The following article appeared in The New Millennium, a publication of the Association for Christian Development. To receive a free subscription to The New Millennium, please write to
Association for Christian Development
756 Industry Drive
Tukwila, WA 98188
(206) 575-3365 (Voice)
(206) 575-3148 (Fax)
How many times have you said, "God just doesn't hear my prayers"? If you are among the many Christians who pray with fingers crossed, "hoping against hope" that God will hear you, wouldn't you like to have the assurance that God will hear you every time?
When you think of what it means to be a Christian, the idea of not receiving an answer to prayer somehow seems contrary to every notion of Christianity. A Christian unable to communicate with God is truly a non sequitur. How have we come to the point where Christians are so out-of-touch with God that they are not sure of much of anything? Their Christianity is a sort of insurance policy against God's judgment and the lake of fire. (After all, it's better to be on the winning side.)
But, what about Jesus' statement that He came so that we could have life, and have it more abundantly? (John 10:10) How can God grant you an abundant life if you cannot even talk to Him and have no idea when He is trying to talk to you? Your life in Christ was never intended to be this way.
The heart of prayer is intimate communication, and God intended for you have that type of close, personal communication with Him. The current sad state of affairs in most Christians' lives is not of God's making and neither is it to His liking. If you would like to gain a closeness with God that you never experienced before or which you somehow lost along the way, there are several things you need to look at and do so that your every prayer will become an answered prayer.
Let's start by admitting the obvious: Sometimes God's answer is "no." Other times, it's "Wait and I'll attend to your request later." So, when you feel that God is not hearing you, it may be that He is just not giving you the answer you want to hear.
Having to wait and exercise the virtue of patience is not easy, especially in our culture in which instant gratification is king. God's attempt to teach us patience seems so out-of-step with our lifestyle. However, it should be made clear that your Heavenly Father is not particularly interested in maintaining your rapid-fire lifestyle. He is much more interested in making sure that you are equipped with virtues that will last an eternity. He is a parent, your parent, and like any parent He is most concerned with how you will turn out. So when you pray, please keep in mind that your requests will have to be in line with the goal He has in parenting you. Otherwise, don't expect to receive a favorable response. He will give you nothing which will hinder your spending eternity with Him and Jesus Christ in His kingdom. This is another way of saying, "Now this is the confidence that we have in Him, that if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us. And if we know that He hears us, whatever we ask, we know that we have the petitions that we have asked of Him." (1 John 5:14, 15)
Asking according to His will, not our own, is one of the most important keys in determining what kind of response we will receive from our Heavenly Father. God deals with us the same way we deal with our own children. If my seven-year-old were to ask me to take him to an R-rated movie or to a bar, the only answer he could expect to receive from me is an all-too-obvious "no." Allowing my child to see torrid bedroom scenes on the silver screen or to hang out in bars is contrary to my will. It would be bad for him, whether he knows it or not. There are certain things my children might as well not ask because they will be forever contrary to my will and their own best interest. You need to know what is within the realm of possibility with Him before you ask. Otherwise, you may be wasting your breath and losing sleep over something you will never get.
But, some will say, "it's so hard to know God's will. How can I ever be sure I am in His will?" If you are a brand-new Christian, such a response might be understandable. However, for those who have been members of the body of Christ for a while, this is often used as an excuse to gain some leeway in having our own way. After all, if we don't know, how can we be blamed if our circumstances turn sour? "If God would have revealed his will to me before I got into trouble, I could have avoided this." What a convenient way to shift the blame for our mistakes to God!
In actuality, it's not very hard to know God's will in 99% of life's circumstances. God has made sure that His children are surrounded with evidences of His will. Jesus stated that His followers (i.e., you and I) are not servants, but friends because He has made plain to us what He is doing, why He is doing it, and what He expects from us, His followers (John 15:15). We have been given His Holy Spirit to lead us into all truth (John 16:13).
With so much attention and direction from God, why should it be so difficult to know what God wants from us? God's ways are not "past finding out" as was the case when Israel relied on prophets to reveal God's truth to them. We have the complete Holy Scriptures containing thousands of examples of how God deals with human beings, what His will is, and what He expects. We have the Holy Spirit to instruct our minds in thinking the way God thinks, and we have direct access to God. Jesus made that a reality. There is no longer a curtain between us and the Holy of Holies. We must stop waiting outside. God has opened the door for us. It is time to go on in and talk to our Father.
So we have little excuse for not knowing the will of God, and we must pray according to His will if we expect to have our prayers answered. But, there is that 1% of the time when we seem to be on the horns of a dilemma and do not seem to know which way to go. And it is a fair question to ask how we can know the will of God in such circumstances.
If you have exhausted all normal channels of trying to determine the will of the Father -- Bible study, counseling with those who are wise in the faith, and praying as we normally pray -- and still don't know what to do, there is yet a way to find out what God wants you to do. Put out the fleece.
You undoubtedly remember the story of Gideon as told in Judges 6, 7, and 8. The Israelites turn from God after the generation of Joshua and immerse themselves in the worship of Baal. Because of their disobedience God gives them into the hands of their enemies, the Midianites. For good measure God also allows the Amalekites and the peoples of the East to impoverish Israel. After a few years of this oppression the Angel of the Lord comes to Gideon, who is threshing wheat in the winepress for fear of the Midianites, and tells him that he is a great man of valor and that he will lead Israel in driving their enemies from the land.
Gideon does not eagerly jump at the opportunity. He needs proof that God is really speaking and that He is serious about what He wants Gideon to do. Is God angry that Gideon asks for confirmation? No. God readily complies with Gideon's request. After the Lord tells Gideon to go against the Midianites and Amalekites, Gideon responds by saying to the Lord, "If you are going to save Israel by my hand, I need proof that you will be with me. I will put a fleece on the threshing floor tonight, and if it is full of dew in the morning and the ground around it is dry, then I will know that you will save Israel by my hand" (my paraphrase).
Well, all goes according to Gideon's request. When he arises in the morning, the fleece is full of dew, but the floor around it is dry. Was that enough proof for Gideon? Not on you life. He had the audacity to say to the Lord, "I need more proof. If tonight you will make the ground around the fleece wet with dew and the fleece dry, then I will know that you will deliver Israel by my hand" (same loose translation by author). Was God peeved? Nope. Without a harsh word the Lord complies with Gideon's request. At this Gideon finally accepts the fact that the Lord really is going to deliver Israel by his hand.
But that is not all. Later, without an appeal to do so, the Lord gives Gideon one additional confirmation. As Israel is about to invade the camp of Midian and Amalek, God tells Gideon to take his servant and sneak into the enemies' camp by night where the two Israelites hear of an Midianite's dream. The dream reveals that Israel's enemies will be defeated by the "sword of Gideon." Charged by this new confirmation, Gideon leads his clansmen to rout the enemy.
The point of all this: God does not mind giving His people confirmation of His will. As a parent would you not be willing to make certain your child knew your will beyond any shadow of doubt? If you know that your child is not just stalling, you would be happy to make your will and instructions as vivid as possible. After all, your really don't want your child to get into trouble. Your want him to succeed at everything he does. And you for sure want your child to avoid fouling up his life.
God is no different, except that His love for you and His interest in your success are much greater than your concern for our own children. So, if it is imperative that you know what His will is, keep asking and searching until it is clear to you. And, if there is still a hint of doubt in your mind, ask for confirmation. When it comes to knowing what God expects of you in terms of actions and attitude, you have every right to expect clear, unambiguous instructions from God. He has never been interested in making His will a mystery to mankind, so ask and you shall receive.
What do you do in those instances when you know that you have prayed with complete faith, have done everything you need to do, and know that you are not asking anything outside the will of God, yet there is still no answer from God? The sick friend is still sick. You are still broke and with no job in sight. The check didn't come as promised. All of us have gone through such experiences. We are asking in faith, but God is saying nothing.
What do you do when this happens to you? Most of us do nothing. Oh, we may do a bit a hand-wringing and talk about our "test of faith," but in the end we accept God's silence with stoic resignation assuming that to ask further is to show a lack of faith. We somehow assume that such fatalism is biblical and godly. After all, God loves a stiff upper lip, doesn't He?
Don't be so sure that God's silence is His final answer or that it is His "sign" for you to shut up. If you have done everything right and have made your petition in faith, consider His silence as an invitation to approach Him and talk the matter over. If your faith is on the line, it is perfectly normal to want to know why God is not "returning your calls." If you have prayed in faith, then you should persist in asking why God's answer is "no," or why He is silent. God truly wants to communicate with you because you are His friend and child. "Call to me and I will answer you, and show you great and might things, which you do not know" (Jeremiah 33:3, NKJV). So pray without ceasing and don't give up until God answers you one way or another; pray until you are sure.
Some may view such persistent seeking of God's attention as a lack of faith, but the truth is, the Bible is full of examples of such persistence. And those who have been persistent with God have been rewarded with His love and favor.
Do you recall the story of the two blind men who were sitting by the road when Jesus came up from Jericho? They cried out for Jesus to have mercy on the, but those in the crowd who were following Jesus tried to silence the blind men. What was their response to the warnings of those in the crowd? They cried out all the louder. Jesus was so impressed by their persistence that He had compassion on them and healed their blindness (Matthew 20:29-34).
Just imagine the course of history if Jacob had said, "O.K., I quit," when the Lord told him to let go. Genesis 32:24-29 records the most important wrestling match in history. Jacob wrestles with one whom he identifies as God; they struggle in each other's grasp until daybreak. As the day dawns, the Lord says to Jacob, "Let me go, for the day breaks." Though injured and probably exhausted, Jacob tells the Lord, "Nothing doing." "I will not let You go unless You bless me," (v. 25) he replies. The Lord is not upset by Jacob's persistence; rather, He rewards it because it pleases Him. "...And He blessed him there" (v. 29). In this passage Jacob clearly shows his faith by his persistence. Because he was willing to actively engage God, he was rewarded. On the other hand, if with stoic resolution he had refused to take on God in a fight, that would have been the same as withdrawing from God's presence, and there would have been no blessing. Surely we find in Jacob's struggle the meaning of Jesus' statement, "And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force" (Matthew 11:12). God expects active engagement from His children.
Remember also that Jesus tells us to plead our case before the Father with relentless persistence until we receive His favor. Jesus says we must be like the widow before the unjust judge (Luke 18:1-8). He states, "And shall God not avenge His own elect who cry out day and night to Him though He bears long with them" (v. 7). In other words, though God does not always answer immediately, He will answer if you don't give up. Your persistence is evidence of your faith.
We have spent a great deal of time in this article explaining how much God wants to have intimate communication with you, His child. But you must know also that there are times when you might as well not ask because He will not listen to you. One of those times is when you are sinning and you know it. If you are sinning and do not realize it, He will do everything imaginable to let you know what you are doing wrong and that you need to stop it. He will even give you extra help to free yourself from sin. If, however, you have been doing what you know very well is contrary to His will but hardheadedly refuse to stop, don't expect an answer when you pray because the answer is already "no." God does not hear sinners (Isaiah 59:1-3). Oh, if a sinner repents, there is much rejoicing in heaven, and God surely will help that person out because repentance is what He is looking for from the sinner. So, if your conscience has been bothering you about something you have been doing, it is probably God telling you to cease and desist. Only then can you count on God hear your petitions. After all, what parent would grant his child favors if the child refused to heed the parent's instructions. It's that simple.
Another type of behavior that turns God off is unforgiveness. Jesus made it very clear that those who refused to forgive should not expect to receive forgiveness from God. "For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses" (Matthew 6:14-15). The reason for this should become obvious if you stop and think about it. By submitting Himself to torture and death, Jesus paid the price to obtain God's forgiveness for you. Now you don't have to die to pay for your sins. If He was willing to give so much so that you could have God's forgiveness, should you not be willing to grant forgiveness to others. By comparison with what Christ did for you, your forgiveness of all others who have wronged you is indeed a small matter. So don't nurture and pamper the hurts and offenses you have suffered at the hands of others. Don't let the sun go down on your anger; it will give the devil an opening into your life (Ephesians 4:26-27). Settle your differences quickly, make amends to the extent you are able, and forgive others seventy times seven (Matthew 18:22).
There is another way of guaranteeing that you won't get the attention you want from God. That is to be arrogant or proud. Although pride or arrogance could certainly be placed under the category of sin, it is an attitude so offensive to God that you could be doing everything else right and find yourself being opposed by God if you are proud. "God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble" (James 4:6). In fact, of those things in man that God finds most detestable, at the top of the list is arrogance. "These six things the Lord hates. Yes, seven are an abomination to Him: A proud look,..." (Proverbs 6:16). Any decent parent is repulsed by a display of pride or arrogance in one of his children, and God is no different. So check you attitude. Be sure that you are not displaying an attitude of superiority toward others. Make sure that you esteem others as better than yourself (Philippians 2:3-4). That is, put the needs of others ahead of your own. That is the best antidote for pride.
There is much more that could be said about those actions and attitudes which block communication with our Father, but most of the problems we encounter fall into the three categories mentioned: sin, unforgiveness, and pride. So, do as the Apostle Paul admonishes, and examine yourself frequently (2 Corinthians 13:5). Make certain that your line of communication to God stays open.
We have talked a lot about our approach to God and how that affects our ability to pray effectively. We need to add some comments about a fad which some claim is the most effective way to pray. Much has been written and proclaimed from the pulpit about formulas for prayer. Some will declare that there is an effective formula for intercession or for healing. There are formulas for prayers of praise and for imprecatory prayers. There have been many words written about the words we use and how they should be strung together so that "God will have to grant" us our requests.
There is, however, one thing that is grossly ignored in the theology of prayer formulas: We are not dealing with a computer. We are dealing with a person -- God. We are not a bunch of witches burning candles and making incantations to summon up some demon to do our bidding. We are children learning how to talk to our Father.
Did we as children have a set formula for communicating with Mom and Dad, one which guaranteed we would get what we wanted? Obviously, not. Rather, our discussions with our parents were always full of nuances, of much that was never uttered. Our conversations proceeded not just according to the words we exchanged. The air was full of emotions, attitudes, facial expressions, and gestures. Our communication encompassed the totality of our being. What an offense to think that God could be summoned to do our bidding by a rehearsed chorus of word! Our ability to know our Father and communicate intimately with Him takes time and much attention. Those who espouse the "virtues" of formula prayers are trying to find the lazy man's way to riches. They think that they can keep their involvement with God at arm's length and still receive His blessings. They want maximum profit with minimum investment. However, it can be seen from one end of the Bible to the other that God bestows His favors on His friends, those whom He knows intimately. Those who promote the formula prayer business may well be the ones to whom Christ the Judge declares, "I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!" (Matthew 7:23).
When we were children we probably prayed, "God, bless Mommy and Daddy, and please protect us with your angels. Amen," and that was good enough for our tender age. After all, we knew little of the world or anyone in it, and not much was expected of us. But, unfortunately, many Christians never get much farther than the "bless Mommy and Daddy" type prayer in their personal lives. Needless to say, their prayers are ineffective, and they remain bewildered as to the reason why.
One of the most important keys to effective prayer is focus. Of course, that same principle works in any endeavor to which we set our hand. Solving a difficult math problem takes enough concentration and attention to work through the problem step by step until the proper conclusion is reached. The quality of a master carpenter's creations is proportional to his skill with his tools, his attention to every detail, and his determination to produce a perfect chair or table.
In human relations we give rapt attention to the problems and needs of those we love, thinking that somehow we might be able to help. On the other hand, when we hear of the starving in Africa or the death rate from cancer, we may say, "too bad," but these bits of news very seldom move us to acts of compassion or generosity. And, even if we respond to the starving masses through some relief agency, we never have the same personal motivation to relieve the suffering of others that we do when that "other" happens to be a close friend or a relative.
Think about what this means in terms of prayer. Can you pray with the same fervor for someone whom you have never met as you can for a dear Christian brother or sister who is suffering a severe illness or some other serious personal calamity? It is doubtful. When we pray for someone, we need enough specific information to be moved with compassion for that person.
When the Bible states that Jesus learned obedience through the things He suffered (Hebrews 5:8), that describes us also, for once we allow Christ to live within us, we bear His image and learn much through suffering as well. What we learn through pain makes us effective in our prayers. Anyone who has suffered through a divorce knows in advance what a brother or sister in Christ need in similar circumstances, and that person can intervene effectively with God for the suffering one who will likely be unable to pray capably because of the emotional turmoil.
Likewise, those who have suffered through a severe illness are more likely to be able to pray effectively for the sick. The memory of their own suffering brings the needs of the sick clearly into focus in a way that those who have never been seriously ill can never understand.
In any of life's experiences our own pain makes us understand the afflictions of those in need, and our nearness to them and desire for their wellbeing motivate us to drop to our knew on their behalf and "stand in the gap" for them. Intercessory prayer (interceding with God on behalf of others) is made powerfully effective by this kind of focus.
Obviously, this article does not contain everything that can be said about prayer. There are some very good books and study material available through Christian bookstores (and, unfortunately, some misleading material). It is my hope that you will seek out every possible avenue of knowing more intimately the Father and His Son, Jesus Christ. Pray to God and rely on Him to show you how to discern between the worthless and the worthwhile. In fact, if you actively seek it, your intimacy with the Father and Jesus Christ will grow to the point where you trust their direction and help more than that of the "authorities." I do not mean that you must throw away your books and check your brains at the door of the church before entering. Rather, your intimate friendship with God will allow you to submit every idea to His final authority, because you know Him and His will. It is in this manner that every thought is brought into captivity to make it obedient to Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 11:5).
In our discussion of how to build a good relationship with our Heavenly Father we have talked a great deal about how to understand God and His will. But as important as knowing His will is to do His will. That is an area where many of us are greatly lacking. Just as we are more willing to consider the requests of our children when we see in them a real desire to do as we ask, so God is more approachable and generous toward us when we obey. It must be emphasized, however, that our obedience cannot be for the purpose of avoiding punishment. Rather, it must originate in our desire to please our Heavenly Father. A person who obeys simply to avoid punishment is a person who has not been won over by God's goodness, and it is His goodness (not a threat of hell) that leads us to repentance (Romans 2:4). From the very beginning God has made it clear that He desires a relationship based on love rather than fear. It is out of this affection that we come to know the heart of God and obey Him with an understanding heart. At that point we can know for a certainty that whatever we ask in Jesus' name, and He will hear us.
Time and time again in Scripture God reveals what kind of relationship He desires to have with you and how that relationship will produce close, effective communication with Him. He says to you, "cast all your cares on Him, for He cares for you" (1 Peter 5:7). And, "...I know the thought that I think toward you, says the Lord, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon Me and go and pray to Me, and I will listen. And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart" (Jeremiah 29:11-13). And, "...Let him who glories glory in this, that he understands and knows Me, that I am the Lord, exercising lovingkindness, judgment, and righteousness in the earth. For in these I delight,' says the Lord" (Jeremiah 9:24).
So, what are you waiting for? Come boldly before the throne of grace (Hebrews 4:15) and make yourself as well as your petitions known to God, for that intimacy that you will come to share with God is the secret that makes every pray an answered prayer.