(Originally published Jun 14, 2009 by Rev. Jedediah Maschke)
Last week we started our discussion on prayer by focusing on the God we pray to, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit who make up the triune God. We learned how God is beyond our comprehension, a spiritual reality we can’t describe in human terms. He is bigger than anything we could ever imagine, so big He created the entire universe, and yet He is so involved in our lives that he asks us to pray for anything we need.
The question I want to ask today is: If God is really this good, if He really does care about us this much, why do so many of our prayers seem to go unanswered? What’s getting in the way? We get a couple of hints in the Old Testament:
Psalm 66:18 If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened. 19 But truly God has listened; he has attended to the voice of my prayer.
The psalmist is on to something here. Many people, even those who say they are Christians, cherish their iniquity. They love sinning more than they love God, and for that reason, God does not listen to them. They would rather cling to the things of this world than to hold on to the promises of God. Later, in the time when Isaiah prophesied to Judah, God tells the people:
Isaiah 59:1 Behold, the Lord’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save, or his ear dull, that it cannot hear; 2 but your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear.
God’s failure to hear the prayers of the people of Judah wasn’t due to any fault on God’s part. God wasn’t too weak to do anything about their prayers, like some would say. There was nothing wrong with His hearing. Isaiah prophesied that when God didn’t answer the prayers of the people of Judah, it was because of Judah’s sins that separated them from God. Even for us today, the biggest obstacle to prayer is what’s in our hearts. When we cling to our sins or even our sinful ways of praying, it separates us from God and He doesn’t hear us. So what I want to do this morning is to identify some of the sinful ways we pray that keep God from hearing. I want you to be able to come before God in true faith and take him up on his promises. We’re going to be a lot of quotes from scripture this morning, so if you don’t get everything, I’ll have this posted on the blog so you can see everything or if you’re not on the internet, stop by the office later this week and we can get a copy for you. So let’s get to it…
Mistakes people make in prayer:
- Not praying.
It sounds self-explanatory: if you don’t pray, God won’t answer. But it’s so important that God mentions it in the Bible. James 4:2 says You do not have, because you do not ask. Have you ever stopped to think about what exactly you don’t ask for in prayer? I mean really think about all the things you could have asked God for, that could have made your life better and could have helped you follow Him more closely, but you didn’t ask. That’s part of what it means to learn how to pray. Jesus makes some pretty awesome promises about prayer, like whatever you ask in His Name, according to His will, He will give you. God wants us to be bold in our prayers, to have no fear! God wants us to seek Him for help even in the little details of our lives. And yet, how many of us have ever taken any time to think about what else we could have if we only asked God for it?
I think it’s amazing when I hear reasons people don’t pray! Maybe you think “I don’t have time to pray.” Did you know that if you can think, you can pray? God knows our hearts, and He knows our thoughts. If you can think, God knows. If God knows your thoughts, you can pray even without moving your lips.
Another reason people don’t pray is because we don’t want God to know what we’re doing. It’s like if we don’t admit what we’re actually doing to God, maybe He won’t find out. Like we could keep anything a secret from God! Usually we’re just having a hard time admitting the sin we struggle with to ourselves, because then we’d have to do something with it. Look, God already knows everything. You’re not going to surprise him. You’re not going to scare Him away. Matthew 6:8b says your Father knows what you need before you ask him. He knows, and He still wants you to talk to Him about it, so you might get Him in on the conversation because it will really be better for you.
- Pray to anyone other than the true God.
Maybe some of you grew up in churches where you would pray through saints, like asking Mary to pray for you or St. Peter to pass on a request. As Lutherans, we look to the saints as examples in their lives for us to follow, but there is nothing in the Bible that would make us think that they have some sort of special “in” with God. Nothing in scripture suggests that our prayers would best be directed to a created human being instead of the true, triune God. In fact, everything we read in the Bible directs us to God Himself. In the Old Testament, it was foretold about Jesus in…
Isaiah 11:10 In that day the root of Jesse, who shall stand as a signal for the peoples—of him shall the nations inquire…
In the New Testament, Jesus Himself says, Matthew 11:28 Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.
And Paul tells Timothy in
1 Timothy 2:5 For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus,
Because of these passages and a number of others, we can be sure that when we pray to Jesus, or any member of the Trinity including Father or Holy Spirit, we’ve got the right address.
- Praying against God’s will.
In everything that we do, we need to be constantly testing for God’s will. If it’s something God prohibits in scripture, praying for it is sin. If it’s something that goes against a principle of scripture, praying for it is a sin. Asking God to bless something that you know is sinful is a sin. If you’re sleeping with your boyfriend or girlfriend and praying for God to bless that relationship, there’s a bit of a mixed message there. If you’re praying for your wife to submit to you, but you’re not willing to honor her, there’s a mixed message there. If you’re praying for your husband to love and honor you but you’re not willing to submit to him, there’s some issues there. Maybe you’re just asking God to fulfill your passions or your whims…your old car still works fine, but you’re praying for a new one…like the one your neighbor just got. Or maybe it’s that new tool, or new appliance, or that addition on your home. You don’t need it, and there are other ways you could honor God with your money, but you pray for it anyway. That’s praying against God’s will. Jesus tells us in
Matthew 6:31 Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. 33 But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. God’s promise is that we don’t need to worry or be anxious. In prayer and in everything we do, we should seek His kingdom and His righteousness above all, and everything else will follow.
James 4:3 also weighs in on this, writing You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. The ultimate question here is, “What’s in your heart?” Is what you’re praying for your passion, or God’s?
- Praying without faith that God will answer.
God tells us outright in…
Hebrews 11:6 without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.
If you don’t believe that God exists, or even if you don’t believe that God will answer your prayers, you’re going to have a tough time pleasing God. He wants us to be confident in His love and mercy for us, to be ready and willing to ask him anything because he promises to hear us. That’s what John writes in…
1 John 5:14 And this is the confidence that we have toward [the Son of God], that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. 15 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.
- Praying without humility.
This is illustrated in a couple of examples from Jesus’ ministry. First…
Luke 18:9 [Jesus] also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
If your prayers sound anything like “Thank you God, that I’m better than that other guy,” you’d better hope that God doesn’t hear that one, because that one’s like your carpool lane on the Highway to Hell. God wants us to pray in humility, first of all, by admitting that we are sinners and that we don’t deserve anything good.
The second part of this is what we read in our Gospel lesson today in…
Matthew 6:5 [Jesus said] “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.
The second part of this humble prayer is that God doesn’t want us to pray in order to impress people. This is kind of connected with the next one,
- Praying with “many words”
Matthew 6: 7 “And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words.”
There was this one girl I knew in college who always seemed to pray the longest prayers known to man. You pretty much could use your sundial, or if it was nighttime, get your sleeping bag. I know that she was well intentioned, and I don’t think that she meant anything bad, but it ended up being painful. It was like the song that never ends. (Yes, it goes on and on my friends).
Some people just seem to think that the longer a prayer goes, the more impressive it sounds or the more likely it is to be answered. Like God’s going to eventually come along and realize, Oh, you’re praying, I guess it’s important because you sound like Shakespeare did 500 years ago. Or if you say “Just” for the 200th time it’s going to trick God into thinking that it’ll be easy to answer your prayer, so He’s more likely to say “yes.”
When it comes to prayers, simple is good. Short is fine. And even prewritten prayers can be prayed effectively, in faith.
The final mistake we make in prayer is when we…
- Stop praying.
1 Thessalonians 5:17 puts it simply: pray without ceasing,
Even Jesus makes a big deal of this in Luke 18 where He tells a parable about a woman who keeps bugging this pagan Judge until she finally gets what she wants. Jesus’ point in this story is that they ought always to pray and not lose heart.
Some of you have prayers you’ve been praying for weeks, months, years, even decades. Maybe you’re praying that your spouse will come to faith, or that your parents or children or grandchildren or great grandchildren be saved. Maybe you’re praying for change in a friend’s heart. I want to encourage you today…If you keep praying for people, it means you love them. If you keep praying for God to change something about yourself, you’re teachable. This parable tells us that God values persistence in prayer. So DON’T EVER STOP PRAYING.
We’re given the opportunity to pray in everything that we do. Even our thoughts can be a constant dialogue with God. One of the ways we learn this is from our liturgy. Even as we worship, we are steeped in prayer. We learn by doing it, by repeating the words and prayers of scripture and engraving them on our hearts and our minds. The best way to really learn about prayer in our worship is to focus not on the language of prayer as something to repeat, but on what’s being asked for. We need to ask ourselves, where is the focus of these prayers?
It’s not about the style, it’s about the substance. When we focus on the style, we end up praying bad prayers that sound spiritual. But when we ask God to open our hearts to pray in faith and we learn what we’re praying for, we open up a new world. We join in prayer with saints and angels throughout time and in eternity.
Within the flow of the Divine Service, there are numerous times when we pray:
Prayers in the Divine Service
- Confession (prayer for forgiveness for our sins)
- Kyrie (Right after confession/modeling praying with humility, praying for mercy for the world after mercy has been extended to us in the absolution)
- Collect of the Day (prayer relating to the theme of the day)
- Prayers before and after the Sermon (prayer that God’s preached Word would be effective and that it would mold our lives to God’s will.)
- Creed (type of prayer recognizing the true God and thanking Him for what He has done for us)
- Prayers of the Church (offered by the pastor, acknowledged by all in spoken response)
- Eucharistic Prayer (giving thanks for God’s gift to us of His body and blood which come to us along with the bread and wine)
- Lord’s Prayer (Jesus’ own words, teaching his disciples to pray)
- Post Communion Collect (give thanks for our Lord’s Body and Blood which we received, pray that it would strengthen us in our faith and in our deeds)
- Benediction (prayer for God’s blessings as we go on our way)
Our whole worship experience is filled with prayer, teaching us to pray and giving a voice to our heartfelt desires. In our Old Testament Reading from 1 Samuel 1, we read the story of Hannah and her prayers for a child. Hannah was taunted by her husband’s other wife because she couldn’t have a child. When she came to the temple to pray about this, her prayers are so persistent and so passionate that the High Priest accused her of being a drunk. Hannah regularly worshipped in the temple, and was no doubt informed by the liturgy used for worship in ancient Israel. She was persistent in her faith, and she continued to pray for a son until Eli blessed her and she was certain God would answer her prayer. Peter Leithart points out that “every prayer is like the prayer of Hannah: powerless creatures confessing their powerlessness by turning to the Lord and Giver of all life and all good.” In this way, Hannah gives us an example of how to pray. She prays to the true God, for God’s will, in faith that God would answer, in humility, not to be heard through her many words, but to be heard because of the persistence of her heart. That’s the way to pray. Let’s bow our heads for prayer.
Almighty God, You have promised to hear the prayers of those who ask in Your Son’s name. Grant to us our requests according to Your will, so that our needs may be met and we may bring glory to You and Your church; through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.