Does Prayer Work?

Apparently science has investigated and the results are in: studies have shown that surgery patients who receive prayer are no more likely to get better than ones who don’t. So there it is: prayer doesn’t work. Right?

I had to laugh as I listened to how the scientists set up this experiment and then as the atheist I was listening to gleefully shared the results. I realized that there is a fundamental misconception with many people about exactly what prayer is.

A lot of people wonder what the point of prayer really is if we only have a slim chance of getting what we ask for anyway. What’s the point of wasting time asking God for something when He’s either not going to give it to you anyway or He was going to give it to you whether you asked or not? Why pray at all?

Prayer is an area that I believe many people—Christians and non-Christians alike—get wrong. Christians get frustrated when their prayers aren’t answered and think God either doesn’t care or is testing them. Non-Christians pick it apart as a defective vending machine that doesn’t work most of the time, not unless you keep hitting it just right. However, there is an important thing to remember about prayer.

Prayer isn’t mechanistic.

The fact is, though, that prayer is not a vending machine and to think of it in such mechanistic terms is to totally miss the point. Prayer is not a magic spell where you say the right words in the right way and get the result you want. Prayer is about a relationship. Instead of a vending machine, here is a better metaphor to picture.

You are a four-year-old child and God is your parent. Can you imagine a scientific study done on the effectiveness of a four-year-old’s requests to their parent?

“Can I have a pony?” “No, dear.”

“Can I have a glass of water?” “Sure. Here you are.”

The study would undoubtedly conclude that most of the requests weren’t granted and most of the ones that were were things the parent would have given them anyway. So there you have it: it is pointless for a four-year-old to talk to their parents.

Absurd, I know, but it shows the point. The kid isn’t talking to their parent and asking them for things just as a means to an end (although that doesn’t mean they don’t really want whatever they’re asking for). They’re talking to them because that person is their mom or dad. Talking to them is what they do.

The relationship is key.

When we pray, it is because we have a relationship with God and this makes a huge difference. If a child asks her mom for a snack, the mom will probably give it to them (unless it’s right before dinner), but if another kid asks for one, the mom will probably say “Who are you?” The difference between this and prayer is that God is actively wanting to enter into a relationship will all people, whereas most parents don’t want to adopt random children off the street.

Why God doesn’t answer all prayers

So why doesn’t God answer my prayer? The honest answer is, God knows. It may be easy for an outsider to see why a parent might refuse a child’s request: for example, if they ask for a cookie two minutes before dinner, but even in that situation, we might not know what is going on in the parent’s mind.

There are times when it is something that wouldn’t be good for us. I know of a child who once insisted on riding home in the trunk of the car. Her parents obviously refused to let her, no matter how much the child cried and whined. There was no downside to this plan to the child, but the parents knew better.

There might be times when something better is coming. We have very limited imaginations sometimes in our prayers. When I was a new graduate from university, I was working in a hotel when the manger quit. I applied for the job even though I was 22 and had no managerial experience. I prayed to get that job, which included a much higher salary and a free apartment attached to the hotel.

I didn’t get the job. Instead, 8 months later, my wife and I got jobs at a school in Korea, which led to a whole range of new experiences and career opportunities. Not only was that better in the long run than running a hotel, but looking back I know that I would not have been happy as the manager. Even now, I don’t think I would enjoy managing a hotel and back then, I would have been overwhelmed with stress after a short time.

I realize that this doesn’t answer all questions and there are many situations which don’t make sense. Why was this person healed from cancer, but that one died? It is too easy to try to find rationalizations, to try to guess why, but I believe that is a mistake. The fact is that we don’t know and we cannot know, at least in this lifetime.

So, why pray? We pray because God is our heavenly parent who loves us and we want to talk to him and have a relationship. We should pour out our sorrows and worries, our triumphs and secret desires because he loves us and wants the best for us. He loves to lavish blessings on us even if they don’t always come in the ways that we want or are looking for. We pray to learn to know God and build that relationship that will last forever.

This is my perspective, at least. What do you think?