Do you ever feel like you pray and pray and God doesn’t listen? It may or may not be true.
Once when I was feeling really down and rudderless, I opened my Bible at random and found Isaiah 1. It contains this passage:
11The multitude of your sacrifices—
what are they to me?” says the Lord.
I have more than enough of burnt offerings,
of rams and the fat of fattened animals;
I have no pleasure
in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats.
12 When you come to appear before me,
who has asked this of you,
this trampling of my courts?
13 Stop bringing meaningless offerings!
Your incense is detestable to me.
New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations—
I cannot bear your worthless assemblies.
14 Your New Moon feasts and your appointed festivals
I hate with all my being.
They have become a burden to me;
I am weary of bearing them.
15 When you spread out your hands in prayer,
I hide my eyes from you;
even when you offer many prayers,
I am not listening.
Your hands are full of blood. – Isaiah 1:11-15
And I wondered, does it say anywhere else that God doesn’t listen to prayer? If so, what could I learn? Here are three more places.
Where God doesn’t listen in Deuteronomy
In the first chapter of Deuteronomy, Moses recounts how the people believed the evil report of the ten spies and refused to go take the Promised Land. The chapter concludes,
41 Then you replied, “We have sinned against the Lord. We will go up and fight, as the Lord our God commanded us.” So every one of you put on his weapons, thinking it easy to go up into the hill country.
42 But the Lord said to me, “Tell them, ‘Do not go up and fight, because I will not be with you. You will be defeated by your enemies.’”
43 So I told you, but you would not listen. You rebelled against the Lord’s command and in your arrogance you marched up into the hill country. 44 The Amorites who lived in those hills came out against you; they chased you like a swarm of bees and beat you down from Seir all the way to Hormah. 45 You came back and wept before the Lord, but he paid no attention to your weeping and turned a deaf ear to you. 46 And so you stayed in Kadesh many days—all the time you spent there. – Deuteronomy 1:41-45
Where God doesn’t listen in Amos
In Amos’ day, most of the people of Israel worshiped false gods. The wealthy and powerful systematically impoverished the rest of society and then harshly oppressed those they had made poor.
But they certainly knew how to offer sacrifices and celebrate impressive festivals. They looked forward to the Day of the Lord. They figured God would come someday to rescue them and wipe out all their enemies. Unfortunately, they didn’t take into account that they had not obeyed his commandments. Amos reminded them,
18 Woe to you who long
for the day of the Lord!
Why do you long for the day of the Lord?
That day will be darkness, not light.
19 It will be as though a man fled from a lion
only to meet a bear,
as though he entered his house
and rested his hand on the wall
only to have a snake bite him.
20 Will not the day of the Lord be darkness, not light—
pitch-dark, without a ray of brightness?
21 “I hate, I despise your religious festivals;
your assemblies are a stench to me.
22 Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them.
Though you bring choice fellowship offerings,
I will have no regard for them.
23 Away with the noise of your songs!
I will not listen to the music of your harps.
24 But let justice roll on like a river,
righteousness like a never-failing stream! – Amos 5:16-24
Where God doesn’t listen in Jeremiah
Nothing had improved by Jeremiah’s time. Just as the Assyrians had wiped out the northern kingdom, the southern kingdom faced extinction at the hands of Babylon. And for all the same reasons. Jeremiah saw it in advance and spent his life trying to get his people to heed the warnings.
9 Then the Lord said to me, “There is a conspiracy among the people of Judah and those who live in Jerusalem. 10 They have returned to the sins of their ancestors, who refused to listen to my words. They have followed other gods to serve them. Both Israel and Judah have broken the covenant I made with their ancestors. 11 Therefore this is what the Lordsays: ‘I will bring on them a disaster they cannot escape. Although they cry out to me, I will not listen to them.12 The towns of Judah and the people of Jerusalem will go and cry out to the gods to whom they burn incense, but they will not help them at all when disaster strikes. 13 You, Judah, have as many gods as you have towns; and the altars you have set up to burn incense to that shameful god Baal are as many as the streets of Jerusalem.’
14 “Do not pray for this people or offer any plea or petition for them, because I will not listen when they call to me in the time of their distress. – Jeremiah 11: 9-14
Why does God not listen to prayer?
In all cases, the people to whom God would not listen lived in full-scale rebellion against him.
In Moses’ time, God had promised that they would conquer the land of Canaan and thrive in it. Most of the leaders sent to spy out the land spread a spirit of fear among the people. They refused to obey the command to go forward and take the land. So God swore that the entire generation would die in the wilderness. At that time, they “repented” and took up arms.
When their children finally took the land, they had a mission to destroy Canaanite culture and drive the Canaanite people off the land. Had they done so, they could have built a godly civilization that would have served as a beacon of light to surrounding nations. Instead, they adopted all the Canaanites’ wickedness: idolatry, violence, oppression, sexual immorality, and all the rest.
So by the time of the prophets, people were very religious. They carried out all the prescribed festivals and sacrifices. They piously called on God’s name and refused to acknowledge his commandments. After generations of prophetic warnings, God finally carried out the curse of the law in Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28.
The Israelites hadn’t listened to God, so when it came time for judgment to fall, he didn’t listen to them, either.
Where is the grace amid all this judgment?
Every word of Scripture, every act of God, and every inaction of God perfectly reflect his love. When he sends catastrophe, it has an ultimately redemptive, not punitive purpose.
God graciously promised a homeland for the Israelites. One generation refused to do their part to receive it. They all died. Their children conquered the land.
As Israelites became more and more like Canaanites, God stripped the kings and the temple away and sent them into exile. And shut his ears to their prayers for deliverance. In the process, he purged idolatry from them. They returned to their homeland as a renewed society.
Amos and other prophets spoke of the Day of the Lord. Revelation describes the darkness and terror of that day in greater detail.
Meanwhile, if the Holy Spirit left our churches, it wouldn’t make much difference to many of them. They would continue with their programs and services without noticing the Spirit’s departure. God does not listen to false worship.
So what does it mean if it feels like God isn’t listening to your prayer? First of all, if you are in rebellion, you are correct. He’s not listening.
But unanswered prayer does not mean you are in rebellion. Abraham was not in rebellion when he had to wait nearly 25 years for the birth of Isaac. Daniel was not in rebellion when he had to wait for 21 days for the answer to his prayer. Paul was not in rebellion when God declined to remove the thorn in the flesh.
If you are not in rebellion, God hears your prayer. He might not answer it as soon as you would like, the way you would like, or even a way that you would immediately recognize as the answer.
Receive his grace while you wait for clarity.