Causes of Unanswered Prayers

by William Bacon Stevens

"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

The question is often asked, "Why are not my prayers answered? And why, if granted, are the answers so often apparently contrary to my requests?" These are important queries, and to reply to them will be the object of this discourse.

Since God has declared himself to be a hearer of prayer it was requisite that he should institute the way by which we could have communion with him. The human mind, unaided, could never have invented a method of approaching the Most High, or been able to indicate on what terms God would hear and answer prayer. He must tell us the way, and he must designate the terms, in and through which he will be approached. And it follows that unless we know this way, or knowing it, unless we follow his instructions we can neither come to God aright, nor be received with favor.

The directions which God has given us on this subject are few but simple. We are to pray from our hearts, asking for those things which are agreeable to his will with faith, believing prompted in our supplications by the Holy Spirit, and offering them in and through the all-prevailing name of Jesus Christ. These plain terms must, in every respect, be complied with, or the prayer will be offered in vain.

It would be well if every Christian would carefully understand what prayer is, and keep before him the several elements of which it is composed; and then would he always possess a guide to acceptable devotion, as well as a test whereby he could try the nature of his petition; whether it is presented aright, or whether it be not offering to God the mere service of the lips, "while the heart is far from him."

To facilitate this, I shall state a few causes why our prayers so often fail of success.

Foremost among these, perhaps, is a lack of faith. There can be no acceptable prayer where there is no faith. For if we do not believe God's Word, and confide in his promises we not only dishonor him, but engender within ourselves that distrust which abstracts from prayer all its life and strength. All Christians, however, have a general kind of faith; they have a belief in God's word, and a sort of trust in all his promises; but when they descend to particular points, and are required to exercise faith in all positions and relations to believe every word of God, and confide in each of his promises, the smallest as well as the greatest then it is, that distrust and weakness of faith begin to manifest themselves.

There are a multitude of prayers offered to God, with something like this feeling: "Well, perhaps God will hear and answer; perhaps not. At any rate, I may as well pray; and if the answer comes, well; if not, I at least have done my duty." Now, such a feeling as this, though it is not positive infidelity, is so near to it as to be most offensive to God, and can only bring forth his severe displeasure. The faith that he demands of us is, that we should believe implicitly that he hears and will answer every prayer which is offered to him aright.

It is a great sin to present to God any petition other than that which he has directed, and in any other way than he has pointed out. But this being attended to, it is even a greater sin to offer it unaccompanied by the faith that can assure itself that God will hear, and will answer.

The matter of prayer is one thing, the manner of prayer is another. If the manner of presenting our prayer is right, and the matter wrong then, of course, will it miscarry. If the matter is right, and the manner wrong the prayer is likewise fruitless of good. James says, "Let a man ask in faith, without wavering: for he who wavers is like a wave of the sea driven with the wind and tossed. For let not that man think that he shall receive anything of the Lord." We should never offer a prayer that we do not wish answered; and, wishing it to be answered, we should implicitly believe that it will be heard and answered, if in accordance with the Divine will. Whenever you bow before the mercy-seat, you should ask yourself: Do I want this and this mercy? has God promised to grant it? And if you feel your need and acknowledge his promise, then pray with a certainty and an assurance of faith that wavers not any more than the solid rock, because your promise rests upon him in whom "is no variableness, neither shadow of turning."

In this lack of faith this semi-infidelity of the people of God this distrusting of God's care, or goodness, or power this unbelief in the full import of his promises this unwillingness to confide unwaveringly in his will and wisdom, and to take him at his word as a God of truth, ay be found one of the great reasons why our prayers are not heard and answered.

If one of our fellow men pledges us his word, or gives us, upon ample security, his promissory note we receive them with implicit confidence; and all that God requires of us is to give to his word and his promises, the same belief that we award to a mutable, fallible, and dying creature like ourselves. For how many prayers that now lie unanswered before the mercy-seat, would return, full freighted with blessings if we only believed in the truth of God as we trust in the veracity of men.

Another reason why our prayers are not answered is, that we evince a practical unbelief in God's ability to grant us our requests. I say, practical unbelief; for, in theory, all Christians believe in the omniscience and omnipotence of Jehovah. Yet, in practice, in the details of life, how few regard these doctrines! We are too much accustomed to measure God's ability by our ability; and, if a thing appears to us improbable or impossible, then do we immediately act as if these contingencies affected God as well as ourselves, and presented the same barriers to him as they do to us! Probabilities and possibilities respect ourselves only, and must ever govern us in our future plans and expectations; and human sagacity is tested by its ability to forecast these plans, so as to swing clear of all contingencies, and educe these expectations, unclogged by any countervailing hindrance.

But such ideas as these, should never gain a place in our minds when we come before God in prayer; for not only is it true, as Christ said, that "all things are possible to him that believes," but it is also true, as the Bible elsewhere declares, "with God nothing is impossible."

Whenever, then, we ask for anything in accordance with God's will, never stop to calculate the chances of his hearing, or speculate upon the difficulties that interpose to his granting our requests. If it is a proper request pray, and act in the full assurance that he will hear and answer, notwithstanding every apparent difficulty in the way of granting it. Only pray, and believe that God is what he is and all will be well. But if you regard him as a being less than infinite in his perfections and attributes, the strength of your prayers will be graduated by your view of his character, and, of course, will fall short of the Bible standard, and thus fail of being either heard or answered.

Another great hindrance to the success of prayer, arises from the indulgence of someone or more known sins. The Psalmist has distinctly declared, "If I regard iniquity in my heart the Lord will not hear me." To pray, and yet to commit willful sin, or still to pursue a course of secret or open iniquity, is not only mocking God with lip-service but is also acting with hypocrisy, professing one thing but doing another. A God of holiness cannot, consistently with his own character, listen to the prayer of a deliberate sinner. And accordingly he tells the wicked Israelites, through his prophet, "When you spread forth your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; and when you make many prayers, I will not hear." And, in another passage, we have the distinct assertion, "God hears not sinners" that is, those who continue in known transgression. For not only is such a life repugnant to the holiness of God, it also opposes every principle of piety in our own hearts; for where sin dwells there can be found neither faith, nor humility, nor obedience, nor love to God, nor a well-founded hope, nor heavenly desires, nor a righteous life; and if these exist not in the heart, vain are all the words of the lips.

A praying spirit and a sinning heart cannot dwell together; and when the life does not correspond to our devotions, then can we never expect answers of peace. Hence the necessity of carefully examining ourselves when we come before the Lord, that we may approach him with clean hands and pure hearts, knowing that the indulgence of any sin, however small and insignificant it may appear to us will assuredly expel from our souls the spirit of grace and supplication, and cut off all communion . . .
with the Holy Spirit, the Prompter of prayer;
with Jesus Christ, the Intercessor; and
with God, the Hearer of prayer.

Remissness in the performance of our Christian duty is also another reason why our prayers are not answered. Prayer is not the only duty which God has laid upon us; there are others equally obligatory, such as watchfulness, self-examination, reading of God's word, giving of alms, resisting temptation, fleeing from evil. And the performance of these is so interlocked with prayer, that prayer without them is as useless, for all purposes of growth in grace, as these are without prayer. We may, for example, beseech God to deliver us from evil, and to give us an increase of holiness; yet if we entertain evil thoughts in our minds, and make no efforts to grow in grace we cannot receive an answer of peace. In the moral, as in the physical world, God has established a connection between means and ends; and these ends only become ours, through the established means which lead to those ends. The means which God has ordained for our advancement in holiness are plainly declared to us in the Bible; and when we ask for deeper piety, for greater love, for increase of faith, and joy, and peace, and holiness the answer will come to us through the appointed channels of watchfulness, meditation, self-examination, the diligent performance of each duty, and the carefully weeding out from our hearts the tares and the brambles of sin, fit only for the burning.

Prayer does not beget for us a direct infusion into our hearts of the grace desired; and if, after praying for advancement in grace and knowledge and faith, we proceed to follow our own ways, and indulge in negligence, presumption, and worldliness of mind neither watching nor examining our hearts; neither reading nor meditating on God's word; neither striving against and fleeing from temptations our prayers, however proper in themselves, or however earnestly offered, or however correctly presented in the name of Jesus will not only be frustrated but cannot, in the nature of things, be answered, unless we expect God to set aside all the appointed means through which he answers prayer.

No ardency or frequency of prayer can excuse us from performing all the duties enjoined upon us as Christians; the neglect of these will breed neglect of prayer just as surely as the neglect of prayer will beget remissness in the performance of Christian duty.

Whenever we pray for blessings concerning which God has established a certain instrumentality, it is not enough that we pray but we must use the instrumentality also or the prayer will return empty. Suppose all the Christians in the world were to unite in lifting up their hearts to God for the conversion of the world, and yet not make one effort for its restoration to God would that be praying aright? And would there be much reason to believe that such prayers would be answered?

This tendency, in the minds of many to divorce prayer from all the instrumentalities which God has connected with its being answered, is one fruitful source of evil, and a cause why so many prayers are uttered in vain.

To illustrate this: suppose that you are threatened with shipwreck the storm rages fearfully the waves break over the ship the vessel is dashed upon the rocks, and is broken up every hope of escape seems gone, and in the extremity of your distress you cry unto God to save you from this threatened death! But how do you expect he will save you? By a miracle? by the direct interference of his omnipotence? by bearing you through the air, and landing you safely on the shore? Or, do you not rather look for an answer to your prayer by means of human agency, and by physical and natural instrumentality? By a life-boat by a cable fastened to the rock by the buoying up of some part of the wreck, until it is washed upon the beach. And suppose that, having prayed to God for support, you yet refuse to use the instrumentality which, in answer to your prayer, he has furnished for your safety. You decline to get into the life-boat, or object to being drawn ashore by a rope, or will not commit yourself to some means provided for your escape can you be saved?

God answered your prayer; not only giving you, instantaneously, the end desired but by giving you means adequate to secure that end; and if you refused the means then you could not expect the end. Just so with spiritual blessings. God answers us through the instrumentality of duties; and we find the end we desire, when we use the means he has enjoined.

Another reason why our prayers are not answered is, because we do not persevere in prayer. We learn the necessity of perseverance in prayer, from the various exhortations to it which we find in God's word; but especially from two parables related by our Savior: "The Friend at Midnight," recorded in the eleventh chapter of Luke, and "The Unjust Judge," in the seventeenth chapter of the same Gospel; and each of them illustrates important points connected with this subject.

The parable of "The Friend at Midnight" was spoken immediately after teaching his disciples what is now called the "Lord's Prayer;" at the conclusion of which he said: "And I say unto you, ask and it shall be given you; seek and you shall find; knock and it shall be opened unto you."

The three repetitions of the command are more than mere repetitions; since to seek, is more than ask; to knock, more than seek; and thus, in this ascending scale of earnestness, illustrated as it is by the effect which, in the parable, is ascribed to human importunity, an exhortation is given not merely to prayer but to increasing urgency in prayer; even until the suppliant carries away the blessing which he desires, and which God is only waiting for the due time to arrive, to give him.

By the parable of "The Unjust Judge," Christ designed to have men reason thus: if a human judge, an unjust judge, a reprobate judge, fearing neither God nor man, will relieve the cause of a widow, simply because she wearies him with her importunity then shall not God, who knows our needs a just God, who has commanded us to pray answer the very petitions he has enjoined? And though he delays answering for awhile, is it not that he may make the answer more gracious more liberal more esteemed?

If we then faint in prayer, or offer unto God our petitions in a fitful manner, having neither perseverance nor importunity can we expect that he will answer? Does it not show that we do not really desire the blessing craved? for did we long for it as the friend at midnight did for loaves, or the widow for redress from the unjust judge we would not so soon give over praying but would redouble our earnestness, knowing that "the kingdom of Heaven suffers violence, and that the violent take it by force."

One other way in which we ask and receive not, because we ask amiss, is by asking things which do not accord with God's purposes of discipline or mercy. We must not forget the great truth, that God uses this world as a school of discipline, to fit us for a holier state above; and all his purposes towards us must be interpreted by this view of our earthly pupilage. In this state of discipline, trials, afflictions, disappointments, blastings, etc. are the necessary instruments whereby our souls are purged and fitted for Heaven. Yet we often pray that God would relieve us from this trial; that he would exempt us from this threatened affliction; that he would drive from us this cloud of sorrow. But, in his infinite wisdom, he knows that to grant these requests would be productive of evil rather than good; as it is "in the furnace of affliction" that God often chooses his saints; and "through much tribulation that they enter into the kingdom of Heaven."

Paul "besought the Lord thrice" that he would remove from him "the thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet him;" but God only replied, "My grace is sufficient for you."

Or, again, looking at the world with the eye of sense, rather than of faith we ask God to give us temporal blessings, such as seem, to our short-sighted view, consistent with our welfare and his glory. But he knows our need better than we do, and he sees that were he to grant our request, it would be the means of sending leanness into our souls. He knows that the existence of our piety depends on not answering our requests, and that our souls' welfare requires, perhaps, things the very opposite of those for which we pray.

If God really loves us, he will answer us not so much according to our requests, as according to his purposes of mercy. And to accomplish these will require him, at times, to do the very things which we most earnestly desire him not to do; for his ways are not our ways, neither are his thoughts our thoughts.

If we ask that we may be humble, God does not give us directly the grace of humility but opens, perhaps, to our hearts a view of the deep depravity and vileness of our souls.

If we seek for nearer access and communion with God he takes away from us some earthly idol, that the affections may be transferred to him.

If we desire enlarged views of God's character he does not at once, by some sudden work, enlarge the boundaries of our mind, or give new power to our intellect; but he teaches us what we wish to learn by his providences, fearful and alarming, perhaps, in their manifestations yet illustrative of his glory and attributes.

If we desire weanedness from the world he strikes from under us, perhaps, the earthly props in which we trust, and in which we place our hope.

If we plead for growth in grace he answers, perhaps, by causing us to pass through the brick-kilns of oppression, or the fires of affliction.

And when we pray, Lord, increase our faith how often does the answer come in the shape of some trial, or bereavement, or vicissitude, which, showing us the vanity of earth, causes us to look with increasing confidence to God, and to place a more enduring trust in the promises of the most high.

Thus it is, that while our prayers are answered they are not always answered in the way we either expect or desire. It is our duty to pray and we must leave it to God to answer us when and how he will. No prayer offered to him in faith, and in accordance with his will, is lost; they are all treasured up before the Lamb, in those "golden vials" spoken of in the Apocalypse their incense shall yet ascend in precious fragrances before the throne their cry shall yet be answered; and all those who have offered petitions unto the Intercessor, shall yet lift up their thankful hearts, and say with David, "Blessed be the Lord, because he has heard the voice of my supplications. The Lord is my strength and my shield, my heart trusted in him and I am helped; therefore my heart greatly rejoices, and with my song will I praise him!"