When the subject of unanswered prayer comes up, it’s common to hear that sometimes God’s answer is “yes,” sometimes it’s “no,” and other times it’s “not yet.” But there’s another biblical reason for unanswered prayer. Sometimes God’s answer is, “not until you repent.”

It’s this last possibility that we often overlook, because — let’s face it — we enjoy dealing with our sin about as much as we enjoy going to the dentist: how much is this going to hurt? How much will it cost? What will he find wrong?

But let’s suppose you suspect that maybe God’s silence is related to a sinful behavior or attitude in your life. And that maybe you want to get to the bottom of it, no matter what you discover. What should you do next?

We need to be careful here: while some Christians seem loath to examine sin in their own lives, others seem downright obsessed with it. If you are an introspective, navel-gazing type, be careful that your self-assessment does not turn into a never-ending vortex of despair. As believers in Jesus, we must remember that Christ is our righteousness, and that we have God as our Father. God cares about our spiritual condition even more than we do, and if we are walking with him in truth, his Holy Spirit will convict us of sin when necessary.

But we are called to examine ourselves: “Let us examine our ways and test them, and let us return to the Lord” (Lamentations 3:40). If it seems that God has been silent, here are two questions you can ask yourself:

1. Is my prayer self-centered?

“When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.” James 4:3

Clearly, some prayers can be motivated by worldly and even wicked desires. Consider the classic prayer, “God please bless me financially so that I can be really generous and put a big tithe in the offering.” When we really mean, “God, make me rich so I can take it easy, buy stuff, and not have to trust you.”

Other times, we may ask for good things, but we have self-serving motives:

We may pray that our kids would behave well, so that others think well of us. We may pray for an effective and growing ministry, so that others applaud us. We may pray that God would take away our illness, problem, or difficult relationship, so that we don’t have to go through the trial and be forced to grow.

If we ask for things with wrong motives, why should God answer our prayers? He is too good of a Father to do that. He will not give us things that will destroy our souls or stunt our spiritual growth; he will not give us the candy we crave if it’s vegetables that we really need.

2. Am I cherishing sin?

“If I had cherished sin in my heart, the Lord would not have listened.…” Psalm 66:18

Have you ever considered that it is merciful for God to ignore our prayers if we are cherishing sin in our hearts? Because it signals that something is wrong and needs to change. God loves us too much to allow us to deceive ourselves into thinking we can treasure both our sin and him as Savior at the same time.

How can I cherish the very sins that caused my Lord to suffer? How can I delight in that which led to my Savior’s death? If I am cherishing sin, then it’s time to confess and repent of that sin and “put to death the misdeeds of the body” (Romans 8:13). In Christ, we not only have forgiveness of our sins; by the power of the Holy Spirit, we can be free of them.

Of course, there are other biblical reasons beyond what I’ve discussed here. In our finitude, we often simply cannot know the reasons why God does not answer our prayer (Deuteronomy 29:29). But when the reasons remain a mystery, we do know that our Father in heaven is good and that he has demonstrated his love by sending his Son for us — the Son who said:

“If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” Matthew 7:11

Photo Credit: Jens Schott Knudsen