Faith that Gets Its Hands Dirty part 8
Roadblocks to Answered Prayer
by Greg Hanson
Sunrise Wesleyan Church
February 24, 2008


Main Passage: James 4:1-3

I could have gone to prison. Seriously. Your pastor could have been a convicted criminal.

Let me back up. Several years ago, after I graduated from college and about a week before I moved to South Dakota to work in my first church, I was still living in Fredericton and I decided to take advantage of the time I had left there.

I had a friend who lived in northern Maine – actually, and old roommate of mine – so I decided I would go and visit with him and his wife. So I drove over one afternoon, had a pretty good visit, and then we turned in for the night. They had one of those pull-out sofa-beds that I got to use.

Well, early the next morning, I awoke to the sound of the telephone ringing. And it rang for quite a while but nobody was answering it. Apparently my hosts had already gotten up and made a quick run to the store. Well, the phone was still ringing, so finally I picked it up. And as it turned out, the call was for me anyway. It was my mother. And she was actually calling with some sad news. You see, my great-grandmother had been in the hospital for the past couple of weeks and was fading quickly. And while I was visiting my friend, she had passed away.
So I quickly gathered up my things, left a note for my friends, and started back to New Brunswick. Of course, I wanted to get back as quickly as I could, so I wanted to know the shortest route. It had taken a while to get there, and I was sure there’d be a quicker way to get back. Now GoogleMaps didn’t exist yet, and I had no idea what a GPS was, so I did it the old fashioned way – I pulled out a map and I plotted to shortest route. And I discovered that the quickest way back to New Brunswick and to Fredericton would take me on some back roads that I had never traveled before, and I would cross the border where I had never crossed before.

So I was driving along, really with my mind on different things, when I heard a loud siren and alarms going off. And I immediately realized what I had done – I had just run the border. Now obviously, I didn’t mean to do that. I was just traveling along with other things on my mind, and I completely missed the small building along the other side of the road that served as the border station. I was expecting some big official looking complex with a gate across the road, but no. Just a small understated building on the opposite side of the road. Well, as soon as I realized what I had done, I stopped the car and backed up to the station.

One of the border guards came out of the building, came up to my window, and obviously wasn’t that happy with me. In fact, he threatened to throw me into jail. Well, I apologized profusely, and after a short lecture, he must have realized that international terrorists don’t travel in K-Car station wagons, and he let me go.

You know what border stations are, don’t you? They’re a kind of roadblock. They’re meant to prevent people from entering the country illegally. You've got to be approved and checked before you can cross the border. And if you're carrying with you anything that you're not allowed to carry across the border, it’s going to be confiscated and you're going to be delayed if not completely turned away or arrested. Roadblocks prevent or delay you from reaching your intended destination.

The border is a kind of roadblock. Sometimes police cars are arranged to create a roadblock to catch criminals or to set up a checkpoint. Sometimes roadblocks keep you out of a construction zone… there are all kinds of roadblocks. Sometimes roadblocks are made out of wood, they can be made out of metal, the can be made out of concrete. Even piles of sand or bales of hay can be used to create roadblocks. Sometimes people themselves become the roadblock. There have even been times when a dog or a cow have become a roadblock for me. Roadblocks take different forms, and they always impede or prevent your progress.

This morning we’re continuing with our series on Faith that Gets Its Hands Dirty – Developing a faith that’s not afraid to get involved in the messiness of life. And today we’re going to be talking about different kinds of roadblocks. Specifically, roadblocks to answered prayer. What are some of the things that prevent your prayers from being heard and answered as you would like?

What are the Roadblocks to Answered Prayer?

Through this message series, we’ve been working our way through the New Testament book of James. So we’re going to start there again today. And then we’re going to look at some other passages, too, and see if we can get a fuller understanding of why you might pray for something only to have that prayer go unanswered. Okay?

Now, last week, we looked at a section in James chapter three, where James talked about the arguments and the fights and the divisions we experience in our interpersonal relationships.

And he carries that theme right into chapter four. Derek just read this for us, but lets take another look…

James 4:1-3 (NLT)
What is causing the quarrels and fights among you?

So more relational issues. There are fights and quarrels going on. Between who? Well, James is writing to believers here. He’s writing to followers of Jesus. And he says there are fights even between them. Even within the Church people were arguing and posturing themselves and engaging in conflict. So what was causing these problems?

James 4:1-3 (NLT)
Don’t they come from the evil desires at war within you? You want what you don’t have, so you scheme and kill to get it. You are jealous of what others have, but you can’t get it, so you fight and wage war to take it away from them.

So James says there’s selfishness, there’s greed, there’s jealousy… and all of that is leading to the divisions among the believers. Where there should be unity, there was disunity. Where there should be harmony, there was disharmony. Where there should be selflessness, there was selfishness. They wanted what they didn’t have, so they conspired against others to get it.

And then James gets to the real issue…

James 4:1-3 (NLT)
Yet you don’t have what you want because you don’t ask God for it.

So he says, “you’re conspiring against each other to get what you don’t have, but that’s not the solution. That accomplishes nothing. What you should be doing is asking God. Stop the backbiting and the backstabbing and just ask God.” But even then, they weren’t getting what they wanted, and James explained why…

James 4:1-3 (NLT)
And even when you ask, you don’t get it because your motives are all wrong—you want only what will give you pleasure.

So again, they were motivated by selfishness and greed and jealousy, and God is not going to honour that kind of a motive. So that’s the first roadblock…

1.    We are asking with selfish motives

James 4:3 (NLT)
And even when you ask, you don’t get it because your motives are all wrong—you want only what will give you pleasure.

If you were to list the last ten things that you prayed for during your personal time with God, what would you find? Would the things you've prayed for all be self-centered? Or have you genuinely spent time praying for the good of others? Have you prayed for God’s Kingdom to expand here on earth? Have you prayed for His Church? Have you prayed for His ministry? Have you prayed that you would be used by Him? Or have you prayed the opposite? Have you prayed that He would be used for you? Most times, people find that the vast majority of their prayers are for themselves.

"The Christian must continually evaluate his prayer life to make certain that his prayers spring out of a desire for God's glory and not from self-interest."
  - Vernon Doerksen (Bible Commentator)

Is it wrong to ask God to supply your needs? Of course not. He welcomes us to do that. Is it wrong to ask Him for some of our wants? No, I don’t think so. He encourages that, too. But I think the key is that our own wants and desires are kept secondary to His. Jesus Himself modeled this for us when He prayed…

Matthew 26:39 (NLT)
“My Father! If it is possible, let this cup of suffering be taken away from me. Yet I want your will to be done, not mine.”

Jesus told His Father what He wanted, but He kept His Father’s plans first.

Of course, it’s natural for us to be selfish. We don’t have to learn that. We’re born with an innate desire for whatever will make us happy. (Here I was hoping to teach Nathaniel to cry and demand his own way, but he seems to have picked it up all by himself.)

The Minnesota Crime Commission released a report a number of years ago:

“Every baby starts life as a little savage. He is completely selfish and self-centered: he wants what he wants, his bottle, his mother’s attention, his playmate’s toys, his uncle’s watch, or whatever. Deny him these and he seethes with rage and aggressiveness which would be murderous were he not so helpless. He is dirty; he has no morals, no knowledge and no developed skills. This means that all children, not just certain children, but all children are born delinquent. If permitted to continue in their self-centered world of infancy, given free reign to their impulsive actions to satisfy each want, every child would grow up a criminal, a killer, a thief, and a rapist.”
~ Charles Swindoll, Family Life, Multnomah Press, Page 102

Selfishness comes naturally, but it’s a roadblock. God does not honour selfishness. He honours humility. So that’s the remedy…

Remedy: Humble yourself before God

“Our motives in our prayer requests are of concern to the Lord. He wishes to help us in our time of need, but is not obligated to answer prayers which will merely feed our carnal, worldly appetites and (lustful) pleasures. Our motives and desires can be corrected by humbling ourselves, and drawing near to God.”
~ Dale A. Robbins

2.    We are harbouring unconfessed sin

Now, I've got to be careful here. Unanswered prayer is not always the result of sin. We’re looking at nine reasons prayer might go unanswered, and not all of them are bad. Not all of them are sinful. So it's wrong for us to assume that because things aren't going well for someone and their prayers seem to go unanswered that it's because of sin in their lives. We can't automatically jump to that conclusion. It's unfair and unjust, and it's simply not always true.

But the Bible does teach that there are times when sin is the roadblock to answered prayer. Read this verse aloud with me…

Psalm 66:18 (NLT)
If I had not confessed the sin in my heart, the Lord would not have listened.

Isaiah 59:2 (NLT)
It’s your sins that have cut you off from God. Because of your sins, he has turned away and will not listen anymore.

I love this story. I’ve told it before, but it’s worth retelling…

There was a middle school in Oregon that faced a unique problem. Kind of a funny problem, actually. You see, the custodian was constantly cleaning lipstick off the mirror in the girls’ bathroom. It was a middle school, and many of the girls were just starting to use lipstick. So they’d go into the bathroom, put it on, and then they’d press their lips to the mirrors leaving dozens of little lip prints.

Finally, the principal decided to do something about it. So she called a number of girls to the bathroom and met them there with the custodian. She explained to the girls that all those lip prints were causing a major problem for the custodian, who had to clean the mirrors every day. And to demonstrate, she asked the custodian to clean one of the mirrors. So he took out a long-handled brush, dipped it in the toilet, and then used it to scrub the mirror. They never had a problem with lip prints on the mirror after that.

That’s how God views the sin in our lives. He doesn’t want anything to do with it. He’s repulsed by it. Unconfessed sin pushes God away and prevents Him from hearing and answering our prayers.

1 Peter 3:12 (NLT)
The eyes of the Lord watch over those who do right, and his ears are open to their prayers. But the Lord turns his face against those who do evil.”

So what’s the remedy?

Remedy: Confess your sin to God and ask forgiveness

1 John 1:9 (NLT)
But if we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all wickedness.

3.    We are living in deliberate disobedience

Ezekiel 8:17-18 (NLT)
“Is it nothing to the people of Judah that they commit these detestable sins, leading the whole nation into violence, thumbing their noses at me, and provoking my anger?  Therefore, I will respond in fury… And though they cry for mercy, I will not listen.”

The people of Judah were deliberately disobeying God. They were purposefully provoking God’s anger. Why would they expect that God would listen to their prayers for mercy when they disregard Him in every other way?

You see, God understandably finds it difficult to answer the requests of a person who deliberately disobeys Him. If someone is living a lifestyle in which he constantly does things that are contrary to Biblical principles, then that person should not expect that he will have the ear of God whenever he pleases. In fact, this is what God says to that person…

Isaiah 1:15-16 (NLT)
When you lift up your hands in prayer, I will not look. Though you offer many prayers, I will not listen… Get your sins out of my sight.

Remedy: Choose to follow God’s ways

1 John 3:22 (NLT)
And we will receive from him whatever we ask because we obey him and do the things that please him.

4.    We don’t really believe God can or will answer

Prayer is not about begging from God; it’s about believing in Him and His goodness. If you don’t believe, then He’s not going to answer. Back in James chapter one, we read…

James 1:6 (NIV)
But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind.

When you approach God in prayer, He expects you to have faith that He wants to be actively involved in your life and that He cares for you and that He loves you and that He's capable of answering your prayer. I think too often we pray flippantly without ever expecting God to answer our prayer. But when we pray like that, we're preventing God from answering our prayers even as we ask.

Mark 11:24 (NLT)
I tell you, you can pray for anything, and if you believe that you’ve received it, it will be yours.

Remedy: Pray that God will increase your faith

In Mark chapter 9, a father brings his demon-possessed son to Jesus and asks Jesus to free him if He can.

Mark 9:23-24 (MSG)
Jesus said, "If? There are no 'ifs' among believers. Anything can happen."
No sooner were the words out of his mouth than the father cried, "Then I believe. Help me with my doubts!"

If you lack faith, then you need to echo what that father said. “I do believe. Help my unbelief.”

5.    We view God as a puppet subject to our whims

Viewing God as a puppet is the very essence of pride and arrogance… placing yourself as God’s ruler. When you treat God with that kind of pride, then He’s not all that obliged to listen to you.

Job 35:12 (NLT)
And when they cry out, God does not answer because of their pride.

Years ago, Paul Anka wrote a song that Frank Sinatra made famous. You know the one I mean? “I Did It My Way”. That song is about a man approaching the end of his life, boasting about how everything he did in life he did his way.

It sounds like an inspiring song. And it’s been popular for almost four decades now. But really, what an arrogant song. “I did it my way. My way’s the only way that matters. I didn’t need anyone else’s help or anyone else’s advice. I did it all my way.”

Well, it’s that kind of arrogance—that kind of pride—that tells God that we don’t need Him. If anything, it says that He needs us, so He should be serving us. He should be at our beck and call.

Our pride and arrogance convinces us that God owes it to us to do whatever we ask. But God is not a puppet. He is not subject to our every whim. And He detests pride. He will not listen to those who approach Him that way.

Remedy: Recognize God as God

You’re not God; He is. Don’t get that confused.

6.    We are withholding forgiveness from another

This right here may be the chief roadblock to answered prayer. Jesus spoke of this more than He spoke of any other roadblock in our relationship with God. It's very subtle, and on the surface appears unrelated to our ability to pray and communicate with God. But listen to the words of Jesus in Mark 11:25…

Mark 11:25 (NLT)
“But when you are praying, first forgive anyone you are holding a grudge against, so that your Father in heaven will forgive your sins, too.”

Our relationships with other people directly affects our relationship with God. If we refuse to forgive others, then God will not forgive us. If we want to have a pure and unhindered relationship with God, then that’s the kind of relationship we need to have with others, as much as it’s up to us.

In Matthew 5, Jesus goes as far as to tell us not to even worship God if we're not in harmony with each other. That's how important it is to God that we forgive each other. Any degree of unforgiveness forms a roadblock to answered prayer.

Remedy: Forgive and be forgiven

7.    We give up too soon

There’s an interesting passage of Scripture in Daniel 10. We’re told there that Daniel had been praying and fasting for three solid weeks before he received an answer from God. At that time, an angel appeared to him in a vision, and told him that his prayer had been heard since the first day he started to pray. But Satan had impeded the angel who had been sent to answer the prayer. But Daniel persisted in his prayer, so God sent reinforcements to help the angel deliver the answer to Daniel's prayer. It makes me wonder if Daniel's prayer would have been answered if he gave up praying after the first day, or after the first couple of minutes as we often do.

Remedy: Persistence

In Luke 18, Jesus tells a story about a judge who really didn't care for God or anyone else. But day after day a certain widow kept coming to him asking him to bring her justice against her enemy. For the first number of days he just ignored her. But eventually he granted her request just to get her out of his hair. If this judge who didn't even care for the widow was convinced to help her because of her persistence, how much more will a God of love answer prayer.

Right at the start of that passage, the Bible tells us why Jesus told the parable…

Luke 18:1 (NLT)
One day Jesus told his disciples a story to show that they should always pray and never give up.

We need to learn to pray with determination, patience, and diligence.

8.    We’ve pushed God to the margins of our lives

When we place other things or other people ahead of God, we're telling Him that we don't really need His help. We think we can find what we need elsewhere. So we end up placing "idols" in the position of our lives that rightfully belongs to God, pushing Him to the sidelines in the process. Listen to what God has to say about people who do this:

Ezekiel 14:3 (NLT)
… these leaders have set up idols in their hearts. They have embraced things that will make them fall into sin. Why should I listen to their requests?

God demands and expects our exclusive devotion and faithfulness. And when we are unfaithful to God by placing other things ahead of Him in our lives, then we forfeit His response to our prayers. So what’s the remedy?

Remedy: Abide in God

Acts 17:28 (NLT)
For in him we live and move and exist.

John 15:7 (NLT)
But if you remain in me and my words remain in you, you may ask for anything you want, and it will be granted!

9.    What we ask is inconsistent with the will of God

A lot of times, what we pray for isn’t necessary wrong or sinful. In fact, it can be quite innocent. But perhaps it just doesn’t fit into God’s plan. If we pray something that God knows is against our best interests or against the best interests of others, then He may decide to respond to our prayer by saying "No." Or He might say, "Wait until the timing's better." God’s pretty smart. And He’s able to make the best decision even when we don’t know all the details and we don’t understand why.
1 John 5:14-15 (NIV)
This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us—whatever we ask—we know that we have what we asked of him.
“According to His will.” That’s an important distinction. It's essential that our prayers be consistent with the will of God. If what we ask is in conflict with His will, then he won’t and shouldn’t answer.

Remedy: Be immersed in His Word and pray accordingly

The Bible teaches us what God's will is. So open it up and find the promises that He made to you. Search for spiritual principles and values and apply them to your life. Learn about His desires. And as you do that, you will find that your prayers become consistent with Scripture, and they therefore become consistent with the will of God.

Plus, as you do that, you will discover that you are being changed. You’re being transformed.

Romans 12:2 (NLT)
Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.

So there are lots of reasons why your prayers may appear to go unanswered. If you find yourself in that boat, consider why. Has God really not answered you, or have you just not accepted His answer? Do you simply need to trust that He knows best? Or is there a more serious problem? Is there sin in your life? Have you pushed Him to the margins? Are you full of pride? Can you identify a reason why your prayers may go unanswered? Do you need to ask forgiveness? If so, why not do it right now? Right where you are, you can tell God that you’re sorry for your disobedience and choose to follow Him from this day forward. You can reconcile your relationship with Him today.

[Note: This message series uses a variety of source materials, primarily "A Faith that Worls" by Rick Warren, "Faith for Pedestrians" by Laurence Croswell, and "James: Hands-On Christianity" by Charles Swindoll.]



Copyright © Greg Hanson, 2008