I was recently having an important phone conversation with my wife, sharing my heart with her in a way that I’m not always wont to do. After a lengthy spell of pouring out my thoughts and emotions, I paused to give her a chance to answer—to laud me for my transparency and vulnerability—but got nothing. It’s not that my wife doesn’t speak words of affirmation though, or that she saw through my ploy to win some admiration points. No, her cell phone had cut out at the start of my soliloquy, so she’d missed all of it. There I was, unveiling my soul, and no one was listening.
That’s how prayer feels sometimes, isn’t it?
No matter how pious we may be, no matter how resolute our faith, it will sometime seem to us that God is deaf to our prayers. I keep talking, but no one is listening.
Now, it is highly unlikely that this is because God is sleeping on the job. As Isaiah had to remind Israel when they made this very complaint,
Why do you complain, Jacob? Why do you say, Israel,
“My way is hidden from the Lord; my cause is disregarded by my God”?
Do you not know? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom. (40:27-28)
In contrast to humans—even youths—God never grows weary, never faints, never sleeps on the job. Which means he is always there and always listening to us. So if it seems God is deaf, the cause must lie elsewhere.
Of course, sometimes God delays in giving his answer. Jesus shared his parable of the persistent widow “to show them that they should always pray and not give up” (Luke 18:1). God wants us to learn persistence in praying—and the best way for us to learn is by having to persist. Or sometimes there may be something happening in the spiritual realms that we cannot see causing the delay (cf. Daniel 10:12-14).
But at other times, God is actually turning a deaf ear to us. That is, it just might be possible that we are the reason God has stopped up his ears to our cries. Before we lay the blame at the feet of an unloving, uncaring God (which flies in the face of everything he has revealed himself to be), let us examine our own hearts. The scriptures identify many different reasons why God might choose not to listen to us for a time. Here are just a few. If God has seemed silent in the face of your requests, ask yourself these questions as you engage in self-examination.
- Rebellion and Arrogance. This may be the most common reason why God ignores someone’s prayers. Those who are in open rebellion against him—who are actively pursuing Eve’s original sin, seeking to usurp God’s place—will seldom find a receptive Sovereign when they cry out. For example, after the Israelites refused to trust God at Kadesh Barnea and so were condemned to die in the wilderness, a few sinfully took matters into their own hands and tried unsuccessfully to take the land in their own power. Moses says to them, “You rebelled against the Lord’s command and in your arrogance you marched up into the hill country” (Deuteronomy 1:43, emphasis added). As a result, “You came back and wept before the Lord, but he paid no attention to your weeping and turned a deaf ear to you” (v 45). The Psalms are filled with similar examples (cf. Psalm 80:4-6). If God seems to be ignoring your prayers, are you harboring arrogance and rebellion in your heart? Do you think you know better than God how your life should go, and are you approaching him with that attitude?
- Cherishing Sin. This is a related issue: God will often turn a deaf ear to the cries of those who cherish sin in their hearts. As the psalmist says, “If I had cherished sin in my heart, the Lord would not have listened” (Psalm 66:18). We all sin, of course (cf. 1 John 1:8-10); but are we clinging to our sin? Do we count our sin as more precious to us than the righteousness Christ offers? James makes the connection between public confession of sin and efficacious prayer explicit (5:16-18). If God doesn’t seem to be listening, do you need to confess cherished sin to a trusted brother or sister in Christ now?
- Refusing God’s Instruction. Proverbs says, “If anyone turns a deaf ear to my instruction, even their prayers are detestable” (28:9). God does not look with favor on those who reject his teaching, and he regards their prayers as detestable. I imagine this is especially true when the teaching relates to the prayer request. Are you asking for a happier marriage but refusing God’s teaching on the subject (e.g., Ephesians 5:22-33)? Are you asking for financial blessing without considering the wisdom of Agur (Proverbs 30:7-9)? I can’t see why God would answer those prayers. If it seems yours prayer are detestable to God, do you need to consult his Word and accept his instruction?
- Interpersonal Conflict. God places a high value on love, and he expects his followers to love others as he loved them (1 John 4:10-11)! We are not even to perform our acts of ritual worship (e.g., taking communion, corporate singing) until we have taken care of any interpersonal conflict in our lives (cf. Matthew 5:23-24; 1 Corinthians 11:17-34). Peter affirms that this will hinder our prayers, specifically in the context of marriage: “Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers” (1 Peter 3:7, emphasis added). If your prayers have been hindered, do you need to reconcile with someone? Do you need to treat someone differently—loving them as Christ loved you—before you persist in prayer?
- Doubt. God expects faith on the part of those who make requests of him. Referring to prayers for wisdom specifically, James reminds us, “But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do” (James 1:6-8). In other words, we should not expect to receive what we do not expect to receive! “Everything is possible for one who believes,” Jesus says, so we may have to cry out with one father, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mark 9:23-24). If you are not receiving anything from the Lord, do you need to overcome your doubt and express a renewed faith in God’s goodness and power?
- Stinginess. This might not be what you expected for the last item on the list, but Scripture declares it to be so: “Whoever shuts their ears to the cry of the poor will also cry out and not be answered” (Proverbs 21:13). Some people stop up their ears to the cries of the needy because if they listened their lives would have to change. So they shut themselves off from the suffering of the poor around the world. But deaf ears always reflect a hard heart, and the Lord responds harshly to those who harden their hearts. Stop listening to the poor, and God will stop listening to you. If it seems God has stopped listening to you, have you stopped listening to the cries of the poor? Do you need to pursue a new practice of sacrificial generosity in place of selfish indulgence?
This is a representative, not an exhaustive list. God is not asleep on the job. While there are many reasons why we may not see swift answers to prayers, what we must remember is that the cause may lie within our own hearts. Let us examine ourselves, therefore, so that we do not approach God in an unworthy manner.