Hindrances To Prayer
Paul commended Epaphras whom he described as "always laboring fervently for you in prayers" (Col 4:12). The Greek word for "fervently" is the one from which the English word "agony" is derived.
Impatience is another hindrance we must overcome to produce a prayer life fitting to God. Patience is a virtue praised by many, possessed by few, and sought only occasionally. God teaches us to "wait patiently for him" (Psalms 37:7). James says that "the trying of your faith worketh patience" and the word patience can be translated to endurance. Most of us, most of the time insist that God should act right now. We ask; now the ball is in his court, and we are waiting. The person who prays must follow the example of the farmer who sows.
Hypocrisy in prayer may be hidden from the eyes of man, but not from God. It can, therefore, be a real hindrance to prayer. Jesus drew attention to those who "love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men" (Matt 6:5). Their purpose was not to talk to God but to impress man as if they were able to talk to God in some acceptable manner. The answer to this, if you have that problem, Jesus said, was to go into your secret chamber with its closed door. Another type of hypocrisy in praying is the type of prayer that attempts to put God on the spot. Now I have made this request before all these people and you will look like a fool if you do not answer now. The response to this problem, the scripture teaches, is to learn to pray that "not my will but Thy will be done".
Another hindrance is the lack of perseverance in prayer. It is the absence of this attitude that keeps us from praying successfully sometimes. Christ taught two parables that we have recorded in which He stressed importunity. He told of a man that knocked and continued to knock at his friend's door until he received bread (Luke 11:5-10). In the parable of the unjust judge, the widow worried him until she obtained justice. This confirms the teaching of Jesus "that men ought always to pray, and not to faint" (Luke 18:108). By our insistence, we demonstrate our sincerity and earnestness.
Another hindrance to our prayers can very well be our relationship in our home. Peter taught under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit (1 Peter 3:7); "Likewise, ye husbands, dwell with them according to knowledge, giving honor unto the wife, as unto the weaker vessel, and as being heirs together of the grace of life; that your prayers be not hindered". We cannot pray in the Spirit if grieved and quenched by disharmony in the home. "That if two of you shall agree on earth as touching anything that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven" (Matt 18:19).
Can you see then where circumstances can also be a hindrance to our praying? When you permit your circumstances to become an external hindrance, you fail in any kind of successful petition. Faith finds its backing more in the way we read the circumstances than in the power of God. We may question whether something is the will of God, but there can never be a question whether something is beyond the power of God. God can answer any prayer or all prayers; the magnitude of the request is immaterial.
I believe that ignorance is no doubt the greatest hindrance to prayer which we experience in our prayer life. Discouragement overtakes us because of ignorance in praying and we lose heart. We come to believe that God no longer hears our prayers. We believe this because we are ignorant as to how God works. The truth is that what is clearly not the will of God is not possible. We have been known to pray that when we get to the mail box the check will be in it. The mail has already run and what is there is all there is. That is like the teenager praying all the way to the doctor's office that she will not be pregnant, but she should have been praying , long before her sexual encounter, for strength of overcome temptation. Have you prayed that the doctor will have a good report from the x-ray or the EKG when it has already been done, and what is, is the answer. Perhaps more frequently than we care to admit we think naively that God will do what He has never promised to do. Ignorance can make a great contribution to such thinking.
Rebelliousness or self will can also hinder prayer. I want what I want when I want it. This is best seen when the spirit of man rejects authority. God cannot use a man that will not submit to His will. Whatever the reason for it may be, rebelliousness evidences a defect in one's relationship with God, and it is certain to create a stumbling block to effective prayer.
Lack of work is sure to become a hindrance to prayer. We cannot ask God to do for us what He has ordained that we are to do for ourselves. D.L. Moody says "Pray as though you had never worked and work as though you had never prayed". Isaiah put it this way, "Awake, awake, put on strength, O arm of the Lord". (Isaiah 51:9). God replies to this cry for help by saying "Awake, awake; put on thy strength O Zion .. Shake thyself from the dusts...." Isaiah 52:1,2). If I am out of work, I should pray, but that cannot replace my going out and looking for a job. If I want to write a book, I can pray and should ask God's help, but that will not replace my study, research, writing and rewriting the chapters as I want them to become a part of the book.
When a nation is at war, the sentry who falls asleep on duty is court-martialed. He is there to remain alert and awake. Failure to watch, to be alert and sensitive to that around us can be another hindrance to prayer. Peter did not understand the prophesy of the Lord at the first celebration of the Lord's supper when He said the sheep would be scattered when the Shepherd had been smitten (Mk 14:27). Peter was quick to respond with a great sense of genuine commitment. "If I should die with Thee, I will not deny Thee in any wise" (Mk 14:31). Later that night Jesus took Peter, James and John deep into the darkness of Gethsemane's Garden. He did not ask them to die with Him or for Him. He only asked them to watch and pray with Him in those moments of agony. And they fell asleep. The failure to watch leads to the failure to pray. Why did the disciples of Jesus not watch with Him in that dark hour? Why did they fail?
"First, because their will power gave way in the crisis. They had not counted on so long or so hard a road. There were reproaches and hazards of which they had never dreamed in those evenings by the Sea of Galilee, when the sun was all a glory of red and yellow over the Judean hills. Although will power is not a strong as subtle instinctive forces within us, nevertheless there are times when only iron restraint can save us. General Gordon, who met his death in the Sudan beneath the spears of the Mahdi, was once led to a room full of treasure and told by high Chinese officials that this treasure would be his if he would countenance certain dishonorable practices. Iron will, developed in desert marches, in fighting disease, and in upholding the Empire's honor in three continents, came forward to save him and gave him power to refuse. There are unexpected tests, crises for which no one is prepared, temptations for which no one has developed a specific defense; and, when the rush of circumstances is upon one, all one can do is to fall back in determination upon a former dedication and pray for strength to hold fast.
"Again, they failed Him because they were unable to share His dreams. There was no set to their minds to carry them onward in the midst of the gathering storm, and they slumbered and slept, insensitive to the immense significance of the night in the life of Jesus. They did not realize that for the sake of His dream of a new era in human existence Jesus committed His all, and God's all, to a farcical trial and a savage crucifixion as the utmost which love could do in redeeming men. The sheer unthinking dullness and the inability of His friends to use their imagination hurt Jesus more than all else. It was a time for great friendship, and Jesus received vacillating indifference .... But His disciples did not lose the battle that night; they had lost it long before. Their action on the fatal evening had been prepared for in previous weeks. What we think today we shall do tomorrow; what we are at twenty we are apt to be at forty, only more so. Weeks of spiritual slackness, even if in the presence of Christ, had made easy their action on Jesus' night of agony ....
"Not only did their wills and their dreams give out, but also their belief. They had lost faith in themselves and left Jesus alone without their presence. .... But on this ghastly night these men, who could have meant so much by their mere companionship, had no confidence in themselves. They had lost sight of what they had to offer of friendship in His hour of tribulation". *
*The Speakers Bible", Mark, Vol. II, James Hastings, pp. 129, 130.
Among the hindrances of prayer to list is also unconfessed sins. Unconfessed sin is like water poured on a fire. It quenches spirituality. David said, "If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me" (Psalms 66:18). John taught (1 John 5:15), "And if we know that He hears us, whatsoever we ask, we know that we have the petitions that we desired of Him". If God then does not hear us, He will, of course, not answer. Isiah says "But your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid his face from you, that He will not hear" (Isa 59:2). "Therefore it is come to pass, that as he cried, and they would not hear; so they cried, and I would not hear, saith the Lord of hosts" (Zech 7:13).
Unconfessed sin to God is more than just a sin and a handicap to effective prayer; it is a dam which blocks the petitions until the obstruction which produced the dam is removed. "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:9). "Seek ye the Lord while He may be found, call ye upon Him while He is near: Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return unto the Lord, and He will have mercy upon him; and to our God for He will abundantly pardon" (Isa 55:6,7). When our prayers do not seem to be getting through, the first thing we should ask is - are there unconfessed sins in the way? If He hears and answers prayers despite our unconfessed sins, then why shouldn't He do as much for the unregenerate despite their sins?
Another hindrance to overcome is praying with a lack of faith. James speaks of the "prayer of faith" James 5:12), Paul about the gift of faith (1 Cor 12:9). The simple act of prayer is in itself a sign of faith. We can, however, pray with doubt in our heart instead of faith. One of the big works of Satan is to work havoc with our faith and so undo the work of Christ. He calls into question the veracity of God. He seeks to plant doubt and despair in our hearts. He magnifies unfavorable circumstances beyond their true proportions. We who are God's people can resist these attacks and continue in faith despite them. Keep the faith and move forward even in your prayer life is good sound advice.
Wrong motives can hamper a prayer as nothing else can. We should all know by now that attitude can make all the difference in so many things. Prayer is no exception. James suggests that we sometimes ask for things so that we may consume them upon our lusts (James 4:3). This is our carnal nature operating, seeking those things which cater to the flesh. God denies us these petitions because we ask amiss.
Some one has said, "There is the reason a person gives you for their action, and then there is the real reason". Whoever gives the wrong reason as an explanation for his action has either deceived himself or he is dishonest. The wrong motivation can cause this dishonesty, deception being the end result. Ira North used to say, "There is no need to get into a puking contest with a buzzard because it is his nature to win in such a contest". Same is true in trying to find out what the motivation was in the action of a critic. You can never know his reasons from his heart if he is unwilling to reveal them.
Cold formality may very well be a hindrance to prayer that we overlook because we have been taught such formality all our lives. The preacher reads the prayers others wrote hundreds of years ago. These neither move us nor do they move God. That is not to say there cannot be some meaning in it for the person reading it or being read to. The point is that mere lip service does not improve our prayer performance. What kills our prayers for one thing is the use of words without the heart. Jesus said, "But when you pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think they will be heard for their much speaking" (Matt 6:7). John Bunyan said that "In prayer it is better to have a heart without words, than words without a heart". Our prayers should never be just words or cold formality, but a living, vital, dynamic reality combining words and heart. God no where indicates that He is much concerned with our much speaking, our excellent prose or poetry. He looks upon the heart.
An unforgiving spirit is also a hindrance that works like a termite. Such a spirit harbors enmity against another for real or fancied wrongs. If we cannot forgive, we are told we cannot be forgiven (Matt 6:15). Christ commanded us to be reconciled to our brother before we bring our gifts to the altar. The estrangement must be overcome that would otherwise block our prayers. The idea of forgiving not seven times but seventy times seven just about wraps it up as to how God feels about a stubborn heart of unforgiveness.
Let me list only a few more general hindrances with which most of us are very well acquainted. The lack of concentration or engaged in wool-gathering as we pray can be a real problem. Emotionally distraught with mind and heart in turmoil often makes it impossible for us to take a part in public praying. Being tired, sleepy, or hungry may very well be the cause for lack of desire to lead prayer in public worship. The failure to exercise personal discipline in relationships with others can very well take its toll on one who otherwise is expected to be ready all the time for active duty in the worship service.
Never assume that we are victims of circumstances that cannot be changed. The love, mercy, and grace of God is much greater than our handicaps. However strong the shackles are that bind us, they are not unbreakable. They will yield to human persistence if accompanied by divine enablement. If they are not conquered, we remain defeated in the life of the spirit. God grant us wisdom to overcome.