Hindrances to Prayer
The poet said, and we often sing—
“What various hindrances we meet
In coming to the mercy seat.”*
Yes, indeed, they are various. But here again, most of those hindrances are our own making.
God wants me to pray. The devil does not want me to pray, and does all he can to hinder me. He knows that we can accomplish more through our prayers than through our work. He would rather have us do anything else than pray.
We have already referred to Satan’s opposition to prayer:
“Angels our march oppose
Who still in strength excel—
Our secret, sworn, relentless foes,
But we need not fear them, nor heed them, if our eyes are ever unto the Lord. The holy angels are stronger than fallen angels, and we can leave the celestial hosts to guard us. We believe that to them—the hosts of evil—we owe those wandering thoughts which so often wreck prayer. We no sooner kneel than we “recollect” something that should have been done, or something which had better be seen to at once.
These thoughts come from without, and are surely due to the promptings of evil spirits. The only cure for wandering thoughts is to get our minds fixed upon God. Undoubtedly a man’s worst foe is himself. Prayer is for a child of God—and one who is living as a child of God should pray.
The great question is: Am I harboring any foes in my heart? Are there traitors within? God cannot give us His best spiritual blessings unless we fulfil conditions of trust, obedience and service. Do we not often ask earnestly for the highest spiritual gifts, without even any thought of fulfilling the necessary requirements? Do we not often ask for blessings we are not fitted to receive? Dare we be honest with ourselves, alone in the presence of God? Dare we say sincerely, “Search me, O God, and… see—” (Psalm 139:23-24)? Is there anything in me which is hindering God’s blessing for me and through me? We discuss “the problem of prayer”—but we are the problem that needs discussing or dissecting; prayer is all right! There is no problem in prayer to the heart which is absolutely stayed on Christ.
Now, we shall not quote the usual Bible texts which show how prayer may be frustrated. We merely desire that everyone should get a glimpse of his own heart. No sin is too small to hinder prayer, and perhaps even to turn the very prayer itself into sin, if we are not willing to renounce that sin. The Muslims in West Africa have a saying, “If there is no purity there is no prayer, as you know; if there is no prayer there is no drinking of the water of heaven.” This truth is so clearly taught in Scripture that it is amazing that any should try to retain both sin and prayer. Yet very many do this. Even David cried, long ages ago, “If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me.” (Psalm 66:18) And Isaiah says, “Your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid his face from you, that he will not hear.” (Isaiah 59:2)
Surely we must all agree that it is sin in us, and not the unwillingness of Christ to hear, that hinders prayer. As a rule, it is some so-called “little” sin that mars and spoils the prayer-life. There may be doubt. Now, unbelief is possibly the greatest hindrance to prayer. Our Lord said that the Holy Spirit would convict the world of sin—“because they believe not on me.” (John 16:9) We are not “of the world,” (John 17:16) yet is there not much practical unbelief in many of us? James, writing to believers, says, “Ask in faith, nothing doubting: for he that doubteth… let not that man think he shall receive anything of the Lord.” (James 1:6-7)RV Some “have not, because [they] ask not.” (James 4:2) Others have not because they believe not. Did you think it a little strange that we spent so much time over adoration and thanksgiving before we came to the “asking”? But surely, if we get a glimpse of the glorious majesty of our Lord, and the wonders of His love and grace, unbelief and doubt will vanish away as mists before the rising sun? Was this not the reason that Abraham “wavered not through unbelief,” (Romans 4:20)RV in that he gave God the glory due unto His name, and was therefore “fully assured that, what he had promised, he was able also to perform” (Romans 4:21)RV? Knowing what we do of God’s stupendous love, is it not amazing that we should ever doubt?
Then there is Self, the root of all sin. How selfish we are prone to be even in our “good works”! How we hesitate to give up anything which “self” craves for. Yet we know that a full hand cannot take Christ’s gifts. Was this why the Savior, in the prayer He first taught, coupled us with everything else? Our is the first word. “Our Father… give us… forgive us… lead us… deliver us….”
Pride prevents prayer, for prayer is a very humbling thing. How hateful pride must be in the sight of God! It is God who gives us “richly all things to enjoy.” (1 Timothy 6:17) “What hast thou that thou didst not receive?” (1 Corinthias 4:7) asks Paul. Surely, surely we are not going to let pride, with its hateful, ugly sister, Jealousy, ruin our prayer-life? God cannot do great things for us whereby we may be glad if they are going to “turn our heads.” Oh, how foolish we can be! Sometimes, when we are insistent, God does give us what we ask, at the expense of our holiness. “He gave them their request; but sent leanness into their soul.” (Psalm 106:15) O God, save us from that—save us from self! Again, self asserts itself in criticising others. Let this thought burn itself into your memory—the more like Jesus Christ a man becomes, the less he judges other people. It is an infallible test. Those who are always criticising others have drifted away from Christ. They may still be His, but have lost His Spirit of love. Beloved reader, if you have a criticising nature, allow it to dissect yourself and never your neighbor. You will be able to give it full scope, and it will never be unemployed! Is this a harsh remark? Does it betray a tendency to commit the very sin—for it is sin—it condemns? It would do so were it spoken to any one individual. But its object is to pierce armor which is seemingly invulnerable. And no one who, for one month, has kept his tongue “from picking and stealing”2 the reputation of other people will ever desire to go back again to back-biting. “Love suffereth long and is kind.” (1 Corinthians 13:4) Do we? Are we?
[The Book of Common Prayer]
We are ourselves no better because we have managed to paint other people in worse colors than ourselves. But, singularly enough, we enhance our own spiritual joy and our own living witness for Christ when we refuse to pass on disparaging information about others, or when we refrain from “judging” the work or lives of other people. It may be hard at first, but it soon brings untold joy, and is rewarded by the love of all around. It is most hard to keep silent in the face of “modern” heresies. Are we not told to “contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered unto the saints” (Jude 1:3)RV? Sometimes we must speak out—but let it always be in the spirit of love. “Rather let error live than love die.”
Even in our private prayers fault-finding of others must be resolutely avoided. Read once more the story of John Hyde praying for the “cold brother.” Believe me, a criticising spirit destroys holiness of life more easily than anything else, because it is such an eminently respectable sin, and makes such easy victims of us. We need scarcely add that when a believer is filled with the Spirit of Christ—who is Love—he will never tell others of the un-Christian behavior he may discern in his friends. “He was most rude to me”; “He is too conceited”; “I can’t stand that man”; and such-like remarks are surely unkind, unnecessary, and often untrue.
Our dear Lord suffered the contradiction of sinners against Himself, but He never complained or published abroad the news to others. Why should we do so? Self must be dethroned if Christ is to reign supreme. There must be no idols in the heart. Do you remember what God said of some leaders of religion? “these men have set up their idols in their heart… should I be inquired of at all by them?” (Ezekiel 14:3)
When our aim is solely the glory of God, then God can answer our prayers. Christ Himself rather than His gifts should be our desire. “Delight thyself also in the Lord; and he shall give thee the desires of thine heart.” (Psalm 37:4)
“Beloved, if our heart condemn us not, then have we confidence toward God. And whatsoever we ask, we receive of him, because we keep his commandments, and do those things that are pleasing in his sight.” (1 John 3:21-22)
It is as true today as in the early days of Christianity that men “ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss, that [they] may spend it in [their] pleasures” ()—i.e., self.
Unlove in the heart is possibly the greatest hindrance to prayer. A loving spirit is a condition of believing prayer. We cannot be wrong with man and right with God. The spirit of prayer is essentially the spirit of love. Intercession is simply love at prayer.
“He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the great God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.”3
[Samuel Taylor Coleridge]
Dare we hate or dislike those whom God loves? If we do, can we really possess the Spirit of Christ? We really must face these elementary facts in our faith if prayer is to be anything more than a mere form. Our Lord says, “Pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:44-45) We venture to think that large numbers of so-called Christians have never faced this question. To hear the way in which many Christian workers—and prominent ones, too—speak of others with whom they disagree, one must charitably suppose they have never heard that command of our Lord!
Our daily life in the world is the best indication of our power in prayer. God deals with my prayers not according to the spirit and tone which I exhibit when I am praying in public or private, but according to the spirit I reveal in my daily life.
Hot-tempered people can make only frigid prayers. If we do not obey our Lord’s command and love one another, our prayers are well-nigh worthless. If we harbor an unforgiving spirit, it is almost wasted time to pray. Yet a prominent Dean of one of our cathedrals was recently reported to have said that there are some people we can never forgive! If so, I expect that he uses an abridged form of the Lord’s prayer. Christ taught us to say, “Forgive us… as we forgive.” (Matthew 6:12) And He goes farther than this, declaring, “If ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matthew 6:15) May we ever exhibit the Spirit of Christ, and not forfeit our own much-needed forgiveness. How many of our readers who have not the slightest intention of forgiving their enemies, or even their offending friends, repeated the Lord’s prayer today?
Many Christians have never given prayer a fair chance. It is not through conscious insincerity, but from lack of thought. The blame for it really rests upon those of us who preach and teach. We are prone to teach doctrines rather than doings. Most men desire to do what is right, but they pay attention only to the big things rather than the little failings in the life of love.
Our Lord goes so far as to say that even our gifts are not to be presented to God if we remember that our brother “hath aught against [us].” (Matthew 5:23) If He will not accept our gifts, is it likely He will answer our prayers? It was when Job ceased contending with his friends that the Lord “turned his captivity” and gave him twice as much as he had before (Job 42:10).
How slow we are—how unwilling we are—to see that our lives hinder our prayers! And how unwilling we are to act on love-lines. Yes, we desire to “win” men. Our Lord shows us one way: don’t publish abroad his wrongdoings; speak to him alone, and “thou hast gained thy brother.” (Matthew 18:15) Most of us have rather pained our brothers!
Even the home-life may hinder the prayer-life. See what Peter says about how we should so live in the home that our “prayers be not hindered.” (1 Peter 3:7) We would venture to urge every reader to ask God to search his heart once again and to show him if there is “any root of bitterness” (Hebrews 12:15) towards anyone. We all desire to do what is pleasing to God. It would be an immense gain to our spiritual life if we would resolve not to attempt to pray until we had done all in our power to make peace and harmony between ourselves and any with whom we have quarreled. Until we do this as far as lies in our power, our prayers are just wasted breath. Unkindly feelings towards another hinder God from helping us in the way He desires.
A loving life is an essential condition of believing prayer. God challenges us again, today, to become fit persons to receive His superabundant blessings. Many of us have to decide whether we will choose a bitter, unforgiving spirit, or the tender mercies and loving-kindness of our Lord Jesus Christ. Is it not amazing that any man can halt between two opinions with such a choice in the balance? For bitterness harms the bitter more than anyone else.
“When ye stand praying, forgive, if ye have ought against any: that your Father also which is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.” (Mark 11:25) So said the blessed Master. Must we not then either forgive, or cease trying to pray? What shall it profit a man if he gain all his time to pretend to pray, if he harbors enmity in his heart to prevent real prayer? How the devil laughs at us because we do not see this truth!
We have God’s word for it that eloquence, knowledge, faith, liberality, and even martyrdom profit a man nothing—get hold of it—nothing, unless his heart is filled with love (1 Corinthians 13). “Therefore give us love.”*
Refusal to do our part may hinder God answering our prayers. Love calls forth compassion and service at the sight of sin and suffering, both here and overseas. Just as Paul’s heart “was stirred in him, when he saw the city wholly given to idolatry.” (Acts 17:16) We cannot be sincere when we pray “Thy kingdom come” (Matthew 6:10; Luke 11:2) unless we are doing what we can to hasten the coming of that kingdom—by our gifts, our prayers, and our service.
We cannot be quite sincere in praying for the conversion of the ungodly unless we are willing to speak a word, or write a letter, or make some attempt to bring him under the influence of the Gospel. Before one of Moody’s great missions he was present at a meeting for prayer asking for God’s blessing. Several wealthy men were there. One began to pray that God would send sufficient funds to defray the expenses. Moody at once stopped him. “We need not trouble God about that,” he said quietly, “we are able to answer that prayer!”
Praying only in secret may be a hindrance. Children of a family should not always meet their father separately. It is remarkable how often our Lord refers to united prayer—“agreed” prayer. “When ye pray, say, Our Father” (Luke 11:2); “if two of you shall agree on earth as touching any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them…. For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” (Matthew 18:19-20)
We feel sure that the weakness in the spiritual life of many churches is to be traced to an ineffectual prayer meeting, or the absence of meetings for prayer. Daily matins and evensong4, even when reverent and without the unseemly haste which is so often associated with them, cannot take the place of less formal gatherings for prayer, in which everyone may take part. Can we not make the weekly prayer meeting a living force?
[Formal morning and evening prayer services.]
Lack of praise, which is as important as prayer. We must “Enter into his gates with thanksgiving, and into his courts with praise: be thankful unto him, and bless his name.” (Psalm 100:4) At one time in his life, Praying Hyde was led to ask for four souls a day to be brought into the fold by his ministry. If on any day the number fell short of this, there would be such a weight on his heart that it was positively painful, and he could neither eat nor sleep. Then in prayer he would ask the Lord to show him what was the obstacle in himself. He invariably found that it was the lack of praise in his life. He would confess his sinfulness and pray for a spirit of praise. He said that as he praised God, seeking souls would come to him. I do not imply that we, too, should limit God to definite numbers or ways of working, but I do cry out, “Rejoice! Praise God with heart and mind and soul.”
It is not by accident that we are so often bidden to “rejoice in the Lord.” God does not want miserable children; and none of His children has cause for misery. Paul, the most persecuted of men, was a man of song. Hymns of praise came from his lips in prison and out of prison: day and night he praised his Savior. The very order of his exhortations is significant. “Rejoice evermore. Pray without ceasing. In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you.” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)
The will of God. Get that thought into your mind. It is not an optional thing.
Rejoice—pray—give thanks. That is the order, according to the will of God—for you, and for me. Nothing so pleases God as our praises—and nothing so blesses the man who prays as the praises he offers! “Delight thyself also in the Lord; and he shall give thee the desires of thine heart.” (Psalm 37:4)
A missionary who had received very bad news from home was utterly cast down. Prayer availed nothing to relieve the darkness of his soul. He went to see another missionary, no doubt seeking comfort. There on the wall was a motto-card: “Try Thanksgiving!” He did; and in a moment every shadow was gone, never to return.
Do we praise enough to get our prayers answered? If we truly trust Him, we shall always praise Him. For
“God nothing does, nor suffers to be done,
But thou wouldst do thyself, couldst thou but see
The end of all events as well as He.”5
One who once overheard Luther praying said, “Gracious God! What spirit and what faith is there in his expressions! He petitions God with as much reverence as if he were in the Divine presence, and yet with as firm a hope and confidence as he would address a father or a friend.” That child of God seemed quite unconscious that “hindrances to prayer” existed!
After all that has been said, we see that everything can be summed up under one heading. All hindrance to prayer arises from ignorance of the teaching of God’s Holy Word on the life of holiness He has planned for all His children, or from an unwillingness to consecrate ourselves fully to Him in what has been revealed to us.
When we can truthfully say to our Father, “All that I am and have is Thine,” then He can say to us, “All that is mine is thine.” (Luke 15:31)RV