The Powerlessness of Prayer

24 Aug
The Christian Martyrs' Last Prayer

The Christian Martyrs’ Last Prayer (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I don’t believe in the power of prayer.  The reason why…because of God’s lack of answer to prayer.  In all honesty, God really does not answer prayer in the way it’s promised in the Bible.  The Bible claims that God cares for you and me and wants to answer our prayers.

Matthew 21:22 plainly states

“If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.”

But this does not seem to be true.  Millions of Christians have believed that God has the power to save and heal, have begged God to do so, and he has not done it.  Babies have died, beloved parents and relatives have wasted unto death, while God ignores the prayers of those who have asked him to heal those whom they love.

I know many will object that maybe God had a different idea, or maybe we just didn’t believe enough.  But I think, that deep down, even the most earnest Christian does not really believe in prayer as described in the Bible.  They might think God will tip the scales a little more in their favor, maybe send a specialist doctor to save the day.  But most have asked God to heal cancers, only to see the cancer prevail.  Lord knows I’ve pleaded for babies that still went to the grave and left their parents in dismal grief, despite my many prayers.

Most Christians have lived long enough to know that prayer will not save the day…it may bring a little relief, kind of like meditation or silent centering, but it will not result in God’s miraculous intervention in the Biblical sense.

Where the Rubber Hits the Road

We’ve all heard of the Christian parents that withhold life saving medical treatment for their children.  They trust God will heal, so they pray, wait, and watch as their children die or are seriously sickened from a condition that could have been prevented by human intervention.  Instead, they obey the Bible’s teaching to seek God for all their needs.  And in the end, many end up at a graveside, a court room, and some will even see the inside of a jail cell.

Why?

Because they took the Bible at it’s word about prayer.

But most Christians see this as extreme and would never do this to their children.  When the rubber hits the road, we say a prayer, but we pay a visit to the doctor.

Worst Case Scenario

Imagine an even more agonizing situation.

Imagine you are a middle aged mom whose elementary schooler has not returned home on time.  After ten minutes past the normal time your child arrives home, you wander next door to confirm that the bus is late.  When the neighbor’s child answers the door, you begin to worry.

Your neighbor confirms that the bus arrived on time, but your child was not seen exiting the bus.  A quick call to the school sends you into a panic. Your child was not seen at school all day.  In fact, the voice mail you ignored this morning was your child’s school calling to confirm that your child was sick and at home.

You slump to the floor sobbing as your neighbor dials 911….

Freeze Frame

Pausing this imaginary nightmare, ask your self this question.  Do you believe in the power of prayer to locate your child safely?

In other words, would you just call the prayer chain at church and trust God that he would lead you to your child?  What if the detective at the police station said they weren’t going to send out a description of your child, instead the officers were going to pray and wait on God to lead them to your child…would you really be ok with that response?

Of course you wouldn’t…you would be doing everything in your power to bring your child home again.  You would want to know that every stone in the county was being turned over in search of your child.  You would talk to anyone willing to listen and get the word out that something more precious than gold is lost and needs to be found.

This scenario reveals that when it matters most, prayer does little to no good when facing real world problems.  It doesn’t heal children who are sick.  It doesn’t save relatives that are dying.  It doesn’t bring children home who have been kidnapped or run away.

In short, prayer has no real power to change reality.

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24 Responses to “The Powerlessness of Prayer”

  1. Ahab August 24, 2012 at 1:49 pm #

    Your post made me think about all the prayer rhetoric of New Apostolic Reformation preachers like Lou Engle and Cindy Jacobs, who preach that prayer can do everything from casting out demons to obliterating abortion in America. Do they and their followers really believe that prayer works, or deep inside, do they know it’s all hyperbole? I really do wonder.

    • christianagnostic August 24, 2012 at 5:05 pm #

      As someone who devoured C. Peter Wagner (kind of the grandfather of the NAR) I understand that they are trying to confirm their faith. It gives you a grand narrative for every problem, personal or international.

      After a couple years of trying to practice the type of prayer taught by Wagner(intercession, mapping, healing) I was exhausted and honestly saw no affect on any of the people or issues I prayed about.

      I think deep down, they have invested so much time into this mindset that it’s harder to accept the thought that it isn’t working. Denial is a powerful drug.

      • Ahab August 24, 2012 at 8:29 pm #

        Spiritual mapping? As in praying at a certain “sinful” location to cast out evil? Out of curiosity, at what kinds of places did you do spiritual mapping?

      • christianagnostic August 25, 2012 at 12:03 am #

        I actually didn’t get too far into mapping…but I would go to buildings, placings (masonic temples, church of scientist) and “bind up” the demonic spirits.

      • ... Zoe ~ August 27, 2012 at 3:25 pm #

        Me too christianagnostic. C. Peter Wagner fan too. Me too re: that kind of praying.

        Ahab, gulp (geesh I hate remembering this) . . . my neighbourhood, walking the streets, a few homes by request, my own home . . . even at my church.

  2. theaspirationalagnostic August 25, 2012 at 3:50 am #

    This is precisely why I’m interested in the Ignatian idea of prayer, the examen. Rather than a case of ‘cure Bob’s cancer and stop the dog next door barking’, it focusses on reviewing your day in the presence of God, thinking about how you have experienceded ‘God’ during the day and working on what you can do better tomorrow. I like that provides an action plan 😉

    • christianagnostic August 27, 2012 at 9:54 pm #

      I guess I have no problem with this type of meditative prayer. It’s just not really the sort of prayer that Jesus taught. The mustard seed faith that moves mountains, casts out demons, and heals the sick just doesn’t seem to be true.

      Hope you understand my thoughts on this (I suspect you do 🙂 ).

  3. Neil Rickert August 25, 2012 at 3:48 pm #

    During the approx. 10 years when I was a theist (mostly teen years), prayer always seemed to be like talking to a brick wall. And even when prayers seemed to be answered, I was filled with doubt on whether I was just seeing incidental coincidences and taking those to be answers.

    I guess I was too skeptical by nature to be able to remain a theist.

    • christianagnostic August 25, 2012 at 5:49 pm #

      Neil-

      you said

      “And even when prayers seemed to be answered, I was filled with doubt on whether I was just seeing incidental coincidences and taking those to be answers.”

      In think that is a fair description of how we try to make our prayers seem like they are being answered. But it gets old after a while…

  4. ... Zoe ~ August 27, 2012 at 3:41 pm #

    A month before a dear friend died of cancer we sat during our last face to face visit and I listened as she agnonized over why God had not answered not only her prayers but the prayers of her husband, her young children, the family, her friends, the pastors and her church family. All I could do is listen as she verbally wandered around looking for reasons for God not answering the prayers for healing.

    Then she’d turn to the Bible and try to find a reason in there. Had she not been a good mother? Was that it? Why would God ever take a mother away from her young children? The visit was such a struggle. I was still a Christian at the time and I wondered if God was going to heal her by letting her die. Perhaps she would receive the ultimate healing . . . to be with the Lord. Talk about feeling inadequate. And to add injury to insult, her own mother was dying of cancer and died just a week or so before she did. Again, another Christian and more unanswered prayer. 😦

    • christianagnostic August 27, 2012 at 9:58 pm #

      This is so sad…instead of trying to come to terms with her death. She spent so much time and effort struggling to understand why God was sitting on his hands.

      I just think it’s healthier to admit that the Bible’s teaching on prayer has been tried and found wanting…it just isn’t true.

      “Why would God ever take a mother away from her young children?”

      There really is no good answer for this, Why indeed….

  5. argumentsagainstreligion August 28, 2012 at 1:53 am #

    Wow – very powerful stuff and a great post. Thanks for that and keep ’em comin’. I am a father of 3 young children and this definitely was a tough post to read and think about. It is difficult to empathize with people who actually think prayer will do anything when facing sickness or emergency situations.

    • christianagnostic August 28, 2012 at 7:07 am #

      Thanks…I appreciate the encouragement.

      you said

      It is difficult to empathize with people who actually think prayer will do anything when facing sickness or emergency situations.

      I understand what you are saying, but I remember how much I really believed prayer made a difference and the many hours a day I would pray my guts out. I still remember how much effort went into prayer.

      One of the things that motivates me, is the hope that someone will read this and stop wasting their life. Life is too precious and too short to be wasting it on prayer, in my opinion.

      • argumentsagainstreligion August 30, 2012 at 1:47 am #

        Pardon the lame joke, but – Amen, brother!
        In addition to time wasted, the clarity about reality that a person forfeits to believe prayer works also seems to be a waste to me. Wasting the ability to reason.

  6. graceone August 30, 2012 at 12:40 pm #

    I think that different Christians have differing ways of looking at this.

    From my perspective, it seems that our whole life is a prayer, living in the presence of God. I don’t usually set aside a certain time for prayer, but pray and meditate through out the day as I”m going about just living my life.

    Even if prayer doesn’t seem to be answered in the way I would anticipate, it doesn’t seem to me wasteful. Through prayer and meditation, I think that I’ve gained deeper insight into myself, a deeper sense of God…There are times when I’m trying to resolve a problem, an issue in my life, and prayer has given me clarity, a sense of peace and focus.

    Part of the issue always seems to come back to the interpretation and application of the Scripture as well. To give an example, does Jesus mean literally people will be able to move mountains around?? If every Christian was always healed in answer to prayer in this life, there would be no death, or need for the hope of the resurrection.

    The great, full of faith, apostle Paul prayed for a “thorn in his flesh” to be removed. His prayer was not answered in the way anticipated, but instead he came to a deeper sense of God’s grace in the middle of his painful muddle.

    Is there also power in this? I believe so.

    • christianagnostic August 30, 2012 at 5:20 pm #

      graceone-

      nice comment….I mean it. I think you have highlighted the benefits of prayer nicely. Namely, a type of centering prayer that reflects on one’s life and seeks understanding.

      From my perspective, what you describe is not any different than other faith traditions/ disciplines that practice prayer or meditation. I think a an agnostic Buddhist could have written your same paragraph about the benefits of daily zen meditation.

      you said

      “To give an example, does Jesus mean literally people will be able to move mountains around?? If every Christian was always healed in answer to prayer in this life, there would be no death, or need for the hope of the resurrection.”

      This is where my post focuses. What you describe is pragmatic and beneficial. What the bible teaches on prayer does not appear to be true. From Jesus to C. Peter Wagner and John Wimber, the idea that prayer can heal the sick, raise the dead, and bind up demonic forces is a pure waste of time.

      A waste that I am well acquainted with…

      • graceone September 26, 2012 at 6:23 pm #

        Agnostic Christian, I’m part of a woman’s group studying a book written by an ecumenically minded Quaker, Richard Foster. It’s called Celebration of Discipline. Do you know it?

        The book involves some of the ancient and classical spiritual disciplines instrumental as a means of grace such as simplicity, service, prayer, and meditation. ..

        I was struck by this one passage that seems to relate to our previous conversation. It involves the difference between Eastern and Christian meditation. What do you feel about this?

        Christian meditation opens the mind to the purposes of God by reflection upon Scripture, simply resting in his presence, and dwelling with him in the goodness of his creation. We grow as loving, holy, faithful beings by dwelling in the presence of God. Christian meditation, thus, attempts to fill the mind with the Person, attributes, and purposes of God.
        Eastern meditation, on the other hand, attempts to empty the mind. Foster says,
        Eastern forms of meditation stress the need to become detached from the world. There is an emphasis upon losing personhood and individuality and merging with the Cosmic Mind. There is a longing to be freed from the burdens and pains of this life and to be released into the impersonality of Nirvana. Personal identity is lost and, in fact, personality is seen as the ultimate illusion. There is an escaping from the miserable wheel of existence. There is no God to be attached to or to hear from. Detachment is the final goal of Eastern religion.

        No detachment is not enough. We must go on to attachment. .. Christian meditation leads us to the inner wholeness necessary to give ourselves to God more freely.

  7. christianagnostic September 27, 2012 at 3:49 pm #

    graceone-

    “Agnostic Christian, I’m part of a woman’s group studying a book written by an ecumenically minded Quaker, Richard Foster. It’s called Celebration of Discipline. Do you know it?”

    I do, while I never read the book all the way through, I’m pretty familiar with most of the book and Foster’s ecumenical viewpoint on prayer and Christianity.

    While I think Foster makes a fair point about eastern meditation (attachment versus detachment), it is still a generalization. Many do not view their meditative practices as anything more than learning to be in the present and quieting the mind. And while Christian meditation does focus on the personality of Jesus, it isn’t much different then focusing a meditation on aspects of the quality of life you wish to emphasize, such as peacefulness, kindness, acceptance, and so on.

    I personally do not practice any form of spiritual disciplines (Eastern or Christian). The closest I come to this is exercise and my weekly walks through the many wooded trails near my home. I find a walk in the woods or by the river helps me to leave behind the concerns of the day and enjoy the moment and the people walking with me.

    I find this sort of recreation to be much more peaceful instead of striving to do a quiet time or listen for that still small voice. I found prayer to be exhausting and often left me less peaceful, since clear answers to specific prayers did not seem to be forthcoming. Always waiting but never hearing is the reason that many Christians simply do not pray on a regular basis, in my opinion.

    • graceone September 27, 2012 at 10:38 pm #

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts in this, CA.

  8. unklee October 18, 2012 at 11:50 am #

    CA, since you referred me to here, I thought I’d make a comment, thanks. I have asked many of these questions, and often been disappointed with God. I agree that if we expect prayer to be answered as we ask, then often we’re going to be disappointed. But I haven’t responded the same as you have, and I think it’s at least worth recording why. (I don’t know if I’ve ever clarified my reasons in this way before, so thanks for provoking me.)

    1. Most of the big statements on prayer come from Jesus, and I note 2 things: (i) Jesus rarely gives straight answers. If we expect that, and judge accordingly, we’ll somehow miss him. (ii) Most of the statements come with big provisos (“in my name”, “having faith that it has already happened”, etc) – I’m not sure how many prayers actually meet those requirements.

    2. Obviously answering all prayers is impossible, because some will be mutually exclusive, and answering others would be irresponsible. As CS Lewis says, there isn’t really any problem with God not answering all prayers, but with the apparent claims that he will answer more than he does.

    3. The “prayer warfare” stuff by Cindy Jacobs, C Peter Wagner, et al, is not essential christianity, but in reality a minority. That’s not to denigrate it, but just saying.

    4. Your statements about the ineffectiveness of prayer are overstated in my view. My personal experience is not very different to yours – occasional “big” answers to prayer, a fair few disappointments, nothing that could be seen as knockdown evidence of a powerful God. But: (i) my wife and I pray together every morning for each other, our family and friends, and the world (for 30 years now), and in less spectacular ways, I believe we see God answering and guiding in ways that encourage us to keep going. (ii) Some people do indeed see spectacular answers. I know one guy personally and a few others from the web who regularly see answers that go beyond coincidence and natural processes. (iii) I have investigated spectacular healings (see Healing miracles and God and believe the evidence points to some very unusual healings after prayer. I am still investigating others.

    So prayer does indeed sometimes do all those things that you say at the end it doesn’t do. It (or in reality, God) just doesn’t do them often, or often enough.

    5. I don’t think these unusual healings and other experiences of God (e.g. visions) can be used to prove God, but they do seem to me to provide very strong evidence of God’s action in the world and give prima facie evidence that your conclusions are too negative. In the end, unanswered prayer is not evidence against God, just evidence against a particular way of understanding him, whereas the miracle healings are evidence that God does indeed exist and sometimes answer prayer. The sum total of this is to increase my belief in God but also increase my questions.

    6. Any serious christian has to be able to deal with the suffering in the world. No matter how much God answered prayer, there would still be suffering, unless God performed multiple continual miracles that took away our free will.

    So, I believe it isn’t as simple as you say, just as it isn’t as simple as Wagner says. If your assessment of Jesus is that he was not who christians believe him to be, then I can’t really blame you for not believing in prayer or God. But my assessment of Jesus, based on the evidence, is that he is worthy of trust. So unanswered prayer upsets me sometimes, and I sometimes ask God what he’s doing? But God can cope with my pain and my (metaphorical) shouting, just as he coped with the same from people in the Bible.

    The interesting question to me always is: why, experiencing similar facts, do some people choose to keep believing and others choose to stop? I find that most people from the more fundamentalist forms of christianity (which we may loosely say Cindy Jacobs and Wagner, etc, represent) seem unable or unwilling to break out of their somewhat black and white expectations, whereas christians from other, more central, forms of the faith tend to have more flexible expectations. I dunno if that’s the difference between you and me, but I’d be interested in your comment.

    Thanks for the opportunity to explore this matter. Best wishes.

    • christianagnostic October 18, 2012 at 3:46 pm #

      unklee-

      Thanks for taking the time to read and for your thoughtful reply. I do appreciate your honest reflection on the matter.

      I don’t have much to disagree with you, since you seem to be much more pragmatic in your approach to prayer. My only observation would be that your approach to prayer is very different than the plain reading of scripture concerning prayer.

      One reason that I was interested in Peter Wagner, John Wimber, etc…is that at least they attempted to practice prayer as seen in the New Testament. They claimed fantastic healing and provision from believing prayer, but I did not see the same results. Not even close. For clarification, I followed this type of mindset for over 20 years.

      you said

      “So, I believe it isn’t as simple as you say, just as it isn’t as simple as Wagner says. If your assessment of Jesus is that he was not who christians believe him to be, then I can’t really blame you for not believing in prayer or God. “

      I’m just wondering if so many Christians get it wrong, then where would I look to to get it right? The Bible seems unclear and untrustworthy from a plain reading (let alone the translation and manuscript issues) and so many differing opinions…where is the truth to be found?

      Best wishes to you, as well!

      • unklee October 18, 2012 at 8:54 pm #

        QA, thanks for your response. I’ll try to respond briefly.

        I don’t see how a person who prays every day for 30 years can be anything else other than pragmatic. I don’t think my reading is contrary to a plain meaning of all scripture – the NT makes it clear that life is a struggle and we don’t always get what we want, as graceone mentioned.

        I can understand and respect your (and Jacobs, Wagner etc) wish to see miraculous healings, but I’m inclined to think the Bible contains information for all sorts of people and situations. Our mistake is to take it all as rigorously true for every situation rather than seek the Holy Spirit’s guidance on how to apply it. So the “big” promises apply to some people with a gift of healing or faith, and for some situations, but not all.

        The Bible is very clear we should pray and keep on praying. Sometimes the answers come as Jesus said, but not always. We are called upon to pray for the Spirit’s guidance on how to apply biblical teaching, and to trust anyway.

        I agree that this is a disturbing outcome, and I agree that deciding it makes the whole thing untrue is one reasonable response. But because I believe a lot of evidence points to God, including the occasional “big” answer to prayer, I think a more reasonable response is to think we have misunderstood prayer rather than that God isn’t there.

        That’s as far as I have got with this perplexing question. Thanks again.

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