Sin is what separates God and men. Even though a believer does not lose his status of being God’s child when he sins; the sin he commits is an obstacle to prayer. As long as there is unconfessed sin in a believer’s life his prayers are not going to be answered. Without confessing their sins many pray. Those prayers cannot be answered.
The Bible makes this principle very clear: “If I had cherished sin in my heart, the Lord would not have listened” (Psalm 66:18 NIV). Also, “But your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear” (Isaiah 59:2 NIV)
So when you are faced with the problem of unanswered prayer check whether you are cherishing sin in your heart. The word “cherish” is to be noted. That word tells us what kind of sin prevents prayer from being answered. It is not talking about sinning accidentally. Instead it talks about harboring sin in the heart; playing with it and holding on to it dearly. Such sin has to be confessed and parted away with. Only then will God be able to answer your prayers.
There is lot of hatred among believers. This is a sad reality. It is also true that many exploit others in many unjust ways. These kind of wrongs hurt people. They find it difficult to forgive. You may find yourself in such a position as this. If you have unforgiveness in your heart then God cannot answer your prayers.
Jesus made this principle very clear in the Sermon on the Mount: “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12 NIV). And, “If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23,24 NIV).
But it has to be said that forgiveness does not come naturally to us. We need God’s grace in a BIG way to be able to forgive others. Even after you forgive someone, for many more months you may feel the hurt of the wrong done to you. That is quite natural. But if you have forgiven from your heart God would heal the hurt too.
Forgiving others is one of the toughest battles that you can face. But without forgiving others your prayers will not be answered. It is like that simply because God has shown you mercy. He expects you to show others the same mercy He has shown you. The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant found in Matthew 18:21 to 35 makes this very clear. Jesus told about an unmerciful man being put in prison. He further added: “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.”
So check whether there is unforgiveness in your heart when you are faced with the problem of unanswered prayer. If it is there confess it and be free so as to receive answers to your prayer.
3. Lack of Persistence
Jesus said, “Knock and the door will be opened to you 1.” Many follow this principle but do not find doors opening. That does not mean that what Jesus said will not work. But it means that one knock is not enough. If you are really in earnest or badly in need of something you will keep knocking till the door is opened. That means you are desperate about your need. God honors such desperateness in His children. It is then that He answers their prayers.
In other words God does not answer wishful thinking. He only honors persistent knocking. Those who are in real need keep on knocking. Others knock a few times and go around telling that God did not answer their prayer. But the problem is not with God; but with them. They gave up too easily.
Jesus told a parable in Luke 18 about a Persistent Widow. The purpose was to teach the disciples that “they should always pray and not give up.”
The best gifts of heaven are reserved for those who persist in prayer. That is the only way in which you can tell God that you badly need that particular answer to prayer. Persistence also tells God that you have full confidence in Him even though He has not answered your prayer so far. It tells God that you are not like a child who quarrels with his parents for not fulfilling his desires as soon as he says it out loud.
Therefore keep on praying. Do not give up. Your answer is already on the way.
This is a difficulty that many face. They pray with their mouths. But in their hearts they are sure that their prayers will not be answered. God never answers such kind of prayers. God only honors a person who prays in faith.
Jesus had made this very clear: “If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer” (Matthew 21:22 NIV). Many pray with many words hoping to be heard. Great speeches in prayer never impress God. Many others ask but doubt while asking. Such doubts destroy your ability to receive answers to prayer.
James has further amplified this principle: “But when he asks [you ask], he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That man should not think that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does” (James 1:6–8 NIV).
So when you ask, ask in faith. Faith is being sure of the answer even before it comes: “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see” (Hebrews 11:1 NIV). So when you ask thank God for the answer. You can thank God for the answer only if you have faith in your heart. Do not doubt when you pray. Then God will answer.
5. Wrong Motives
God searches the heart2. He understands every motive behind our thoughts. Therefore He refuses to answer prayers that have wrong motives.
But for us understanding motives is not easy. We get it confused easily. It is therefore very difficult for us to distinguish between pure motives and wrong motives. That is why David prayed: “Search me, O God, and know my heart” (Psalm 139:23a).
When it comes to prayer, wrong motives can easily dominate our praying. Wrong motives usually come as a result of selfishness. This truth is recorded thus: “When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures” (James 4:3 NIV).
So when you are confronted with unanswered prayer ask God to search your heart. And when His searchlight reveals some hidden motive which is wrong, confess it to Him and pray with pure motives. Then God will answer your prayer.
6. Not Praying According to God’s Will
This is a very difficult area. It takes years for Christians to learn to discern God’s will in their life-circumstances. It takes years of reading and meditating on the Bible to be able to hear God’s counsel clearly. Therefore the difficulty in praying according to God’s will.
The Bible talks about this difficulty. It also tells us that the Holy Spirit within us helps us to pray according to God’s will. This can happen because the Spirit of God knows what God’s will is:
“In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance to God’s will”3 (Romans 8:26,27 NIV).
The greatest struggle that Christians face in prayer is praying according to God’s will. Jesus had to go through this same struggle in the Garden of Gethsemane. He prayed in his agony: “Not as I will, but as you will.” Yielding to God’s will at times can be a big struggle. That is a reality.
But once you start praying according to God’s will the answer is bound to come: “This is the confidence that we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will3, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us–whatever we ask–we know that we have what we asked of him.” (1 John 5:14,15 NIV).
Therefore seek to pray according to God’s will. If there comes a struggle between your desires and God’s will ask God to give you grace to accept His will. Then pray for His will to be done. Then God shall answer your prayer!
7. Not Listening to Godly Counsel
God speaks to us many times through godly people. But their advice is often ignored. (Here a word of caution is required. You need obey what they say only if it is according to what God has said in the Bible. Any thing that they say that is against what is said in the Bible you need not obey). Then we run into difficulties and we start to pray. But God’s Word makes it clear that God will not listen to people who had rejected His counsel.
Read Proverbs 1:20–33 to understand this principle better. In verse 28 (NIV), it is said: “They will call to me but I will not answer; they will look for me but will not find me.” When we refuse to listen to God’s wisdom and counsel, He also refuses to listen to us when we pray. In another passage of the Scripture, this truth is again highlighted: “ `When I called, they did not listen; so when they called, I would not listen,’ says the Lord Almighty” (Zechariah 7:13 NIV).
You also need to note that disobedience to God is a direct result of not listening to Him. Therefore check your life to find out if there is any disobedience in your life. If you find it, confess it and come back to the path of obedience. Thus when you listen and obey, God will answer your prayer!
1. Matthew 7:7
2. Ref. Luke 16:15, Psalm 7:9, Romans 8:27, 1 Chronicles 28:9 and 1 Samuel 16:7
3. Emphasis added by author