Unanswered prayer troubles Christians greatly. I recall from my own experience and from hundreds of conversations with other Christians how difficult it was to deal with the issue of unanswered prayer. This tension happens for a number of reasons: prayer is considered a key part of Christian life and is commanded throughout the Bible. The Scriptures in the Bible very clearly indicate that God answers prayer. There may be some debate as to whether or not God always answers prayer, but from the biblical stories an ongoing back and forth communication, as well as the favouritism of God is granted towards believers who pray. But living a Christian life reveals a different reality. God very rarely answers prayers, and on analysis, he only answers prayers that may have happened anyway. God never seems to give answers to really important questions, and never answers prayers in miraculous ways. That whole “say to this mountain be lifted up and cast into the sea” thing… Never seen it! So what does the Bible say about prayer? I’ll examine this in several parts.
Matthew 21:22 “And all things you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive.”
Mark 11:24 “Therefore I say to you, all things for which you pray and ask, believe that you have received them, and they will be granted you.”
James 5:15 “…and the prayer offered in faith will restore the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up, and if he has committed sins, they will be forgiven him.”
These Scriptures appear to be pretty clear about the idea that God will answer whatever prayer you make, but there is a sneaky single word loophole that has been extensively used in these passages to provide God with an excuse for not answering prayer. If you refer to Matthew 21:22 and Mark 11:24 you will see that a grey area is provided by the word “believing.” Because it can always be suggested that the person who prayed simply didn’t believe for what they were asking, it creates a convenient loophole in Scripture. God is always provided with an out because all of these promises are conditional. And not only conditional, but conditional upon highly untestable, non-empirical factors.
Believing and Receiving
The big problem about the whole believe what you are asking for bit has to do with the scriptural origin of belief. The scriptures say that God gives each person a measure of faith. As long as we can accept that belief and faith are associated then it means that God is the one who will determine whether or not you have the belief required in order to believe for what you are asking in prayer. So the argument reduces down to a fatalistic form of circular reasoning. As long as God has given you the faith to believe it then you can pray for something and receive it. I shiver as I can imagine that statement being used in a sermon. But any logical person should be able to tell you that this ideology does not work.
Nailing Down Molasses
But these aren’t the only passages about prayer in the Bible.
John 16:23 “…Truly, truly, I say to you, if you ask the Father for anything in My name, He will give it to you.”
Matthew 7:7-8 “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened.” (Italics added)
Finally we have some unconditional statements in Scripture that we can use as the basis for testing the validity of prayer. These Scriptures, both spoken by Jesus, clearly point out the unconditional nature of prayer. There are no qualifications, the statements simply say ask in my name and you will receive it. It is impossible to wriggle your way out of what these Scriptures say. If a prayer is made in the name of Jesus it must be answered by God, and the answer must be yes.
The Efficacy of Prayer
The Bible talks about the efficacy of prayer. Prayer is not just something to be done in order to determine God’s will. The expectation from Scripture is that prayer can change things and therefore God’s will can be manipulated through the use of prayer.
James 5:16 “Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed. The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much.”
In Luke chapter 18 Jesus uses a parable to talk about how persistent we should be in prayer. The gist of this parable is that if we nag God he will eventually give in to our requests. This certainly describes a non-fatalistic approach to prayer.
The primary argument used to defend unanswered prayer is the idea of God’s will. Believers will say that God did not answer a prayer because it was not according to his will, but nowhere do the Scriptures say this. This idea is an add-on created by apologists who have no other answers as to why God does not answer prayer. It has now been accepted virtually as a doctrine of the modern evangelical church. But it has basically zero scriptural support. In fact the Scriptures say the exact opposite. The only place in Scripture that comes close to suggesting this is when Jesus prays for himself in the garden of Gethsemane and says “…yet not My will, but Yours be done.” But shortly after this as Jesus is being arrested he makes this statement “Or do you think that I cannot appeal to My Father, and He will at once put at My disposal more than twelve legions of angels?” The implication is not only that Jesus could have asked God to intervene, but that if he had asked God to intervene that God would have done so. The significance of this cannot be overlooked. The Scriptures abound with statements about the necessity of Jesus’ death, he had to die in order to redeem mankind. But despite this Jesus confesses that he could have prayed and stopped all of that from happening. So from Jesus own words we see the absolute nature of asking and receiving. All that you have to do is believe that you will “receive” the thing that you are asking for.
Consider this: if the answers to prayer are dependent upon God’s will then it makes the act of prayer null and void. If God will only answer prayers that are made in accordance with his will then the prayer is moot because God’s will is destined to come to pass regardless. The act of prayer is completely meaningless in this situation. If God’s will is unchangeable and will always come to pass then no amount of prayer can ever change God’s will. There is also no point in praying for anything because if it is not according to God’s will it will not happen, and if it is God’s will then it will always happen regardless of anybody’s prayer.
The other speed bump thrown in the path of those who ask why prayer was not answered is the consolation of “not yet.” The master of all cop-outs: the suggestion that God has not answered one’s prayers yet, but may do so in the future, leaves the issue entirely open-ended. God is let off the hook once again by semantics. This is another of the factors that was seemingly written in later and does not appear in Scripture. The absolute statements by Jesus about prayer being answered are not qualified by a time limitation. Imagine how much of their impact would have been reduced by a qualifier: “ask for anything in my name and it will be given to you, at some stage, or maybe after your death. In fact it may not be answered at all just depending on God’s will.” Doesn’t have quite the same Shakespearean punch does it?
Another factor infrequently considered in this issue is contradictory prayers. Let’s say that two people pray to God for the same job. God could only grant the prayer of one of these individuals, because there is only one job available, but God is obliged to answer both prayers. This position creates an internal inconsistency within the doctrine of prayer. The prayers contradict each other, but the scriptures say nothing about such an issue, obviously the writers of the New Testament didn’t think this one through very well. But Scripture is very clear about this: if you ask for anything in the name of Jesus God must satisfy your request. If two people ask for something in the name of Jesus God must satisfy their requests, and if two people ask for two contradictory things in the name of Jesus God must satisfy their requests. This provides yet another internal contradiction within Scripture and theology.
So all of this discussion about prayer must be worth it right? I must be spending all this time discussing prayer because of how effective it is. Well, actually, studies have been performed by Christian institutions in order to determine the effectiveness of prayer. The results are in and prayer fails, sorry about that. In studies that have been performed on prayer it is demonstrated that prayer does not work. Prayer has the same likelihood of working as chance. In fact in these studies those people that were aware that they were being prayed for were statistically worse off than average. So in conclusion, please don’t pray for me, and under no circumstances, even if you do pray for me, should you tell me that you are praying for me! Statistically I’ll be far better off. When I was in the process of leaving the Christian faith I performed a couple of experiments just to see if God would answer, kind of a supernatural exit interview. For a couple of weeks I, somewhat lazily admittedly, prayed to Zeus for the things that I would normally have prayed to Yahweh for. I discovered that Zeus answers prayer in exactly the same proportions as Yahweh. When something had a chance of happening Zeus sometimes answered my prayers. In fact he was possibly more responsive in answering my prayers than Yahweh, maybe, new customer and all. If you are a Christian I know that you are strictly forbidden from doing this, but it is an interesting exercise to undertake, and if you don’t like Greek gods there are plenty of other options.
The fact is that these promises about God answering prayer are numerous and unequivocal so there is no dodging the issue. We should see as a result of Christians praying, a veritable menagerie of answered prayer. For the number of people that I know, including myself, who over the years have prayed for peace in the Middle East it should be mind-blowing that we still have conflict over there. If indeed God does answer prayers when people believe, then we should see Israelis and Palestinians throwing down their guns and dancing together in the shadow of the Temple. If the scriptures are true then I would expect to see most believers driving around in a Rolls-Royce, living in golden houses and running the government. But the reality is that believers have the same amount of luck as anybody else. Surprisingly, the believers that work hard tend to have lots of money, in much the same way as hard-working unbelievers, while the ones that don’t, don’t. The believers who study hard tend to do well at school, while the ones that don’t, don’t. There is a surprising harmony between hard work and answered prayer. In matters of praying for healing there is a surprising consistency with medical science. Believers who are expected to die and pray tend to die, while believers who have a chance to live and pray tend to live in the same ratio as what medicine predicted. Interestingly, unbelievers who went through the same things without praying lived or died in exactly the same proportion. People see what they want to see, so those who want to see God answering prayer will “read into” situations that God has responded to them, they see God hiding under every bush. But if those instances of “answered prayer” are analysed objectively it can be observed that they happened by chance, or through motivation. People are agents in the world and can make things happen. Did God really give you that job, or did you just do your homework and interview well? Did God really cure you of your head cold or did your body just heal itself? That is why the only way that I will acknowledge that God has answered a prayer is if I can see the results for myself and they could not have come to pass through any other means. If I see an amputee prayed for in the name of Jesus and I can watch with my own eyes and see their limb grow back fully functional, I will believe that God answers prayer. Anything shy of that does not warrant my attention. There are several facts to take away from this: the Scripture says that God will answer prayer, reality shows that God does not answer prayer, which means that the Scripture is wrong and the doctrine of prayer is wrong. There is a simple solution to both of these problems. If God doesn’t exist then it adequately explains why he does not answer prayer.
 Luke 22:42.
 Matthew 26:53.
 Studies performed by the Templeton Foundation.