“If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened.” (Psalm 66:18)
When a particular prayer appears to go unanswered, there could be a whole variety of reasons. God might be active ‘behind the scenes’, providentially working out his plans and purposes in response to my request. Or he might be holding back his intervention, provision or deliverance to teach me patience or to test and strengthen my faith. Or he might consider, in his infinite wisdom as my perfect Heavenly Father, that what I’m asking is not good for me, not what I need.
Another possible explanation is that God simply isn’t listening to my prayer. This goes against the popular wisdom of certain preachers and authors who boldly assert that God ‘always’ hears and answers the prayers of his people. True, we can make a good biblical case for God always hearing our prayers. The Lord is, after all, omniscient (all-knowing) and omnipresent (present everywhere). As such, it’s hard to argue that even one word uttered by any of his children goes unheard by him. “Even before a word is on my tongue”, declares David, “behold O Lord, you know it altogether” (Psalm 139:4).
But hearing is one thing. Listening is quite another. In an average day I hear many things; conversations, discussions, radio or TV shows. Not to mention various background sounds, like the whirring of my laptop, the ping of an email dropping into my inbox, a police siren, the sound of children playing in the street. Every day I hear many different voices and noises. However, I certainly don’t listen to them all.
And so it is with God and our prayers. Not because he isn’t capable of listening attentively to every single prayer of every one of his children every moment of every day. But rather because some of our prayers come from a heart that’s clinging to sin. A sinful attitude perhaps, so holding a grudge against a Christian brother or sister. Or a sinful pattern of behaviour that I’ve become enslaved to, such as looking at pornography, slander and gossip, fiddling my expenses or evading my taxes. Perhaps I’ve allowed someone or something to become an idol that I’m trying (in vain) to worship before or alongside the one true God. Money, for example, or a friend or illicit relationship, or my career, or the relentless pursuit of the perfect physique.
The Psalmist invites those who fear God to come and hear what God has done for his soul (Psalm 66:16). He tells us that he was crying out to God with his mouth and high praise was on his tongue (v 17). But he is convinced that if these cries and high praise had come from a heart that was harbouring and treasuring sin, then the Lord would not have listened.
Not all our unanswered prayers can be explained in this way. But some can. I can think of times when I’ve prayed from a heart that is refusing to let go of an ungodly attitude, an idol, or a pattern of behaviour that I know displeases God. When I’ve become aware of this and am struggling to relinquish the cherished sin, I have often prayed like this: ‘Lord, you know what’s in my heart, you know that I’m harbouring sin. Please, in your mercy, take away the love of sinning and in your kindness grant me repentance.’
But what’s the point in praying like that, if God isn’t even listening? Well, so many times that kind of prayer has proved to be the catalyst for a turnaround from the sinful behaviour, or a relinquishing of the idol. Which is a reminder, of course, that we belong to the God of all grace, the one who is rich in mercy, abounding in love and faithfulness. So perhaps he is listening after all. Or maybe he’s patiently waiting and longing for us just to be utterly real with him in prayer.