Great Themes of the Bible (#16-Hindrances to Prayer)

"You want something but don't get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight. You do not have, because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures."

Do you think of yourself as a worldly person? I fear I am. I confess it to you with embarrassment. And I ask you to be God's agents in helping me deal with this ever- present temptation in my life.

Now before you leave with a totally wrong impression and the rumor begins circulating that Rubel confessed to a secret life of carousing, drunkenness, and immorality, let me both deny that emphatically and give you a correct definition of the adjective "worldly." The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language says the fundamental meaning of the term is this: "1. Of, pertaining to, or devoted to the temporal world; not spiritual or religious; secular."

With genuine regret and sorrow, I confess that I too often read the circumstances of my life and make important decisions with too much of this world and too little of that world in view, with too much dictated to me by my immediate culture and too little defined by my Christian commitments. Do you ever have that problem? Do you think it could invalidate or weaken your prayers?

Contradictory World-Views

The Book of James is my favorite New Testament epistle. Every line in it is practical counsel I need to hear over and over. The difficulty of James is not comprehension as perhaps with Revelation, Hebrews, or Romans but application. And one of the most significant parts of James for me is found at the end of the third chapter.

Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show it by his good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such "wisdom" does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, of the devil. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.

But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness (James 3:13-18).
Two very different kinds of wisdom perhaps we would say two very different world- views offer themselves to us every day. One is ordained and championed by the world that is still alienated from God; it promotes success defined in terms of money and power, beauty demonstrated as sex appeal, and self-interest displayed as the willingness to do anything necessary to get what it wants. The other comes from heaven to those who will receive it; it is more interested in purity than pleasure, puts peace above ambition, and is willing to forfeit its rights and turn the other cheek than push for having its way.

When I confessed my vulnerability to worldliness, it was this biblical definition I had in mind. I am human enough to be tempted to judge our success as a church by numbers, nickels, and nails; we are "successful" when we are single-minded about obeying and honoring our Lord Jesus Christ. I am sinful enough to be tempted to want you to like my sermon better than John's or our sermons rather than Randy's music; I am more spiritual when I can be pleased that someone else can do what I cannot.

What about the larger arena of our lives at school, at work, and in our families? Is it more important to be "cool" or to be holy, to be popular or to be righteous? Is it more important to make money or to do what's right, to get ahead or to treat people fairly and with respect? Is it more important to make the right friends or to be the right kind of friend, to give your children everything they want or to give them what they really need? These choices sound overblown and crazy to many people. Anyone who takes God seriously in this culture knows that they represent very basic choices between competing world-views.

Christians are subversive to the world's cultural ideals. The prevailing norms in music and entertainment, personal and corporate morality, or family and social ideals run counter to the interests of the kingdom of God. Thus it follows that the only way for Christians to live is in deliberate opposition to the world-view that James labels "earthly, unspiritual, of the devil." If that language sounds too harsh to my ears, it is only because I am too influenced by the world. If it shocks me, it may be that I have compromised heavenly values for the sake of worldly conquests.

Deliverance Through Prayer

The single best way to stay focused on heavenly wisdom rather than to be deceived by this world is prayer. James has already affirmed as much back in the opening lines of his epistle: "If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him" (Jas. 1:5). Which type of wisdom do you think God would give in response to prayer?

The fact remains, though, that many of us aren't as prayerful as we should be. And we blame it on God! We say we don't pray because our prayers don't do anything. God doesn't hear us and give us the things we've asked for. If our prayers aren't getting us anywhere, there's just no point to praying.

I'm forced to be a bit suspicious of this all-too-common defense of prayerlessness among Christians. Billy Graham once wrote: "Heaven is full of answers to prayers for which no one ever bothered to ask." Ouch! Could it really be true? When we do pray, are we praying for the wrong things or with a wrong spirit? Could it be the case that we are even worldly in our prayers praying for things that would vindicate us within a system that is fundamentally hostile to God rather than praying within the divine world- view for things he would never refuse to grant? My own (spiritual) sense of the matter is that God will always give one of his children what he or she requests within his will or something far better than we even thought to request.

The reason I am so confident in saying this is that it is nothing more than a paraphrase of what James, the half-brother of the Lord Jesus Christ, says in today's larger text. In verses that we prefer to be a commentary on international politics than as it actually is! a commentary on Christian character in church, family, business, and personal life, here is what he wrote:

Where do you think all these appalling [church, RS] wars and [family, RS] quarrels come from? Do you think they just happen? Think again. They come about because you want your own way, and fight for it deep inside yourselves. You lust for what you don't have and are willing to kill to get it. You want what isn't yours and will risk violence to get your hands on it.

You wouldn't think of just asking God for it, would you? And why not? Because you know you'd be asking for what you have no right to. You're spoiled children, each wanting your own way.

You're cheating on God. If all you want is your own way, flirting with the world every chance you get, you end up enemies of God and his way. And do you suppose God doesn't care? The proverb has it that "he's a fiercely jealous lover." And what he gives in love is far better than anything else you'll find. It's common knowledge that "God goes against the willful proud; God gives grace to the willing humble."

So let God work his will in you. Yell a loud no to the Devil and watch him scamper. Say a quiet yes to God and he'll be there in no time. Quit dabbling in sin. Purify your inner life. Quit playing the field. Hit bottom, and cry your eyes out. The fun and games are over. Get serious, really serious. Get down on your knees before the Master; it's the only way you'll get on your feet (James 4:1-10, The Message).
You may have as much of God's heart, favor, and blessing as you are willing to receive in this life. Christ has opened the way to his treasure-chamber by his own blood, and he invites us to take all we want. When we pray in his name, we are assured that we will be heard and answered. Yet our spiritual poverty is often comparable to that of a man who has been invited into the vaults of Fort Knox and given permission to carry out as much bullion from our nation's gold reserves as he needs. He would not be a thief to fill his hands, his pockets, a bag. He has been invited inside and given carte blanche to everything in the vault. So whose fault will it be if he walks out empty- handed or having picked up only a gum wrapper and cigarette butt somebody dropped on the vault floor?

In the same way, it is nobody's fault but mine if I live in spiritual poverty. If I choose to use (actually waste) my prayers asking for a successful career, huge amounts of money, fabulous notoriety, and good health, I'm asking for gum wrappers and cigarette butts when I could be asking for and getting valuable things. Even to say such a thing shocks and offends us, for we think so much like the world. Those are the valuable things. Aren't they? What does Scripture say? Can you think of a single line in the Word of God that would support such a claim?

The Trauma of Unanswered Prayers

When someone thinks he is being neglected or overlooked, worldly wisdom tells him to invest his prayers in asking for a promotion, a raise, or a wife who will appreciate him. When someone fears that age or diminished beauty will let life pass her by, worldly wisdom tells her to act like a girl again and to prove she can still turn heads. When someone has been living above his means and saddled himself with unmanageable debts, worldly wisdom instructs him to pray for a lightning strike at the casino or to land a big account for the sake of the bonus it would bring. When someone is seriously ill, worldly wisdom tells her to pray to be healed and spared from suffering and death.

Heavenly wisdom might lead the overlooked soul to pray for an unselfish spirit and to be pleased with the certainty of God's love in Christ. Heavenly wisdom would move the aging beauty queen to care less about her figure and to pray for the "unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God's sight" (1 Pet. 3:4). Heavenly wisdom might cause the saddled-with-debt soul to simplify life, refocus priorities, and pray henceforth to be kept "free from the love and money and be content with what you have" (Heb. 13:5a). Heavenly wisdom will cause the sick woman to pray for faith, courage, and dignity in the midst of her ordeal.

Don't misunderstand. Don't miss my point. Please don't misrepresent my meaning. Of course we may pray for the distressing aspects of this temporal life, but we must neither center nor exhaust our visits to heaven's treasure vault on such things. Otherwise, like the Prodigal Son, we have taken our access to the Father's wealth and squandered its power. It is only people "of corrupt mind," maintains Spirit-guided Paul, "who think that godliness is a means to financial gain" (1 Tim. 6:5) or perpetual health, youth, or press coverage.

At the end of his epistle, James will say that the prayer of a righteous person is "powerful and effective" both for the seeking of forgiveness at God's throne and for weather conditions! (Jas. 5:16-17). But which is more important: pardon for sin or compliant weather? And what made Elijah's prayers about withholding and sending rain effective: righteous submission in seeking God's will or selfish concern to have a bumper crop and pay off his note at the bank?

Our Primary Hindrance

Most of the sermons I have heard and preached on unanswered prayer haven't been terribly helpful. They tended to focus on hidden or unconfessed sin. They have sometimes exhorted that more time or attention be given to form in prayer. I have even gotten the idea from a few lessons I've heard that "fervency of spirit" understood as loud and exuberant praying was somehow the key to power in prayer.

But I've come to believe that the primary hindrance to prayer is the confusion of world- views. Prayer is not a means for manipulating God to my ends. Prayer is not my free pass that exempts me from problems. Prayer is not the means to my end of selfish ambition even if that selfish ambition is masked under appropriate religious language. Yes, I pray from the world of my temporal experience and limited understanding. But I am aware of praying to the God of Heaven and Earth whose promise to hear my prayers takes into account more things than I will ever know. And I must trust him to do what he has promised to hear, to answer, to do more than I would even know to request.

Jesus is our perfect example again on this point. As Philip Yancey put it: "When Jesus prayed to the one who could save him from death, he did not get that salvation; he got instead the salvation of the world."

Pray. Pray by the guidance of heavenly wisdom rather than earthly wisdom. And pray with the assurance that God's failure to respond to your prayers is only apparent rather than real, for even when you don't have answers you still have him.


Many a young mother and father have had to break a young child's habit of sleeping in their room or in their bed. They try to make it as painless as possible. They pick a night when things have been pleasant and end it with a favorite bedtime story. Then they take her to her own bed in her own room, say her prayers with her, and give her a goodnight kiss. With everything safe and secure, they turn out the light and go to their own room.

The little girl cries, and the crying turns to pitiful sobbing. She calls for her Mommy. And the mother and father are standing just outside the room shedding their own tears and fearing that their baby thinks they no longer hear her or love her. Their hearts are aching for her, and the easy thing for them to do is to rush in and take her back to the big bed in their room.

As much as Daddy would like to stop his child's tears, he knows he must not do so that night and perhaps for several agonizing nights yet to come. He restrains himself for his baby's sake. She must learn to sleep in her own bed. She must begin to grow up emotionally. She must take one of the early steps to becoming an adult herself someday.

We may rest assured that God hears all our prayers. He is sympathetic and compassionate. His own heart aches beyond our ability to fathom. Yet he may appear to withdraw himself from us so that we might begin to grow up spiritually by altering our world-view and beginning to see that the things that tend to concern us most are dictated by an earthly wisdom that must be shed for heaven's sake.

God's failure to answer all your questions, desires, and prayers is not his slamming the door of heaven in your face. You may not have all the desires of your heart as yet, but you do still have him. And he is always enough. More than enough.


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