Hindrances to Prayer
HINDRANCES TO PRAYER
In my message two weeks ago, I used a metaphor depicting the believer’s prayer life as a garden. In that message, we focused on the conditions for a healthy garden of prayer; the conditions in which our prayer lives will thrive and bear fruit. We talked about praying in Jesus’ name and what that means. We talked about abiding in Christ and walking in obedience and praying according to God’s will.
Today, I want to return to that metaphor of our prayer life as a garden, only this time we are going to approach it from a negative point of view. What are the factors which will prevent us or hinder us from having a fruitful prayer life?
I have spent much of my life in cities, so I have not had much experience with gardens. In fact, the only time Esther Ruth and I ever had a real garden was many years ago when we were living in Alaska. We lived in the Matanuska Valley, which is just about the only place in Alaska that has a long enough growing season for gardening. We were young and energetic and excited to try our hand at growing our own vegetables. We first had to wait for the ground to thaw, which didn’t happen until June. When it did, we borrowed a rototiller and broke up the soil, fertilized it, and planted our seeds: cabbage, potatoes, carrots, lettuce, beans. We put a fence around our garden to keep out the rabbits.
Because of the long summer days, everything grew quickly. We were excited to see things sprouting and growing. But gardening in Alaska is not easy. Weeds grew as quickly as the seeds we planted. And there is a saying that we kept hearing from experienced Alaskan gardeners: Plant one for the root maggots, one for the cut-worms and one for yourself. That was our experience. In spite of promising early growth, many of our plants withered and died before we could harvest them, due to a variety of different pests, visible and invisible. And our puny little fence kept out the rabbits, but was no defense against the moose that came through and helped herself to the lettuce and anything else she fancied.
As we think of our prayer lives as gardens, what are the pests, the threats, the hindrances to a fruitful prayer life? I think if we were to do a little brain storming together we could come up with a variety of common, everyday pests; things like busyness or laziness, or lack of discipline. These would all be worth discussing at some level. But I want to focus specifically on what the Bible has to say on the subject. As we consider the Biblical evidence, we find a number of warnings against specific conditions which will prevent or hinder us from having a fruitful prayer life.
I would like to consider five of them together this morning. The most common and destructive threat to effective prayer is
1. Unconfessed sins
Let’s look at Isaiah 59:1-2:
Behold, the Lord's hand is not shortened, that it cannot save,
or his ear dull, that it cannot hear;
2 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.
That’s pretty clear, isn’t it? Why do our prayers seem to bounce off the ceiling? Why does it seem like no one is listening? It’s not because God has lost his power or gone deaf. Our iniquities “have made a separation” between us and God.
Psalm 66:18 says it this way: If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened.
That’s an interesting word, “cherish”. The KJV says “If I regard iniquity in my heart.” The implication of the word is to regard with pleasure or to see with delight. It’s not just the fact that we have sinned. It is the fact that we are holding onto the sin, delighting in it, even making it into an idol that we have set up in place of God. And because we delight in it, we are not willing to forsake it. So that sin separates us from God, and he hides his face from us. He does not hear us when we pray.
What is the solution? It is both very simple and very hard. It is simple to understand what is required and it is hard to do.
The first step is submit yourself to a thorough spiritual examination.
We need to pray the prayer found in Psalm 139:23-24;
Search me, O God, and know my heart!
Try me and know my thoughts!
24 And see if there be any grievous way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting!
The second step is to confess and seek forgiveness for whatever God reveals to you. 1 John 1:9: If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
As I said, it’s really rather simple to understand the concept. Prayer is ultimately about relationship and communication between us and God. Sin; unforgiven sin, unconfessed sin, unrepentant sin separates us from God. It must be dealt with before we can expect God to listen to our prayers. Prayers of confession and seeking God’s forgiveness should always be a regular part of our prayer lives.
The next point is closely related to this one. The second thing the Bible tells us will keep us from a fruitful prayer life is
2. Bitterness against others.
In Mark 11:25, Jesus says this: And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.
Here we are replowing some of the same ground as last week. But I think it bears repeating. Last week we looked at the prayer Jesus taught his disciples to pray, and we found this same truth: “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”
To experience God’s forgiveness and therefore to experience his closeness and fellowship in prayer, we need to also let go of our bitterness and forgive those who have offended or hurt us.
Ephesians 4:26-27 expands on this truth: Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, 27 and give no opportunity to the devil.
Notice that this verse does not say that we will never be hurt or offended, or that we will never become angry. But we are to deal with our anger quickly before it becomes sin. When we hold on to our anger, it metastasizes into bitterness and creates an opportunity for the devil. And the one thing the devil fears is the Christian on his knees in prayer. Bitterness and grudges among Christians is one of his most effective strategies for hindering effective prayer.
The solution is to forgive and to forgive quickly. To forgive others as we have been forgiven.
There is another potential hindrance to a fruitful prayer life that the Bible warns us about. It’s a little difficult to put it into words, so let me read the Scripture so you know what I am talking about.
The Scripture in question is found in 1 Peter 3, in a section of teaching on wives and husbands. The section begins with 6 verses of instructions for wives, and then adds just one verse for husbands. But it is that one verse to husbands that I want to highlight in 1 Peter 3:7.
Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered.
Isn’t that interesting? Husbands, if you are not living with your wife in a sensitive, understanding way, if you are not honoring her as your spiritual equal and a co-heir of the grace of life, your prayers will be hindered! The Christian husband who projects spirituality at church, but disrespects his wife at home is a fraud. However eloquent his prayers may sound, they are bouncing off the ceiling. True spirituality finds its truest expression at home and in our family relationships.
To be fair, and by projection, I don’t think this warning is for husbands alone. That’s why I have chosen to word this third hindrance to prayer in this way:
3. Unbiblical conduct at home
The Bible gives some clear guidelines for husbands and wives and for parents and children. I would refer you back to the series of messages I preached on the Book of Ephesians earlier in the year, and the section on the family in Ephesians 5 and 6. You can find those messages on the church website. What we find in 1 Peter 3 is that we cannot separate our obedience to those principles and the pursuit of Biblical roles in the home from our prayer life and our fellowship with God. The one is very much bound up in the other. If we are not living out our faith at home and in our families, we cannot expect to be effective in prayer.
Now let me add this caution to this teaching. I am not saying that you have to have a happy home or a happy marriage in order to have an effective prayer life. A happy home depends on all the parties living according to Biblical teaching. And we don’t control all that goes on in our families. What we can control is our behavior, our conduct and our pursuit of living according to the Biblical teaching. If we are doing that, we can expect to experience a fruitful prayer life – even if our spouse or parent or child is living in disobedience. That is actually the point of Peter’s teaching to wives in the first 6 verses of the chapter – how to influence a husband who is not obedient to the word.
How shall we move to put things right? I think we can follow the same steps suggested in the first point of this sermon. Specifically, ask God to examine your life and conduct at home and in your marriage and reveal to you anything harmful or hurtful. Confess it, seek forgiveness and then ask God’s help to set things right.
The fourth thing that will prevent us from a fruitful prayer life and from seeing answers to our prayers is:
4. Selfish motives
The book of James warns us of this in James 4:1-3:
What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? 2 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. 3 You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.
The context here is a warning against a materialistic, self-centered and selfish life style. It is a warning against coming to God simply to enlist his help in pursuing our own agenda and our own purposes. The passage goes on in the next verse to warn us against being “an adulterous people” who are in love with the world rather than in love with God. If that is what is in our heart and that is why we pray – to get things from God for our own selfish purposes – we cannot expect to have a fruitful prayer life or to receive what we are asking from God.
It is important to regularly assess our motives in our praying. Selfish motives are like the weeds that grew so profusely in our Alaskan garden and choked out the healthy plants. Ask God to reveal them to you and to help you root them out.
Before I conclude this message, I want to consider one more hindrance to effective and fruitful prayer. And I must admit that I approach it with some trepidation. I am hesitant for two reasons. One is that there has been much false and excessive teaching and claims made around this topic. The second reason is that this topic approaches the very deep mysteries of prayer – to which I do not have the answers. I am simply a fellow traveler and a fellow struggler along with all of God’s children.
But here is my fifth point; the fifth hindrance to an effective prayer life:
5. Lack of faith
Let’s consider some of the Scriptures together. We’ll go back first to Jesus’ teaching on prayer in Mark 11. The story sets up with a rather odd incident in which Jesus curses a fig tree. We pick up the story in verse 20:
As they passed by in the morning, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. 21 And Peter remembered and said to him, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.” 22 And Jesus answered them, “Have faith in God.23 Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him. 24 Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.
Jesus makes the point that there is a vital connection between faith and prayer. “Ask in prayer and believe that you have received it.”
James makes a similar point in speaking of our prayers for wisdom in James 1:5-8:
5 If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. 6 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. 7 For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; 8 he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.
“Faith” and “no doubting”. How do we attain to that state? And how do we move down this path without falling into the excesses of the “faith movement” and the “name it and claim it” prosperity preachers of our day? I do not have all the answers. I do know this. We must not ignore these bold prayer promises and the emphasis on faith. But neither can we isolate them from the rest of the Bible’s teaching on prayer; the conditions for effective praying – that we are to ask in Jesus’ name and we must abide in Christ and we must ask “according to his will.” And as we found today, we must ask with right motives and not for selfish purposes.
But at the end of the day, when we have fulfilled all these conditions, we are still faced with this challenge: “Ask in faith, with no doubting.” What is the connection between asking and receiving? And how do we ask in faith, and how shall we overcome our doubts? We are face to face with the mysteries of prayer. And I struggle along with you.
I take comfort in two Scriptures. The first is found in Romans 8:26-28. We have a helper in the person of the Holy Spirit who indwells us as children of God:
26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. 27 And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.28 And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.
When I don’t know what God’s will is or the specifics of his purpose in a given situation, I can still pray for God’s will to be done and for his purposes to be fulfilled – and know that the Spirit of God will take my desire for God’s will and turn them into prayer – requests that God will hear and answer because they are in accordance with his will.
The other passage that gives me comfort is found in the Gospels, in Mark 9, in the words of a father in crisis. His son was possessed by a demon. He came to Jesus for help. “If you can do anything…” he begged. Jesus responded in verse 23:
“If you can! All things are possible for one who believes.”
It is in the words of the father that I take comfort:
24 Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!”
It is an honest prayer and it was enough, as Jesus cast the demon out of the boy and returned him to his father.
There is a great deal that we do not understand about prayer and the link between faith and prayer and God’s will. But we don’t have to have all our questions answered in order to bring our petitions to the Lord and then pray along with this desperate father:
“I believe; help my unbelief!”
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS FOR “HINDRANCES TO PRAYER”
1. In this message, Pastor Cam again compared the believer’s prayer life to a garden. Share with one another your personal experiences with gardening.
2. What kinds of obstacles and difficulties did you have to overcome in order to grow a successful garden?
3. This message explores five hindrances or threats we face in growing a fruitful “prayer garden”. Read the associated Scripture and discuss each one in turn; your understanding of what the hindrance is, your personal experience with the hindrance, and how God has helped you to overcome it.
• Unconfessed sins (Isaiah 59:1-2, Psalm 66:18, Psalm 139:23-24, 1 John 1:9)
• Bitterness against others (Mark 11:25, Ephesians 4:26-27)
• Unbiblical conduct at home (1 Peter 3:7)
• Selfish motives (James 4:1-3)
• Lack of faith (Mark 11:20-24, James 1:5-8)
4. Are there other hindrances you would add to the list?
5. Conclude with a time of prayer for one another for victory over the hindrances.