ourselves from our own resources, live on our own strength. We tell ourselves, “God doesn’t really care about my needs, so I’ll pray for everyone else, but not myself, I’m just fine.” Jesus taught us to ask God for our daily bread, for everything that we need to get through this day. We are radically dependent upon God, prayer is the mere expression of that reality.
We don’t ask appropriately
James 4:3 goes own to say that our prayers aren’t answer because when we do ask in prayer, what we ask for is selfish and not good for us. We pray, “God I really need a raise so I can continue to pay my bills and have the things I want,” when what we probably should be praying is, “God, help me to live within my means, to be thankful for what I have, and to share the gifts you’ve given me to help those around me.” We pray, “God, ‘so and so’ has been a real pain in the neck all semester, make her change so things go better,” when perhaps our prayer should be, “God, I’m struggling with ‘so and so,’ help me to be a better demonstration of Christ’s love, help me to be a friend, change my heart towards her.”
We are harboring sin in our hearts (Psalm 66:18, I Peter 3)
One of the hardest truths to accept in prayer is that God will not hear our prayers when we are harboring sin in our hearts. Do you feel like God is silent? Then stop to examine your heart. Are you holding on to a grudge and refusing to forgive those who have offended you? Are you refusing to listen to the teaching of the elders and church about some aspect of your life? Are you following your greedy impulses? Have you neglected worship and the study of God’s word, have you stopped contributing to the needs of the saints? These things stand in the way of our prayers. Psalm 66:18 says, “If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened.”
We do not attend to God’s word
If you want to hear God speaking to you, you must read His word. It is so sad when people say they want to hear God’s voice, they want to know God’s will, but they refuse to turn to God’s word. If you want to know what God is saying, read his love letter to you. Don’t wait for handwriting on the wall (that wasn’t an encouraging message anyway for Belshazzar, anyway), don’t wait for an audible voice from the heavens – read the word that God has given. God may speak to you in other ways, it’s possible, but God has promised to speak to you through his word.
I hope that if you read this and find yourself saying, “Yeah, that’s me,” that God will begin to open your heart to a new spirit of prayer. May you be encouraged to come to the Lord in genuine, heartfelt, honest, and persistent prayer, and my God, through prayer, encourage and strengthen your soul.