Problem: Prayer is said to be more effective than it is
Verses: Various; Status: Serious

There are many verses where Jesus himself spells out the power of prayer:

And Jesus answered them, "Truly, I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt [...] if you say to this mountain, 'Be taken up and thrown into the sea,' it will happen. And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith." (Matthew 21:21-22, ESV)

"Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, 'Be taken up and thrown into the sea,' and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours." (Mark 11:23-24, ESV)

"Whatever you ask of the Father in my name, he will give it to you." (John 16:23, ESV)

"If you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you. (Matthew 17:20, ESV)

"If two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven." (Matthew 18:19, ESV)

So. Taking these verses seriously, one might expect true believers to be able to ask for - and receive - essentially anything. Perhaps one could argue that Jesus is talking specifically to the original disciples, and so nobody else is being told they can pray for anything. But I doubt it, because the messages in the Bible are typically understood as being for all believers, in all times and places.

What should we expect prayer to achieve?

For various reasons, some things might not be reasonable targets of prayer. Much of Christian theology is invested in the concept of free will, so we probably shouldn't expect prayers for world peace to work, since that would require overruling the free will of other people. Also, I think it's reasonable to say that Jesus' example of moving mountains is a metaphor for "the seemingly impossible". Actually moving mountains is not something we often need to do. Having said that, the letter of James seems to indicate that truly large-scale effects can indeed be prayed for successfully:

The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. (James 5:16-17, ESV)

Finally, I think it's accepted that one has to be a true believer to have one's prayers answered, and so this limits the power of prayer to the sorts of things that true followers of Jesus would actually pray for - not worldly wealth, for instance. But what sorts of things would a follower of Jesus pray for? Well, Jesus himself is reported to have carried out the following miracles:

These seem like the sort of good events Jesus approved of, and thus things we could pray for, even if they are "seemingly impossible". There are also three different occasions where Jesus is said to have raised the dead: for an example see Luke 7:11-17. However, perhaps these were mainly intended as a demonstration that he was a true prophet, and because raising the dead is so extreme I hesitate to include it on the list.

But if the rest are reasonable things to pray for, they should always occur when a true believer sincerely asks for them, if we take seriously Jesus' statements listed at the top. By "sincerely", I mean not as some sort of test, as Matthew 4:7 advises us against.

What does prayer achieve?

It is not my goal to prove that prayer never works. This website is about Biblical errancy: I am arguing against the view that everything in the Bible is true. I am not arguing that Christianity as a whole is false. I merely argue that the Bible is not supernaturally free of error.

With that goal in mind, I don't have to show that prayer never works. I merely have to show that prayer doesn't always work, even when the Biblically stated conditions are met. We are told that impossible things will be accomplished by the sincere prayer of a faithful believer. We are not told that the prayer might be granted, we are told that it will be.

So it should be possible to pray for the restoration of severed limbs, yet that literally never happens. Christians and their loved ones should always recover from serious illness - what believer doesn't pray when such illness strikes? And Christian societies throughout history should have been resilient against droughts and famine - what ancient farmer didn't pray for rain and a good harvest? As well as these "large" examples, all sorts of prayers for relatively minor (but worthy) things should be consistently granted. But we know they often aren't.

It is widely said that God answers only some prayers, or answers them in unexpected ways (i.e. the answer can be "no"). Here's a fairly typical quote from the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry:

Biblically speaking, prayer is offered to a Living Being who, according to Christianity, works all things after the counsel of His will (Ephesians 1:11) and not ours. God, like any rational being, may or may not answer a request from someone.

But that is just not what Jesus said. The following sentences are NOT quotes from Jesus:

"If you say to this mountain, 'Be taken up and thrown into the sea,' it might happen. And whatever you ask in prayer, you might receive, if you have faith."

"Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it might be yours."

"Whatever you ask of the Father in my name, he might give it to you."

"If two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it might be done for them by my Father in heaven."

The consistent explanation

Jesus says we must believe that we will receive that which is asked, and not doubt it. Likewise, this is James 1:6-8:

But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways. (ESV)

Therefore, someone might adopt the following grim explanation of prayers failing. Perhaps the true believers, with adequate faith, are very few. Perhaps most people pray not really believing that their prayer is sure to be granted. This is all the more likely in this world where most Christians are told that God "might" answer prayers, no matter what Jesus said. In that case, prayers for weakly miraculous things such as healing would fail often, and prayers for very miraculous things would fail almost always (since there's more doubt in that case). This might be the only reply that accepts the logical consequences of what Jesus says:

This seems like a valid sequence of logic to me. In this case, the detectable benefits of prayer would be quite mild - a vague tendency for Christians to live longer, for example - and there are some scientific studies that suggest this is true in some countries (well, the United States). Under this sort of explanation, there just isn't enough faith to make a very noticeable difference in the world.

This applies to prayers for both small and large things. To take the example of severed limbs, the reason God never heals them is that literally nobody prays for the restoration of a severed limb and expects it to happen. But is that really true? It's a big world out there, so I would expect it to happen occasionally. Maybe it has happened, and just wasn't documented. But I doubt it. [By the way: healing severed flesh is something Jesus is said to have done, so there's precedent.]

Of course, if someone adopts this explanation, they might start to believe that their own prayers will certainly be granted, since they now realise the truth about prayer and now have adequate faith. If they find that their prayers still aren't granted, they will be in a difficult spot.

Final thoughts

Ultimately, this issue is linked to a deeper question that all believers must have an answer to: why isn't God - the supremely powerful, all-knowing, benevolent force - just more visible and obvious in this world that badly needs help? Whatever the answer to that is, it's also the answer to why many prayers don't work. For some reason, God (at least in the modern era) seems to deliberately keep his existence open to doubt, and never gives the world anything that would make all normal people sure he exists.

As I said, it's not my goal to show that prayer never works, merely that the Bible contains an error here. I think it's clear that these statements of Jesus, that prayers from a believer are always granted, are deeply problematic. I thank C for suggesting this topic and helpful comments. I would welcome any feedback or pointers to Christian arguments that specifically deal with the fact that Jesus says prayers WILL be granted.

In the spirit of fairness, I'll close with a note from C.S. Lewis:

There are, no doubt, passages in the New Testament which may seem at first sight to promise an invariable granting of our prayers. But that cannot be what they really mean. For in the very heart of the story we meet a glaring instance to the contrary. In Gethsemane the holiest of all petitioners prayed three times that a certain cup might pass from Him. It did not. After that the idea that prayer is recommended to us as a sort of infallible gimmick may be dismissed.

Updated: 2017-05-23

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