Rev E B Belizar, SThD
Almost everybody asks that question. I myself do, at times. So I count myself out of possible sources of answers.
I suggest we consult the Scriptures and spiritual masters. What do they say?
1. We pray for wrong reasons or motives.
I may pray to the Lord for something good, such as landing a job to earn plenty of money but if I do so to simply enjoy worldly comfort and pleasures, my prayer will certainly fail. The Apostle James has this to say: “You ask and you do not receive because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your pleasures” (Jas 4:3).
2. Disobedience to the Lord could be our problem.
The book of Proverbs has a brutally honest rejoinder to us when we complain how we pray in vain: “He who turns away from listening to the law, even his prayer is an abomination” (Prov 28:9).
3. The kind of life we live matters.
It is a mistake we often make to cling to a truth regarding God and ignore other truths. For instance, we emphasize God’s mercy, which is correct, but pay scant attention to his holiness and justice. We need to listen to the prophet Isaiah: “But your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God. And your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear” (Is 59:2). On the other hand, our efforts to live by God’s expectations does not escape him. The blind man cured by Jesus addresses the Pharisees and fellow Jews, as well as us, with point-blank boldness: “We know that God does not hear sinners, but if anyone is God-fearing and does his will, he hears him” (Jn 9:31).
4. How we treat the poor affects how God treats our prayer.
The God who freed poor and helpless slaves, the Jews in Egypt, and commanded them to leave some of their harvests to the poor as well as warned them not to mistreat helpless foreigners among them, reveals his soft heart for those on the underside of life. He does not tolerate even his own people’s indifference to his favorites, and what he does to our prayers could be very telling. The book of Proverbs minces no words: “He who shuts his ear to the cry of the poor, will also cry himself and not be answered” (Prov 21:13).
5. The living God and the God of the living is deaf to those who trample on human life.
There has been much blood shed in our country, a lot of it at the behest of powerful and wealthy people, egged on by a silent majority. Perhaps our fears and misplaced hopes or expectations have blinded us. Well, these are also at the bottom of prayers that fall on deaf ears. “So when you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide my eyes from you. Yes, even though you multiply prayers, I will not listen. Your hands are covered with blood” (Is 1:15).
6. False gods are true obstacles to prayer.
We often think of false gods as statues or images we see in homes or churches. This is how non-Catholics mostly impose their own meanings and misjudgments on the Catholic practice of using visuals to stimulate and aid faith and prayer. We do not worship statues and images of saints and the Blessed Virgin Mary. We give them special honor and respect which we call veneration. We also ask them to pray and intercede for us, because they represent heroes of faith and models of discipleship who are now in heaven and thus closest to God himself. But other real false gods exist and could destroy authentic faith and genuine prayer in us. False gods such as money/wealth deemed more prior to God and his kingdom, power obtained at all costs and practised selfishly, comfort and pleasure as a life’s priority, popularity and prestige held higher than giving or acknowledging God’s glory, the family’s perceived good held as better than obeying God’s commandments, these are real and false objects of our adulation or worship. Says the Lord through Jeremiah the prophet: “Then the cities of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem will go and cry to the gods to whom they burn incense, but they surely will not save them in time of their disaster…Therefore do not pray for this people, nor lift a cry of prayer for them, for I will not listen when they cry to me in the time of their affliction” (Jer 11:12, 14).
7. Pride and lack of faith as twin peaks of vain prayer.
God does not ask for our best words in prayer. But he asks for genuine faith. It is a faith that willingly puts our all into his hands and relies totally on his unfailing love. A false, excessive love of self is a plain obstacle to achieving such faith. This we otherwise know as pride. Without faith, our praying is a shaft in the wind. “But he must ask in faith,” says James, “without any doubting, for he who doubts is like a surf at sea, driven and tossed by the wind. For that man cannot expect to receive anything from the Lord” (Jas 1:6-7). On the other hand, neither can the proud expect a favourable response. “There they cry out,” declares the book of Job, “but he (the Lord) does not answer because of the pride in their evil hearts. Surely God will not listen to an empty cry. Nor will the Almighty regard it” (Job 35:12-13).
Despite unanswered prayers, St. Augustine counsels us never to give up on praying: “We must understand that even though God doesn’t always give us what we want, he gives us what we need for our salvation.”