Do all of our sins hinder our prayers? Today we address a really great listener email. Here it is.
“Hello, Pastor John, and thank you for this podcast! My name is Ryan. The Bible says dishonoring a wife will hinder a husband’s prayers. We see this in 1 Peter 3:7. Is this a particular dynamic for marriage only? Or is this part of a larger principle of sin? Do all of our sins hinder the effectiveness of our prayers?”
The answer to the first question is no — namely, Is this a particular dynamic for marriage only? No, and we’ll see why in just a minute. The answer to the second question is this: not necessarily. Do all our sins hinder the effectiveness of our prayers? Not necessarily. First, because God, in his mercy, may show a special grace by answering a prayer in spite of some of our sins, while at other times, he may show a disciplinary grace by withholding an answer to prayer. If God correlated the answers to our prayers precisely to our sins, we wouldn’t get any answers to prayer. So, we should never think that an answer to prayer signifies sinlessness. But we should not conclude from this that there’s no correlation between our sinning and our answers to prayer.
Ryan’s first question is whether the principle of 1 Peter 3:7 applies only in marriage or more broadly. Here’s what the verse says:
Husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered.
Now, there are at least three possible meanings for the way prayers are hindered in this verse.
First, it might be that the prayers that are being hindered are the prayers of the husband and the wife that they’re supposed to pray together. And the failure of the husband to care for and respect his wife undermines that fellowship that they should have together, so that they can’t feel any harmony when they are together. And so, the prayers that they ought to be praying together don’t happen. They don’t pray together anymore because something’s come between them, because he’s not doing what he’s supposed to do in this verse. That’s the first possible meaning.
Here’s the second one. It would be that the husband’s prayers are hindered in that his heart is so selfish toward his wife that his actual praying — not just the answers, but his praying — is hindered. The praying itself doesn’t come out of his heart anymore. In other words, he just stops praying. His heart is so wrong toward his wife, it doesn’t want to approach God anymore in any kind of humble, needy way. He’s just not praying anymore.
And the third meaning would be that the man is praying, but that God is withholding answers to his prayers because his heart is not right toward his wife.
Three Ways to Obstruct Prayer
I think, in reality, all three of those are true. All those explanations of 1 Peter 3:7 are true in reality. In other words, if a husband fails to be kind and gentle and cherishing toward his wife as the weaker vessel, and if he fails to be respectful and esteeming and admiring of her as a fellow heir of the grace of life, all three of these hindrances are going to happen.
The relationship is going to be undermined, and therefore the partnership in prayer will be threatened.
His own heart will begin to grow cold, and his own prayer life will dry up.
The answers to his prayers may be withheld because he’s not showing mercy to his wife.
Here’s why I think all three of those are, in fact, reality. And I am going beyond 1 Peter now to show why they are true in reality.
1. Horizontal problems result in vertical breakdown.
When Jesus says in Matthew 18:19, “If two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven,” he’s pointing to a principle. A breakdown in horizontal fellowship, where two or three can’t agree anymore, will result in a breakdown of vertical blessing from God. So, if a husband and a wife become so spiritually distant from each other,Matthew 18:19 implies, they won’t have the harmony together that calls down God’s blessing. That’s number one.
2. Lack of love for others reveals deficient love for God.
When John writes in 1 John 4:20, “He who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen,” John is implying that failures of love at the horizontal level signal a breakdown of love toward God at the vertical level. In other words, the failure to love our wives, or other Christians for that matter, signals that we are losing our ability to go to God in love. We are not able to pray because we don’t really love God.
3. We mock God when we ask him for what we withhold.
But I’m inclined to think that it’s the third possible meaning of 1 Peter 3:7 that Peter mainly has in mind — namely, that if we go on sinning against our wives, or against other Christians, we are shutting the door on the flow of grace toward us in answered prayer. James says, for example, in James 4:3, “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.” In other words, God sometimes withholds answers to prayer because we have sinful aims in our heart. Our prayer is not for the healing of a broken relationship; our prayer is for some worldly advantage.
Jesus put it most starkly in the Lord’s Prayer when he said, “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12). In other words, if you hold a grudge against your wife or treat other people unmercifully and then cry out to God for mercy, you’re simply making a mockery out of God. And God will not be mocked. “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy” (Matthew 5:7).
All Eyes on the Righteous
But the main reason I think this is probably what Peter has in mind when he speaks to husbands and says that their prayers are going to be hindered if they don’t cherish their wives as they should — the main reason is because in the next paragraph, the very next verse, he begins by explaining that the same principle is in play with regard to all Christians in all our relationships. Right after saying that the husbands aren’t going to get answers to prayer if they are disrespectful to their wives, he says,
Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind. Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing. (1 Peter 3:8–9)
And then he starts to argue for that. He argues by quoting Psalm 34:12–16. Listen to how the Psalm argues for how to get answered prayer.
Whoever desires to love life
and see good days,
let him keep his tongue from evil
and his lips from speaking deceit;
let him turn away from evil and do good;
let him seek peace and pursue it.
For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous,
and his ears are open to their prayer.
But the face of the Lord is against those who do evil. (1 Peter 3:10–12)
Husbands, and all of us, have just heard in verse 7 that husbands’ prayers are going to be hindered if they don’t treat their wives with care and respect. And now, five verses later, Peter tells all of us, “The eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and his ears are open to their prayer.” The righteous — he’s open to the righteous in their prayer. “But the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.” That’s probably the same principle from marriage applied to all of us.
My conclusion, Ryan, is that the word to husbands is a word to everybody in principle. If in the relationships that God has given us, whether marriage, or parenting, or friendship, or neighborliness, or collegiality, if in any of those relationships we begin to act unlovingly, disrespectfully, unmercifully, unkindly, we may expect that God will, in mercy, withhold blessings when we pray. This will be a loving discipline for his children. And we should take it to heart and repent and walk worthily of his calling.
John Piper / © 2021 Desiring God Foundation. Website: desiringGod.org