Ineffective Prayer

From the CCCF archives | Michaelmas 2007

There comes an hour when begging stops,

When the long interceding lips

Perceive their prayer is vain.

Emily Dickinson

The sun shone brightly; an Indian summer day in what had been a dreary month. The air was clear and the birds were chirping. It was the perfect day for football, but I paid no attention to any of this as I put on my boots and walked to the football field. With desperation on my lips I prayed, ‘Please God, help me not to embarrass myself too much today – just for today.’ I paused for a while, and then quickly added, ‘... for Your glory. Amen.’ Needless to say, I sufficiently humiliated myself on the pitch, even making a mistake that led to the other team scoring a goal, and it was probably the winning goal too. At the final whistle, I trudged to the end of the field and kicked off my boots, carefully avoiding eye-contact with my team mates. As I sat down, I wondered, was it really too much to ask?

I’ve often found my prayers to be ineffectual; my desperate pleas to God go unanswered or worse, I get the complete opposite of what I ask for. It can be very frustrating and sometimes makes me question the value of prayer. As l look around me, the picture is hardly any different.

A friend works as hard as she can to pass her exams, praying every day that she will pass, but she fails. Another friend prays for the healing of a relative who ends up dying anyway. A missionary in a war-ravaged country whom the church has been praying for week after week dies in a terrorist attack. We pray for an end to wars, but they persist. We ask for a God-fearing government, but end up with a regime more corrupt than the one before. Is God even listening?

But wait. Prayers are answered every day: empty parking spaces in a crowded car park, the conversion of a loved one, a miraculous healing. We often hear of stories of individuals escaping burning buildings and emerging from potentially fatal car crashes unscathed. With heartfelt conviction the family says, ‘We prayed and so they were spared.’

And yet, what about the hundreds of others who perished in the burning building? What about the young man in the driver’s seat? Others prayed too, but they were not spared. Perhaps only the prayers of super-spiritual and holy persons are answered. A glance at the biographies of committed missionaries that gave up everything for Christ tells another story. Why does prayer go unanswered? Quite often, and unsurprisingly, we are to blame. We offer frivolous requests that trivialise prayer: ‘Lord, please let it be a sunny day tomorrow so that we can have a picnic!’ when local farmers may at the same time be praying for rain, or it could be ‘Lord, I need that blouse!’

Philip Yancey highlights some of these foolish requests made directly to Jesus in the New Testament. The disciples James and John and their ambitious mother once asked Jesus to reserve a couple of good seats in heaven, with Jesus replying, ‘You don’t know what you are asking’ (Matthew 20:21-23; Mark 10:37-39). The same two vengefully asked for fire to fall from heaven to destroy a resistant Samaritan village (Luke 9:54). At the heart of all these inappropriate prayers lies the problem: they are self-serving and not in accordance to God’s will or nature, focusing on our concerns rather than God’s. The apostle James makes it clear, ‘When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures’ (James 4:2-4).

At other times, it may be a flaw in us that hinders an answer to prayer. When we sin, we cut ourselves off from God. Psalm 51 records David’s plea to be reconnected with God after breaking the last 5 of the 10 Commandments, and the rebellious King Saul heard no answer from God when he prayed, leading him ultimately to find answers in a witch instead. As the psalmist puts it, ‘If I had cherished sin in my heart, the Lord would not have listened’ (Psalm 66:18).

Sometimes it is not our fault that the prayer isn’t answered: the request simply cannot be granted. If all of my friends sitting for the Law Tripos pray that we will become first in the faculty, only one of us will end up with an answered prayer, no matter how sincere and genuine our requests are. When committed Christians from opposite sides of a war pray for victory or self-preservation, it is difficult to see how both prayers can be answered satisfactorily. One is fighting for what he believes to be a good cause, but the problem is, so is the other!

The poet John Betjeman during World War II captured this very nicely:

Gracious Lord, oh bomb the Germans.

Spare their women for Thy Sake,

And if that is not too easy,

We will pardon Thy Mistake.

But, gracious Lord, whate’er shall be,

Don’t let anyone bomb me.

Unanswered prayer can be a blessing. Oscar Wilde remarked, ‘When the gods wish to punish us, they answer our prayers.’ Sometimes an unanswered prayer is a good thing. Quite often, we do not really know the consequences of what we ask for. What if, horror of horrors, I really won the affections of that girl I liked in High School? What if I actually got that job? We shiver at the prospects, and thank God for His infinite wisdom. Yancey also brings up an important and related point: what would happen if God answered every prayer? The world would be thrown into chaos – we lack the wisdom to balance free will, divine intervention and self-sacrifice.

In the end, however, there are still many prayers that go unanswered for no apparent reason, impotent and seemingly ineffectual. Sometimes no logical explanation of ineffective prayer suffices. None of us, no matter how wise or spiritual can interpret the ways of God. But let us rest in the faith and confidence that in the end good will overcome evil, and that God’s good purpose for us will ultimately prevail. ‘For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part, but then shall I know even as also I am known’ (1 Corinthians 13:12, KJV).

We do not want to be beginners [at prayer]. But let us be convinced of the fact that we will never be anything but beginners, all our life!


Prayer [Book]/auth. Philip Yancey – London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2006

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