When Prayer Doesn’t Work

Many people over the years have felt like prayer is a waste of time.

Many people over the years have felt like prayer is a waste of time.

[This is the third installment in a series entitled, “When Faith Doesn’t Work.” Read the series from the beginning here.]

“National Day of Wishful Thinking”

A well-known YouTube atheist used this phrase to rename the National Day of Prayer. And protested said demonstration at his state’s capitol.

“Nothing Fails like Prayer”

Signs held outside the building showed just as much skepticism.

Christians hear arguments like this all the time and, if you are not a believer, you can probably sympathize with such sentiments.

Even believers have doubted the power of prayer. We struggle to “be good about prayer” in our own lives.

I know I do. So here are my thoughts as to why we might feel this way. These are the causes that lead to thinking prayer is broken, I see these mindsets in the arguments of non-believers (PLEASE COMMENT if you feel I miss the mark, forget something, etc.) but, sadly, I see just all of these as prevalent problems in the church as well. It’s no wonder prayer doesn’t “work.”

A Change In Our Definition

What do we mean, “prayer doesn’t work?”

Typically it means that we pray and bad things still happen. We pray and don’t “hear anything.” We may even pray for deliverance from sin and yet continue to be tempted.

Could it be that we are defining effective prayer wrong?

Even John the Baptist (who Jesus called the greatest man to ever live – Matt 11:11) questioned whether all his faith was “working” as he sat in prison and even questioned Jesus. He thought that because he was faithfully following God, prison should have been an impossible outcome.

Spoiler alert: He was later beheaded because of his ministry.

Prayer is not just some “magic trick” to fix all your problems. Prayer is an opportunity to grow in a personal relationship with the God that created the universe. It is an opportunity to share your heart with him, to tell him where your hang-ups and frustrations are, and to align yourself to his will for you. 

Prayer might not “work” because we expect something from it that is not promised in Scripture.

A Change In Our Request

Check out these popular verses about Prayer.

It would seem that Scripture paints a picture of prayer being answered. These passages definitely look that way. Didn’t Jesus say that if we truly believe, we could command a mountain to throw itself into the sea? When was the last time that happened?

There is an important caveat in passages like these though: “Whatever you ask in my name.” When we pray, we are often focused on ourselves. This was John the Baptist’s problem. “In my name” is a statement of submission to his mission above our mission.

We pray for God to heal people that we can’t bear the thought of living without. We pray for safe travel. We pray for a promotion. A job. The bid on that dream home to be accepted. Very seldom do we follow these things with, if it is your will.”

The above-mentioned list isn’t bad in itself, but they are self-focused. Comfort-focused.

Praying “Jesus, let your will be done” will usually follow with Jesus saying, “This is my will. Go let it be done.” A response is implied.

It could seem prayer doesn’t “work” because our requests are not “in Jesus’ name.”

A Change In Our Hearts

A heart that harbors hatred won’t hear Jesus.

1 Peter 4:17 – “Be self-controlled so that you can pray.”

Matthew 5:23-24 – “If you are coming to the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gifte there in front of the altar. FIRST, go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and worship.”

James 5:16 – “Confess your sins to one another and pray…”

Harboring sin in our hearts shows a lack of understanding of the Gospel. Being angry with someone that has wronged you shows that you don’t understand what Jesus has already done for you. Keeping secrets and hiding hangups in shame shows that you have a performance-based view of his love for you.

1 Peter says to stay self-controlled, because when we have sinned and feel ashamed, the last thing we want to do is pray. We don’t want God to see us in our imperfection. Sin separates us from God because of US. It makes us want to hide.

This is one of the reasons that we need to preach obedience. It is through obedience that we grow closer and closer to God.

It could be that prayer doesn’t seem to “work” because you are harboring sin, resentment or bitterness in your heart that is causing your heart to avoid God.

What have you noticed about prayer in your own life? Leave a comment below.

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