Cherishing our pet sin is like craving to eat our own, warm vomit. I’m sorry to be so gross, but that is biblical imagery. Proverbs 26:11 says, “Like a dog that returns to his vomit is a fool who repeats his folly.” There is something within our sin nature that blinds us to just how disgusting sin really is, which results in returning to the same sin repeatedly. That something is the rebellion of independence. We want our own way—independence from God. And we don’t want to be restrained by anyone, including God. That’s rebellion. So we sin. Then we get sick of our sin. Vomit. And before we know it we sin again.
The psalmist confessed, “If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened” (Ps 66:18).
Clearly, there is a connection between practical righteousness and answered prayer—a connection made abundantly clear in Scripture (Prov 15:29; 28:9; Job 27:8-9; Ps 109:7; Isa 1:15-17). “But,” you say, “that is an Old Testament problem. The New Testament God of love, grace, and acceptance surely does not refuse to listen to His children.” However, that is not accurate thinking. Even though as believers in Christ we possess a righteous standing before God based on Christ’s imputed righteousness (2 Cor 5:21), and sin can no longer affect our judicial standing before God (Rom 5:1; 8:1), our sin does affect our familial relationship. It runs interference in our fellowship of communication with the Father, as is affirmed by NT teachings such as John 14:13-15; 1 Peter 3:7; and 1 John 3:21-22. When we cherish sin in our hearts the ears of God may be closed to our prayers.
What does it mean to ‘cherish’ sin? To cherish sin means literally to look forward to it, aim at it, or as the NT describes, “make provision” for it (Rom. 13:14). In the context of Psalm 66 it can even go so far as “praying for God’s help in order to be able to commit some form of sin” [ESV Study Bible]. In other words, our hearts are so wicked and capable of self-deception (Jer 17:9; James 1:23) that it is possible for us to knowingly pray for, and move toward, that which we already know to be against God’s will. Such is the innate rebellion and spirit of independence within us, which then has direct impact on the effectiveness of our prayer lives.
It is an intentional ‘deafness.’ The absence of an answer from God is not due to God’s inability, but rather His refusal to listen to His children at certain times. The psalmist indicates the Lord “would not [not 'cannot'] have listened.” It is His intentional choice to not listen to the prayer of the one who cherishes sin or, in the worst possible scenario, attempts to use prayer to get his or her sinful desires met. Of course, all of this is not to say that all unanswered prayer is caused by personal sin. Sometimes silence from heaven is the means by which the Lord teaches us perseverance in our walk of faith. But we must be honest enough to admit there are times in our lives when God chooses to close His ears because He wants to open our eyes to sin that we are unaware of, or are too stubborn to face honestly. “Search me, O God” (Ps 139:24). What then is the remedy?
Empty the trash regularly. The remedy for the familial interference caused by unconfessed, cherished sin is the ongoing practice of repentance and confession. As Reggie Weems writes, “Confession is the trash can of your prayer life” [On Wings of Prayer]. In our home we must empty the kitchen trash receptacle once a day and take all the bags to the roadside curb for pick up once a week. If we did not regularly clear out the trash from our home then we would live in a dump. But what about our hearts? Our spiritual lives are in need of the constant cleansing of repentance and confession (1 John 1:9). Not only daily, as is indicated by Jesus in Matthew 6:12, but constantly throughout the day as the Spirit convicts us of sin.
It is only after calling us to this lifestyle of confession that James confidently assures us, “The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working” (James 5:16). Though it is not in every case appropriate, or necessary, to confess our sins to one another, it is always so in our relationship with God, our Father. And when we deal honestly with our sin before a holy, yet forgiving God we can also say with the psalmist, “But truly God has listened; he has attended to the voice of my prayer” (Ps 66:19). This is not to say that our righteousness earns our answer to prayer. For God to answer any of our prayers is sheer grace. But we cannot presume on God or pretend there is no connection between cherished sin and unanswered prayer.