Why Prayer Doesn’t Work


It was 1992, and we discovered we owed the IRS that year.  This was highly unusual. Only two years earlier, Joy and I had moved with our young family from South Carolina to Massachusetts to start a church. With limited income, three kids and the earned income tax credit, we usually got a refund. Not this year. The unexpected $442 tax bill felt like $10,000.


Our only hope was God and prayer.  I had read about George Mueller’s orphanage running out of food. George prayed, only to have a bread truck break down on their street with the vendor asking them if they needed bread.  I had heard the stories of people praying, and having a check arrive in the mail for the exact amount they desperately needed.  With that encouragement and April 15th looming, we committed to pray.  And we did.  We prayed and prayed and prayed.


The check never came. April 16 came, and we did not even have a Brinks truck break down on our street. Nothing.  And I remember my discouraging conclusion:


Prayer doesn’t work.


So, why doesn’t prayer work? The most common way to answer this question is to scrutinize your prayer and yourself. Prayer doesn’t work because you are doing something wrong. Ask yourself some questions: Did you really believe?  I mean, really believe.  Do you have unconfessed sin in your life?  Were your motives right?


Those are good questions, but they are not the fundamental one.  I will suggest this:


What is prayer supposed to do?  What is the purpose of prayer?


Years ago, I read about a call that came in to tech support. A gal was frustrated that the cupholder on her computer tower was not working.  An odd, comical dialogue revealed the problem. She was trying to use her CD rom drive disc tray as a cupholder. I envision a coffee mug teetering on a thin plastic platform preparing to retract.  Because she misunderstood its purpose, she thought it didn’t work.


I made the same mistake with my prayer for tax relief.  I was frustrated that prayer did not work. Why?  I didn’t get what I asked for.  My assumption: This prayer device is made to get me things.  I am not alone.  It is probably the most common understanding of prayer’s purpose—to get what I ask for.  The purpose of prayer is to get people healed, to get needed resources, to fix problems, to move mountains.


The church terminology for a prayer that works is “answered.”  An answered prayer occurs when I get what I asked for.  It worked. Sure, we will say God might answer with a “no” or a “not now.”  But honestly, no one comes to their prayer group bubbling with excitement: “God answered my prayer this week and he said ‘no way.’”  I am not criticizing the terminology of answered prayers. I am only saying that it often reflects an idea about the purpose of prayer.


But what if the purpose of prayer is different?


The followers of Jesus implore him: “teach us to pray.” And I hear in His words a different purpose for prayer: “Your kingdom come; Your will be done.” Sounds like prayer is designed to effect the will of God on earth.  Prayer is us partnering with God to see His will done and His kingdom expand in our broken lives and world.  Prayer is not designed to get me what I want; It is designed to get what God wants, what God sees as best in the big picture. Prayer “works” when it brings about His desires and plan for us and our world.  Prayer works when it shapes our hearts and the hearts of others to be more like His. Prayer works when the things that God wants done in the world happen.


God wants us to pray for Him to move mountains, and sometimes he moves the very mountain we name, but sometimes He wants to move a different mountain. It was good for me to ask God for tax relief, but He knew there was something more I needed then than a check in the mail.  I needed to see Him and trust Him differently.  More important than me getting what I want is God getting what He wants.  So I pray—now more than ever before—because God knows we need more of His will in the world than mine.




[Feature photo by Himsan on Pixabay.com]





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