Most of us believe that when we “cry out” to God—that is, appeal to Him through prayer—He always hears those prayers. “Ask,” we read in Matthew 7:7, “and it will be given to you.” But what about Bible passages that suggest that sometimes God doesn’t listen to our prayers?
Consider Psalm 66, in which the author gives thanks that God answered his prayer, but suggests that God might not have done so in certain circumstances:
Come and hear, all you who fear God,
and I will tell what he has done for my soul.
I cried to him with my mouth,
and high praise was on my tongue.
If I had cherished iniquity in my heart,
the Lord would not have listened.
But truly God has listened;
he has attended to the voice of my prayer.
Blessed be God,
because he has not rejected my prayer
or removed his steadfast love from me! — Psalm 66:16-20 (ESV) (empahsis mine)
And in Jeremiah 11, God warns a wayward people that He won’t listen to their cries:
So now I, the Lord, warn them that I am going to bring destruction on them, and they will not escape. And when they cry out to me for help, I will not listen to them. — Jeremiah 11:11 (GNT)
What are we to make of such passages? Will God always hear our prayers or not? What, if anything, might result in God rejecting a prayer?
For an answer, I turned to the Questions Answered devotional. Here’s what it has to say:
God sees, hears and knows everything—including our prayers. Nothing escapes his attention. Why then did God say he would not listen to the people’s cries for help? There are several possible reasons.
In this case, God did not respond because judgment was unavoidable. Judah had disobeyed God’s laws and ignored his pleas for so long that judgment was, in effect, already on the way. Their cries were too little, too late. God even told Jeremiah not to pray for the people (see Isa 14:11–12)—that not even Moses and Samuel could have persuaded him to offer further compassion to them (see Isa 15:1).
It’s also possible that people sometimes sabotage their own prayers. The Bible mentions several attitudes and actions that can short-circuit our prayers: sin (see Ps 66:18; Isa 59:2; Jer 14:10–12), disobedience (see Pr 28:9), hypocrisy and insincerity (see Isa 29:13; Mal 1:7–9), wrong motives (see Mt 6:5–6; Lk 18:11–14; Jas 4:3), lack of faith (Heb 11:6; Jas 1:6) and even marital problems (see 1Pe 3:7).
Finally, what sometimes appears to be no answer to prayer may actually be a delayed answer (see Da 10:12–13). Other times God may deny our request in order to give us something better than what we knew to ask for. — “When Does God Refuse to Hear Our Prayers?, from the Questions Answered devotional
(The question is further explored in a separate devotional essay as well.)
If you’ve ever had the experience of praying for something and receiving no clear answer, it’s natural to wonder whether or not God heard the prayer in the first place. Did He ignore the prayer? Should God’s silence be taken as a “No” answer?
The good news is that the Bible doesn’t leave us wondering. The Bible passages above give each us a way to weigh our thoughts and motivations to discern whether or not we’re going to God in prayer with the right heart. And when we do approach God earnestly, we can rest confidently on this promise: “The prayer of the righteous person is powerful in what it can achieve.”