Many people think of answered prayer as God granting a request. If things don't turn out the way we desire, or we don't receive what we want, we tend to think of our prayers as being "unanswered." It is important to recognize that sometimes God answers a prayer request with "no" or "wait." Not getting what we've asked for does not mean that God hasn't heard our prayer or that He doesn't care. God is far above us and knows what is for our best much better than we do (Isaiah 55:8–9). Still, it is easy to be frustrated when God isn't answering our prayers in the affirmative, especially if we are praying for good things. So how can we more often receive "yes" answers to our requests in prayer?
First, we need to understand some basics about prayer. Hebrews 4:14–16 and 10:19–23 talk about approaching God confidently when we are in Jesus Christ. Those who have become children of God because of His grace through Jesus' work on the cross and through faith in Jesus Christ (John 1:12; Ephesians 2:8–9) can approach God in prayer and trust that He hears us. If you are a child of God, the responsibility and privilege of prayer is yours (Philippians 4:6; Ephesians 6:18; 1 Thessalonians 5:17; 1 Timothy 2:1–3). Prayer is the way we communicate with God and is about much more than simply asking for things. In prayer we give God praise, confess our sins, express our gratitude to God, and also make requests.
God does promise in the Bible that He will hear and answer the prayers of those who are obedient to Him and please Him: "and whatever we ask we receive from him, because we keep his commandments, and do what pleases him" (1 John 3:22). The Bible also says that "the prayer of a righteous person has great power" (James 5:16). Our righteousness is based on Jesus Christ and His work on the cross. As we live our lives in obedience to Him and seek to please God, our desires line up with His. The more our wills line up with God's, the more often our prayers are answered in the affirmative. First John 5:14–15 says, "And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him."
One of the biggest reasons we don't have our prayers answered is unrepented sin in our lives (Isaiah 1:13–17; 59:1–2). As the psalmist says, "If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened" (Psalm 66:18). Choosing sin over complete surrender to Christ certainly hinders our prayers. While sin in general disrupts our fellowship with God and hinders our prayers, there are a few specific sins that are mentioned as prayer-blocking in the Bible:
Unforgiveness. Jesus says, "whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that you Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses" (Mark 11:25).
Self-centered prayers. James 4:3 says, "You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions."
Not treating your spouse properly. First Peter 3:7 says, "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."
Not asking with the intent of actually following God's ways. James 1:5–8 says, "If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. 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. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways."
If you feel like God isn't hearing your prayers, ask the Holy Spirit to help you take inventory of your heart with an attitude of repentance.
While there are ways our prayers can be hindered, the good news is that there are prayers that God promises to always answer "yes" to. God promises to forgive us when we pray in repentance: "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us of all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:9). God also promises to give wisdom and the Holy Spirit liberally when we ask (James 1:5, Luke 11:9, 13). These promises are good news, so pray these things in faith.
God promises to answer the prayers of those who are abiding in Him (John 15:7). The more we abide in Christ and the better we know God, the more we will become like Him and truly desire His will (Philippians 2:12–13). Not only will we more often pray according to His will, but we'll also more readily understand His responses to our prayers, even when those responses are not what we expected. When we aren't sure what to pray, we can trust that the Holy Spirit intercedes and that God will work things together for our good and His purposes (Romans 8:26–30).
God works with more patience than we are capable of, and He often speaks quietly. When we are regularly spending time with Him in prayer and in reading His Word, we'll more easily recognize His voice and trust the way He is working. When we know and trust that God is good and we rest in His love, we can more easily receive His responses of "no" or "wait." This does not always mean that we stop asking (Luke 18:1), though it sometimes does (2 Corinthians 12:8–10). What it does mean is that in our supplications we submit to God, trusting that our ultimate desire is for Him to do what He knows is best (Luke 22:42).
If you feel that your prayers are unanswered, ask for wisdom and the Holy Spirit. Search your heart to see if anything is amiss in your relationship with God. Follow His direction and wait in faith that God is working what is best according to His will and His timing.
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