Have you ever asked God for favor with a huge opportunity, but the opportunity came and went? Have you ever prayed for wisdom to make an important decision, but in the end you made the wrong decision? Have you ever sought God for His provision, but the gap between abundance and lack only grew wider?
Some prayers go unanswered. Actually, that’s not entirely true. Every prayer is answered, just not the way we’d like. We just don’t like to admit that sometimes God says “no.” In his book, Louder Than Words, Andy Stanley observed:
“Most of our prayers have to do with our health, our wealth, and our social life. And when we experience a setback or grow impatient, we say, ‘God, where are You?’”
But perhaps God’s not always the one to blame. Maybe our shortsighted perspective of prayer has caused us to pray wrong. As we look at Scripture, we discover several causes of unanswered prayer. Here are seven reasons our prayers often go unanswered.
1. We Don’t Ask
I know this sounds rather obvious, but it’s the place we must begin. James 4:2 says, “…you don’t have what you want because you don’t ask God for it.” Instead, we have a tendency to worry, whine, and work. We worry about what might happen, whine about what we don’t have, and work ourselves to death trying to fix our problems. We have to remember that 100% of the prayers not prayed will go unanswered.
2. We Ask with Wrong Motives
James, the brother of Jesus, continues with these words: “And even when you ask, you don’t get it because your motives are all wrong—you want only what will give you pleasure” (James 4:3). It reminds me of the story of the elderly man who found a magic lamp on the beach. After picking it up and rubbing the lamp, a genie suddenly appeared and said, “Because you have freed me, I will grant you a wish.”
After a brief moment, the man said, “My brother and I had a fight 30 years ago and he hasn’t spoken to me since. I wish that he’ll finally forgive me.” There was a sudden thunderclap and the genie said, “Your wish has been granted.” Then, after a brief moment, the genie said, “Most men would have asked for wealth or fame. But you only wanted your brother’s forgiveness. Is it because you are old and dying?” “No way!” the man cried. “But my brother is, and he’s worth about $60 million.”
How many times do we do that with God? We treat him like a genie in a lamp, and we ask for things with a hidden agenda. How easy it is to forget that God weighs the motives of the heart, and our motives are never hidden from His sight.
3. We Ask with Unconfessed Sin in Our Life
We hate to admit that we are sinners even though Scripture is quite clear on the matter (Romans 3:23). We’d rather blame our personality, culture, parents, or past for our behavior. But when we rationalize our sin, we simultaneous rob our prayers of their power.
The question is not, “have you sinned?” but rather, “Are you knowingly living with unconfessed sin in your life?” 1 John 1:9 says, “But if we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all wickedness.”
The word confess means to admit to the truth.
It reminds of suspenseful TV shows where the police bring a suspect in for questioning. At first, the suspect denies he had anything to do with the crime. Then, as things unfold, the evidence begins to mount. The suspect’s anger starts to boil. The music builds. Suddenly, when the suspect realizes there’s no way out, he admits to the truth. He makes his confession.
God’s willingness to forgive is always hinged to our willingness to confess. If we don’t acknowledge the sin in our lives and seek God’s cleansing, we simultaneously block our prayers. 1 Peter 3:12 says, “The eyes of the Lord watch over those who do right, and his ears are open to their prayers. But the Lord turns his face against those who do evil. We must admit to the truth with specific confessions. Vague confessions only create repeat offenders.
4. We Ask Outside of God’s Will
1 John 5:14-15 says, “And we are confident that he hears us whenever we ask for anything that pleases him. And since we know he hears us when we make our requests, we also know that he will give us what we ask for.”
Perhaps the reason we pray outside of God’s will is because we’re really not interested in God’s will. We simply pray whatever we wish and want on a whim. Author and pastor Mark Batterson observed, “Until His sovereign will becomes your sanctified wish, your prayer life will be unplugged from its power supply.” Whose will are you most interested in?
5. We Ask in Doubt
James 1:5-8 says, “If you need wisdom, ask our generous God, and he will give it to you. He will not rebuke you for asking. But when you ask him, be sure that your faith is in God alone. Do not waver, for a person with divided loyalty is as unsettled as a wave of the sea that is blown and tossed by the wind. Such people should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Their loyalty is divided between God and the world, and they are unstable in everything they do.”
What causes a person’s loyalties to be split between God and the world? It’s their doubt of God. Loyalties are split when we say, “I’m not sure God’s going to do this, so I’m going to look elsewhere for help.” When you doubt God’s ability to answer, your loyalty can be slowly lured into a state of compromise.
6. We Ask in Pride
In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus tells a story about two men who went to the Temple to pray. One of them was a religious Pharisee, and the other was a tax collector (who were generally despised in Jesus’ day). This is how the Pharisee prayed:
“I thank you, God, that I am not a sinner like everyone else. For I don’t cheat, I don’t sin, and I don’t commit adultery. I’m certainly not like that tax collector! 12 I fast twice a week, and I give you a tenth of my income.” (Luke 18:11b-12)
Wow! That’s pretty arrogant. But look at the tax collector’s response.
But the tax collector stood at a distance and dared not even lift his eyes to heaven as he prayed. Instead, he beat his chest in sorrow, saying, “O God, be merciful to me, for I am a sinner.” (Luke 18:13)
So what does Jesus think about the tax collector?
“I tell you, this sinner, not the Pharisee, returned home justified before God. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:14)
The difference between answered prayer and unanswered prayer was humility. The despised tax collector received forgiveness because his heart was humble before God. While pride focuses on what I have done, humility focuses on what God can do. Proverbs 16:18 says, “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.”
7. We Ask Without Relationship
In the Gospel of John, Jesus describes Himself as “the Vine” and his followers as “the branches.” When we remain in Christ (the Vine), and He remains in us (the branches), we will produce a fruitful life. Jesus even goes as far to say that apart from Him we can’t do anything. Then he says these words:
“But if you remain in me and my words remain in you, you may ask for anything you want, and it will be granted! When you produce much fruit, you are my true disciples. This brings great glory to my Father. (John 15:7-8)
What was Jesus’ point? Relationship comes before requests. A once-a-week check-in at church isn’t enough if you want to get your prayers answered. Prayer is first and foremost about a relationship, not about our list.
What do all seven of these points have in common? They are all issues of the heart.
- When we don’t ask, our hearts are filled with dependence on self.
- When we ask with wrong motives, our hearts are filled with deceit.
- When we ask with unconfessed sin, our hearts are filled with defiance.
- When we ask outside of God’s will, our hearts are filled with selfish desires.
- When we ask in doubt, our hearts are filled with duplicity.
- When we ask in pride, our hearts are filled with destruction.
- When we ask without relationship, our hearts are filled with distractions.
God is more interested in the condition of your heart than the condition of your circumstances. Andy Stanley further observed, “If God answered all of our prayers, our character would suffer. For in most cases, our prayers center around the removal of the very circumstances He is using to conform us to His image.” That’s not so easy to swallow. But maybe the real purpose of prayer isn’t to get something from God, but rather to get to know Him.
I believe God loves to answer prayer. I also believe God loves for us to know Him. Carefully guarding your heart from these seven distractors will deepen your relationship with the Lord and provide a proper perspective toward answered prayer.