Why I Think Prayer ‘Doesn’t Work’

I have to agree when people say, “Prayer doesn’t work.” It doesn’t. At least, not in the way that they usually mean it. When people pray, they are usually asking for something. They usually want God to change something. I’m not sure that this is what prayer is all about. At least, not entirely, not in the way that we are often told.

I can think of two examples of when I prayed very earnestly for something (I have prayed more than twice, in case you are wondering. I often pray. But these are good examples of what I mean.)

Prayer one was a few years ago when someone who I had grown up with, someone who I cared about, had a horrible accident and his son was killed. I knew that I should attend the funeral, I wanted to show my support for him, but I also knew it would be very hard. It would be hard seeing those who I loved, feeling hurt. It would also be hard because my son was the same age. The coffin would be the same size as my son. So I prayed. I asked my church group to pray too. I prayed that even in this nasty situation, I would feel the peace of God, that I would know his presence with me. It was an earnest, heartfelt prayer.

If I am honest (and there is no point writing this unless I AM honest, there are enough people who ‘say the right words’ already) God did not answer my prayer. I have never felt so alone, so abandoned, as I did at that funeral. I felt no peace, no comfort of God’s presence. I felt totally alone. Full of sorrow for the family but no peace. None. I don’t know if my church group had prayed for me – I suspect they forgot (it’s very easy to forget other people’s needs in the busyness of life.) In this instance, I can honestly say, prayer didn’t work. But we should still pray.

In many parts of the world, people are ill or starving and have no access to help. Many of them pray, call out to God for help. They are not bad people, they pray very earnestly. But their babies still die. There is still not enough food or health care or water. Prayer doesn’t work. But we should still pray.

So, what does it mean? Are we getting it wrong? Is prayer a waste of time? Well, our best way of knowing God is to explore the Bible a little. In the Bible, people prayed. Even Jesus prayed. Think of the famous prayer of Jesus before he died. He prayed asking God to, “…remove this cup from me.” He absolutely didn’t want to die. So, did God save him? Did he escape a horrible death nailed to a cross? Well, no actually. Both Bible accounts and secular historical records show that Jesus was crucified and died. His prayer didn’t work, not if we are measuring prayer by ‘getting what we want’.

In the Old Testament, we read that King David gave up food and sleep to pray that his son might live. But his son didn’t, he died. David’s pray didn’t work. You might not believe the Bible, you might not like what you read, but you have to admit it is honest. It hasn’t fancied things up at all. People prayed for things and God DIDN’T act. Not always. Often not in the way they intended. Prayer doesn’t work. But we are told to pray.

The Bible has many examples where people prayed and things changed. Today, people today tell me that they lost their car keys and prayed and God helped them find them. So what does it all mean? Are they lying?

Well, the more I examine it, the more I test it, the more convinced I am that prayer doesn’t work. At least, if we think that we can change God’s plan by praying. If we could, then God would be no more than a genie in a bottle, a lucky charm, a magic crystal. Of course, some people do ‘pray’ to those things, to lucky charms and sometimes their prayers are ‘answered’. Sometimes they find their car keys or their nephew gets well or the weather is sunny. But I think that is co-incidence. I personally don’t think a lucky charm can change anything. Do I think that praying for lost car keys helps us find them? Perhaps, but that too might be coincidence. And I don’t think our prayers change God. God is bigger than that. God is God.

Do you ever change your mind? I do (my husband would say too often.) What do we mean when we say that? We mean that we thought something in the past, then we decided that it was wrong, now we think something different. If you look at that sentence again, you will see there are lots of time-related words. That’s because we are on a timeline – we have a past, a present and a future. But God doesn’t, we read he is ‘omnipresent’ which means he is outside of time. Therefore God, simply because he is God, cannot change his mind. Not in the way that we mean when we say it anyway.

I believe that God created the world (this needs some explanation because yes, I do also believe that dinosaurs were real, things evolved. At some point I hope to write an article about creation. But for now, just accept that I believe God created the world.) When he did, he put certain rules in place, certain scientific principles. Like gravity. Now, God is God, God CAN break those rules (because he created them) but he doesn’t (except on very rare occasions. We call those miracles.) The world works best if the rules are in place.

So, if I drive my car as fast as I can, straight at a brick wall and pray really hard that God will save me, I doubt that he will. The laws of physics (which God put in place) show that both I and my car, will be smashed to bits.

A child may pray completely earnestly that Mt Everest might move to Germany, because that’s what he wrote in his test paper. But we wouldn’t expect God to move Everest. He could, he is God. But actually we would prefer that he didn’t, that our world remained stable.

Yet we frequently pray asking him, in our grown up way, to change the laws of physics/science. If I eat lots of junk food and rarely exercise, then however much I pray, it is likely that my heart will be trashed and I will die when I’m young. If we pollute the atmosphere, then global warming WILL happen. There will be floods in certain countries, crops will fail, people will die. If we choose to organise our societies so that we don’t pay a fair price for certain commodities, then some countries will be poor, there will be famine and disease.

We know what the ‘rules’ are, if we choose to flout them, then God doesn’t always intervene. Even tiny things, like germs, follow the rules of science. If water is contaminated, people get sick. If cells are subject to whatever causes cancer, then cancer will develop. It is like driving the car at a wall, perhaps without even knowing it but the conclusion will be the same.

So, is there any point to prayer? Well actually, I think yes, there is. Prayer doesn’t ‘work’ in that we cannot manipulate God by praying. But it is still effective. Since writing this I have worried about publishing it, that it might stop someone praying. Don’t stop. I know that prayer is important, I just want people to understand a little more about what it is not. It is important because of this: Prayer changes us. God wants us to pray because that is how we connect with him, that is how we include him in our lives and that is important.

When my children were tiny, I used to love when they sat on my knee and told me things. I remember my daughter sitting on my lap, swinging her legs and telling what she wanted for Christmas. It involved a lot of chocolate. That much chocolate would have made her ill, so I didn’t give it to her. But I loved that she told me, that she shared her hopes with me. My son wanted a crocodile – a real one. He didn’t get that either. But it wasn’t because I didn’t care, it was because I did. I knew things that they didn’t. But I wanted them to tell me, it helped to form a relationship, one that we still have now. They are grown up now but I still love when they tell me things and because they did when they were small, they continue to now they are grown. (My daughter still wants chocolate…)

God loves us like that. He wants us to bring ourselves to him. Not in the hope we can manipulate him, not for what we can ‘get’, but because he wants to share in our lives. Plus, as I said, praying changes us. We start to hear God, to change what we want so it is in line with his will. Praying changes us, it can also change others. Sometimes he does want us to pray for something physical to change, sometimes even a miracle, something that breaks those laws of science. If we aren’t used to talking to him, listening to him, we will never be changed to pray how he wants us to.

The issue is rather confused by the verses in the Bible that say things like, “Ask and you will receive,” and “whatever you ask in prayer you will receive.” Some people have used them to encourage people to pray for money, comfort, health. But they must be read in context. They are part of the whole and the whole says that God will only give us good things. Unlike us, God is outside of time, God sees the eternal picture. We might long for good health, but perhaps there are things that we can only learn if we are in pain. We might pray for a parking space but perhaps walking in the rain means we will meet and speak to someone who needs to be spoken to. We might pray for a life to be saved but God knows that that life will be safer with him, it is time for them to leave their body, to die. We might pray to be free from an addiction but perhaps God knows that constantly fighting that will help us to depend on him.

It is all about trust. Yes, we should ask, take all our desires to God. But to teach that God gives us what we ask for is misleading. Sometimes that is not what is best and God only gives what is best. I don’t write this lightly, I have lost people who I love, I know what it means to have constant pain. Trust is not easy. Life is not easy. Prayer makes it better.

Sometimes, God does act as we ask. As King David said, “Who knows whether the Lord will be gracious?” Whether this is because God, who is not restricted by time, knows from the beginning of time what our prayers will be or because he directs us to pray for what he intends to give, or because he listens and acts, I don’t know. I don’t need to know. We are just told to pray and to trust that God’s way is best. So much easier to write than to do…..

Of course, asking for things is only one kind of prayer. It’s easy to forget about the others. They take a bit of effort and we prefer to pretend that we don’t have time. Perhaps because we don’t really believe they will do any good, alter us in a meaningful way. Or perhaps because we’re just lazy (I know I am.)

We should thank God for things. Not because he needs to hear our thanks but because (again) it is good for us, reminds us that God is good and he made good things.

There is also praise – this one we ignore mostly. Praise isn’t saying thank you, it is saying what, who, God is. It forces us to recognise his God-ness. Again, God doesn’t need us to praise him – he already knows who he is, but it helps us to remember, heightens our awareness of the different aspects of God. It helps us to know God.

Then there is saying we are sorry, actually voicing the things we have done wrong. Bit awkward that one, we would so much rather just ignore all our misdemeanors, move on quickly when we realise we’ve been bitchy or nasty or jealous. But that’s not good for us. What is good for us is to recognise those things, to actually say them aloud and to ask God to forgive us. Then we can move on, hurry away and not look back. But the confessing is important.

I think there is also listening involved. Being still and thinking about God but not speaking. Pausing for a minute. I find it’s better if I actually physically kneel down for this one. Otherwise I start planning meals and writing shopping lists. It would be embarrassing if someone spotted me, so I try to avoid being near a window, have to pretend I’ve dropped something if someone comes into the room, but I find it helpful. It is not very British but maybe we should do it more often. God never forgets that we are physical, I don’t know why we behave like our bodies don’t affect what we are doing spiritually.

In the Bible, when Jesus’ friends asked him how to pray, he gave them the Lord’s prayer (the ‘Our Father who is in Heaven’ prayer – the one you probably learnt as a child.) It is very simple. I used to find that frustrating, I felt Jesus hadn’t really answered their question, he had just given a very simple example. But maybe that is what we need. All this ‘understanding how prayer works’ stuff is very complicated. It is too big for me. Perhaps it is beyond what we can hope to understand, perhaps we have to just trust and come to God with the simplicity of a child going to a parent, to just say what we feel, whether that’s anger, confusion or happiness.

The second example of when I prayed earnestly for something (you thought I had forgotten, didn’t you!) was when I had to have surgery. I was terrified and I wanted God to be with me. I asked other friends to pray. I know that they did because they told me they did. When I walked into that operating room, God was so near that I could have reached out and touched him. The whole time I was in hospital, I was aware of God like I never have been before. His presence was tangible, solid, real. Was he there because I prayed and if I hadn’t prayed I would have been lonely? Or would he have come anyway? I don’t know. I can only tell you that I prayed and God was there. God knows that we are better, happier, more complete, if we depend on him. Prayer is the beginning of learning how to do that.