I’m beginning to get scared. Contracting COVID-19 seemed rather remote until it turned up in my neighborhood last week. Several friends have tested positive. Now, my neighbor, the man that I walk with every morning, has an active case. I worry about him … and I’m worried about my family. Especially right now, I want my prayers to be answered. But is there anything that would keep God from answering prayers?
Surely the arm of the Lord is not too short to save, nor his ear to dull to hear. But your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear.
Let’s dig a little deeper together.
First, We Know 'The Pure in Heart Will See God' (Matthew 5:8)
What happens to those whose hearts aren’t pure? Their sin keeps God from hearing their prayers. If we want to hear God speak or see God’s work, we must first be sure that our lives are clean and pure.
When I was a children’s pastor many years ago, I took a group of kids to the rollerskating rink a few hours away. It was a hot and humid night, as I led the caravan of church members home. Suddenly, I saw red lights blinking behind me. My eyes immediately glanced at the speedometer, but I was right on the mark. I exited the car, and the police officer asked, “Do you know that you ran a stop sign back there?
“No, I didn’t see it.”
“Maybe the reason that you didn’t see it was because your lights aren’t on.”
“I don’t have my lights on/” I reached inside and felt for the switch. Sure enough, my lights were off.
“Perhaps you missed it because your car is filled with children all shouting and yelling and fogging up your windshield.”
I hung my head.
“Do you realize that you have nine children in your car and the maximum allowance in Texas is eight?”
“I didn’t know that.”
So” he said, “Get back in your car; turn on your lights, wipe down your windshield, quiet down those children, and get out of my town! If I see you in Hillsboro again tonight, I’m running you into jail.”
I turned to the children and shouted, “Will you kids all shut up?”
We drove home in silence (with the lights on). Just like turned-off lights, dirty windshields, and yelling children can cause a police officer to pull us over, unconfessed sin can stop God from listening to our prayers.
God Will Not Listen to the Prayers of Those Who Harbor Sin in Their Lives
Let me make this statement very clear by sharing several significant biblical passages:
- When you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide my eyes from you; even if you offer many prayers, I will not listen. Take your evil deeds out of my sight! Stop doing wrong, learn to do right. (Isaiah 1:15)
- If I had cherished sin in my heart, the Lord would not have listened, but surely God has listened and heard my voice in prayer. (Psalm 66:18-19)
- Then they will cry out to the Lord, but he will not answer them … Because of the evil they have done. (Micah 3:4)
- We know that God does not listen to sinners. He listens to the godly man who does his will. (John 9:31)
Sin Is Serious Business to God - He Wants it Cleaned Up
We have a hard time comprehending the idea that God might not hear our prayers. The reason is because we have such a lighthearted view of sin. Sin separates us from God. He declares,
If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land. (2 Chronicles 7:14)
The statement, “God answers prayer,” leaves the impression that we don’t have to get right with God for him to hear our prayers. He just answers automatically. But that’s just not true. A better way to understand this principle is to turn it around and say: “God answers the prayer of a man/woman who is right with Him.”
“The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.” (James 5:16)
When we only seek the hand of God to get our needs met, we will often ignore our sins because were more concerned with our wants and issues than our relationship with Him. But, when we seek His face in the radiance of His character, we will have our sins exposed, and we can deal with them.
But don’t miss this; when we sin, our fellowship with God is impaired. There is a block that keeps God from hearing our prayers. On the other hand, our relationship with Him can never be broken. He will always be our Father.
In the same way, the relationship between my father and me can never be broken. He will always be my father. But my dad and I can be angry with each other and our fellowship can be broken. Then it’s time for us to settle our differences and make peace. Fortunately, God has a plan for instantaneous cleansing. It’s called confession.
Confession Is God’s Means for Cleaning Up Dirty Sins
Sins need individual attention. As an observant pastor, I’ve decided that most Christians seldom confess their sins. If they do think about it, they are likely to pray something like this: “And Lord, please forgive all the sins that I have committed today.” I want to say, “If that’s the best you can do, don’t bother.”
I had several chores around the house when I was growing up, but I never had to do the laundry. So, after my first week in college, I took my duffel bag filled with dirty clothes to the laundromat down the street. I thought I’d save a little time, so I just tossed my duffel bag full of clothes in the washing machine, put in my money, and turned it on.
Suddenly, my washing machine was bouncing all over the floor. I had no idea what was going on! A pretty Baylor coed came over and said, “Your machine is way out of balance. I watched what you were doing; may I help you?” She stopped the washer, opened the door, and pulled out my sopping wet duffel bag. Together, we shook the clothes out piece by piece and threw them back into the washer.
Later, as I reflected on what happened, it dawned on me that dirty sins are like dirty clothes. They need individual attention. In other words, only when sins are confessed individually does God cleanse them individually.
Finally, Here’s How to Make a Good Confession
1. List the ways in which you’ve sinned.
Don’t worry about the sins you can’t remember. You’ll be surprised at how God eventually brings them to mind later on at just the right time.
2. Confess to God and receive His forgiveness.
Confess really means “to agree with,” or to “speak the same thing as.” What it means is that we are to say the same about our selfishness (or other sins) that God says.
Consider what does God say about our selfishness. It is sinful; it causes Him pain; it produces a lack of love; it drove the nails into Jesus’s hands and feet. To really understand, we have to experience godly sorrow:
Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death. (2 Corinthians 7:10)
Godly sorrow means that we experience what Jesus felt when He saw us do what we did.
Julie has always had trouble keeping up with her keys. One afternoon I saw her keys in the church parking lot sitting on the front seat of our car, and the car door was open for anyone to steal. I was angry. Julie was in the church sanctuary leading an instrumental rehearsal with seven violinists. I had enough. I stomped down the aisle shaking the keys yelling, “Will you ever learn to keep up with your keys?”
I threw the keys on the piano and stormed back to my church office where I continued working on my Sunday sermon on love (that really is true; the sermon that week was on love). I began feeling quite badly about what I’d done. I wanted to run back in the church and tell Julie how sorry I was and to ask for her forgiveness. But first, I decided to practice a little “godly sorrow.”
I begin thinking about what Jesus must have thought when He saw me do what I did to Julie. I imagined Him standing there watching me throw the keys on the piano in front of Julie. I imagined the look of disappointment on Jesus’s face. Then, I began to become truly sorry and ashamed for how I behaved.
Only after experiencing this emotional reality can we be ready to move on to actually confess our sin. Now it was time to confess to God (and to Julie). I do not believe we have confessed until we have experienced godly sorrow.
Here’s What a Good Confession Sounds Like
Dear Father, “I realize that I have hurt You deeply by my selfishness, inattention, and wrong priorities, (or whatever) and that was wrong of me, will You please forgive me?”
1. Confessions are most effective if we take the initiative to confess without having to be confronted by God or others.
2. Confession must be specific.
Name the sin. “This morning at 8:30 I lost my temper and yelled at a work associate. I shamed and belittled him in front of a group of our employees. I was way out of control and hurt him deeply.” (Of course, I need to practice godly sorrow and ask for God’s forgiveness before I go to the employee to ask his forgiveness).
3. Use the phrase “I was wrong” instead of “I’m sorry.”
The phrase “I’m sorry” implies little personal responsibility. It can even have several subtle meanings which negate any sense of being wrong. Confession means not only to admit what we did, but to agree with God that it was wrong.
4. Now it’s time to ask a very vulnerable question: Will You Forgive Me?
Of course, God promises that He will!
5. After your confession, put a period and stop talking.
Do not try to defend yourself or your actions. That will ruin everything.
Notice that I began by talking about hindrances to our prayers for protection. I expanded this answer to include all prayers which could be potentially hindered because of unconfessed sins, hoping that you will be encouraged.
Well, Matt, I hope that helps. May God keep you and those you love safe!
Photo credit: ©GettyImages/Digitalskillet
Dr. Roger Barrier retired as senior teaching pastor from Casas Church in Tucson, Arizona. In addition to being an author and sought-after conference speaker, Roger has mentored or taught thousands of pastors, missionaries, and Christian leaders worldwide. Casas Church, where Roger served throughout his 35-year career, is a megachurch known for a well-integrated, multi-generational ministry. The value of including new generations is deeply ingrained throughout Casas to help the church move strongly right through the twenty-first century and beyond. Dr. Barrier holds degrees from Baylor University, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Golden Gate Seminary in Greek, religion, theology, and pastoral care. His popular book, Listening to the Voice of God, published by Bethany House, is in its second printing and is available in Thai and Portuguese. His latest work is, Got Guts? Get Godly! Pray the Prayer God Guarantees to Answer, from Xulon Press. Roger can be found blogging at Preach It, Teach It, the pastoral teaching site founded with his wife, Dr. Julie Barrier.
Editor's Note: This Ask Roger article features insights from Roger's daughter, Brie Barrier Wetherbee, a sought-after Bible teacher and conference speaker, author, analyst, and Christian theologian.
Pastor Roger Barrier's "Ask Roger" column regularly appears at Preach It, Teach It. Every week at Crosswalk, Dr. Barrier puts nearly 40 years of experience in the pastorate to work answering questions of doctrine or practice for laypeople or giving advice on church leadership issues. Email him your questions at email@example.com.