Hindrances to Prevailing Prayer

Throughout the Bible, God's people are commanded to pray at all times. We're to pray when we're low, in good times and bad. And we're to pray in all seasons -- periods of joy and health, as well as sickness or depression; seasons of rest and prosperity, as well as sadness or grief. No matter what our sitiuation or condition, we're to pray without ceasing.

I believe every sincere Christian wants to pray. But, of course, not all of us act on this desire. Even mature believers slack off from praying. When they do spend time in prayer, they find it difficult and wearisome, and they quickly lose interest.

When I ask my friends why they find it so hard to pray, most of them shrug their shoulders. Their love for Jesus is genuine, and they have a great desire to pray. But they're baffled as to why they aren't more persistent in prayer.

After much prayer and study of God's word, I believe the Lord has shed some light on this subject for me. Here are five common hindrances to prevailing prayer:

Even though they've heard the gospel of grace preached for many years, some Christians still lack confidence they're accepted before the Lord. Nothing weakens the desire to pray more than this. You simply can't believe you're accepted. And until you settle that -- until you're convinced you can go to God's throne without condemnation -- you'll never experience prevailing prayer.

Paul tells us God adopted us simply because he loved us: "According to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of the glory of his grace, wherein he hath made us accepted in the beloved" (Ephesians 1:5-6) The Lord adopted you for no reason other than his great love for you.

You may say, "I know God's word says I'm accepted, and I know Jesus gave me direct access to the throne of grace. But I'm too ashamed to draw near. I still struggle with a powerful temptation. And I still sin on occasion. I haven't obtained total victory. So, the only prayer I can utter is, "God, help me."

Let me ask you a simple question: Do you love Jesus? Are you his child, and is he your high priest who intercedes for you? Then, according to scripture, it doesn't matter what you've done -- you have a right to enter into his presence, to find all the mercy and grace you need. In fact, it's at just such a time that he acts as your high priest:

"We have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need" (Hebrews 4:15-16).

Christ is telling us, "Yes, I can discern your every thought, good or evil. I see your every secret ambition, every secret lust and deed. Yet still I invite you to come boldly to my throne. I long to give you all the grace and mercy you need so desperately."

Often, however, Christians don't act on their Lord's offer. Instead, whenever they give in to a temptation and sin, they tend to run from God. They reason, "How can the Lord receive me, when I've failed him so many times in the same area? I can't go to him about this. He's been merciful to me too many times before. I don't think he'll stand for it this time."

Not long ago, a desperate husband wrote to me: "I got addicted to pornography. I don't know how it happened -- I just got hooked badly. I'm so grieved by this sin, I despise myself. I've confessed it to my wife and my Lord. And I know I still love Jesus with all my heart. But I just can't seem to get free. I hesitate to go to him with this sin, because he has to be mad at me. Tell me, Brother Dave -- can God forgive me?"

This man loves the Lord sincerely. Yet he's also sick, in great need of a physician. Yes, he has sinned against the light he's been given. But the fact remains - Jesus came to be a physician to the sick, the afflicted, the demon-possessed, and to those in prison, including the prison of pornography. Christ is still this man's high priest.

Yet this bound believer is saying, in so many words, "My conviction over my sin keeps me out of the throne room." I say to him: "Run to your secret closet, and pour out your heart before the throne of grace. Obtain all the mercy Jesus has for you. Then, after you've received his love, mortify your sin through the power provided by the Holy Spirit."

Some Christians think their prayers won't be accepted because they've neglected to pray for too long. For months, or even years, God's Spirit has urged them to come to the secret closet -- wooing them and convicting them, through countless sermons and a burning conscience. But over time, these people have built up a reservoir of guilt. They've known to pray, but they haven't done it.

This was the protest of a non-believing husband who never attended church with his wife. Every time she asked him to go, he said, "I'd feel like a hypocrite, because I never go any other time". Finally, the one time he gave in and went with her, he got saved.

Under the Spirit's prompting, I once sent a large financial gift to a man who'd done me great harm. Finally, a letter came. The man explained, "I didn't answer you right away because I didn't think I had the words to say thank you. I couldn't believe you would do such a thing, after all this time. It's taken me this long to get up the courage to say thanks."

Many Christians are like this man. They can't believe God would forgive, love and care for them after all the time they've neglected him. So they simply don't go to him. Yet, if I can forgive and bless someone who has hurt and neglected me, how much more will our Lord forgive and bless his people?

God declares in Jeremiah, "My people have forgotten me days without number" (Jeremiah 2:32). Yet in the very next chapter, the Lord urges, "Yet return again to me, saith the Lord...turn thou unto me" (Jeremiah 3:1, 7).

When some Christians are hit with troubles, they fall on their faces and pray as if their house is on fire. But between their crises, they seldom if ever pray. Most are too ashamed to admit this. They think, "Sure, I cry out to God loudly when one of my children has been in an accident. I pray in a frenzy when I learn that a loved one has a life-threatening disease. The only times I pray are when I'm at the end of my rope."

Beloved, I don't condemn this, because the Bible doesn't. Scripture tells us:

  • "He will regard the prayer of the destitute, and not despise their prayer" (Psalm 102:17). God will never reject our prayers simply because we offer them up in a crisis.
  • "Hungry and thirsty, their soul fainted in them. Then they cried unto the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them out of their distresses" (107:5-6). These verses describe people who cried out because they were at the end of their rope. Yet God didn't condemn them saying, "You're only calling on me because you're in trouble. Where were you in the good times?" No -- he answered their cries, with no strings attached.
  • "They go down again to the depths: their soul is melted because of trouble. They reel to and fro, and stagger like a drunken man, and are at their wit's end. Then they cry unto the Lord in their trouble, and he bringeth them out of their distresses. He maketh the storm a calm" (107:26-29). Did God rebuke these people for crying out to him from the midst of their troubles?" No -- he delievered them and calmed their storm.

Why does God answer us so mercifully when we cry out to him in a crisis, even though we may not seek him at other times? He does it for one reason: he desires that we return to him afterward in thanksgiving. "They cry unto the Lord in their trouble, and he bringeth them out of their distresses...then are they glad because they be quiet...Oh that men would praise the Lord for his goodness, and for his wonderful works to the children of men" (107:28-31).

I believe God is telling us, "I'll do anything to have communion with you. So, if that means I have to heal and bless you during your crisis to bring you to the secret closet, then I'll do that."

At times, I've entered my prayer closet troubled, tested, confused. In such times, I've poured out my very soul to God. I didn't need someone to write a prayer for me to recite. In fact, I've never gone into the secret closet with a prayer manual. And I've never kept a written list to remind me how to pray. I simply don't believe the Holy spirit responds to canned prayers. Rather, God desires prayers that come from our heart. Think about it -- if I want to woo my wife, Gwen, I won't memorize some Shakespearean sonnet to recite to her. That simply wouldn't be me, and she knows it. Instead, I'll say, "Hey, sweetheart -- I love you." That's simple eloquence -- because it's from my heart. And God desires that same kind of simple, eloquent prayer from his people. To him, the highest form of prayer is thanksgiving for his goodness, expressed from a grateful heart.

We mistakenly think our prayers won't prevail with God unless we wrestle with him like Jacob, pray aloud three times a day like Daniel, or come away exhausted from doing spiritual warfare. Of course, there are times when such fervent praying is appropriate. But we have to rid our minds of the notion that God won't hear us if we don't raise our voices while praying.

This misconception is one reason why shy, soft-spoken converts don't develop a habit of prayer. They hear mature Christians praying fiery prayers, uttering groanings, speaking of taking heaven by violence -- and they get intimidated. They think, "I could never pray that way. I get embarrassed even praying in public. I hope I'm never called on to pray in church."

As Gwen and I sat down to dinner with some Christian couples recently, I asked one of the husbands to ask the blessing. He quickly whispered to me, "Please, Pastor, ask somebody else." I know this dear man prays frequently in private. Yet he was too shy to utter a prayer before our meal.

I believe God understands that. Of course, there is a time to pray loudly - to weep and agonize, cry intensely, lift our voice and give God no rest till he answers. After all, Jesus himself prayed with a loud voice when he was in the garden.

Yet, we can do all of these fervent things without uttering a sound. Our prayers can be just as fiery, powerful and effectual without raising our voice. Such was the case with Hannah, who prayed diligently for a son:

"She was in bitterness of soul, and prayed unto the Lord, and wept sore" (1Samuel 1:10). "And it came to pass, as she continued praying before the Lord, that Eli marked [noticed] her mouth. Now Hannah, she spake in her heart; only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard: therefore Eli thought she had been drunken" (1:13).

Eli accused Hannah of being drunk. But this God-fearing woman replied, "I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but have poured out my soul before the Lord...out of the abundance of my complaint and grief have I spoken hitherto" (1:15)

As Hannah poured out her soul before God, she didn't utter a single word. Yet her deep intercession and integrity moved heaven. And the Lord blessed this praying woman with a son -- the prophet Samuel, who would become a godly voice in Israel.

Like Hannah, at times we may be too weak, vexed or confused to lift our voice to God. Sometimes, all we can do is cry before him. I've been in that place. I've often gone to my secret closet so worn out and weary, grieved and depressed, not knowing what to do, I had nothing to offer the Lord. All I could do was sit in his presence and say, "Please, God - hold me. I need you."

David describes this experience in Pslam 6:

  • "O Lord, rebuke me not in thine anger, neither chasten me in thy hot displeasure" (6:1). David's troubles were so heavy, he was convinced God was mad at him, chastening him angrily for some hidden sin.
  • "Have mercy upon me, O Lord; for I am weak: O Lord, heal me; for my bones are vexed" (6:2). David's situation was so overwhelming, it weakened his body and confused his mind.
  • "My soul is also sore vexed: but thou, O Lord, how long?" (6:3). David couldn't understand why God was taking so long to deliver him. He cried, "Lord, when are you going to get me out of this?"
  • "I am weary with my groaning; all the night make I my bed to swim; I water my couch with my tears. Mine eye is consumed because of grief; it waxeth old because of all mine enemies" (6:6-7). David was so plagued by his unrelenting grief, he wept through the night, unable to sleep.

Finally, God gave David a revelation. It so inspired him, he rose up and commanded his demonic enemies to flee: "Depart from me, all ye workers of iniquity; for the Lord hath heard the voice of my weeping" (6:8).

How was David able to receive this revelation? It came because God heard his weeping: "The Lord hath heard my supplication; the Lord will receive my prayer" (6:9). David's every tear was a prayer, his every groan a voice lifted on high. And our Lord is faithful to hear the cries of all who call upon him.

We've already seen the effectiveness of quiet, unspoken prayers. Indeed, when Paul speaks of "praying without ceasing," I believe he's referring to mental prayers -- the kind you can offer while in your car, on the bus, cleaning your house, gardening, sitting in a business meeting. (I've had to intercede continually during many of our church's business meetings, with builders and attorneys in New York City.)

Yet it's rare for mental prayers alone to suffice in our lives. If mental praying is the only kind of prayer we offer to the Lord, we'll never have prevailing power over sin. And we won't enjoy the depths of intimacy we might have with Jesus. Christ instructs us, "Thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and...pray to thy father which is in secret" (Matthew 6:6).

I receive blessed relief whenever I cry out in prayer to the Lord. Sometimes I'll even drive to the country, get out of my car and walk around, raising my arms to heaven as I call out to God. I'll cry out my pain and frustration to him until I sense I've prevailed in my trial.

I believe David also did this kind of praying aloud. He writes in Psalm 3:

  • "Lord, how are they increased that trouble me!" (3:1). David saw his enemies increasing all around him.
  • "Many there be which say of my soul, There is no help for him in God" (3:2). People gave up on David, saying he was beyond help.
  • "I cried unto the Lord with my voice, and he heard me out of his holy hill" (3:4). Finally, David cried out to the Lord for help. What was the result of his cry? "I laid me down and slept; I awaked; for the Lord sustained me" (3:5). David received peace from uttering his loud cries to God. He testified, "I will not be afraid of ten thousands of people, that have set themselves against me round about" (3:6).

No human being is naturally inclined to pray. And no one can pray effectually by his own will or discipline. Consistent prayer can never be obtained through human grit or determination.

The desire and ability to pray comes only from the indwelling Holy Spirit. Without his full assistance, we simply can't pray -- because we don't know how. Paul writes, "The Spirit also helpeth our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered" (Romans 8:26).

The Holy Spirit also keeps our prayers focused on Jesus. As we're praying, he supernaturally opens to us an understanding of Christ's words, as well as the rest of scripture. Conversely, it's dangerous to pray with our minds in neutral, yet, to my amazement, many Christians do this. They're convinced that if they let their minds go blank during prayer, any voice they hear will be God's. Beloved, this is how delusions enter in.

Christians have written to our ministry claiming to be one of the two "witnesses" mentioned in the book of Revelation. How did they come to such a realization? They claim, "A voice told me while I was in prayer."

Yet there is one delusion above all others among those who write to us. A voice tells them, "You're going to receive a large sum of money, allowing you to devote yourself totally to God's work. Then you're going to win leaders and nations to the Lord." Some Christians have lived under this delusion for decades. How did they receive such a revelation? They claim, "I prayed, emptied my mind, and waited for God to speak."

Every time we go to prayer, we need to engage our minds on God's word: "bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ" (2 Corinthians 10:5). We're to fix our minds on scripture, seek his face, and trust the Holy Spirit to guide us sovereignly.

It must grieve God's Spirit terribly to see a world of spiritually blind masses diligently praying, while Christians continue to neglect their secret closet. Consider:

  • Muslims by the millions kneel and pray toward Mecca three to five times a day. No matter where they are, they boldly spread down a blanket and prostrate themselves, not caring what others think of them.
  • Jews around the world pray and chant -- in airplanes, on buses, in shopping malls -- never caring what others think.
  • Catholics worldwide pray with beads, say Hail Mary's and Our Father's, light prayer candles for the dead -- never caring what others think.
  • Buddhist monks pray endlessly, constantly spinning prayer wheels. Hare Krishnas chant for hours, until they fall from exhaustion. Pagans rise up early and stay up late, praying, chanting, ringing bells -- on street corners, in storefronts, in temples and mosques. Across the street from our building in New York City, I see an eastern religious guru walking around his apartment every night, chanting and praying to his gods for an hour or two.

Yet the one true God -- the only one who can answer prayer -- remains neglected. While a lost world prays fervently to their gods and idols, evangelical Christians remain casual about prayer. We seldom call on our Lord, or spend time with him. Yet he has offered us his very Spirit to teach us to pray to him, for our own blessing and good.

I ask you -- do you truly want a consistent prayer life? If so, ask the Holy Spirit to teach you. He abides in you, because he has been poured out on all believers. Simply yield to his direction.

He'll put a spirit of thanksgiving in your heart. And he'll put a desire in you to pray. You may be busy at something during the day when, suddenly, an urge will come upon you to pray. As you respond to his wooing, you'll find your tongue set free -- and a river of godly prayer will flow from your soul.