When Prayer Doesn't Work
I heard about a couple who bought a parakeet, and the only words the parakeet could say were "Let's kiss." A preacher had a parakeet, heard about the other one, and suggested that the couple cage their parakeet with his. Now, the only words that the preacher's parakeet could say were "Let's pray." So they put the birds together and, on cue, the couple's bird said, "Let's kiss." And the preacher's bird said, "Praise God, my prayers have been answered!"
We all know what it's like to have answers to our prayers, right? Yet there are other times when it seems like prayer doesn't work, like heaven is silent. In Isaiah 1, we read, "'To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices to Me?' says the LORD. 'I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed cattle.... When you spread out your hands, I will hide My eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not hear. Your hands are full of blood'" (vv. 11, 15).
There are three specific barriers, three hindrances to prayer that I want to look at today. First of all, there's the barrier of unconfessed sin. Listen to what David said: "If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear" (Psalm 66:18). God does not demand that we are sinless before He answers prayer, but deliberately sinning against Him and not confessing that sin by repentance breaks fellowship with Him. I know a lot of Christians say, "Ask and you shall receive, seek and you will find—I claim that promise." But if you're living a life of disobedience and unrepentance, it won't work.
Secondly, prayer doesn't work when there is unforgiveness in your heart. Back in Isaiah 1:17, there's a series of commands: "Learn to do good; seek justice, rebuke the oppressor; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow." In those days, it was really a dog-eat-dog atmosphere in Israel; there was unforgiveness in their hearts, and it was a problem.
Forgiveness is not an elective for the Christian; it's a required subject. To not forgive is to be a hypocrite, because God forgave you something you could never pay. To refuse to forgive also hurts you; the malice and grief that you build up can destroy you and hinder your communication with God. Jesus said, "If you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses" (Matthew 6:14-15). Search your heart and thought life, and put away evil thinking, those simmering thoughts you may have toward another person.
The third barrier is selfishness in our prayers. Notice the end of Isaiah 1:17, where God said, "Plead for the widow." The children of Israel were only pleading for themselves. Often when we pray, we are guilty of putting first things last and last things first. James 4:3 says, "You ask and do not receive, because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures." But Jesus said, "Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you" (Matthew 6:33). If you say, "God, my priorities are You, Your kingdom, and Your righteousness," He will take care of you. That doesn't mean that God will always give us what we ask, because we so often pray amiss, but He knows what we need.
If there's something that's standing in the way of your communication with the Father today, bring it to the foot of the cross and confess it. Further down in Isaiah 1, God said, "Come now, and let us reason together.... Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow" (v. 18). My hope is that your prayer life would take on new meaning as you seek first His kingdom, knowing that He'll take care of you, and that more and more we'd see our prayers answered as we come before Him with a clean heart.