[This entry follows a sermon titled "Learning from a King's Sickness". Click on the title to find the audio.]
Do you know what "karma" is? Found primarily in Hinduism and Buddhism, karma is the idea that one brings on himself either good or bad experiences through previous good/bad behavior, respectively. It's the notion behind the popular TV sitcom My Name is Earl. The main character, Earl, gives a plain-language definition: "Do good things and good things happen. Do bad things and bad things happen."
Do you know what "Christian karma" is? Well, it doesn't actually exist, but it's a phrase I would use to talk about the way Christians believe God answers prayer. If you do good things, God answers your prayer the way you want. If you do bad things, God won't give you what you want. There is a general feeling that somehow I can live my life in a way that merits the blessing of God. Yet, this notion is contrary to the gospel, which tells us God's blessings come by His grace...not by our merit.
In Isaiah 38-39, we find King Hezekiah sick and at the point of death (38:1). The king prays for healing on the basis of his moral record before God, but when God answers, He answers on the basis of being "the God of David your father" (38:5). God heals because of His grace, not because of Hezekiah's merit. You see, God's promise to David was that one of his descendants would be an eternal king (2 Sam. 7), and in answering Hezekiah's prayer, God was keeping that promise. About three years after Hezekiah was healed, his son, Manasseh, was born. And the line of David went on...a line that led straight to the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ (cf. Matthew 1).
So, when God grants what we ask for, we should always see it as an act of His grace...not some kind of spiritual wage we have earned. That being said, the Scripture is clear that there are ways to hinder our prayers to God. I am thankful for Tim Challies for putting these passages together on his blog several months back. Here are five ways that our prayers might be hindered.
1. By our selfish motives - "You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions" (James 4:3). Also, in 1 John 5:14, we read, "And this is the confidence we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us." As God hears our prayers, our motives matter. It matters if we are aligning our will with His, as we know it in Scripture...it matters if we are praying simply for our own benefit or for the glory of God. When we are in small groups praying for one another, we cannot hear the heart's motive. It could be masked by the right wording of the prayer. Yet, God sees the heart...He knows the motive...and our wrong motives can hinder our prayers.
2. By turning away from Scripture - "If one turns away his ear from hearing the law, even his prayer is an abomination" (Prov. 28:9). When we ignore the words of God and then plead with God to hear us in our time of need, it is an abomination. Why? Because when we do this, we are acting as if God as a means to an end. God is not a means to our desired end...He is the end. He is the Treasure. The healing is not greater than the Healer. The provision is not greater than the Provider. The answer is not greater than the One who answers. Turning away from Scripture is a turning away from God Himself, and it is an indication that He is not our treasure...He is a tool for our pursuits. This hinders prayer, for God will not be used.
3. Through discord in our families - "Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered" (1 Peter 3:7). As the spiritual leaders of their homes, men are meant to maintain peace and order in their homes. This means living with our wives in ways that are sensitive to their needs...ways that demonstrate we know them as fellow 'heirs...of the grace of life.' In other words, having personal, intimate communion with God and a strained, alienated relationship with your spouse are incongruous ideas...a bit like blessing God and cursing men with the same mouth (James 3:9-10). Being content to live in such marital strife hinders prayers.
4. By cherishing sin - "If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened" (Psalm 66:18). Many people speak of feeling distant from God...like God doesn't hear them when they pray. Well, before we begin to imagine we are like "Moses...going through a desert experience", we should examine our hearts. Could it be that there is some area in which we are refusing to repent of sin? We may not verbally say that we cherish our sin, but when we refuse to repent, we are proclaiming that our sin is a greater treasure to us than God. When this happens, we do feel distant from God because, experientially, we are distant from Him. We have not drawn near to God, and so we must not expect God to draw near to us. Rather, we should listen to James: "Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom" (4:8b-9).
5. Through doubting as we ask - "If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord" (James 1:5-7). When we ask the Lord, we must ask expectantly. He is a good God and is the source of every good and perfect gift (James 1:17). We must believe two things. One, we must believe that if we have asked according to God's will, He will certainly grant our request. Two, we must believe that if our prayer is not aligned with God's will, it is because His wisdom and will are better than ours, and it is for our sanctification that He refuses or puts us in a place of waiting on Him.
So, again...let us pray. If we are receiving what we ask, then let's remember that it is not because we've earned it...or because of "good, Christian karma." It's because our God is gracious and loves giving good gifts to His children that we receive. If we are not receiving what we ask, let's examine our own lives...are we living in ways that would hinder God hearing when we call on Him? If honest self-evaluation results in the belief that we are not hindering our prayers, then let's keep praying in faith...keep on knocking...keep on seeking...keep on asking. And let's trust our good, righteous God to do what is right...in His own way, and in His own time.