While the importance of prayer is a recurring theme in biblical history, its importance in application has confounded many. In reality, there remains a gap between knowing the significance of prayer and deriving the actual benefits through practice. Prayer is not just a simple Christian ritual we can learn and wholly know in a short span of time. There is always something to learn about prayer.
Prayer must become an integral part of our life, as it is the will of God in Christ Jesus (1 Thess 5:16-18). To understand prayer better, it is necessary to answer a few commonly raised questions.
Why Do We Need to Pray Always?
The importance of prayer does not exist only in times of desperation, when we want God to meet our needs. By praying constantly, we establish a firm relationship with God and enable our faith to take root in Him. In times of trial, we are much less anxious than one who does not pray constantly would be.
Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus. (Phil 4:6-7)
Having daily communion with God makes us know His purpose. When we are close to Him, we will know what He wants us to do better than if we were not regular in our prayers. As prayer forms part of our nature, we pray for others and the matters of the church in great length and with fervent devotion. This is a spiritual experience.
How Should We Pray?
It is equally important not only to communicate with God, but also to examine the content of our prayer. A prolonged absence of vindication from God, for example, frustrates us who pray eagerly for an immediate answer (cf. Lk 18:1-8). Two factors contribute to such frustration: lack of importunity and lack of thanksgiving. They lead to two possible responses: we may stop praying completely, or pray with a negative attitude. When the way ahead of them was smooth, the Israelites gave thanks to God. Their thanksgiving could instantly turn to murmuring when they faced adversity (see Ex 5:21;14:10-11).
Nonetheless, the will of God is that we "do everything with thanksgiving" (Col 3:17), be it amid continual affliction or lasting prosperity (Col 4:2; Phil 4:7). This is one aspect we have to learn, so that our prayers can always be of benefit to ourselves and we do not become disheartened. An example in the Bible is Psalm 77:
In the day of my trouble I sought the Lord; my hand was stretched out in the night without ceasing; my soul refused to be comforted. I remembered God and was troubled; I complained and my spirit was overwhelmed. (vv. 2-3)
In his moment of agony, the psalmist felt utterly devoid of the presence and assistance of the Lord. His unbelief drove him even to question His mercy and promise. This was devastating to his faith, but he rectified the situation by pondering over what God had done for him (v. 10). He grew in his prayer. His focus was on God (vv. 11-13), who gradually became the Master of his life (v. 14). Though he was very uncertain of the ways ahead, he knew somehow the Lord was and would be there to guide him (vv. 19-20).
Why Are Prayers Unanswered?
The final question is the most common, or perhaps the trickiest one. Why does God at times refuse to answer a prayer?
Being Insistent on Human Will
The first possible reason is that we insist on our will. We must not impose our will upon the will of God. The Bible's teaching that we "let our requests be made known to God" (Phil 4:6) indicates God's divine authority over human requests. He treats our requests by His divine will, not by granting a definite realization, for God knows what is best for us.
For example, praying for divine assistance and guidance in applying for a job is biblical. But to demand insistently that God grant us the position is to superimpose our will upon the divine one. Rejection and acceptance are two possible outcomes in this case. A vital step to trusting in God is requesting for strength and the courage to face rejection. The Holy Spirit only intercedes and guides if we offer a prayer according to God's will, with the willingness to submit to His sovereign decision (Ro 8:26-27).
If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever you will, and it shall be done for you. (Jn 15:7)
If we ask anything according to His will He hears us. (1 Jn 5:14; 1 Jn 3:22)
Human insistence has no part in these circumstances. There are times, however, when persistence can come into play and is necessary. The parable of asking for bread shows that the persistence of the borrower is commendable (Lk 11:8). It ends with the need to ask for the Holy Spirit from the Father:
If you then being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him! (Lk 11:13)
The Holy Spirit is a promised gift for which we can persistently pray.
The most difficult aspect of this question concerns praying for the sick. Asking for healing is not an imposition of human will on God:
The prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up. (Jas 5:15)
Faith is the key to recovery. It not only leads to the understanding that God can heal, but also produces the reliance that His sovereign decision is the best. Paul, a man of God, did not receive physical healing after three separate requests (2 Cor 12:8-9). He asked for healing the third time, even though he knew from the first two occasions that God refused to heal him. It is necessary to pray until we are able to know that God has refused to heal, or to accept the physical affliction with a peaceful mind. It is entirely up to God if He wants to heal (Heb 2:4). Yet, we can know that it is His will through sickness to refine us and ensure that we remain in Him perpetually.
Having an Incorrect Motive
Sometimes, unanswered prayer stems from having the wrong motive: the pursuit of a personal objective. This is classified as asking amiss (Jas 4:2-3). The most obvious example is asking for the much-vaunted gift to speak in public, to teach, and to prophesy?quot;the gift of gab." In the context of James' epistle, there were members who prayed for gifts to spend them on their pleasures (Jas 4:3). There was also much conflict among the members because God refused to grant their requests (Jas 4:1). Instead, they should have prayed to change themselves, that they might attain what God required of them.
Having Friendship with the World
James also explained that some of the members were having friendship with the world, which had severed their relationship with God and caused God to ignore their prayers. Friendship in the Bible does not refer to the common association between our friends and us. Friendship with God means we do what He wants us to do; in turn, Jesus tells us what He has heard from the Father (Jn 15:14-15). In contrast, friendship with the world means we embrace what the world offers and live like the people of the world
Adulterers and adulteresses! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Whoever therefore wants to be a friend of the world makes an enemy of God. (Jas 4:4)
The fourth matter that prevents a prayer from reaching God is sin (Ps 66:18; Lam 3:40-44). In Lamentations 30, the prophet Jeremiah does not suggest only the immaculately clean have the privilege to pray. Rather, he emphasizes how an unwillingness to repent and confess sin makes prayer ineffective. To bear fruit in keeping with repentance in prayer is requisite for God to answer our prayers (cf Job 27:7-9; Prov 28:9). The same staggering problem confronted the people in Isaiah's ministry:
Behold, the Lord÷Õ hand is not shortened,
That it cannot save;
Nor His ear heavy,
That it cannot hear.
But your iniquities have separated you from your God;
And your sins have hidden His face from you,
So that He will not hear. (Is 59:1-2)
The entire existence of Israel was corrupt; the way of peace they had not known (Is 59:8). What they did was gravely contrary to God's ways. The way they lived their lives directly affected their prayers offered to the Lord.
Self-righteousness is a sin that deserves our careful attention, for it is often overlooked. It comes in two forms. The first is a contempt for others (Lk 18:9) that is reflected in our daily lives (Mt 6:5-7; Mk 12:40). In the parable of the tax collector and the Pharisee, Jesus reveals that self-righteousness originates from the heart. In the preamble of the parable, He exposes the hidden ugliness of the Pharisee's prayer. He trusted only in himself and held an indifferent attitude. He justified himself in the sight of man (cf. Lk 16:15), so much so that self-justification became part of his prayer. The Pharisee failed to realize that what is honorable in human eyes may be utterly detestable in God's. He who always justifies himself will always think he is righteous.
Jesus explicitly distinguishes righteousness from self-righteousness. A righteous person will not look at others with contempt. On the contrary, he desires to see sinners turn over a new leaf and pursue after the righteousness of God.
The second form of self-righteousness is being unrepentant.
If we say we have no sins, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 Jn 1:8-9)
This is also one of the problems with the Pharisee in the parable, who brought to attention only his religiosity. He neither addressed his prayer nor gave thanks to God for His providential care, let alone ascribing glory to Him. Neither did he confess his sins nor make any effort to repent. His prayer was so self-centered that he condemned another person to magnify his own "religious piety." His piety led him to think that he was good before God; he thought he had been fulfilling the requirements of the Law. In fact, he had neglected the weightier provision of the Law, though he may have claimed otherwise (cf. Lk 11:42).
The Pharisee's prayer totally cast the Shema (Deut 6:4) out of his mind. He violated the tenet that "the Lord is God" and of loving Him totally. If the Lord is God, then our prayer must have the components of thanksgiving and extolling Him. The Pharisee prayed to gain righteousness by religious deeds and failed to view himself correctly before God and man.
The last major obstacle to prayer is the inability to forgive. The forgiveness of others is the only part of the Lord's Prayer that demands our action and our compliance. It is not something conceptual. Nor is it just a pattern of prayer. It has to be translated into our lives, if we take prayer seriously and earnestly want God to listen and forgive.
And forgive us our debts. As we also have forgiven our debtors. (Mt 6:12)
The word "debts" is a common expression for "sins" in the Gospels. Jesus explicitly states that it is necessary to forgive in order to receive forgiveness. Our forgiveness of others becomes the condition attached to God's forgiveness of us. Many other examples in the Gospels testify to this infallible truth:
Forgive and you will be forgiven. (Lk 6:37; Mk 11:25; Mt 6:14)
Forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us. (Lk 11:4)
Divine forgiveness works not only on God's magnanimity toward us, but also on our determination to apply this virtue toward others. God is more than willing to forgive. But His forgiveness of us rests completely on our forgiveness of others. Sometimes, our reluctance and inability to forgive makes God withhold His forgiveness.
"You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me. Should you not also have had compassion on your fellow servant, just as I had pity on you?" And his master was angry, and delivered him to the torturers until he should pay all that was due to him. So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses. (Mt 18:33-35)
This parable exposes the unforgiving nature of man and its tragic consequence. Being unforgiving will cause past sins, which had once been forgiven by the Master, to be re-accounted for (Mt 18:23-35). The forgiveness of man should include forgiving others when we are offended (Mt 18:35) and asking for forgiveness when we offend others (Mt 5:23-24). Regardless of our position, be it right or wrong, we must exercise forgiveness. Our love toward others is part of a reciprocal relationship: God forgives (loves) us that in turn we forgive (love) others (Eph 4:32; Col 3:13; Lk 7:47). We forgive because we have been forgiven.
The effectiveness of our prayers does not rest solely on their length. It comes as a result of changing ourselves to reflect the divine principles in our lives. Our behavior affects our prayer. The Bible tells us that even the prayer of one who does not heed God's Law is an abomination in His eyes (Prov 28:9; 15:8). Aside from asking God to grant our requests, we must be determined to learn from our prayers by submitting to God's will and thus growing spiritually. A spiritually mature and prayerful person will not willfully sin against God. In his interpersonal relationships, either in society, church or at home, he always discloses the nature of God.