One of the mysteries of the Christian life is unanswered prayer. There are many promises in God’s Word regarding God answering prayers. One example is given by Jesus in John 14:12-14 (NIV) I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it. On first glance, someone may take these verses to suggest that they should receive answers for anything they ask God for. However, this doesn’t happen for most people and they may become discouraged in prayer. In this post, I want to begin to explore some of the common reasons for the mystery of unanswered prayer.
I am going to assume that the person praying is a believer, that is, they have admitted their sin to God, believed that Jesus died to forgive that sin and have committed their lives to following Jesus as their Lord and Savior. To grow in your prayer life, you must understand what God teaches about answering prayer. Almost all of God’s promises in the Bible are conditional. A conditional promise is one that will only be answered by God if you meet the conditions. Some conditions for promises are found in the promise verses themselves and other conditions are found in other related verses in Scripture. If you meet the conditions of God’s Word for His promises, God always keeps His promises.
James 5:16b (NIV) The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective. Prayers that are powerful and effective are certainly prayers that are answered. The implied condition for powerful and effective prayer in this verse is the character of the person praying the prayer. James says that the prayer of a righteous man will be answered. A righteous person is first and foremost a believer, someone who has trusted in Jesus’ righteousness to forgive their sins.
However, the righteousness of a believer must also be a practical righteousness that is lived out. 1 John 3:7 (NIV) Dear children, do not let anyone lead you astray. He who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous. A true believer is someone who does what is right, they live with a practical righteousness. What happens when a true believer sins? 1 John 1:9 (NIV) If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If a believer sins, they must immediately confess their sin and ask for God’s forgiveness to be purified from their unrighteous behavior. The problem is that many people continue to live in known sin without confessing and turning away from it.
Unconfessed sin therefore is a major cause of unanswered prayer. Psalms 66:18 (NIV) If I had cherished sin in my heart, the Lord would not have listened; To cherish sin in your heart is to hang on to it, to not confess it and turn from it. When someone has unconfessed sin in their hearts, God does not listen to their prayers and the prayers are not answered. Peter shows us a practical example of this by warning that if husbands do not treat their wives properly, it will hinder their prayers from being answered. 1 Peter 3:7 (NIV) Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers. Problems in your marriage relationship, caused by not respecting your spouse, will lead to unanswered prayer.
In some churches, there is very little emphasis on righteous living. Many believers have areas of their lives that they have not submitted to Jesus Christ and are indulging in known, often habitual sin. This sin is often excused as being small and inconsequential. However, any unconfessed sin will decimate your prayer life. What makes this such a mystery for many is that you may be praying a prayer that truly is God’s will, but sin in another area of your life will prevent God’s answer from coming. In effect, sin short-circuits God’s answers to your prayers.
A viscous cycle then ensues in which people blame God for not answering their prayers. Their faith grows weak and they often give up on praying at all. The solution is to confess your sin, turn away from it and begin to live righteously through the power of God. This removes one of the most common hindrances to unanswered prayer, the hindrance of unconfessed sin. In The Mystery of Unanswered Prayer – Part 2, I will look at another cause of the mystery of unanswered prayer.