Even the most devout, mature Christians would likely admit that there are times in their lives when prayer just feels pointless. I don’t mean that prayer is pointless, but that sometimes it feels like we’re talking to no one, like our words aren’t being heard any more than they would be if we talked to the wall, like God isn’t listening. Sometimes we can pray for something (careers, sicknesses, relationships, children, etc.) for weeks, months, even years on end and feel like the answer is never going to come. That persistence Jesus talked about in Luke 18:1-8 isn’t always enough.
One of the important points about prayer that we can forget, though, is that it isn’t a standalone event. Prayer is interconnected with everything else we do in our Christian lives, and its effect can’t be separated from everything that happens in between one prayer’s “amen” and the next’s “Our Father who is in heaven…” If it is to be effective, prayer is something we must prepare for with our actions and thoughts. What actions can we take to have a deeper connection in prayer?
Fast
There’s something powerful about being able to tell God “This petition is so important to me that I’m going to forego my basic human needs for a time to talk to you about it.” It was used for prayers of deliverance, as the Jews did in the days of Esther when their annihilation was decreed and she went before the king on their behalf. It was used in times of repentance on numerous occasions in the Old Testament, when the people wanted to show God that they wanted to leave their sin behind and put Him first. In today’s world, while the traditional fast is still important and necessary (and expected by Jesus – Matthew 6:16), we should also consider fasts from entertainment, social media, and anything else that might be dragging our focus away from the Father. Fasting is all about humbling ourselves before Him and making it clear that He is number one in our lives, and if we give up food yet still are consumed with some other activity, it’s not going to send the message that we need His attention.
However, in verses like Isaiah 58:3 and Jeremiah 14:12, we see God saying that He wouldn’t listen, regardless of whether His people fasted. Why not? Isaiah 59:2 gives us our answer – “…Your sins have hidden His face from you so that He does not hear.”
Separate yourself from sin
The people of Israel were fasting and praying fervently, but their lives remained unchanged. Why would God listen to people who ignore Him in all of their choices and then turn to Him to ask His favor? In the case of Achan’s sin at Jericho, we were given a clear picture of how God responds to “sin in the camp.” 1 Peter 3:7 tells husbands that their prayers will be hindered if they don’t treat their wives as they should, and James 5:16 reminds us that it’s the prayer of the righteous that can accomplish much. If our congregations or homes are openly tolerating sin and yet asking God’s blessing for some other endeavor, it would be foolish to expect Him to look favorably upon us.
That’s also why repentance is such an integral part of our every prayer. The prayer Jesus saw as effective in Luke 18 was the one in which the publican begged God’s forgiveness. Before our relationship with God can be as children asking a parent for help and provision, it must first be of a repentant sinner coming to God for healing.
Change the way you ask
I recently read a quote that completely changed my understanding of prayer. In his book Desiring God, John Piper described our misunderstanding of prayer by saying, “We have taken a wartime walkie-talkie and tried to turn it into a civilian intercom to call the servants for another cushion in the den.” When you’re in a battle, you aren’t going to use your communications devices for anything petty. You’re going to be communicating about that which is needed to win the battle. We’re fighting to overcome sin and make His name known throughout the earth. Our requests should always keep that in mind.
For that reason, prayer isn’t about getting what we want. Instead, it’s about aligning what we want with God’s will. Jesus’ prayer in the garden is the perfect example of this. He knew what He wanted, but ultimately He surrendered that to God’s will. In anything we ask of the Father, we should be asking for God to do what would bring the most glory to His name and accomplish His will best through our lives, and trust Him with what would accomplish His will best. After Jesus gave the model prayer in Matthew 6, He reminded His disciples that their first priority should be the kingdom (6:33), and if they put it first God would take care of everything else. There is no need to worry. He hears, He knows, and He will give us what we need most in our journey toward heaven.
That faith and ability to put worry out of our minds is crucial, because we’re all going to experience times when we think God isn’t listening or our prayers are useless. We have to remember that He is working on our behalf as long as we are walking in the light, and that His plan is bigger than what we can see. Sometimes, even with fasting and repentance, the answer is going to be no (see David in 2 Samuel 12). But if you’ve prepared yourself by pursuing righteousness, showing God that a connection with Him is something you can’t live without, and committed everything to His will, it becomes so much easier to understand that He is hearing us and acting on our behalf, in times when we see it and in times when we don’t.
By Jack Wilkie
Jack Wilkie is the author of “Failure: What Christian Parents Need to Know About American Education” and is the speaker for Focus Press’s “The Lost Generation” seminar. To schedule a seminar at your church, contact jack@focuspress.org.