What about the problem of unanswered prayer? This is a theological/ counseling problem that is of interest and significance to both areas of thought.
Sometimes the Bible speaks about God not hearing prayer and of persons imploring Him, “Hear my prayers” or “give ear to my prayer” as though He might not.21 From this language some counselees have inferred that God (literally) doesn’t hear some prayers. If that were true, of course, that would be one reason why He didn’t always answer every prayer.
But the word “hear” (and similar expressions) in such contexts must not be interpreted literally, as though it referred to the actual process of auditory perception. All things—including all prayers, audible or silent—are known to God. No prayer—not even the prayer of the heathen offered to idols—escapes His purview. That, then cannot be the sense in which passages indicating God does not hear some prayer must be interpreted.
The word “hear” is used not only to refer to the actual physical process of receiving and translating sound waves into sounds and speech, but also in the sense of heeding (or, as we often put it, “paying attention to” what one hears). It refers also to listening favorably to a request, and (indeed) to granting the request.22 In Psalm 66:19, the Hebrew keshev means to “listen to heedfully,” or “pay attention to.”
All of those passages in which God is asked to “hear” or to “give ear to” a request, or in which He is said to “hear” one prayer (but not another) must be construed to mean answering or not answering a prayer.23 When it is said that God did not hear a prayer, it means that He did not heed it (or look favorably upon it). Every sense that denies His omniscience or power must be rejected.
In counseling (as elementary as it may seem) you will discover that these theological truths often are not apprehended by counselees. Even the idea that God (literally) hears all prayers may be news for some. Language used in idiomatic ways too often is construed literally by counselees. Bad theological training, or the failure to take good training, accounts (in part) for any number of problems counselors face; this area of prayer is no exception to that rule. The counselor has a responsibility not only to be careful about his own interpretation of the Scriptures,24 but also to see to it that he conveys no false understanding by his own use of language. Sometimes a detailed explanation of a passage (or perhaps at other times two or three sentences will do) is necessary to make it clear that God (literally) never fails to hear any prayers, but that He doesn’t heed them all.
The Scriptures plainly teach, as I have noted, that God doesn’t “hear” (heed or grant) counselees requests under certain circumstances. What are these? The counselor will be asked; he must know.
The Bible doesn’t specifically outline every concrete situation that might be imagined. Rather, general, guiding principles, applicable to all possible situations, are given. I shall mention some of the principles most frequently encountered in counseling.
1. God doesn’t hear hypocritical prayer. When inwardly a counselee determines something other than what his lips speak, he prays hypocritically (cf. Ps. 66:18). In this verse, “regarding iniquity” in the “heart” is equivalent to saying one thing with the lips, but thinking another instead. It is praying with the fingers crossed! The heart is the inner person. Delitzsch translates, “If I had aimed at evil in my heart.” He says that raäh (to see), plus the accusative, means “to aim at,” “to have in one’s eye,” or “to design to do something. ”25 The hypocrite is one who says one thing but inwardly is aiming at something different. God will not hear such hypocritical prayer.
Since this is true, it is quite proper (when a counselee complains about God not answering prayer) to ask (as one of several possible probes) : “Did you really want that to happen?” or “Was that what you wanted in your heart when you prayed?” Counselors, when they ask in love, will find such questions quite productive. Not only will they tend to put down complaints (not the purpose of the question; merely a by-product), but often they will uncover important data that otherwise might not surface. Underline this point and use it often in counseling.
2. God doesn’t hear unbelieving prayer. I am not saying that in His mercy and goodness God will not determine to do for us what we doubt He will do; there are times when He does (cf. Acts 12:1–16). But, as James put it, a doubter “shouldn’t suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord.”26 Here, James speaks of the request for wisdom that God promises to give unreservedly to those who ask (without chiding them for asking). It is something every counselee needs, without exception. But He warns in broader terms (“shouldn’t suppose that he will receive anything…”) that apply across the board, that doubters will not be heeded. Indeed, the warning is first stated positively (“But let him ask in faith”) then negatively (“without doubting”).
In giving this warning, James is but echoing Jesus’ words when He said, “Everything that you ask for in prayer you will receive if you believe” (Matt. 21:22). Indeed, He went further:
…whoever… doesn’t doubt in his heart but believes that what he is saying will happen, he will have it. So then, I tell you, in everything that you pray and ask for, believe that you have received it, and you will (Mark 11:23,24).
Again it is apparent from Christ’s words that prayer is not a magical open sesame. Prayer is not a matter of uttering the proper formula or ritual; rather, it involves inner faith and sincerity to validate the words spoken. Once again, the counselee must be led to see that his heart condition in prayer is uppermost.
That means that the counselor may with equal concern ask questions of the person complaining about God’s failure to answer his prayer: “Did you really believe that God would do it if He wanted to?” or, “Did you really expect what you prayed for?”
3. God doesn’t hear resentful prayer. In conjunction with his warning about doubt, and the need for faith (Mark 11:23, 24), Jesus went on to say,
And when you stand praying, if you have something against anyone, forgive him so that your Father in the heavens also may forgive you your trespasses (vs. 25).
Thus, it seems plain, a suppliant may not expect God to give him what he refuses to give to another.27Bitterness, resentment, hard feelings (and the like) surely form a serious barrier to the throne of grace. And as every biblical counselor knows, resentment is one of the most common problems that counselees struggle with. Often resentment is one strong link in a chain of complicating problems. When an original problem goes unresolved for a time, resentment often grows as a complicating factor. It, in turn (as the passage indicates), leads to further difficulties.
While forgiveness must not be granted to those who do not seek it repentantly (“if he repents, forgive him”—Luke 17:3), the one who “has something against anyone” may not continue to hold it against him in his heart. Before God, in prayer, he is to forgive him (i.e., he must tell God that he will hold it against him no longer). He may not brood on it. But this forgiving in prayer (in his own heart before God) does not preclude his responsibility to pursue the matter with the offender .28 He does this
(1) for Christ’s sake,
(2) for the sake of the peace of the church,
(3) for the sake of the offender and
(4) for the purpose of reconciliation.
The one who has relieved his own mind and heart of the burden of the offense in prayer growing out of a truly forgiving attitude, will have little difficulty granting forgiveness to his brother when it is sought. And, in the meantime, he will avoid the destructive results of resentment.
Again, then, the astute counselor will ask a counselee who wonders why his prayers remain unheard if he is bearing resentment or grudges against another in his heart.
4. God doesn’t hear pharisaical prayer. At least two faults, typical of the Pharisee, are observed in the New Testament:
(a) The Pharisee often prayed to impress men rather than God (Matt. 6:5,6). The one who prays to be heard by others (Jesus said) gets just what he seeks—praise from men, but no response from God. The counselor’s question, when he suspects such a problem, is obvious: “Who were you concerned about reaching when you prayed—God or men?”
(b) The second characteristic (in the end) amounts to the same thing (neither type of prayer is prayer at all). In the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9–14) we read that the Pharisee “prayed to himself.” His prayer wasn’t a prayer; it was merely a recital of his own virtues, self-righteous acts by which he sought to impress God through meritorious living. Consequently, Jesus points out, his prayer was not heard. Once more, the counselor’s questions are clear, “Did you think your prayer would merit what you wanted?”29
The counselor must warn against these abuses as well as be on the alert for them. They may take similar form in other contexts: e.g., a husband may utter words he doesn’t mean (in sessions or out) to his wife (or in prayer in her presence) in order to impress her. But prayer must be to God; it may never be directed to others. Ways of avoiding insincere prayer in counseling sessions have been discussed supra.
5. God doesn’t hear self-centered prayer— James is clear about this: “You don’t receive when you ask, since you ask wrongly—to waste it on your pleasures30.” While it isn’t wrong to ask for things that one needs, or even those things that he desires, plainly it is wrong for him to ask basically (or solely) for things for himself. Things used for one’s pleasures only (or fundamentally), James indicates, are wasted. God doesn’t answer prayer that is aimed at wasteful results.
In prayer, as in all else that one thinks and does, he is to “seek first His empire and His righteousness.” Then “all of these [other] things will be added.”31 James warns against the sin of seeking “first” the fulfilment of one’s own desires. “Basically, why did you want it-for yourself or for God’s sake?” is the counseling question to be asked in one form or another.
The counselee must be shown that his (often hysterically and repetitively self-centered) prayers are wrong. He must not come to God (or for counseling) demanding that his will be done. Contrary to any of his expectations, he must be taught that his own desires, and his own will, in any matter take second place to God’s. He must learn from Christ’s prayers in Gethsemane, in which intense personal desires are subjected to God’s will: “Yet don’t do what I want but what You want.”32 The words, “If it be Your will,” are a very significant addition that every counselee must learn to add (in his heart if not in his actual prayer itself) to every prayer. Either way, the qualification must be the basic presupposition for prayer. When it is, there can be no complaints about the answers to prayer, only thankful acquiescence. The praying Christian farmer who asks for rain and the postman who asks that it not rain, will both be satisfied by the outcome then, since they will be more concerned that the answer further God’s work and spread His righteousness than in fulfilling their own desires.
Counselees, in effect, must be taught to pray this way: “Lord, I bring my requests to you, knowing so little. I may not be asking what is best, so please cancel or modify whatever I ask as you see fit, and make me satisfied with the outcome.” Close to this is the other basic premise: God’s will must be sought for His sake. When we rejoice in negative answers to prayer, it is not because of masochistic tendencies, but because of love—the desire to see God glorified. The glorification of believers33 is secondary, derivative (in conjunction with Christ 34), largely takes place in the future35 and even then is intended to enhance His glory.36 So, then, in prayer, first one is to seek God’s will, which is manifested in those things that He does to further His work and His righteousness, and secondarily, his own will as it corresponds with God’s.37 Which leads to another biblical teaching.
6. God doesn’t hear unbiblical prayer. Jesus warned us about this when He said, “If you remain in Me and My words remain in you, ask whatever you want and it will be done for you” (John 15:7.). This apparent blank check has conditions (“If”) that must not be missed. The first condition (“If you remain in Me”) indicates that it is only the believer’s prayers that God is talking about; no such assurance is accorded to the unbelievers .38 Those who “remain” or “continue” in Him are the saints. This is the doctrine of the perseverance (or continuance) of the saints. All true saints will persevere; therefore, all who persevere are true saints.
But it is the second condition especially to which I wish to call attention: prayer must grow out of and be in harmony with Christ’s Word (which today is embodied in the Bible). His Word, stored up in, guiding and motivating the heart,39 will not only keep one from sin, but also inform his prayers. That is why praying with the mind (with understanding) -not by rote, or in mystical, magical or mechanical ways-is important. It is often wise to use biblical words and phrases (correctly interpreted and clearly understood) as a discipline for learning to pray properly.
It should be obvious (but every experienced counselor knows, from the frequency with which he encounters the problem, that it isn’t) that a counselee ought not to request what God forbids (or will not permit). Prayer must be biblical; i.e., requests must be within the range of scriptural norms to be legitimate. To pray successfully is to pray intelligently and out of a ’knowledge of what God’s Word encourages and allows.
Unbiblical prayer also is prayer that is contrary to biblical example. Nonsensical prayer falls into this category. Nowhere in the Bible will you hear a prayer like this (though you will hear it all the time today:) “Please, Lord, may last week’s meeting have been a blessing.” One may pray for that meeting before or during the meeting in that way, or a week later for blessing growing out of the meeting, or for future blessing stemming from it, but he has no biblical warrant for praying for something to happen after it has happened!
7. God doesn’t hear self—addressed prayer. What is the warrant for prayer? What is the address on the envelope sent heavenward? Prayer must be made in Christ’s name.40 Prayer, in Christ’s name, isn’t prayer on our own merit, with some special phrase like “for Christ’s sake,” or “in His holy name” merely tacked on at the end. There is nothing wrong with such phrases if they are filled with meaning for the one who uses them. They must express the true intention and understanding of the praying counselee’s heart. The words themselves may (or may not) occur; the understanding beneath the prayer must.
What, then, does Christ mean when He speaks of praying in His Name? He means that, in our prayers, we must ask God to answer our requests
(1) because of Who Christ is and what Christ has done;
(2) for Christ’s honor and benefit.
Believers are assured that God will hear us because of Christ’s redemptive work, and under His intercessory lordship. He is the one Mediator Who can bridge the gap between God and man ripped open by sin. God will not hear us in our own names because (apart from Christ) we have no right to be heard-we are but rebellious sinners. We can demand nothing in our own names. But because of what Christ has done, and for His honor (Heb. 2:10; Rom. 11:36), we can approach God boldly for all those things that, by His death and resurrection, Jesus Christ obtained for us (Heb. 4:16). He has provided much; and encourages His followers to lay claim to all of it, but He makes one thing clear-such claims must be made in His Name. Prayer must honor Christ by acknowledging the fact that all we ask, we ask on the basis of a saving relationship with Him and that He may be honored by the granting of this request. God will have His Son honored every time a believer prays; and we will be reminded of this fact in every prayer.
These seven conditions are not exhaustive, but they are (perhaps) the outstanding facts to keep in mind when discussing unanswered prayer with counselees. In many cases, failure in more than one of these areas will occur; don’t rest until you have the whole picture. It would be wise, therefore, to cover all seven possibilities in your questioning of a counselee. You can write the seven items into your Christian Counselor’s New Testament, and even read. them off to a counselee when appropriate (“John, there are seven common reasons why God doesn’t answer prayer. Let me read them, and I’d like you to tell me which ones—if any—fit you”).
Keep in mind, too, that unanswered prayer also may be God’s favorable response to proper prayer. (It is not really unanswered in such cases; “no,” “not now; later,” etc., are answers just as truly as “yes.”) Because He knows what is best, remember (as I said earlier), God may temporarily delay an answer to prayer, or deny it, or substitute another for it-for our good (which is always also the best for His work; the two are never at odds). Having explored the seven hindrances to prayer, the counselor may find that this is the final explanation.
In conclusion, let me reemphasize the fact that God is man’s basic Environment. That is why prayer, growing out of Bible study, is so crucial to his life, and why discussion of these areas is so important for counseling. Adam walked and talked with God in the cool of the day. Sin destroyed that fellowship. In Christ it is restored for those who trust Him (I John 1). Prayer now constitutes a significant part of the way in which a Christian comes into intimate contact with his Environment. Apart from the Scriptures (in which God speaks to him) and prayer (by which he speaks to God), a human being is out of touch with reality.
Jay Edward Adams, A Theology of Christian Counseling: Introduction to Nouthetic Counseling (Grand Rapids, MI: Ministry Resource Library, 1986), 78–87.