Yesterday, I mentioned that I would post six brief articles introducing you to the six most common reasons for unanswered prayer, which are explained more fully in the book, Brass Heavens: Reasons for Unanswered Prayer. Here’s the first of those reasons, pet sins.
We often like having animals as pets because we believe they can enrich our lives. We like attending to them, interacting with them, and just having them around. Strangely enough, it’s almost exactly the same with pet sins. Somehow we become aware of a particular kind of sin and feel drawn to it. Maybe we have noticed that other people who own the same pet sin seem to enjoy its presence in their lives. We begin to imagine that having the same sin come live with us would be enriching or thrilling or a nice distraction from the patterns and responsibilities of daily life. And in the process of self-seduction we lose sight of the fact that this pet is not in fact something positive or even neutral. It is sin, a complete and unqualified negative, and a lot more like a coiled rattlesnake than a playful puppy.
Yet we invite it in, and it begins to live with us. Maybe we even have to go to some considerable expense or effort to acquire or keep it, but that’s okay, because we really want it around—at least some of the time. As we begin to feed it and groom it and play with it, it begins to integrate itself into our lives, and its presence comes to feel natural. But then one day it turns on us, or does something shocking or disgusting, and we recoil. Of course, we are only surprised because we have forgotten our pet’s true nature. But now we are so accustomed to having it around that we don’t think very seriously about getting rid of it. We return to caring for this pet sin, and after awhile the same thing happens. Once again we are shocked and repulsed, although maybe a little less than before. So we continue to keep it around; our pet sin is now part of us. We have come to cherish this addition to our lives, and it is actually difficult to imagine living without it.
Dogs Love to Eat Vomit
The Bible offers a vivid picture of our perverse tendency to love the very thing that has harmed us. “Like a dog that returns to his vomit is a fool who repeats his folly” (Proverbs 26:11). This is exactly how we behave when we keep on indulging a pet sin even when we see how bad it can be for us. We return to the same sins repeatedly, gobbling them up greedily even though we know they make us sick.
We all have these particular areas of weakness—pet sins we are strangely attached to despite the pain and grief they have caused us. What is it that prevents us from seeing the awfulness of our sin? Forgive the graphic imagery (you can blame Solomon), but what keeps us from smelling and tasting the vomit? Our fallen nature, which actively loves sin, blinds us to just how awful it really is. We fail to see that it brings us far more harm and pain than anything else. We fail to see it as so wicked that Jesus had to die for it. We fail to see how much it grieves the Holy Spirit. And we fail to see that every sin is a brazen act of rebellion against our loving Father.
One reason we might come under the chastening love of God arises from our natural inclination to rebel against God by cherishing sin. Psalm 66:16-20 says it plainly.
Come and hear, all you who fear God, and I will tell what he has done for my soul. I cried to him with my mouth, and high praise was on my tongue. If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened. But truly God has listened; he has attended to the voice of my prayer. Blessed be God, because he has not rejected my prayer or removed his steadfast love from me!
“Come and hear” is the psalmist’s invitation to fellow believers to observe the works of God in his life which occurred in answer to prayer. He wants us, the readers, to bless God as he does—to join him in “high praise,” for “truly God has listened” to the voice of our prayer and “has not rejected [our] prayer or removed his steadfast love from [us]!”
God Chooses Not to Listen to Our Prayers
Sandwiched between two powerful declarations of the faithfulness of God to answer prayer, however, is this sober warning: “If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened.” Cherished sin—pet sins—can be a cause of unanswered prayer. To cherish sin is to look forward to doing what God forbids. It is the Old Testament equivalent of making “provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (Romans 13:14). It involves allowing certain thought patterns, habits of life, or questionable relationships to remain in order to provide opportunity for the satisfaction of fleshly pleasures. We could say it means our flesh prefers to keep a pet sin “on the side,” just in case God’s promise of something better does not pan out. In fact, the precise opposite is true: to the extent that we keep investing foolishly in satisfaction outside of God, we cannot and will not find the greater treasure that is to be found only in Him. And our prayers are hindered.
This deafness of God, of course, is intentional. Psalm 66 says that the Lord “would not” have listened, not that he could not. “Thus says the Lord who made the earth, the Lord who formed it to establish it—the Lord is his name: Call to me and I will answer you, and will tell you great and hidden things that you have not known” (Jeremiah 33:2-3). This specific promise to the prophet Jeremiah nevertheless contains truth for all time. God can and will, when he chooses, do great and mighty things in response to prayer. But when he refuses to answer our prayers it has nothing to do with his ability. He could always answer, but at times he chooses not to. And sometimes it is because we cherish sin.