You have probably heard the old worn-out cliché about God answering prayer: "God always answers prayer. Sometimes He says Yes, and sometimes He says No."
If we are honest, we have to admit that we get a lot more "no" answers than "yes" answers, at least when praying for things like miraculous healings or other supernatural manifestations. For every sick believer who has experienced a genuine miraculous healing (a permanent healing that involved no medical treatment and could be attributed to nothing other than supernatural Divine intervention), there are thousands of sick believers who prayed and did not receive a miraculous, supernatural healing. They just had to wait for the sickness to run its course, or they died.
Don't get me wrong. I know there are some occasional genuine miracles among the many bogus claims. I'm thankful for all the "yes" answers to prayer, and I do not wish to deny or minimize all those positive answers to prayer. I just wish there were more "yes" answers and fewer "no" answers. And it seems like there should be more "yes" answers, especially in view of certain statements made by Yeshua. Statements such as "What things so ever ye desire, when ye pray, believe that ye receive them, and ye shall have them" (Mark 11:24). "And whatsoever ye shall ask in My name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If ye shall ask any thing in My name, I will do it" (John 14:13f). And other similar statements.
If we believe in Jesus and believe the Bible, why do we so seldom see these promises of Jesus fulfilled in our lives? Well, part of the reason is because most of God's promises are conditional. If we do not meet the conditions, then God is under no obligation to answer our prayers.
For prayer to be answered, one condition that is implied (and sometimes plainly stated) is that the person praying must be in a right relationship with God. "But we come into a right relationship with God the same way the first-century disciples did, by being justified by grace through faith," some say.
This is true. So why did the first-century disciples seem to have far more miraculous answers to prayer than we do? They were humans. They were not gods or angels. The saints of the Old Testament and New Testament were just as human as we are. Even "Elijah was a man subject to like passions as we are," James 5:17 says, yet "he prayed earnestly that it might not rain: and it rained not on the earth by the space of three years and six months. And he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain, and the earth brought forth her fruit."
When Elijah left this earth in a whirlwind and his mantle fell to Elisha, Elisha cried out, "Ayeh Yahweh Elohei Eliyahu? Where is the LORD God of Elijah?"
One preacher said that we should be asking, "Where are the Elijahs of the LORD God?"
That's a good question. Where are the men and women of God who can pray like Elijah and get results like Elijah? What is it that made the saints of the Bible different from us 21st-century American saints? I have wondered about this, and here is my conclusion. I believe that the saints in the Bible simply walked much more closely to the Lord than we do. I believe they had a deeper love and deeper devotion to the Lord, and less self-love than we have. I believe that they were so focused on the Lord and His Kingdom that the temptations of the world did not appeal to them as strongly as they appeal to us. Because their spiritual health was vastly superior to our carnal, sickly condition, their prayers were not hindered like our prayers are so often hindered.
What are some of the things that hinder our prayers from being answered? Some "Word of faith" teachers would have us believe that it's only a matter of faith. If you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you can move mountains, "and nothing shall be impossible unto you" (Matt. 17:20). This is certainly a true statement. However, just knowing that this is a true statement does not produce the faith that we need and put it into our hearts. Merely knowing the truth of this statement just points out the reality of our problem, the reality of our glaring lack of mountain-moving faith. The thing we need is not a reminder of our problem; what we need is a solution to our problem. We need to know how to obtain the mountain-moving faith that we lack.
How does faith come? "So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God" (Rom. 10:17). One hindrance to answered prayer is indeed a lack of faith, but we have to understand that one reason for our absence of faith is our neglect of the Word of God. D. L. Moody said this about Romans 10:17:
"I prayed for faith, and thought that someday faith would come down and strike me like lightning. But faith did not seem to come. One day I read in the tenth chapter of Romans 'Now faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.' I had closed my Bible and prayed for faith. I now opened my Bible and began to study, and faith has been growing ever since."
Bible study by itself will not produce faith, however. There are Bible scholars and theologians who make a career out of studying the Scriptures, yet they have no faith because they have no hearing. They know the content of the Word of God printed on the page, but that is about all that they know. Their possession of information about the content of the Bible does not produce any hearing, so the Word remains on the printed page. The Word of God never gets into their hearts where it can produce faith.
The Psalmist wrote "Thy word have I hid in my heart, that I might not sin against Thee" (Ps. 119:11). How do we get the Word of God from the pages of the Bible into our hearts? I'm not sure how others do it, but I do it by meditating on the Scriptures. Seven times Psalm 119 mentions meditating (vss. 15, 23, 48, 78, 97, 99, 148).
To meditate means to ponder, to think deeply, to concentrate, to focus intently upon a subject for a lengthy period of time. The Hebrew words for meditation include these ideas. The Hebrew terms also mean to converse aloud with oneself and to mutter or speak with oneself in a low, murmuring voice. I encourage people to do this, to vocalize the meditations of the heart in a low voice, and to audibly pray as the Scriptures are being pondered.
As you meditate on the Scriptures, ponder each word and phrase over and over, like a cow chewing its cud. Think about the implications of the truth you are pondering, and let other Scripture passages come to mind, and let those verses throw more light on the topic. Audibly voice the meditations of your heart and digest the Word until it has assimilated into you and become a part of your soul in the same way that food digests and becomes a part of your body. This sort of meditation will move the Word of God from the pages of the Bible into your heart, where the Word can produce the hearing which produces faith in the heart.
So ask yourself: "Are my prayers unanswered because of my unbelief that comes from my neglect of God's Word?" If so, pay attention to God's Word. When true faith fills your heart, the answer to your prayers can no longer be hindered by unbelief.
Unbelief is not the only thing that hinders prayers from being answered, though. Do you know that one possible hindrance can be not getting along with your husband or wife, or the husband and wife not fulfilling their proper roles in the marriage relationship?
"Daniel, where did you get that idea?"
From the Bible. Peter gives instructions to husbands and wives, then adds "that your prayers be not hindered" (1 Pet. 3:7). Peter tells wives to "be in subjection to your own husbands," and to focus not on "that outward adorning," but rather to focus on beautifying "the hidden man of the heart" with "the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit," and to imitate the holy women of old time, like Sarah, who "obeyed Abraham, calling him lord." Peter then instructs husbands to "dwell with them [wives] according to knowledge, giving honour unto the wife, as unto the weaker vessel, and as being heirs together of the grace of life." After this he adds "that your prayers be not hindered."
These verses are intensely hated by radical unbelieving feminists, but that does not change what this passage teaches. Prayers can be hindered if husbands or wives ignore these instructions.
So if you are a wife whose prayers are not being answered, ask yourself: "Am I in proper subjection to my husband's authority, or am I rebellious and resentful? Am I more concerned about the outward adorning of my body, or about beautifying my inward character? Do I wear the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit, or am I proud and loud? Do I obey my husband as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord, or do I disobey my husband and call him a loser?"
If you are a husband whose prayers are not being answered, ask yourself: "Do I dwell with my wife according to knowledge? Am I considerate and understanding, or am I inconsiderate and insensitive to her true needs? Do I treat her with honor, respect, and dignity, or with dishonor, disrespect, and abuse and scorn? Do I remember that she is the weaker vessel when she is struggling? Or do I tell her, 'Be strong and take it like a man!'?"
Another possible hindrance to prayer is a combination of pride, a lack of contrition, and a lack of reverence toward God's Word. This can be inferred from Isaiah 66:2, where Yahweh says "to this man will I look, even to him that is poor and of a contrite spirit, and trembleth at My word." If God hears the prayers of a person who is poor and of a contrite spirit and trembles at His Word, then we can infer that the converse is equally true. If a man is proud in spirit, and lacks contrition for his past sins, and does not tremble at God's Word but rather challenges its authority and disregards its commandments, that man is not likely to get God's attention when he prays.
So if it seems that God is ignoring your prayers, ask yourself: "Which best describes me? A person who is poor and of a contrite spirit and trembles at God's Word, or a proud person who lacks contrition and does not tremble at God's Word?"
One thing that will definitely hinder prayers from being answered is to knowingly tolerate sin in your life. "If I regard iniquity in my heart, Yahweh will not hear me" (Ps. 66:18). To "regard" iniquity literally means to see it (and, in this case, to do nothing to change it). If you see sin in your life and you tolerate it, excuse it, rationalize it, or otherwise try to justify its presence, Yahweh will not hear your prayers, regardless of how long and how hard you pray. "And when ye spread forth your hands, I will hide Mine eyes from you: yea, when ye make many prayers, I will not hear you: your hands are full of blood" (Isa. 1:15).
So if your prayers are not being answered, here's another question to ask yourself: "Are my hands full of blood? When I become aware of a sin in my life, do I repent and ask the Lord to forgive me and to give me the strength to overcome temptation? Or do I tolerate my sin and try to excuse it by saying something like 'Christians aren't perfect, we're just forgiven' or 'We're all just sinners saved by grace'?"
These are a few things that can account for some unanswered prayers. But what about answered prayers? If we ask God for something and we do receive it from Him, what is the cause? What is it that causes God to say "yes" to our requests? Many people would probably answer "faith." Faith is certainly an essential ingredient in the equation, but there is something else that causes us to receive a positive response from God: "And whatsoever we ask, we receive of Him, because we keep His commandments, and do those things that are pleasing in His sight" (1 John 3:22).
"Daniel, it sounds like you're saying that good works and commandment-keeping somehow earn us favor with God, and that God will answer our prayers as a reward for our good works and commandment-keeping. Is that what you are saying?"
I'm not the one saying it, but yes, that is what 1 John 3:22 seems to be saying. This is a cause-and-result statement. Look at that conjunction "because." The words preceding "because" describe the result ("whatsoever things we ask, we receive of Him"), and the words after "because" tell us the cause, i.e., the reason our prayers are answered ("because we keep His commandments and do those things that are pleasing in His sight"). It's a pretty simple, straightforward statement of fact, a fact that the Holy Spirit inspired John to write down for posterity.
If you disagree with the notion that God answers prayer as a reward for good works and commandment-keeping, don't argue with me. Argue with the Apostle John, or with the Holy Spirit who inspired John to write this verse, or with King David who wrote concerning Yahweh's laws, statutes, commandments, and judgments that "in keeping of them there is great reward" (Ps. 19:11).
Answered prayers have a direct link not only to our faith but also to our obedience to the commandments of God. Am I saying (or is the Apostle John saying) that we can earn answers to prayer by good works and commandment-keeping? I would hesitate to use the word "earn." Rather, I would explain it this way:
If we keep His commandments and do those things that are pleasing in His sight, then this builds up our faith and confidence to boldly ask and to believe that God will answer our prayer. If a person knows he is living in disobedience and knows he is doing things that displease the Lord, he does not have a lot of faith and confidence and boldness in prayer. His feelings of guilt make him too ashamed to ask for very much. But a person who is right with God and has a healthy relationship with God will have confidence toward God. In fact, this is exactly what John states in the verse immediately before 1 John 3:22: "Beloved, if our heart condemn us not, then have we confidence toward God" (vs. 21). This cause-and-result statement is linked to the cause-and-result statement of verse 22 by the opening word "And...": "And whatsoever we ask, we receive of Him, because we keep His commandments, and do those things that are pleasing in His sight."
Messianic disciples are sometimes criticized by Mainstream Christians for placing so much emphasis on the Torah and its commandments. If someone tells you that you put too much emphasis on the commandments of God, show them 1 John 3:22 and ask them how they expect to get their prayers answered if they don't obey the commandments of God.
Of course if you mention the commandments and ordinances of the Old Testament, many Christians will say, "It's impossible to walk in all the commandments and ordinances of the Old Testament. It's too hard; it can't be done."
I guess Zachariah and Elisabeth, the parents of John the Baptist, didn't know it was impossible. The Bible says "they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless" (Luke 1:6). Why did the Holy Spirit inspire Luke to mention this? Probably to show the connection between their obedience and the answer to their prayer for a son. The very next verse says "And they had no child, because that Elisabeth was barren," and then in verse 13 the angel told Zachariah "thy prayer is heard; and thy wife Elisabeth shall bear thee a son." They were obedient to God's commandments, their prayer was heard, and their prayer was answered. They asked and they received of Him because they kept God's commandments and did those things that were pleasing in His sight. A perfect example of 1 John 3:22.
"But what if I don't keep God's commandments as faithfully as Zachariah and Elisabeth did? What if my heart does condemn me and weaken my faith?"
John says that we can "assure our hearts before Him" (1 John 3:19). How can we assure our hearts before Him if our heart condemns us? John answers that question, too. "For if our heart condemn us, God is greater than our heart, and knoweth all things" (1 John 3:20). God is a loving Father who knows all things, including how weak we are. "Like as a father pitieth his children, so Yahweh pitieth them that fear Him. For He knoweth our frame; He remembereth that we are dust" (Ps. 103:13f).
If you sin, confess your sins to your heavenly Father. "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:9). If you confess your sins and repent and start walking in obedience to the light and understanding that you have, this will give you renewed confidence to boldly present your petitions to your heavenly Father.
Your obedience and faithfulness (or your disobedience and unfaithfulness) will affect the strength of your faith and confidence when you pray. It's okay to be aware of your obedience and good deeds, just so long as you don't get proud and arrogant about it and start giving yourself the glory. Do you know that it's even Biblical to mention your obedience and good deeds to God when you pray? If you doubt this, look at some of Nehemiah's prayers: "Think upon me, my God, for good, according to all that I have done for this people" (Neh. 5:19). "Remember me, O my God, concerning this, and wipe not out my good deeds that I have done for the house of my God, and for the offices thereof...Remember me, O my God, concerning this [enforcing Sabbath-keeping in Jerusalem]" (Neh. 13:14 & 22). In a similar manner, David mentions his obedience and faithfulness and integrity when praying to God in many of the Psalms.
But what about the parable of the Pharisee and the publican who prayed in the Temple? The Pharisee who recited his brag list to God was the bad guy in this parable. If we tell God about our obedience and good deeds, aren't we following the example of that bad Pharisee? No, because this particular parable was spoken specifically "unto certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others" (Luke 18:9). The bad Pharisee recited his good deeds to God because he was self-righteous and because he despised the humble, contrite publican. He bragged about himself to feel good about himself. But when Nehemiah and David and other righteous saints mentioned their good deeds to God, they did so in an effort to get a positive response for their prayers which were being prayed for God's own purpose and for God's glory. If we brag about our good works because we are self-righteous and despise others, we are no better than the bad Pharisee. But if we are praying for God's own purposes and for God's glory, it is Biblical and proper to humbly mention our obedience to God's commandments.
We have seen from 1 John 3:22 that obedience to God's commandments affects the outcome of our prayers. We can therefore conclude that disobedience likewise affects the outcome of our prayers. Disobeying God's commandments hinders prayer.
There are many sincere born-again Christians who disobey some rather weighty commandments (such as Sabbath). However, they are not disobeying out of rebellion and defiance. They have simply been misinformed by well-meaning Bible teachers who were misinformed by others before them. I believe God will overlook sins done in honest ignorance. Willful ignorance, however, is something different. Deliberately turning a deaf ear to God's Law will do more than merely hinder your prayers. It will actually turn your very prayers into an abomination: "He that turneth away his ear from hearing the law [Heb., Torah], even his prayer shall be abomination" (Prov. 28:9).
If you want your prayers answered, make sure you are not turning away your ear from hearing God's Law and thereby turning your prayers into an abomination. If you are a Christian who has been feeling convicted about certain Torah commandments, don't think to yourself, If I quit thinking about this stuff, maybe it will just go away. Instead, familiarize yourself with the Torah, learn the commandments, obey them, and let your obedience build up your faith. And remember that "whatsoever we ask, we receive of Him, because we keep His commandments, and do those things that are pleasing in His sight."
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Image (Top): Importunity, an original art piece by Daniel Botkin from his Exodus Gallery on his art website, DanielBotkin.com