Impediments to Prayer
After a traumatic experience in our family, I wanted nothing more than to move. I didn’t want to live in the fishbowl of my little town in the Sierra Valley. I didn’t want people whispering “She’s the . . .” I just wanted to move on.
So, I immediately started looking for a teaching job near my family in the Sacramento area, 150 miles away. And I prayed something would come through so my family and I could leave Dodge. I was pretty confident. I was a strong Advanced Placement English teacher who had gotten good test results with my students–much higher than national averages.
But I didn’t get a job–and only got one interview. God said no.
God also said no when my family prayed my dad would be healed of ALS.
And God said no when we prayed my sister would be healed of cancer.
Why does God say no? The larger question we may have is “Why does God allow suffering?” Two excellent books that help the reader with this struggle are When God Weeps: Why Our Sufferings Matter to the Almighty by Joni Eareckson Tada (Zondervan, 1997) and Disappointment with God: Three Questions No One Asks Aloud by Philip Yancey (Harper, 1988).
However, the answer may lie with me. Charles Spurgeon wrote, “First, there is such a thing as being hindered from prayer: and that may be done by falling into a generally lax, lukewarm condition in reference to the things of God. When a man becomes cold, indifferent, and careless, one of the first things that will suffer will be his devotion. When a sick man is in a decline his lungs suffer and his voice; and so when a Christian is in a spiritual decline the breath of prayer is affected, and the cry of supplication becomes weak. Prayer is the true gauge of spiritual power.”
An attitude or behavior of my own may actually be an impediment or hindrance for my prayers. God in his mercy and grace may choose to grant my petition despite myself. But just as a child with a bad attitude and overdue homework may need to take care of business before his parent says he can hang out with friends, I may need to see if I need to examine my heart and get myself right with God again.
Here are 12 reasons our prayers may be hindered:
1. Unconfessed Sin. When we harbor unconfessed sin in our hearts and minds, it can separate us from God so that he might not hear our prayers. Isaiah 59:2 says, “But your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you so that he will not hear” (NIV). We might be harboring something like anger or jealousy that can serve as a block to prayer.
2. A Trust in Our Own Strength. This was my problem in the job-seeking scenario. I was so sure that I would be an asset to any school, that some administrator would snap me up. Galatians 3:3 says, “Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?” (NIV). I had forged ahead to do my own thing, rather than waiting on God for his direction. I sometimes take pride in my problem-solving abilities and rush into quick decisions.
3. Selfish Motives. If we only have our own desires in mind as we pray, our prayers might be on a long pause. Galatians 5:17 says, “For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature.” We want what we want, but there may be a bigger picture that God has in mind–something for the greater good of a greater number of people.
4. Distractions. We have many stimuli in our lives–our devices with email and social media and texts calling our names continually. Psalm 86:11 says, Teach me your way, O Lord, and I will walk in your truth; give me an undivided heart, that I may fear your name.” God wants our undivided attention and may wait until we are focused on him and his will.
5. Impatience. We may simply be unwilling to give God time. An unwillingness to wait may be a prayer hindrance. Isaiah 49:8 says, “In the time of my [emphasis added] favor I will answer you.” God is sovereign; he knows just the right timing not only for me but for others involved.
6. Lack of Openness. Often I go to God with an agenda. “Okay, Lord, the teenagers at school are driving me nuts. I need to retire, and I need that to happen this next spring. So make a miracle and pay off my debts and send a few book contracts my way, so I can actually pay the bills in retirement.” Do your prayers sound like that? Jeremiah 5:21 says, “Hear this, you foolish and senseless people, who have eyes but do not see, who have ears but do not hear.” God may have a different plan, but I’ve become so convinced my way is best that I do not see what he may be doing.
7. Distorted View of God. I think it’s important to ask ourselves, “Who is God to me? The Omniscient Creator or a sugar daddy/fairy godfather figure?” God told Job, “Who then is able to stand against me? Who has a claim against me that I must repay? Everything under heaven belongs to me” (Job 41:10-11). God has a bigger plan than the confines of our individual lives and imaginations. We may not be hearing from him, because he wants us to see him as the great I AM, not just a godfather in the sky granting whatever we want.
8. Lack of Praise and Thankfulness. Our prayers might not be heard if we’ve grown unthankful in our spirits. Here’s an analogy. A grandma sent a birthday card with twenty dollars to all her grandchildren every year. Some wrote their cute little thank-you notes, while others just cashed the check. Finally, she decided to only send money to those who apparently appreciated the gift and the giver. When Jesus prayed for the resurrection of his friend Lazarus, it was the strangest prayer: “Father, I thank you that you have heard me” (Luke 11:41). Jesus, the Word of God, prayed in a spirit of expectant thankfulness–a great reminder to us to express thanksgiving for everything that we have.
9. Lack of Creativity. We often do not think outside the limitations of our human box. As we go to God in prayer, we should be praying beyond our human reach. Not simply, for example, that God would give us the job that we meet the qualifications for–but an impossible job that stretches us and shows the world that God can do the impossible. Matthew 19:26 is a life verse that I have learned through studies and practices of prayer: “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” We can expect God to surprise us with his answers–not because we deserve it or because he is a sugar daddy, but just because he can.
10. Lack of Faith. I had a personal trainer once. She came to my house to lead me through a series of strengthening exercises, but I really didn’t follow her directions for working out during the week, because I was convinced she couldn’t help me. Well, she couldn’t–because of my lack of faith in her. Jesus was grieved because of the disciples’ lack of faith that blocked a healing they had attempted. He said, “How long shall I stay with you?” (Mark 9:19) and then in verse 23: “Everything is possible for him who believes.” Jesus clearly taught that our faith in his lordship is connected to his response to our requests.
11. Unwillingness to Take Risks or Look Foolish. Our hearing from God just might require our being willing to take a risk or to look a little foolish for the sake of the faith. Years ago I was scared silly about traveling to Africa for my son’s wedding. I was kind of hoping God would say no when I prayed about it. Instead he directed me to get healthy and to hold onto the word courage for the entire year. I immediately stepped out in faith by getting my passport, then saw it as a promise that God would take care of me. What an amazing experience that was on two of the Cape Verde islands that summer! Taking risks for God will always reap benefits beyond our expectations.
12. Issues of Forgiveness. This is a biggie. Christ taught that forgiveness is key when approaching the throne of God. Jesus said, “Therefore, if you are offering your gift and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother, then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23-24). And then he said in Matthew 6:12, “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” This sentence from the Lord’s Prayer implies that we have forgiven others when we ask forgiveness for ourselves. It is our responsibility to ask forgiveness, as well as to give forgiveness–even when it’s not sought.
I did hear from God about that possible move from our little town. He said no. And I learned to trust him for not only my livelihood, family, home and more but also my reputation. My personal block was my own lack of openness to anything beyond what I was picturing for my life. And oh, what a good life it has been since then. I am writing this from my second story office that looks out onto the beautiful snow-capped mountains that surround the Sierra Valley, the largest alpine valley in North America. And I’m glad I’ve stayed put . . . right where God wants me.
Janet McHenry is a national speaker and the author of 24 books–six on prayer, including the bestselling PrayerWalk and her newest, The Complete Guide to the Prayers of Jesus. She would love to connect with you on social media or through her website: https://www.janetmchenry.com.
NOTE: All scripture references from the NIV.