I recently spent a few weeks reading 1 Peter in the mornings. It had been some time since I'd last studied this epistle, and I found myself engrossed in the text's vividness and its careful attention to specific themes. There are a ton of thoughts still percolating in my brain, but I decided to take a few minutes and record one thing that convicts me in particular.
Prayer, as I use the word and understand its purpose, is a fellowship-based communication with the Almighty through the person of Jesus Christ. In other words, it is an expression of my relationship with God, not a "long distance phone call" to heaven. As a Christian, I don't pray to get stuff, I pray to entrust my hardships to Him; to demonstrate my humble submission to, dependence upon, and adoration of my God; and to be shaped by my interaction with Him. So when I say that, in my reading of 1 Peter, I've found four reasons prayer "doesn't work" for Christians in the modern context, I'm talking about obstacles of our own fashioning that tend to obstruct our fellowship with our God.
Reason #1 prayer "doesn't work": lack of compassionate care for others
1 Peter 3.7: 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.
In this verse, Peter draws a direct connection between prayers being hindered and a husband neglecting to care for his helpmeet in a compassionate, respecting, and honoring manner. The phrase "weaker vessel," as applied to a wife, is clearly not using "weakness" as a fault, but rather to illustrate the type of vulnerability inherent to precious things. Why else would Peter urge husbands to "show honor" (aponemontes timen) to their wives -- literally "assign value" to them? It's because Christian wives are joint-heirs with Christian husbands, both of whom have inherited the same grace from God. Therefore, living "in an understanding way" (kata gnosin -- literally "according to knowledge") is not compensating for feminine emotional instability, as English readers commonly assume, but rather based on the knowledge of God's lavish grace upon all His children, a grace uniquely shared in a marital relationship. Here's my paraphrase of the veres, tracking back a little further in the passage for some context: Because you are travelers and not residents on the earth (2.11)... husbands must show compassion and respect to their wives as supremely valuable, because they share an eternal destiny (3.7). Failure to live according to this understanding, according to Peter, hinders a husband's ability to pray and spiritually lead his wife the way he was intended.
While this reason for prayer "not working" is primarily about the correlation between husbands failing in their marital duties and failing in their spiritual devotion, I think we can also tease out a parallel application that isn't just for husbands. A resounding theme across the New Testament is that those who have received mercy from God will show mercy to others. We are to love our neighbor as Christ loved us (John 13.34). A failure to forgive others their sinful actions against us is a reflection of our lack of forgiveness from the Father (Matt 6.14-15). Judgment is without mercy upon those who have shown no mercy to others (Jas 2.13). In other words, only a heart that acknowledges the depth of its own need and receives grace from God is also capable of showing a God-pleasing level of compassion for others. How can Christians withhold forgiveness from others yet expect forgiveness from God for their own transgressions? If such is the case, there is a fatal error in that individual's understanding of grace.
My point is this: any Christian who fails to truly love and value other human relationships -- choosing instead to degrade or use other people in self-serving ways -- will find him- or herself in a position where prayers "won't work" -- not because God can't bless or operate in that scenario, but because that individual has hardened his or her heart toward God, a hardness reflected in his or her lack of love toward others. If you are experiencing the symptom of "prayer not working," your first check should be evaluating the level of compassion you show toward your wife, your kids, your coworkers, etc, and then to check your level of adoration for God as well. Somewhere in the chain, there is a disconnect.
Peter's focus is certainly on husbands. As a husband, it is my solemn and joyful duty to one day present my wife to Christ "without spot or wrinkle," "holy and without blemish," in the same way He will present the Church to the Father (Eph 5.27). I can't fulfill that duty if I fail to show my wife compassion and understanding. To be in such a deplorable state both results from and also contributes to a disconnect in my fellowship with God. Husbands: Peter charges us to love our wives well, and so grow in our relationships with Jesus Christ. Because you and your wife are one flesh, and together one flesh with Christ, you can't neglect one without neglecting the other.
Reason #2: Lack of moral integrity
I'm fascinated by New Testament writers' usage of Old Testament passages. 1 Peter 3.12 is one of them. Here, Peter uses Psalm 34 to illustrate the blessing of righteous living, which is its own reward even in the midst of persecution. This is such an effective citation, because 1 Peter 3 and Psalm 34 both describe the life of righteous integrity that God's children pursue even in the midst of affliction.
What man is there who desires life and loves many days, that he may see good? Keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceit. Turn away from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it. The eyes of the Lord are toward the righteous and his ears toward their cry. The face of the Lord is against those who do evil, to cut off the memory of them from the earth. When the righteous cry for help, the Lord hears and delivers them out of all their troubles. (Psa 34.12-17)
In the ESV Bible, the topic heading for Psalm 34 is the phrase from verse 8: "taste and see that the Lord is good." A life based on the pursuit of moral integrity could sound like a laborious drag if the reason behind doing so wasn't so good. The Christian pursues moral integrity because he or she has received the incredible gift of grace from a righteous and merciful God, who does not deal with us as our sin deserves. For this reason, we live the type of life that God commands because it means closeness to Him.
Any Christian who fails to exemplify moral virtue, according to the standards of God's holiness as described in the pages of Scripture, will unsurprisingly experience a disconnect in prayer. It is impossible for me to live however I see fit, with some type of "all things are lawful for me" mindset (1 Cor 6.12), and still attempt to maintain close fellowship with a holy God. My prayers will not "work" if I am my own moral authority in the place of God's own commands -- either because I live a life of hypocrisy (demonstrating good conduct in public, but living a secret life in private) or because I insist on my right to living however I want in the "freedom of grace." Paul said "may it never be," and Peter too draws the conclusion that personal integrity before God is a necessity -- not to earn something from Him, but because He has given us righteousness as a free gift, and His ear is inclined toward those who walk in His prescribed way. In order to be in proper fellowship with Him, we therefore should live accordingly.
Reason #3: Lack of proper thinking
The end of all things is at hand; therefore be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers. (1 Peter 4.7)
A lack of self-control connects back to our previous point, but sober-mindedness is something additional. Sober-mindedness means alertness, a head free from any kind of intoxicating influence, able to think free of any distraction. Riveted attention to God's redemptive program is what Peter admonishes the believer to possess -- that is, His saving work through Jesus Christ, effective in the Kingdom of Priests today, to be fully realized in the retrun of Christ. Living with this mental context brings sobriety and sharpening clarity, and directly impacts my manner of praying, because my fellowship with God takes on a new dimension: though I cannot yet see Him, one day soon I will, and all the things of this earth with its pursuits and pitfalls will be judged with fire, and renewed to the state in which God initially created them to be. So instead of praying merely for that promotion and the health of my neighbor, my sober-minded prayers focus far more on my own sanctification and that of others, the salvation of my neighbor, my opportunities to be a gospel witness despite persecution, and God's will to be done on earth as it is in heaven.
James takes up a similar refrain, because he addresses in his epistle the impossibility of being duplicitous -- that is, divided in our loyalties -- and states that a prayer of doubt (literally, lack of faith) is an obstacle to properly seeking wisdom from the Lord (Jas 1.5-8). As Christians, we face the constant tension between living in this world, which is not to have our loyalty, and living for eternity with Christ. It is very easy for us to become distracted by "alternative priorities" -- the things that seem so meaningful right now, and sometimes cause us to doubt because they seem so tangible in contrast to the promises of God that often linger just out of sight. However, when we relegate earthly things to their proper context, eternity is properly magnified, and doubt is eclipsed by the incredible bedrock of faith.
If we maintain a spirit of sober-mindedness, we are keeping a proper perspective on the things that matter, and we are putting away the doubt that comes from magnifying our current existence. Practicing sober-minded faith will radically impact the effectiveness of my prayer discipline, because I will begin praying according to God's will. As a result, my own will begins to change to match His.
Reason #4: Lack of humility
Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” (1 Peter 5.5)
In this final example, Peter doesn't make a direct correlation to prayer. However, given the rest of the epistle, and taking into consideration that James seems to also be alluding to the same passage (either Prov 3.34 or Psa 31.23 are both possible citations; both treat the Lord's staunch opposition to pride), it follows that a lack of humility is an enormous obstacle to effective prayer. It should be obvious, but the unfortunate reality of pride is that it is one of the most blinding sins at work in the heart.
Often, the biggest reason I fail to maintain an effective discipline of prayer is because I feel, on some level, like I don't need prayer -- or, as 1 Peter 5.5. implies, like I need to submit to my authorities, or be dependent upon other Christians. "I've got this!" I think, sometimes in actual words and sometimes just in my gut. It seems better to be a problem-solver, a crisis-manager, a diehard plan-ahead-er, and live in the power of my own abilities, rather than entrust my very steps to the Lord. This, however, is sinful, because it puts me in the driver's seat and relegates the Holy Spirit to a backseat driver, whose advice is only sometimes wanted and -- more often than not -- ignored.
A lack of humility will hamper any prayer, because not only does the attitude of our prayer shift away from reverence, dependence, adoration, and submissiveness, but the object of our prayer shifts as well. That's why James told those in the dispersion that, contrary to the promise of Christ, they "ask and do not receive," not because Jesus had lied to them, but rather because they "ask wrongly," intended to "spend" what they received on their "passions" (Jas 4.2-3). This, James says, is the epitome of worldliness, and pridefulness is the root of it. In fact, pridefulness, if not addressed, will render any prayer ineffective -- even if I earnestly and endlessly repeat it. Suddenly (it seems), a tremendous chasm will have sprung up between me and the One to whom I am praying. Pridefulness will then -- if still not addressed -- find some way to blindly uphold my own sense of self-righteousness and seek to blame God for the chasm rather than acknowledge the sinful, pride-based desires of my own heart. Humility, on the other hand, is quick to acknowledge wrongdoing, and facilitates the fellowship of prayer, because it helps me properly see myself before God, and in submissive unity with other believers.
_ _ _ _ _
To conclude, these are just four observations. There are certainly more to be made. It would behoove each of us to re-evaluate what exactly it is that we consider prayer to be, and what exactly we expect prayer to do, because if the premises are wrong, then so is the conclusion.
If you're a Christian reading this and you're in a position where prayer doesn't seem to be "working," the good news is that, as a Christian, your relationship with God remains unbroken, even if there is a disruption in your fellowship with Him. Repentance begins with the humble recognition of wrongdoing, the realization of the depth of my sinfulness, and the appropriate renouncing of my own self-righteousness. In fact, a healthy discipline of prayer is restored by the discipline of prayer: repent and turn to the Father, who has not been deaf to your erroneous prayers (or total lack thereof), but has rather chosen in mercy to allow you to acutely feel the disconnect, in order to address your own hardness of heart and be restored to right fellowship with Him.
May God give to each of us the ability to call upon Him, the need to call upon Him often, and may we relish such an available opportunity to fellowship with Him.