God answers prayer. Prayer is God and man joining hands to secure some high end. He joins with us through the communication of prayer in accomplishing certain great results. This is the main drive of prayer. Our asking and expecting and God's doing jointly bring to pass things that otherwise would not come to pass. Prayer changes things. This is the great fact of prayer.
Yet a great many prayers are not answered. Or, to put it more accurately, a great many prayers fail utterly of accomplishing any results. Probably it is accurate to say that thousands of prayers go up and bring nothing down. This is certainly true. Let us say it just as bluntly and plainly as it can be said. As a result many persons are saying: "Well, prayer is not what you claim for it: we prayed and no answer came: nothing was changed."
From all sorts of circles, and in all sorts of language comes this statement. Scholarly men who write with wisdom's words, and thoughtless people whose thinking never even pricks the skin of the subject, and all sorts of people in between group themselves together here. And they are right, quite right. The bother is that what they say is not all there is to be said. There is yet more to be said, that is right too, and that changes the final conclusion radically. Partial truth is a very mean sort of lie.
The prayer plan like many another has been much disturbed, and often broken. And one who would be a partner with God up to the limit of his power must understand the things that hinder the prayer plan. There are three sorts of hindrances to prayer. First of all there are things in us that break off connection with God, the source of the changing power. Then there are certain things in us that delay, or diminish the results; that interfere with the full swing of the prayer plan of operations. And then there is a great outside hindrance to be reckoned upon. To-day we want to talk together of the first of these, namely, the hindrances that break off connections between God and His human partner.
Here again there is a division into three. There are three things directly spoken of in the book of God that hinder prayer. One of these is a familiar thing. What a pity that repugnant things may become so familiar as no longer to repel. It is this:—sin hinders prayer. In Isaiah's first chapter God Himself speaking says, "When you stretch out your hands"—the way they prayed, standing with outstretched hands—"I will shut My eyes; when you make many prayers, I will shut My ears." (Isa_1:15). Why? What's the difficulty? These outstretched hands aresoiled! They are actually holding their sin-soiled hands up into God's face; and He is compelled to look at the thing most hateful to Him. In the fifty-ninth chapter of this same book (Isa_59:1-3), God Himself is talking again. Listen "Behold! the Lord's hand is not shortened: His ear is not heavy." There is no trouble on the up side. God is all right. "But"—listen with both your ears—"your iniquities ... your sins ... your hands ... your fingers ... your lips ... your tongue ..." the slime of sin is oozing over everything! Turn back to that sixty-sixth Psalm (Psa_66:18) —"if I regard iniquity in my heart the Lord will not hear me." How much more if the sin of the heart get into the hands or the life! And the fact to put down plainly in blackest ink once for all is this—sin hinders prayer. There is nothing surprising about this. That we can think the reverse is the surprising thing. Prayer is transacting business with God. Sin is breaking with God.
Suppose I had a private wire from my apartments here to my home in Cleveland, and some one should go outside and drag the wire down until it touches the ground—a good square touch with the ground—the electricians would call it grounded, could I telegraph over that wire? Almost any child knows I could not. Suppose some one cuts the wire, a good clean cut; the two ends are apart: not a mile; not a yard; but distinctly apart. Could I telegraph on that wire? Of course not. Yet I might sit in my room and tick away by the hour wholly absorbed, and use most beautiful persuasive language—what is the good? The wire's cut. All my fine pleading goes into the ground, or the air. Now sin cuts the wire; it runs the message into the ground.
"Well," some one will object, "now you're cutting us all out, are you not? Are we not all conscious of a sinful something inside here that has to be fought, and held under all the while?" It certainly seems to be true that the nearer a man gets to God the more keenly conscious he is of a sinful tendency within even while having continual victory. But plainly enough what the Book means here is this:—if I am holding something in my life that the Master does not like, if I am failing to obey when His voice has spoken, that to me is sin. It may be wrong in itself. It may not be wrong in itself. It may not be wrong for another. Sometimes it is not the thing involved but the One involved that makes the issue. If that faithful quiet inner voice has spoken and I know what the Master would prefer and I fail to keep in line, that to me is sin. Then prayer is useless; sheer waste of breath. Aye, worse, it is deceptive. For I am apt to say or think, "Well, I am not as good as you, or you, but then I am not so bad; I pray." And the truth is because I have broken with God the praying—saying words in that form—is utterly worthless.
You see sin is slapping God in the face. It may be polished, cultured sin. Sin seems capable of taking quite a high polish. Or it may be the common gutter stuff. A man is not concerned about the grain of a club that strikes him a blow. How can He and I talk together if I have done that, and stick to it—not even apologized. And of what good is an apology if the offense is being repeated. And if we cannot talk together of course working together is out of the question. And prayer is working together with God. Prayer is pulling with God in His plan for a world.
Shall we not put out the thing that is wrong? or put in the thing the Master wants in? For Jesus' sake? Aye for men's sake: poor befooled men's sake who are being kept out and away because God cannot get at them through us!
Shall we bow and ask forgiveness for our sin, and petty stubbornness that has been thwarting the Master's love-plan? And yet even while we ask forgiveness there are lives out yonder warped and dwarfed and worse because of the hindrance in us; yes, and remaining so as we slip out of this meeting. May the fact send us out to walk very softly these coming days.