When Is It Wrong to Pray?

Text: Joshua 7:1-13

“Get up! Why have you fallen on your face?” (Joshua 7:10)

When is it wrong to pray? Although many Christians might find this idea incomprehensible, the Bible is clear that there are times when prayer is useless.

In Joshua 7, the people of God found themselves at a critical crossroads. The community was in a time of crisis and confusion. After seeing God breakthrough in a stunning fashion at Jericho, the thrill of victory was quickly replaced by the agony of defeat. Sometimes the distance between a great victory and a miserable defeat is only one step away.

Jericho was a massive conquest for Israel. They were on a great high until things went terribly wrong at Ai. In what should have been an easy battle in contrast to what they faced at Jericho, Israel was unexpectedly routed by the enemy. In sheer humiliation, Joshua tore his clothes and “fell to the earth on his face before the ark of the Lord until evening.” With his head covered in dust, Joshua laments that God did not come through for His people the way He had promised. Israel’s commander in chief is wallowing in disgrace. This is a pity party on steroids—until God had heard enough!

Then the Lord said: “Get up! Why have you fallen on your face?”

The Almighty makes it clear to Joshua that this tragic loss wasn’t due to the Lord’s unfaithfulness, but the wayward transgression of the people. “Therefore the people of Israel cannot stand before their enemies,” the Lord says. God tells Joshua to stop praying, get up, and deal with this problem so that Israel can get back on her feet again. The blame was ultimately cast on Achan, who had sinned by taking some of the “accursed things” as plunder for personal gain during the Jericho campaign.

After this sin of selfishness and greed had been exposed and dealt with, Israel regained her momentum in her charge to the Promised Land.

When Praying is Useless

Joshua could’ve spent months in prayer and it would’ve been meaningless. No amount of petition or intercession would have effect as long as sin was in the camp.

So when is it wrong to pray? It is wrong to pray if we aren’t going to act on what we know is the right course of action.

It is useless to pray when we have no intention of dealing with the sin in our lives. The Bible tells us: “If I had cherished sin in my heart, the Lord would not have listened” (Psalm 66:18 NIV). We shouldn’t pray if we aren’t willing to confess our sin and repent of our disobedience.

It is useless to pray when we harbor unforgiveness or unresolved offenses in our hearts. Jesus warned his followers, “If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23-24). In the very next verse He urges them to act “quickly” in matters of reconciliation.

It is not only useless, but insulting to God, to pray when we have no intention of obeying God’s law or do not honor His Holy Word: “If anyone turns a deaf ear to my instruction, even their prayers are detestable” (Proverbs 28:9).

Prayer is worthless when we don’t treat our spouses with the respect and honor with which God decrees (1 Peter 3:7), when we are praying out of selfish ambition (James 4:2-3), when we don’t help the less fortunate (Proverbs 21:13), when we fail to speak out for justice (Proverbs 31:8, Micah 6:8), or when we are not doing what we are capable of to meet the needs right in front of us (James 2:15-16; 4:17, 1 John 3:17, Luke 10:25-37).

To be theologically sound, we can and should pray without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:17). The point is: if we are not willing to obey God in the things that are clearly given to us in Scripture, our prayers become empty, hollow, vain, and even abomination.

We cannot pray without ceasing while walking in disobedience. Think about that as you seek to abide in Him this week.


Heavenly Father, teach us that praying without ceasing is interrelated to living in obedience to your ways. Our prayer life must not only be an intimate communion of words, but an obedient course of action. Help us to regard your Word as holy and to act upon it in our daily lives. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

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Questions for Reflection and/or Family Discussion:

  1. When have you felt an amazing thrill of victory? The agony of defeat?
  2. How would you describe the evolution of your prayer life?
  3. What was Joshua’s attitude as seen in his prayer? (Look at verse 7)
  4. Why do you think it bothers some people to hear many Christians speaking openly about praying for our nation while failing to speak out for justice? In what ways do national sins need to be addressed by people of faith?
  5. Ask the Holy Spirit to reveal any aspects of your prayer life that are not linked to obedience and action. What will you do about that this week?

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