The answer is yes. Sin clearly hinders the prayers of God’s people. Plenty of texts confirm this (e.g., Ps. 66:18; Prov. 28:9; Isa. 59:2; John 9:31; 1 Peter 3:7; 4:7). But the more specific question this short article will answer is, “Does my sin keep God from granting what I ask for?” The one text that directly addresses that question is James 4:3: “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.” Let’s consider what this text is and is not saying.
James 4:3 is saying that we will not get what we ask for if our motives are ungodly; that is, if we want something from God simply to “spend it on [our] passions.” Earlier, James mentioned how these “passions are at war within you” (v. 1), but the people seem to be losing the battle. They want God’s gifts in order to satisfy sinful desires. They use Christian means to arrive at the un-Christian goal of self-satisfying pleasure. To be sure, Jesus did say to His disciples, “Ask, and it will be given to you” (Matt. 7:7). But the motive in which one asks should be informed by the second and third petitions of the Lord’s Prayer: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10). The person who prays in this way desires God’s gifts in order to glorify and enjoy Him, both now and forever.
However, James 4:3 is not saying that if we have godly motives, a heart full of faith and love toward the Lord Jesus Christ, and a will fully aligned with the will of God that we’ll get everything we desire. Contrary to many prosperity gospel preachers today, God is not a divine ATM. Just because He has inexhaustible funds available doesn’t mean we can simply withdraw whatever amount we desire, whenever we desire, for whatever we desire. The Lord is sovereign and good. He knows precisely what we need and what we do not need. We need to echo Jesus’ prayer: “Not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42).
The flip side is also true. Just because our prayer isn’t answered in the way we desire doesn’t mean we have secret sin in our lives or that we lack faith. Of course, that could be true. Sin can hinder our prayers, but it’s not always true that a hindered prayer means sin is present. A no from God is an answer to prayer. And this God who says no gives that answer for our good and for His glory. We can’t always understand why, but we should always trust that our good God has His and our best interests in view.
Dr. David E. Briones is associate professor of New Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia and a teaching elder in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. He is author of Paul’s Financial Policy: A Socio-Theological Approach.