I watched a movie recently where the protagonist (a minister) wrestled with questions concerning prayer. Is God listening to us? Can we know his thoughts on the matters that most trouble us? Is there only one way to pray? As he struggled to reconcile his faith with his feelings, I found myself resonating with his concerns. At the root, I kept returning to one question:
Does God still listen when we feel like we’re praying all wrong?
For example, I tend to fall into a bad habit when I pray. When Jesus teaches his followers to pray, he warns them not to “heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words” (Matthew 6:7). I’m afraid I pray with empty phrases all the time. I catch myself repeating requests multiple times, saying the same words to God over and over in pursuit of some impression that I’ve been heard, some spiritual confirmation that my prayer made it to God. Although I know such an approach is ridiculous, I can understand why the practice persists: unlike conversations with others, I don’t see or hear God receive my prayer. With another person, I can see a facial expression or hear an affirmation that my words have been heard. I can even tell sometimes whether or not someone takes genuine interest in my words by his or her immediate reaction. With God, I don’t have any of that. I can thus easily wonder if my prayer was received, if I prayed correctly, if I prayed with sufficient faith or reverence or clarity.
Maybe you too fear that God won’t accept or hear your prayers sometimes. If so, I want to offer some encouragement.
I can only think of a few places in Scripture where God seems to close his ears to our prayers. One instance appears in 1 Peter as Peter tells husbands to “live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered” (1 Peter 3:7). Psalms also references some hindrance as the psalmist writes, “If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened” (Psalm 66:18). Yet as I looked over these and other related passages (Tim Challies list six such texts), I noticed that in each case, the problem was not with God but with the individual. When we approach God irreverently, attempting to harbor sin while also seeking him, we approach foolishly. We deceive ourselves into thinking we can serve two masters (God and sin). As Jesus said, “Either he will hate the one and despise the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other” (Matthew 6:24). God will not be mocked. We must repent and approach him in humility if we wish to see him move in and through us (see James 4:3).
The encouraging truth here is that such biblical warnings do not discourage imperfect yet genuine prayers. The disciples asked for instruction concerning how to pray (Luke 11:1). Another man voiced a request to which we can each relate when he said, “I believe; help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24). We shouldn’t be surprised if we feel sub-par in our abilities to pray. We should remember that God is a good father who delights to give good things to his people (Matthew 7:7-11). He cares for us (1 Peter 5:7). So we can “continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving” (Colossians 4:2) because we know that God answers us on the basis of his love. Because he is good, he hears, cares, and responds. He knows our needs before we even lift them up (Matthew 6:8). Moreso, as Christians, Christ stands as our advocate before the Father (Hebrews 7:25; 1 John 2:1) and the Spirit prays for us in our weaknesses according to God’s will (Romans 8:26-27). God knows us to be imperfect and loves us still. Just as we are saved by grace through faith and not through our good works, so we are heard by grace through faith and not by our good works.
So we may rest. We may pray without fear. We may come in the power of the Spirit through the blood of the Son to our Father with faith in his love and goodness. For even though we may not receive an immediate confirmation that God heard our prayer, we have an everlasting promise from God that he hears us. We can rest on the unshakable foundation of the Bible, trusting truths that remain constant in spite of our fickle feelings. God has spoken and has invited us to seek him, and he has provided a way through Christ.
Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.