5 Hindrances to Prayer

"That your prayers be not hindered" (1 Peter 3:7).

The greatest hindrance to the life of prayer is sin. "The Lord's hand is not shortened, that it cannot save; neither his ear heavy, that it cannot hear: but your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid his face from you, that he will not hear." God would rather let Israel be defeated at Ai and go into captivity to Babylon, notwithstanding the prayers of Joshua in the one case, or even Noah, Daniel and Job, if they could have interceded, in the other, so long as the answering of these prayers would have countenanced the sin of His people. Yes, even that beautiful and consecrated temple must be consumed to ashes and the very name of Jehovah dishonored by His enemies, rather than sin in the slightest degree be sanctioned by a holy God.

"If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me." Even the cherished purpose of sin will thus hinder our prayers. The Apostle John most clearly adds his testimony to this heart-searching truth when he tells us that, "If our heart condemn us, God is greater than our heart, and knoweth all things. If our heart condemn us not, then have we confidence toward God. And whatsoever we ask, we receive of him, because we keep his commandments, and do those things that are pleasing in his sight."

The old farmer, who tried to get peace at the altar by the prayers of the saints, was quite right when he told them one night that the Lord would never answer their prayers "so long as that ox was in the wrong stall." He hurried away to return his neighbor's property and came back the next night with shining face and light heart to testify to the blessing that came the moment he put the hindrance away.

God can hear the prayers of sinners, or else none of us could have access to the throne of grace, but this is a different matter from expecting Him to answer our prayers while we are deliberately committing sin without an honest purpose to abstain from it. This is the coolest insolence and presumption in the face of heaven. The sin may be confessed and put away, and the Lord will freely bless; but while we stand with evil conscience and wrong intent and expect God to countenance our disobedience and presumption, we can only accept the awful message which He gave to the leaders of Israel in the fourteenth chapter of Ezekiel; "Son of man, these men have set up their idols in their heart, and put the stumbling block of their iniquity before their face: should I be enquired of at all by them? Therefore speak unto them, and say unto them, Thus saith the Lord God; Every man of the house of Israel that setteth up his idols in his heart, and putteth the stumbling block of his iniquity before his face, and cometh to the prophet; I the Lord will answer him that cometh according to the multitude of his idols. . . . For every one of the house of Israel, or of the stranger that sojourneth in Israel, which separateth himself from me, and setteth up his idols in his heart, and putteth the stumbling block of his iniquity before his face, and cometh to a prophet to enquire of him concerning me; I the Lord will answer him by myself: and I will set my face against that man, and will make him a sign and a proverb, and I will cut him off from the midst of my people; and ye shall know that I am the Lord."

This will frequently be found to be the cause of long unanswered prayers and the failure of God's people to enter into the fullness of the blessing they are seeking. God is searching their hearts and bringing to their remembrance long-forgotten sins with which He wants them to deal thoroughly. Hence, when we are at some secret crisis of life, seeking, perhaps, entire sanctification, the baptism of the Holy Spirit, the healing of some critical and alarming disease, the life of some precious friend, or deliverance in some great emergency, God searches the heart as with eyes of flame, and brings to our conscience things long buried in oblivion, and enables us to search and try our ways and lay open all our heart before Him. Then we may receive His blessing unhindered and unbounded and know the blessedness of the man "whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered, . . . and in whose spirit there is no guile."

Beloved, let us search and try our ways, and turn again unto the Lord. Let us be willing to say, "Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me and know my ways, and see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting." Let us bring every Achan to the light and to the sentence of death, and we shall find that even sin cannot hinder our prayers nor our perfect blessing if it is truly put away, but the valley of Achor will become the very door of hope, and the place of forgiven sin and self-crucifixion will be marked as the starting point of a new and higher life of usefulness.

Another hindrance to prayer is selfishness and earthly desire. "Ye ask, and receive not," says the Apostle James, "because ye ask amiss, that ye may consume it upon your lusts." God cannot give us all the things that our carnal nature clamors for any more than we would give our child the gleaming razor for which its little hands reach out in such eager desire. They would often be more hurtful to us than the keen edge of the steel to the thoughtless child. Many a good thing may be desired from an earthly and selfish motive and in a carnal spirit. Many a person seeks forgiveness to escape the remorse of a guilty conscience and that he may be at ease to go on again in a life of godless selfishness. Most people, who have no true sense of honor, are quite willing to be accepted as candidates for heaven if God will let them enjoy the pleasures of the world on their way. Prayer for healing may be simply the expression of the desire to get free from pain and be able to enjoy the pleasures of life. Even Simon Magus wanted the power of the Holy Spirit from a thoroughly base and unholy motive. Things that God in other circumstances would be quite willing to give us, He has often to refuse us as they would really separate us from Him. At a later period of our lives we find Him able and willing to give us the same things without reserve, because, in the meanwhile, we have been able to lay them all on His altar, to be used to His glory and in union with Himself.

Therefore, the Lord's Prayer, as we have already seen, begins with the prostration of our whole being at the feet of God and the threefold consecrating prayer, "Hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done." We cannot be trusted to ask anything for ourselves until our spirit is thus consecrated to God.

This is the meaning of that profound promise in the thirty-seventh Psalm, "Delight thyself also in the Lord; and he shall give thee the desires of thine heart." The heart that has found its joy in God cannot desire anything that God cannot grant. He gives it first its desires and then their fulfillment.

Beloved, have not many of your unanswered prayers been thoroughly selfish ones? Have not your very longings for your own spiritual good been prompted either by a slavish fear or a narrow self-love? Have not your prayers for the salvation of your children and friends been as selfish as your desire to see them well settled in life, and perhaps you have never once offered a petition for anyone else's child or made an effort to bring them to Christ? It is all right that we should seek these blessings for ourselves and for our own, but if it be a true spirit of prayer and union with God, there will be something higher than mere selfish or human love or desire.

An insuperable barrier to unanswered prayer is the spirit of strife and bitterness. "When ye stand praying," our Saviour said to His disciples, "forgive, if ye have ought against any." "Let none of you imagine evil in your hearts against his neighbor," is the message of the prophet Zechariah to the people of the Restoration, as he teaches them the secret of God's blessing in their critical trials. Job had to pray for his very enemies and banish from his heart every particle of bitter feeling toward the men who had tormented him through months of sickness with their ignorance, misconstruction, and offensive interference, before God turned his captivity and restored him to more than his former blessings. One reason why the disciples could not claim the casting out of the demon from the suffering child was that they had disputed by the way which should be the greatest. The spirit of cherished animosity, lurking prejudice, sullen vindictiveness, or cold disdain will as effectively obstruct our intercourse and intimacy with heaven as a speck upon the crystalline lens of the eye will obstruct our vision, or the crossing of the wires of the electric machinery of a building will leave us in darkness.

There are a great many crossed wires in the church of Christ, and the consequence is dark hearts and mournful cries, "Hath God forgotten to be gracious?" "How long, O Lord, wilt thou not hear my prayer?" Just this long, brother, "If thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee; leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift."

The spirit of prayer is essentially a spirit of love. Frequently when we are at some crisis of prayer and very much is hanging upon God's answer, perhaps life itself, or something more precious than life, we shall find ourselves confronted with just such a test as this. Someone will be thrown across our path where all the strength of the natural heart, with its dislikes, prejudices, and self-wills, will be laid hold of by the enemy to hinder our victory. Oh, let us remember at such an hour that we cannot hurt another by our irritation or retaliation, but we can deeply wound ourselves and hinder the blessing of our God! In the presence of Infinite Love, no breath of hate can live one moment. The simple lines of the old English poet are sweetly true,

He prayeth best who loveth best,
All things both great or small,
For the great God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.

It is especially with respect to this matter of love that the Apostle John speaks of our heart condemning us in prayer, and above all other things it is perhaps that which we are most likely to overlook and God is least likely to pass by. "The greatest thing in the world," as Professor Drummond so happily styles it, "is love, and it is the one business of life to learn it."

Beloved, is this hindering your prayers? Can you think this moment of some brother or sister from whom you are wrongly estranged; some person whom you treat with studied harshness, neglect, perhaps disdain, or possibly with injury and injustice; some word that you have spoken against your brother, and which you should not have spoken even if true; some word to which you have listened against your brother, and never should have heard except in his presence, some cherished suspicion, criticism, or judgment where you have no business even to think evil? May God help you to see the way to discover some cause of unanswered prayer!

The habit of doubt is a hindrance to prayer. "He that wavereth is like a wave of the sea driven with the wind and tossed. For let not that man think that he shall receive any thing of the Lord." This is strong language, but there is no doubt that the sin of unbelief, according to the divine standpoint, is the most hurtful of all spiritual conditions. It destroys the very contact of the soul with God as effectually as the cutting of a telegraph wire would prevent the transmission of a message. We have already seen that the word receive in this passage of James means take, and that it denotes, not so much God's anger with the unbelief, for He does "give liberally and upbraideth not," but it refers to the inability of the man to take what God gives. His doubt shuts up his whole spiritual sensibilities and capacities and renders him incapable of absorbing and appropriating the blessing which is offered him at the time. God holds us responsible for our doubt but does not require us to produce, by our own will, the faith which brings us into contact with His love and blessing, for this is His impartation; but He does require us to prevent it from running out, as from leaking vessels, through all the openings of our miserable doubts. There is one thing that we can all do—we can refuse to doubt; we can refuse to entertain the questioning and fear, the morbid apprehension and subtle Satanic insinuation; and if we do this, God will do the rest and enable us to stand fast in faith, and press forward to the fullness of His blessing.

This is where the enemy concentrates his strongest attacks, waiting when the hour of trial comes and our prayer seems to be refused and delayed, and hurling all his shafts of fire and evil suggestion into our trembling hearts to try to drive us from our confidence and get us to betray our own cause by consenting to his wicked questionings. Therefore Christ has said, "Whosoever shall say unto this mountain, Be thou removed, and be thou cast into the sea; and shall not doubt in his heart, . . . he shall have whatsoever he saith." So "Abraham staggered not at the promise of God through unbelief; but was strong in faith, giving glory to God." So we are to hold fast the faith we have professed without wavering, for, "He is faithful that promised." "Now the just shall live by faith: but if any man draw back, my soul shall have no pleasure in him." God waits to give His blessing to the soldiers who stand their ground, and who, when the blessing comes, are there to claim it.

But perhaps you say, "I have already doubted, and forfeited my blessing. Is it then too late to receive the answer?" No, not if you will repent of your doubt as you would of any other sin, and immediately bring forth fruits meet for repentance by refusing from henceforth and forevermore to be betrayed into the same sin. Often we shall find that such a fall becomes the occasion of thoroughly convincing us of the sin of doubting and curing us of it forever.

Beloved, have you been trifling with God in this matter of prayer and defrauding yourself of the blessings for which you have already suffered so much? May the Lord set your face this day like a flint, and fix your feet on the rock and stay your soul upon God!

Our prayers will be hindered if we stand on forbidden ground, or in anything hold back from the Master's will. It is not necessary that there should be willful sin or actual vice and transgression of moral law. It may simply be disobedience to the Spirit's voice in some definite leading to service or testimony. We have known many instances of persons who did not receive the full answers to their prayers for the baptism of the Holy Spirit until they had definitely obeyed the voice of God in some particular where they had been shrinking or hesitating. We have known many sad cases of persons who have failed to receive the answer to their prayer for healing because they were standing in some forbidden place, holding back their testimony for God, from timidity or the fear of man, or failing to take some step of faith to which the Holy Spirit was calling; and it was not until after months or even years of striving with God and bitter sorrow that they learned the lesson, and in prompt and thorough obedience received perfect deliverance and wondrous blessing.

The Bible has some very solemn instances of good men standing on forbidden ground and finding their power and defense departing from them. The mighty Samson lost all his hold upon God the moment he left his place of separation. Abraham had no power while in a compromising attitude in Egypt. Jacob had no vision of God during the years of his wandering. And even the good Josiah lost his heavenly protection and sacrificed his precious life because he stepped beyond the divine will and went unbidden against Pharaoh Necho, king of Egypt, who warned him of his fate if he persisted in his rash presumption. There is not one of us who stands on consecrated ground but would probably lose even life itself if we persisted in disobeying the distinct call of God to special service or pressing forward where He had said "No."

It is a very solemn thing for those who are walking in the Spirit to trifle with His voice or be disobedient to His least command. Such disobedience may interrupt all intercourse and hinder all prayer.

But again, forbidden means may effectually interrupt our Father's blessing. It is possible to ask God's help in a proper manner and spirit, and then immediately go to work to help Him to fulfill our prayer in an unlawful manner. No doubt Jacob sincerely asked God for the coveted blessing, but he proceeded afterwards to take the most unworthy means to accomplish his purpose, and involved himself in years of waiting and sorrow. No doubt Moses sincerely asked God to deliver Israel by His hand when forty years of age, but he proceeded in the most rash and improper manner to accomplish his patriotic desire by slaying an Egyptian, and involving himself in crime and peril from the hand of the king. Doubtless, Abraham thought that his compromise about Hagar was going to assist God in fulfilling His own promise of a son, but he only silenced the heavenly voice for many years and brought upon himself domestic strife and trouble, hindering the object he had at heart. No doubt Saul of Tarsus sincerely prayed for salvation for many a year, but he sought it by his own righteousness and missed his aim by not submitting himself to the righteousness of God, and his whole race today are praying in vain for mercy, which they reject by rejecting God's only appointed way.

Many a soul prays for sanctification but fails to enter into the blessing because he does not intelligently understand and believingly accept God's appointed means by Jesus Christ and the indwelling of the Spirit. Many a prayer for the salvation of others is hindered because the very friend who prays for his friend takes the wrong course to bring about the answer and resorts to means which are wholly fitted to defeat his worthy object. We know many a wife who is pleading for her husband's soul and hoping to win him by avoiding anything that may offend him, yielding to all his worldly tastes in the vain hope of attracting him to Christ. Far more effective would be an attitude of fidelity to God and fearless testimony to Him, such as God could bless. Many a church asks the Lord for His blessing, and then goes to work to defeat it by methods of worldly conformity which God never can countenance. Many a congregation wonders why it is so poor and struggling and its prayer for financial resources never answered, and yet it may be found that its financial methods are wholly unscriptural and often unworthy of ordinary self-respect, and such as a decent worldly institution would not stoop to depend upon. When we ask God for any blessing, we must allow Him to direct the steps which are to bring the answer. God will give His power to every heart that will let Him hold the reins. Many an invalid is praying for healing and yet directly neglecting God's very prescription for disease and resorting to means which He has not countenanced, and which probably He would utterly forbid, especially to one who claimed to be in the attitude of simple faith. God's answer must be brought by His own messengers, and the steps which we take in bringing about the answer must be based on His absolute direction.

Take, for example, the course of David the second time the Philistines invaded his realm after his coronation. Suppose David had done just what he had done before and marched directly against them and then asked God to bless him. He would have been defeated, for this time the command was entirely different from the previous occasion. "Thou shalt not go up; but fetch a compass behind them," that is, take a circuitous course, march away from them first, then around by a flank movement, "and come upon them over against the mulberry trees. And let it be, when thou hearest the sound of a going in the tops of the mulberry trees, that then thou shalt bestir thyself : for then shall the Lord go out before thee, to smite the host of the Philistines." Here we see that the answer was dependent on explicit obedience to the Lord's directions.

Is this not the reason, beloved, of many of our unanswered prayers? Have we waited for our Master's orders and sought the answer in the direction that He bade? Oh, how solemn are the words of the prophet Zechariah respecting one of God's most precious promises, "This shall come to pass if ye diligently obey the voice of the Lord your God." And that is but the echo of God's word concerning Abraham, "I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the Lord, to do justice and judgment; that the Lord may bring upon Abraham that which he hath spoken of him."

Perhaps the greatest hindrance to effectual prayer, and no doubt to the life of prayer, is ignorance respecting the Holy Spirit and the interior life. With so many, prayer is the hasty utterance of the mere natural heart. It is little more than the cry of a suffering brute or the wail of an almost unconscious babe. True, God hears the faithless cry of human misery, but this is not prayer. The voice which always reaches the Father's ear is the voice of a trusting child and the Holy Spirit breathing in the heart of that child. True prayer should be His prompting, and it is because most persons know Him so little, and walk with Him at such a distance, that they are comparative strangers to the language of heavenly communion.

The life of prayer is an interior life, a spiritual life, and many persons do not know this, and do not want it. It holds too constant a check upon the heart, it requires too utterly that we should walk softly with our God. Most persons like to be their own masters, and the habit of walking step by step with God and submitting every thought and desire to an inward Monitor is intolerable to their imperious self-will, or at least unfamiliar to their experience.

But this is truly the very element of the life of prayer. It is an interior life. Its home is "the secret place of the most High," and its dwelling, "the shadow of the Almighty." It is the intercourse of an inseparable divine companionship. It is Enoch walking with God. It is Elisha clinging to his master and saying, "As the Lord liveth and as thy soul liveth, I will not leave thee." It is the very breathing of the inner man, and is as necessary and unintermittent as the pulsation of a human heart and the respiration of a human bosom.

Beloved, is not this the difficulty, after all, about your prayers? Are they not the spasmodic cries of great emergencies rather than the habitual intercourse of a heavenly life? If you were accustomed to walk ever by His side, you would not get so far that you need to call so loudly and so long in the hour of extremity. It is the habit of constant prayer that prepares us for the great conflicts of prayer, and he, who in this neglects the moment, will find himself unprepared for the emergencies. God is calling you to a closer walk with Him, to open your heart for His continual abiding, and to receive into your breast the Spirit of grace and supplications to become to you the Mighty Advocate who shall inspire all your petitions and bear them on the strong wings of His love and power to the Advocate on high, through Whom you shall receive the answer of that Father who ever answers the prayer which He inspires.

We sometimes see it advertised by our great financial houses that they have a private wire with all the great centers of trade. He who possesses in his heart the Holy Ghost has a private wire to the throne, and at any moment can open and maintain direct communication with heaven and bring all its legions, if need be, to His immediate aid. O beloved, surely it is worth your while to yield yourself to a consecrated life and to allow your loving Lord to make your heart His temple and His throne, where prayer shall ever be the familiar and unbroken intercourse of a happy child with the Father Who is ever at hand.

Oh, how happy they, who are thus within continual reach of the supply of every need and the balm for every wound! Sorrow may overshadow, Satan may assail, difficulty may encompass on every side, but, through prayer, relief is always new and the victorious spirit returns fresh from every conflict with a strength, which, Phoenix like, rises from its own ashes and grows, with each renewing, in freshness and gladness.

A South American traveler tells of a curious conflict which he once witnessed between a little quadruped and a terrific and poisonous snake of great size. The little creature seemed no match for its antagonist that threatened to destroy it and its helpless brood by a blow, but it fearlessly faced its mighty enemy and rushing in its face struck him with a succession of fierce and telling blows, but received at the onset a deep and apparently fatal wound from his poisonous fangs, which flashed for a moment with an angry fire, and then fastened themselves deep into the flesh of the daring little assailant. For a moment it seemed as if all was over, but the wise little creature immediately retired into the forest and hastening to the plantain tree eagerly devoured a portion of its leaves, and immediately came back, apparently fresh and restored, to renew the fray with fresh vigor and determination. Again and again this strange spectacle was repeated; the serpent ferociously attacked, greatly exhausted, and again and again wounded its antagonist to death, as it seemed, but the little creature successively repaired to its simple prescription and returned to renewed victory, until, in the course of an hour or two, the battle was over, the mammoth reptile lay still and dead, and the little victor was unharmed in the midst of the nest and the helpless little ones, who had been thus saved from destruction.

How often we are wounded by the dragon's sting, wounded it would seem to death; and if we had to go through some long ceremony to reach the source of life, we must faint and die! But, blessed be His Name! there is ever, for us, a Plant of healing as near at hand as that which the forest holds in its shade, to which we may continually repair and come back refreshed, invigorated, transfigured, like Him, Who, as He prayed on the mount, shone with the brightness of celestial light; and as He prayed in the garden, arose triumphant over the fear of death, and strengthened from on high to accomplish the mighty battle of our redemption.

Oh, the victories of prayer! They are the mountain tops of the Bible. They take us back to the plains of Mamre, to the fords of Peniel, to the prison of Joseph, to the triumphs of Moses, to the victories of Joshua, to the deliverances of David, to the miracles of Elijah and Elisha, to the whole story of the Master's life, to the secret of Pentecost, to the keynote of Paul's unparalleled ministry, to the lives of saints and the deaths of martyrs, to all that is most sacred and sweet in the history of the Church and the experience of the children of God. And when, for us, the last conflict shall have passed, and the footstool of prayer shall have given place to the harp of praise, the scenes of time that shall be gilded with eternal radiance shall be those often linked with deepest sorrow and darkest night, over which we have written the inscription, "JEHOVAH-SHAMMA: The Lord was there!" Only that which God touched shall be remembered or worth remembering forever. These are imperishable memorials. Oh, that henceforth they may cover every pathway and every step of life's journey, and that we may recognize whatever comes as but another call to prayer and another opportunity for God to manifest His glory and erect the everlasting memorial of His victorious love!

We close this little message with the thought with which we began its first chapter; namely, that the way the Master taught His disciples to pray was by starting them at once to pray.

Begin this moment to pray for the very first thing that comes to your heart as a need, and go right on turning everything into prayer until you have to stop in the very fullness of your heart and turn it all into praise. And "now unto him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that worketh in us, unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end. Amen."

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