When you spread out your hands,
    I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
    I will not listen;
    your hands are full of blood.

Isaiah 1:15

How often have you heard someone say, “God answered my prayer, he just said, No!” Well, maybe he said no, or perhaps he didn’t answer your prayer for a Biblical reason. There are times when God simply doesn’t answer prayer, but there is always a reason because God delights in answering our prayers. It gives him joy the same as answered prayer gives us joy. So, what is the path to more answered prayer?

First, let’s look at a couple of broad reasons why God doesn’t answer our prayers.

Practicing Empty Religion

The context of our text of Isaiah 1:15 is God’s chiding Israel because they are living wickedly and yet still coming to him with their sacrifices and religious practices and expecting God to bless them in spite of their wickedness. The practice of their religion is empty. God further chides Israel through Isaiah.

Behold, the Lord’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save,
    or his ear dull, that it cannot hear;
but 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.

Isaiah 59:1-2

Another version of Empty Religion is religion that does not ascribe to God his due in power and majesty. He is God Almighty, the resurrected King of kings, the one who created all that is and holds together all that is. Without Jesus Christ, the world could not exist. What men call the laws of science are actually the unwritten law of God manifest in nature. He spoke, and all things were made and currently hold together.

If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.

James 1:5-8

The principle in James 1 is not limited to the request for wisdom alone, but all prayer. We must ask in faith, nothing doubting. How can I not doubt? Pray in accord with God’s word. When he has stated a clear and direct promise, we can trust him and pray accordingly. James makes it quite clear; the doubting pray-er must not suppose he will receive anything from the Lord. Is this a hard saying? Yes, but it is God’s word. The solution will be addressed in a few paragraphs.

James adds to his instruction regarding unanswered prayer.

What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.

James 4:1-4

James is writing to Christians, not unbelievers who have never believed the gospel and repented from their former lives. These are Christians who have sinful problems in their lives. In this case, they still love the world. They have not yet recognized that they have “found the pearl of great price.” The greatest treasure anyone could ever gain. When you obtain the greatest treasure, how can you want something less? But, that is precisely what these folks are doing, lusting after this world that will perish when they already have eternal life and all the treasure that goes with it. Prayer that is motivated by a lust for this world is doomed not to be answered because it is prayed from the wrong motivation: the practice of empty religion.

Some walk with the Lord in a manner that I might characterize as less than zealous. These folks have been truly redeemed, and we will share the New Heaven and New Earth with them, but they are not benefiting fully from the New Covenant because they do not give themselves to the zealous practice of “all that Jesus commanded us.” Here are a couple of examples of what happens when Jesus-followers pray earnestly.

So Peter was kept in prison, but earnest prayer for him was made to God by the church.

Acts 12:5

Because the church prayed “earnestly” for Peter, he was miraculously delivered from Prison.

Elijah was a human being, even as we are. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. 18 Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops.

James 5:17-18 NIV

Elijah’s prayer wasn’t answered just because it was Elijah. Elijah prayed “earnestly” while being a human being, a man of flesh and blood like all of us, and God granted a miraculous answer to his prayer. People who are practicing empty religion, don’t pray earnestly.

Broken Relationships

Married couples can wreak havoc with their prayer life if they are not careful. I think I have a little bit of authority to speak to this issue since I have been married to the same woman for almost 55 years. When we allow ourselves to become alienated from our spouse, we also alienated ourselves from God. I don’t mean we lose our salvation. When we get into a spat without spouse and alienate one another, we are still married but aren’t getting along at the time. We must understand that the same thing happens to our relationship with God that occurs with our spouse when we alienate ourselves from our spouse. One quick marriage lesson here free of charge. Learn how to resolve spats with your spouse quickly. The faster, the better. If you leave them to fester just to prove that you were right, you will not only lose some joyful time with your spouse, but you will also kill your joy in Jesus because you have alienated him at the same time.

Why does this happen in marriage? It will happen to some degree in any relationship, but it is especially potent in marriage because of what God is demonstrating in marriage. Your relationship with your spouse is to illustrate the relationship between Christ and his church. When our relationship with Christ is broken, we should not expect to have a powerful prayer life. We need to submit to him and allow him to heal our broken relationship.

Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers.

1 Peter 3:7

James connects the confession of our sins to answer to prayer.

Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise. 14 Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven. 16 Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.

James 5:13-16

In this case, the object of prayer is the healing of a sick person. It implies that in at least some cases (not all cases), sickness may be linked to unconfessed sin which, when confessed along with the prayer of faith by the Elders, results in healing. From this, I extrapolate that holding on to unconfessed sin creates a barrier to answered prayer of any sort. In Isaiah 59:1-2 above, we see that “your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear.”

So, we see that there are at least two broad categories of reasons for unanswered prayer, practicing empty religion, and broken relationships. These reasons are ones we can do something about. Repentance on our part and the confession of sin can heal the breach and open the gates of heaven. There is, however, another reason that we can do nothing about.

The Sovereignty of God

What then shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all! 15 For he says to Moses,
“I will have mercy on whom I have mercy,
    and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.”
16 It does not, therefore, depend on human desire or effort, but on God’s mercy. 

Romans 9:15-16

This passage is not speaking directly to prayer, but it does set out a fundamental understanding of the God with whom we have a relationship. When we talk about the sovereignty of God, we must be careful. God’s sovereignty is such a broad, grand, and glorious topic and such a magnet for controversy. I do, however, want to point out that we do not always know God’s secret will. There are some things that God has planned that he doesn’t reveal to us. If we are praying for something that would thwart that will, guess what, he won’t answer us with affirmation. God has something else in mind that will better accomplish his purpose and glory and consequently, our good. Some things he has clearly revealed in his word and those we can pray for with confidence and certainty. That is God’s revealed will. It is important to recognize these two categories of God’s will and do our best not to waste our time praying against God’s secret will.

The Solution: One Thing

I know it can seem depressing to see many reasons why God doesn’t answer our prayers. So, what are we to do to enter into a powerful, fulfilling prayer life in which we can see the power of God moving and actively expanding his kingdom? I am reminded of the movie City Slickers in which the character Curly, played by Jack Palance, was asked his secret. His answer was always, “One thing,” and he would hold up one finger.

Can it be that simple? Ask yourself this, would God make prayer so complex that the most simple believer could not enter into powerful prayer with Jesus? I believe not. Walking with Jesus is both simple and complex beyond comprehension. After all, we are talking about the infinite and compassionate, loving God.

If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. 10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11 These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.

John 15:7-11

The whole of John 15 is so rich that it is hard to take it all in. But, the “one thing” Jesus says is necessary for answered prayer is that we abide in him and his words abide in us. That is the “one thing,” reciprocal abiding.

Reciprocal abiding eliminates all expressions of empty religion and broken relationships. Reciprocal abiding also introduces us to the gentle promptings of the Holy Spirit in our prayer life that will lead us away from prayers that will be thwarted by the secret will of God and lead us to pray in the Spirit, i.e., the will of God. How does one abide in Christ? That is the subject for another writing or a dozen or so writings. Another day. For a starter, meditate carefully in John 15. If that is all you do, you will learn a great deal about abiding in Christ.

Here’s to a glorious, powerful, sweet, world-changing prayer life. May his kingdom come, and his will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

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