Nothing defines our personal relationship with God more than prayer. Yet it is not unusual to have difficulty staying close. How can we overcome an important cause of prayer block?
We desire a close relationship with God and may set aside time for daily prayer. Yet prayer is not always easy.
Do you feel that you are not reaching God? That something is missing in your prayer life? That you could be more effective?
These feelings might be symptoms of prayer block. Prayer block can be defined as difficulty praying due to a feeling of discouragement that God is not hearing or answering your prayers. While the Bible doesn’t use the term prayer block, God does provide some reasons He may not respond to our prayers.
Consider a passage where the apostle Peter suggests a broad principle about prayer in a specific admonition: “Husbands, likewise, dwell with them with understanding, giving honor to the wife, as to the weaker vessel, and as being heirs together of the grace of life, that your prayers may not be hindered” (1 Peter 3:7, emphasis added throughout).
Peter is referring specifically to the importance of husbands putting their wives’ needs ahead of their own. But the broader principle is to put others first. One of the most important hindrances to prayer can be ourselves.
Is ego our enemy?
Of all the things that can block our prayers, our own ego ranks near the top. The psalmist wrote about experiencing a feeling of separation from God: “Why do You stand afar off, O LORD? Why do You hide in times of trouble?” (Psalm 10:1).
In the end, the author concluded: “LORD, You have heard the desire of the humble; You will prepare their heart; You will cause Your ear to hear” (verse 17).
When our prayer life stalls, the first thing to examine is our ego—pride, conceit, self-importance and vanity.
Jesus also addressed this. After teaching that we should always be praying and not losing heart, “He spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others:
“‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, “God, I thank You that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.”
“‘And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, “God, be merciful to me a sinner!” I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted’” (Luke 18:9-14).
The Pharisee viewed what we do as sufficient. It seems he avoided doing the wrong things (such as extortion and adultery) and religiously did the right things (such as fasting and tithing). But, Jesus explained, it’s not just what we do that’s important, it’s who and what we are. Tithing is an act of doing. Humility is a state of being. Both are necessary, but also very different.
Being humble, faithful, caring, merciful and selfless not only opens the door to contact with God, but enables us to do what is right in God’s eyes. And He puts a high premium on humility.Being humble, faithful, caring, merciful and selfless not only opens the door to contact with God, but enables us to do what is right in God’s eyes. And He puts a high premium on humility.
Humility is a key
Humility is at the heart of breaking through this type of prayer block.
In Jesus’ great condemnation of the religious leaders of His day, recorded in Matthew 23, He emphasized the same point. “And whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (verse 12). The theme of the entire chapter is that it’s not just what we do but who we are.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone” (verse 23).
So where do we begin? None of the subjects outlined in Matthew 6:9-13 (often called the Lord’s Prayer) should be neglected, but a good place to start is to spend a significant portion of our prayer time praying for others.
Pray for those we have harmed
Just about all of us have had times when we realize we’ve harmed someone by our words or actions. When we recognize our sin in such cases, we should turn to God and pray for forgiveness. But is that enough?
Consider an example in the life of Abraham. He was traveling through another kingdom with his wife, Sarah, who was also his half-sister. Abraham said she was his sister, and the king, Abimelech, took her into his harem (Genesis 20:2). God appeared to Abimelech in a dream and warned him that he had taken another man’s wife.
Abimelech protested his innocence in this matter, so God not only ordered him to restore Sarah to Abraham, but told Abraham to pray for Abimelech.
“So Abraham prayed to God; and God healed Abimelech, his wife, and his female servants. Then they bore children; for the LORD had closed up all the wombs of the house of Abimelech because of Sarah, Abraham’s wife” (Genesis 20:17-18).
This was an important lesson for Abraham as well as for us. Certainly God wants us to pray for forgiveness, but we should also pray for those we have harmed by our sins.
Pray that God will show the reasons for our problems
Sometimes we get very discouraged because we pray about a specific trial or problem and God doesn’t immediately—or even after a long time—provide us with a solution. Could it be that God is waiting for us to see that we are the problem? Again, is our ego getting in the way?
When God led the Israelites across the Jordan River into Canaan, their first obstacle was Jericho. God told Joshua that He would give them victory over the heavily walled and fortified city, but He warned them to avoid taking any of the silver, gold and other valuable items for themselves. Rather, they were instructed to turn them over to “the treasury of the LORD” (Joshua 6:19).
The fall of Jericho was a huge victory, so it seemed almost trivial to worry about their next conquest—the small town of Ai. After spying out the town, Joshua sent a force of just 3,000 men, which should have been more than enough to defeat Ai. Yet the Israelites were routed—to the confusion and consternation of Joshua (Joshua 7:1-6).
Here was Joshua’s first big trial as leader of the Israelites, so he prayed.
“Alas, Lord GOD, why have You brought this people over the Jordan at all—to deliver us into the hand of the Amorites, to destroy us? Oh, that we had been content, and dwelt on the other side of the Jordan! O Lord, what shall I say when Israel turns its back before its enemies? For the Canaanites and all the inhabitants of the land will hear it, and surround us, and cut off our name from the earth. Then what will You do for Your great name?” (verses 7-9).
Joshua asked several questions in this prayer, but they were all the wrong questions! The questions Joshua should have asked were: “Why did this happen?” “What did I do wrong?” “What can I do to fix it?”
What was God’s response? “So the LORD said to Joshua: ‘Get up! Why do you lie thus on your face?’” (verse 10). God then went on to address the problem. Someone had disobeyed God’s instruction and taken valuables from Jericho for himself.
God told Joshua to get both his and the nation’s houses in order by sanctifying themselves (which suggests humbly coming before God).
The lesson God was teaching the new leader of Israel then is the same lesson He wants us to learn today. Only when we are asking the right questions, with a humble attitude, can we expect God to give us answers.
Are we doing the right thing the wrong way?
We often fall into the trap of doing the right thing the wrong way. Prayer is the right thing, but as James said: “You ask and do not receive, because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures” (James 4:3).
A few verses later he summed up this important obstacle to prayer by paraphrasing a verse from the book of Proverbs: “God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6).
Could it be that we ourselves are the prayer block?
Read more about other potential pitfalls and principles of proper prayer in the articles in the section “How to Pray.”