7 Things Shot-Blocking Your Prayers

SELF | Caleb Mathis | 15 mins

Ever felt like there was a disconnect between you and God?

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Like you’re dialing the number, but all you’re getting is a straight-to-voicemail response? Me too. What’s actually going on at that moment? Am I using the wrong words? Not kneeling long enough? Didn’t get the right brand of holy water?

Whether you pray regularly, or you’re still working up the courage to do it for the first time, understanding what has the power to shot-block your prayers can take your spiritual life to new and unforeseen heights.

The bottom line is this: God’s not satisfied being your booty-call.

He desires a relationship with his creation. Make no mistake. He doesn’t need it. He is God, after all. And yet He still desires to make himself known to us. Even more than that, He wants to be an integral part of our day-to-day existence. It’s mind-boggling.

The Bible presents God as two things: a Father and a King.

As a father, I love to give gifts to my kids, even on days that aren’t their birthday: the surprise ice cream, the library book I picked out just for them, the new action figure. It delights me to give to them. And sometimes, when they ask for candy right before bedtime, I still give it to them because it brings me joy.

But, as a father, I know more than they do about their needs and the world they live in. So many times, when they ask for something, I say no. I’m not angry, I’m protecting them. I’m not frustrated they asked, I just have more information about the day then they do. I’m not put-out by their request. I just understand that clear science says toddlers shouldn’t drink coffee (seriously, why do my kids like coffee? That’s weird, right?) Sometimes God says yes, and sometimes no because he is a good father.

God is also a good King. He’s the ruling monarch of the entire universe. He actually knows what fills interstellar space. He can hold a black hole in his hand. He is working a plan for His creation that is much (emphasis on much) larger than your or my individual life. He’s above timelines. He’s beyond physics. Thanos is a newborn compared to God’s power.

Sometimes, the things we ask for align with God’s plan as a king, and he says yes. Sometimes, the things we ask for don’t align with God’s plan as a king, but he’s willing to hear us out anyway and make a judgment call (Genesis 18:16-33, for example). Other times, what we ask for goes against His ultimate plan for the universe—even if the thing we’re asking for is good in and of itself—and he says no. God says yes, and sometimes no because he is a good king.

Engaging in prayer requires us to trust—that no matter what God says, He is still good.

Prayer builds faith because it exercises our trust muscles. Even still, I want my prayers to have the best possible chance of being answered. If you’re doing anything on the list below (no shame, I’m guilty too), you’re asking for an Anthony-Davis-sized-swat to your prayer.

Here’s what the Bible says will shot-block your prayers:

LOCKJAW
It might seem obvious, but the biggest reason your prayers aren’t getting through might be because you’re not asking. God, of course, knows what you’re thinking and what you need—but what if he’s waiting for you to make the ask?

We see Jesus do this. One of my favorite examples is in Mark 10:46-52. A blind beggar, sitting on the side of the road, hears Jesus coming his way and starts going buck wild. He’s yelling and making a scene, asking for Jesus to have mercy on him. Jesus stops and asks him, “What do you want me to do for you?”

Seems obvious, right? The blind man wants to see. Duh! But Jesus still asks. Why? Could be a number of reasons, but I believe Jesus is prompting the blind man to verbalize his hope as a way to build faith. What you think and what you say are two different things entirely. So if you need something from God, ask him. If you want something from God, ask him. If you’re at your wits’ end and don’t even know what to say, there’s hope for that too—just start talking (Romans 8:26).

James, the brother of Jesus, is pretty clear about it in his little book, found near the end of the Bible. “You do not have because you do not ask” (James 4:2).

HARSHNESS AT HOME
Nothing happens in a vacuum. The attitude you’re displaying at home—that tone of voice with your wife, the way you’ve been overly hard on your kids—it might be shooting down your prayers before they get started.

In 1 Peter 3, Paul has a strong warning for the husbands out there.

“Husbands, in the same way, be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect… so that nothing will hinder your prayers.”

Check the attitude at home. Don’t be a domineering jerk. Remember, there is a king, and it’s not you.

WINGING IT
Ever heard the acronym for the Bible—B asic I nstructions B efore L eaving E arth? That’s a dumb (and shortsighted) summation. While it contains guidelines, the Bible is not an instruction manual. While it has wisdom, it’s sole purpose is not to get you to a better life. While it’s full of remarkable stories, it wasn’t actually written so that you could insert yourself into the hero role. (An idea perfectly summed up in this incredible coffee mug.)

The Bible is a story about God—how He created the world, and then at great cost to himself saved (and is still saving) humanity from sin and self. The Bible does many things, but primarily, it’s meant to introduce you to God. If you read it, you get a feel for who he is, what makes him tick, and what ticks him off. This is important because you should know who you’re talking to when you pray.

My paying job is to produce podcasts. Nearly every week, I spend more time than you’d imagine researching the guests for that podcast—I read about their childhoods, their successes, their failures, I scroll their Twitter feeds and Instagram pages. Why? So the conversation we have with them doesn’t suck. I want to be able to jump right in and get to the good stuff, and that requires knowing about them before I try to talk to them.

The Bible works hand in hand with your prayers. Both support each other as you learn not only about God but what it takes to live a life that’s pleasing to him—which, if you like answered prayers, is part of the deal. Proverbs 28:9 says it this way:

If anyone turns a deaf ear to my instruction, even their prayers are detestable.

Reading the Bible won’t get all your prayers answered, but it will align you with God’s character, which will change the way you pray.

Which, speaking of…

USING HIM
If you’re asking God with selfish motives, it’s going to be pretty easy for him to say “no.” Remember the “you do not have because you do not ask” verse we mentioned above? The next sentence says this:

You ask and don’t receive because you ask wrongly,
so that you may spend it on your desires for pleasure.

God’s not your sugar-daddy.

He isn’t a cosmic Santa Claus, just waiting to fulfill your every desire (especially if those desires will lead you away from him). God says an easy no to anything that would introduce sin into your life. He also doesn’t share the spotlight, and he will say no to requests for something (or someone) that would take his place in the limelight of your life.

All that being said, I think most people fall into a ditch on the other side of the road: they don’t ask God enough for good things. The Bible says that all good things, all good gifts, come from him (James 1:17). The Bible also says that, like a good father, God wants to give good gifts to his children (Luke 11:5-13) and those gifts are beyond what we can even comprehend (Ephesians 3:20). It’s OK, even healthy, to ask Him.

Recently, my family got to take a dream vacation to Michigan. Our plan, for weeks leading up to it, had been to take one night and camp on the shores of Lake Superior. But when we got online to reserve our spot, every single campsite was filled for the next month. My wife was devastated. I probably cursed. Unbeknownst to me, she prayed under her breath. “God, we’ve had a hard year. I would love to camp in this beautiful spot. Can you do that for us?”

I started to look for other campsites, but nothing was as amazing as the original place we had picked out. I was ready to throw in the towel and go to bed angry, but on a whim, I went back to the original website and hit refresh. One spot had opened up. My mouth dropped. I started booking it, and that’s when my wife told me she had just prayed for it.

Seriously, it was the highlight of the trip. Look at how amazing this place is. While we camped, we thanked God over and over for letting us have just one night there. I think He wants to give you things that will remind you of his goodness—but the first step is asking.

Last week, I prayed that God would let us win a king-sized bed from a local store’s giveaway. We have a queen that’s routinely co-opted by multiple toddlers a night. We did not win. Why did God answer the camping one but not the bed one? I don’t know. But the no won’t stop me from asking for other good things from him in the future. And I believe God will say yes again, as long as the things I ask for won’t compete for his rightful place as king in my life.

DEFYING
Sin is an ugly word that represents an ugly thing. Any God-defying action, lifestyle, addiction, relationship (the list goes on), that we refuse to give up will hinder our prayers, even if we “mentally” acknowledge God’s rightful place. That’s because God considers our actions even more important than our words—Jesus said his friends were the people who did what he said (John 15:14).

The Bible is quite clear on this point, but perhaps no more so than in Isaiah 59:2, where God says:

Your iniquities have built barriers between you and your God, and your sins have made Him hide His face from you.

Hear me clearly—I’m not above sin. It happens to me every day, more than I’d like to admit (or even recognize). God’s not waiting for perfection before he answers your prayers. If that was the case, no one but Jesus would ever get a “yes” from God. But persistence in the same sin, the same mistake, the same hang-up, day after day after day after day, it grates on your relationship with him. I imagine it’s similar to how I feel when I have to ask my kids 57 times to pick up their toys before bedtime.

Followers of Jesus will be dealing with sin their whole lives. But hope is not lost. God promises to forgive our sins when we ask and restore us to a right relationship with him (1 John 1:9). When we ask, He is pleased to open up the lines of communication again. And, He challenges us to do the same in our own relationships (Mark 11:25-26).

If you’re having hang-ups in your prayer life, I challenge you to pray the bold words of Psalms 139. If God reveals anything to you, get it off your chest and get the lines opened up once more.

Search me, God, and know my heart;
Test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me,
And lead me in the way everlasting.

  • Psalm 139:23-24

DISCONNECTED LIVING
Jesus once told a story about a man who owed a large debt. He and his whole family were thrown in jail for not being able to pay it, but when the man begged the king (who he owed), the king forgave his debt and set him free. But the story has an M. Night Shyamalan twist—the man who was freed then went and persisted in beating another man who owed him a couple of bucks. When the king heard about the behavior of the man he had set free, he threw him back in prison until he could pay his debt in full.

Is there a disconnect between what we’re praying and what we’re doing? God is pleased when we embody, for others, what we’re asking from him. Am I praying for blessings, but unwilling to bless others? Am I asking for God to provide for my needs, but refusing to help others who are less fortunate? Am I asking God for breakthroughs in my finances, but living stingy? If so, that’s a recipe for a no.

Proverbs, the Bible’s book of wise sayings, notes the connection between our actions and our prayers.

Whoever shuts their ears to the cry of the poor
will also cry out and not be answered.

And the mystery behind God’s provision for the generous:

One person gives freely, yet gains even more;
Another withholds unduly but comes to poverty.
A generous person will prosper;
Whoever refreshes others will be refreshed.

If your prayers seem to be going nowhere, maybe it’s time for you to figure how to be an answer to someone else’s.

CYNICISM
There is nothing more American (or more 2020 for that matter) than cynicism and doubt. It’s a safety net many hide behind, attempting to shield themselves from hurt, from disappointment, from further despair. But it’s also a mindset that, if it doesn’t stop us from praying all together, hinders their abilities to be answered.

James, the brother of Jesus, encouraged his readers to ask God for things without doubt. He continues, “The doubter is like the surging sea, driven and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord.” (James 1:6-7)

Oh, snap.

It’s almost as if James is saying, “Why bother asking God if you aren’t going to believe he can, or will, do it.” In fact, that’s nearly what Jesus says too.

In Mark 11, He instructs his followers to “Have faith in God.” With a foundation of faith, Jesus insists that his followers can command mountains to throw themselves into the sea, and it will happen. But he doesn’t stop there, finishing with “Therefore, I tell you, all the things you pray and ask for—believe that you have received them, and you will have them.”

Doubt is common, a dime a dozen. But faith, a belief that God hears and answers our prayers, that changes things—your life included.

Look, let’s be honest: prayer isn’t an exact science. I have good days and bad days too. I think prayer is a nebulous thing, partly because God designed it that way. He wants more from you than just a simple transaction, a give and take. He wants you. He wants to know your thoughts and feelings, your wins and losses, your excitements and disappointments. The Bible is a story about God and the way he breaks into the lives of real, extremely human people. They had bad days. They experienced loss. They walked through unspeakable pain. But the great ones, the heroes of the faith, were always honest. And it started with prayer.

God answers the prayers of the imperfect. He answers the prayers of the confused. He answers the prayers of the weak. He answers the prayers of the forgotten. How do I know that? I’ve been all those things. Come to God as you are. Open your heart to him. Talk to your Creator. He is longing to hear from you.

In the course of your prayers, if things feel off between you and God, check this list, and then do something about it.

The best advice? Keep persisting and keep praying. More than anything else, persistent prayers are what’s changed the world—and it’s done it by changing the people brave enough to utter them.


Written by

Caleb Mathis

Dad of three, husband of one, pastor at Crossroads, and at the moment would rather be reading Tolkien, watching British TV, or in a pub with a pint of Guinness.

Published on Oct 6, 2020
Process, journal or discuss the themes of this article - here's a few questions to get the ball rolling...

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  1. What stands out to you most about this article? Why that? (Noticing what strikes you can be the first step to hearing from God. Notice, and lean into it.)

  2. What are you praying for most right now that seems unanswered?

  3. Which of the seven stands out as a possible barrier? What would it look like to approach God differently? Forward this article to a friend, tell them your plan, and ask them to help hold you to it.

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