We have all heard the old adage, “Your prayers are not getting past the ceiling.” It requires little explanation but for clarity sake it’s just a nicer way of saying that a person senses that The Lord isn’t listening to their prayers. We have all been there, where the prayer closet just seems ‘dry.’ Some of you reading this may currently be there now. Regardless of where you are we can all agree that there are few things more unpleasant than when we sense that the Lord isn’t listening to our prayers. Is there a reason for heaven’s silence? Is there a change you need to make?
Why isn’t The Lord listening to my prayers?
I think there are several Biblical reasons that could be the possible answer here. Perhaps, if you are a husband, it is because you are at odds with your wife (1 Peter 3:7). Oh yes, to disrespect or belittle your wife is a sure proof way to sever the line between heaven and earth. Perhaps, the silence isn’t so much silence as it that you are just asking for the wrong things. Don’t confuse the Lord’s answer as prayer problems (James 4:3). Or perhaps it is just that you are not really praying, but just going through some religious motions. It appears that this is what Jesus is pointing out in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount:
And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him. (Matthew 6:7-8)
I use to think that this was a slight against long prayers. We have all been subject to a long prayer or two on a Sunday morning and wished the person would just hurry up. Maybe God is wishing people would just wrap it up! I doubt that because that’s not what Jesus is teaching here. It’s interesting to me that in the previous examples of generosity (Matthew 6:1-4) and public praying (Matthew 6:5-6) Jesus refers to the Hypocrites which I think is a rebuking reference to the Pharisees. In our text of study, verses 7-8, Jesus refers to the Gentiles. What’s up with that? It turns out that Gentiles were apparently notorious for just repeating their idols’ names over and over again in their prayers. It brings to mind the image of a babbling fool. See 1 Kings 18:26 for a vivid example. It’s a type of empty religious motion that they thought could invoke their gods to do what they wanted them to. It is this type empty babbling that I think Jesus is warning us against in this passage.
But how does that apply to my prayer life?
Fair question. Especially since I assume that you do not invoke the name of pagan gods in your daily prayer time. But perhaps you have certain phrases that you like to repeat during prayer that sound religiously eloquent. Newsflash, The Lord is not impressed with your theological vocabulary. Perhaps you mindlessly ask The Lord to forgive you of all your sins instead of asking for The Holy Spirit to grant repentance, strength, and victory over certain sins that The Lord is specifically convicting you of. Do you ask for The Lord’s guidance as a quick add on before closing with an emphatic Amen, instead of asking for direction in certain areas where the paths of life see confusing or dark?The point is to pray with substance, not through religious motions. And then Jesus gives us the reason why we should pray with substance. The word “for” in verse 8 is as if Jesus is saying “because” which provides the reason: your Father knows what you need before you ask Him.
That says to me that The Lord sees those empty phrases and He knows that they are empty because they do not carry the requests that you really, really need to ask Him for. When you think of it this way then it is easy to see that your daily prayer time isn’t really a prayer time, it’s just going through some religious motions. Though you think your empty phrases are heard, they actually are not for this is not pleasing to The Lord.
Okay. So what should I do when The Lord isn’t listening?
Here are a few practical suggestions. This is not exhaustive of course but it will help kickstart the prayer life and seems to be a good place to begin.
1. Begin by shortening your prayers.
I had to give a speech once in an ecology class during college on mosquito transmission of viruses. My professor told us that we had two minutes to sell him on the importance of our topic. He used the old adage, “elevator pitch.” Do you know what that meant for me as a person who had (and still has) very limited knowledge about mosquitoes and virus transmission? It meant that if I was going to efficiently sell my topic in that short amount of time on an elevator then I couldn’t dress it up with fancy phrases that lacked substance for me. I had to stick with what I knew. Shortening your prayers may help you to get rid of those empty phrases. Try giving The Lord an elevator pitch and then keep that same mentality as your prayer time inevitably begins to lengthen over time. It’s not so much about praying with shortness as it is about praying with substance.
2. Write out your prayers.
This one requires little explanation I think. It seems to me to be more difficult to write out empty prayers than it is to speak them. Jot down an outline and let The Spirit guide you through it as you pray.
3. Brother and sister, just be real.
I have seen countless movie scenes that range from pep talks to romantic appeals where the actor who is about to speak is looking for some last minute encouragement or advice. It always seems to be about the same. Speak from your heart. Man, The Lord really does know what is on your heart so just share it with Him. What are you trying to hide? Be truthful. Be real. Don’t offer up empty phrases but pray with substance and be of good cheer for The Lord is listening and graciously answering.