Prayer - Does It Work? How Can We Know?

You sincerely believe that with the words “receive whatever you ask” that Jesus, and/or the author of this gospel, really intended his readers to believe that this meant literally anything, including the ability to sprout wings and fly, turn the moon into a giant Twinkie, and turn all the water of the ocean into pancake syrup?

Yes because that’s how the language works and a supreme being concerned with being accurately understood would speak clearly. But by saying that nothing will be impossible for a believer with the smallest faith (math 17:20) he really sets up a lot of people for failure. What doe “ask me anything and I’ll do it” mean? What does “believe and you will receive whatever you ask” mean?

Also keep in mind this strange situation. Whenever the subject of salvation comes up, then the terms like “whoever” don’t have any limitations! So as long as a promise is untestable it’s literally true, but as soon as we can test it, then we are running with questions and issues with the meaning of the word “is”.

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That is absolutely not how language works. Most people don’t need to be pedantically literalistic in order for others to understand them.

I truly don’t mean this to sound demeaning or condescending, but I am forced to conclude that it may be you that needs to reconsider what “hyperbole” means if you honestly can recognize no hyperbole whatsoever in those words of Jesus.

And if you honestly cannot acknowledge even the possibility of hyperbole, figure of speech, rhetorical flourish, or implied limits, to any degree whatsoever in Jesus’s words… but you honestly can only interpret them in only the most extremely pedantically and woodenly (and ridiculously) literalistic manner conceivable…, such that his words must genuinely include a solemn promise to turn the moon into a giant Twinkie at my whim…

Then if I may be so bold, I think this says more about one’s willingness to grasp and understand the intent of Jesus’s words than it does about his ability to communicate. With deepest respect, it begins to look like the same pattern I have seen in Ehrman, Enns, and others… the absolute and unyielding insistence on interpreting something in Scripture in only the most woodenly literalistic fashion, utterly refusing to even acknowledge even the possibility of an alternate interpretation, as anything less than the most woodenly literalistic interpretation would cause the supposed contradiction to vanish.

To this observer, this pattern seems to suggest a near-desperate “need” on the part of critics or skeptics to see a contradiction at any cost, no less than how I find a similarly desperate “need” on the part of some evangelicals to find a reconciliation to discrepancies at any cost.

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Maybe this deserves a new thread, but sometimes I think that the reason God gave us the Bible as he did is to be a test of our humility. Emulating George Müller is maybe the way we should approach scripture, trusting more than judging.

The following link is relevant to the conversation here, because it is all about humility, God’s providence and answered prayer. This is a lightly edited version, formating only, to render it more readable:

Format edited (justification and italics):


The site homepage (I love that face! :slightly_smiling_face:):


[Oh, and here’s the unabridged version without the obnoxious centered alignment of the abridged version…]:

No offense taken. But you are grasping at straws. The point is, literally or not, Jesus does absolutely nothing today for you and me or for anyone else. Regardless of the promises. In other words, you can remove all promises of Jesus from the Bible that are the subject of our conversation and absolutely nothing would change!

This is the issue! Jesus promised that your faith will move mountains. Granted, it’s a hyperbole. So what does your faith actually move?

You would make a great apologist for any religion. Because your arguments work for anything that is imaginary.

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Wow, you know not whereof you speak! I’ve linked to Maggie’s sequence and George Müller, both of whom show exactly the opposite! I could regale you with multiple accounts of God’s intervening providences in my 7+ decades, too, but it might sound like it was all about me. It’s not.

Well, here is where I need a little more tests to determine the validity of your claim.

Let’s say we want to test the hypothesis that my milk jug has special powers. How do we test it? I could do what Christians do. Pray to it, but also tell other people in my community about my troubles. If I’m sick, I also need to go to the doctor.

And then, things work out for good. I’m cured of my ailments or someone sends me money anonymously. Do I conclude that a milk jug helped me out?

You see, there is only one way to rule out an ambiguity. And that is to ask God/milk jug to do things not possible for anything else. Things like asking God to heal amputees. You know there’s nothing currently available to modern science that would allow a human to regrow amputated limbs. And we find that no matter who prays, how they pray, etc. the limbs never grow. Btw, I recently read about a Christian motivational speaker/evangelist Nick Vujicic who has a pair of sneakers in faith that God will give him limbs. Now, that would be a proof of Gods intervention. But no, God must always hide and act within purely natural framework.

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You’re not trying to be funny, are you. You demand that God subject himself to a ‘scientific’ test. Ain’ gonna happen. I bet you did not read about Maggie or Müller, either.

I did mention God’s M.O. [one of them, anyway] somewhere recently. It is empirically observable, à la Maggie and Müller and numerous others. Try Rich Stearns.

Actually this is exactly how the God of the Bible claims we know who the real God is. Have you read the story about Elijah and the prophets of Baal? There we read that Baal had to show up on command to prove himself. Funny how those tests became obsoleted. I read her story. Her miracles are natural things that happen. Someone took pity on her situation and helped her out. Btw, this is a biased example that ignores countless examples mentioned in Philip Yanceys “Disappointment with God” book. Let’s ignore all of the failures of praying and only zoom in on the perceived successes. Because that’s the “honest” thing to do, yes?

Five co-instants, was it? Within 48 hours? In sequence? How about Müller’s whole adult life? Rich Stearns? Deniers are going to deny.

No, God does not answer every prayer in the affirmative. Some he refuses to even hear if the supplicant is not willing to ‘trust and obey’, with emphasis on the latter and humility implicit.

During a dark time in her life, a woman in my congregation complained that she had prayed over and over, “God, help me find you,” but had gotten nowhere. A Christian friend suggested to her that she might change her prayer to, “God, come and find me. After all, you are the Good Shepherd who goes looking for the lost sheep.” She concluded when she was recounting this to me, “The only reason I can tell you this story is—he did.”

Tim Keller, The Reason for God, p.240

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Speak for yourself. There are plenty of things I have received that I thank him for… but perhaps I’m able to notice those things since I’m not preoccupied in complaining that he doesn’t personally deliver me powdered donuts…


Whilst not quite on the scale of regrown limbs, there have been plenty of times when, having not mentioned to a living soul that we’re struggling financially, but instead prayed about it, have then received amounts of money in the post. Things like anonymous donation, surprise refunds, tax rebates, etc. Most often these ‘donations’ tie in with a private desire for my wife and I to bless others.

For example, wishing to have a family for dinner after church, but it being the end of the month funds are tight, we pray, money arrives. Granted it is not every month we are in need, nor has money come every single time, but it seems when we take a financial risk to bless others, the Lord always balances our accounts for us one way or the other. In fact, one of the reasons, I never bother to tell others it is because God has been so faithful in his provision. “If the Lord wants us to do it, then money will come in.” is a statement we’ll often use in conversation about future plans.

Perhaps we could chalk this up to an extraordinary sequence of coincidences (like the chap who was hit by lightning 7 times). Perhaps I am deluding myself with a subconscious sharpshooter fallacy, drawing circles around the ‘hits’ after the fact to claim that prayer works. Perhaps I’m such a decent bloke that people are so willing to give me money(!). All I know is that my experience of prayer mirrors that of William Temple who said:

When I pray, coincidences happen, and when I don’t, they don’t.


This is another fine adventure in missing the point. A false dichotomy @SuperBigV. Prayer is therapy. It can’t not work, i.e. have an effect. It doesn’t change the laws of physics apart from one theoretical possibility. It aligns us and the Spirit ineffably. If all is grounded by God then there may be some heart to heart resonance. Not necessarily. We could still be making all that up despite God’s immanence. And there is STILL, independent, resonance. We are each held in the palm of His hand. A hand for each. It’s all very Zen in the Cloud of Unknowing. Which may be only natural. Posit not. Take the bet.


I think prayer works but I also think that to many people want to isolate certain verses from systematic theology. I also believe many confuse prayer for the events found in the gospel when Jesus still walked the earth and when the apostles were still here and could lay their hands on anyone and heal them instantly. But Jesus is not here on this earth anymore and all the apostles , as in the handful chosen by God and giving the ability to lay on hands, are dead. So all of that is over.

I also think that people forget often the stipulation of “ in his will”. You can’t pray for something beyond the will of God.

People also forget to look at how closely knitted the communities were back then. Many nowadays try to be this mythological “lone Wolf Christian” that does not actively share their faith, they are not in fellowship with their local disciples, and they are not making scarifies in their lives. They try to use God as a genie. When we read through the scriptures you don’t see a lot of actual “me me me” prayers where someone predominantly prays for their needs. We are told to not even worry about that because our father knows we need them. We don’t pray to God for answers that are already in the Bible. Like if you fall in love with a unbeliever , praying to God for a sign on if the marriage is ok or not want go anywhere because scripture already answers it. You pray for guidance and meditate on his word. What we do see in the Bible is that we are to pray for others. You see them praying for others the majority of time. Praying for their well being, their faithfulness, and for gods grace and mercy.

The Bible lines out the prayers.

Matthew 6:9-15
New American Standard Bible

The Lord’s Prayer
9 “Pray, then, in this way:

‘Our Father, who is in heaven,
Hallowed be Your name.
10 Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven.

  • we pray for his will to be done.

11 Give us this day our daily bread.

  • us here is not for the individual. It’s not pray for my bread but pray for our bread. It’s praying for the well being of Christians collectively.

12 And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13 And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil.’
14 For if you forgive other people for their offenses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15 But if you do not forgive other people, then your Father will not forgive your offenses.

Each of these lines we see also requires action. We ask for to be given his grace and mercy and in return it requires us to forgive others.

We also can’t pray as a test/sign as in Mark 8:12.

The last thing many forget is that God answers the prayers of those what are his.

John 15:7 mentions if we abide in him and we are living testaments to his words he will answer our prayers.

In Isaiah 59:1-2 and John 9:31we see that God does not listen to wicked people. He chooses to not hear them.

So when we get all the scripture on prayer it helps us to keep the easier to misunderstand verses in their proper context.

To borrow from Lewis, who as always seemed to have more insight on these things than I will ever gain…

Now even if all the things that people prayed for happened, which they do not, this would not prove what Christians mean by the efficacy of prayer. For prayer is request. The essence of request, as distinct from compulsion, is that it may or may not be granted. And if an infinitely wise Being listens to the requests of finite and foolish creatures, of course He will sometimes grant and sometimes refuse them. Invariable ‘success’ in prayer would not prove the Christian doctrine at all. It would prove something much more like magic—a power in certain human beings to control, or compel, the course of nature.

The very question ‘Does prayer work?’ puts us in the wrong frame of mind from the outset. ‘Work’: as if it were magic, or a machine—something that functions automatically. Prayer is either a sheer illusion or a personal contact between embryonic, incomplete persons (ourselves) and the utterly concrete Person. (Prayer in the sense of petition, asking for things, is a small part of it; confession and penitence are its threshold, adoration its sanctuary, the presence and vision and enjoyment of God its bread and wine.) In it God shows Himself to us. That He answers prayers is a corollary—not necessarily the most important one—from that revelation.


For what it’s worth, I’m reading this passage in John with my kids on Monday. Here’s what the teacher guide (written by Rachel Marie Stone) says about it:

Verse 14, “You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it” is often misunderstood as somehow meaning that if one adds “in Jesus’ name” as a sort of tag to a prayer, Jesus will deliver what is being requested. But in the context, to refer to someone’s “name” refers to the person’s identity and character; to pray in Jesus’ name means to pray in keeping with Jesus’ character and concerns: to pray, in other words, for mercy, righteousness, faithfulness, obedience to God, justice, peace, and so on. Understood this way, this is a remarkable promise: Jesus hears these requests, and promises to answer.

So it sounds like the bigger problem in interpreting this verse has less to do with treating God as a vending machine (which is also problematic), and is more about treating Jesus’ name as a sort of superstitious utterance – as if we just tack it onto something we ask, we’ll automatically get it. We see a “name” as little more than the word we use to refer to someone by. But it makes sense to me that, especially in an honor culture, the idea of someone’s “name” would have a lot more depth to it – character, reputation, values. If we treat it like a magic spell, we fundamentally misunderstand what the words even mean.


The issue with your explanation is that at the end of the day, praying gets you nowhere. There is not a single thing that prayer changes. In fact, there have been Christian Calvinists that were claiming the same thing.

Here is the issue. Jesus came down to reveal the will of God. In the process, Jesus also revealed how prayer was supposed to work. And he provided a formula. Pray +have faith or believe= receive anything you ask and even move mountains or wither fig trees. Nothing will be impossible to you.

John 14:12 says that the believer in Jesus will do the works of Jesus and even greater works. And this was spoken in the context of Jesus’s miracles.

I understand why conciensious believers want to help Jesus out, but here is the dilemma. If John 14:12 doesn’t mean what it says, or has untold number of exceptions and conditions how can any Christian bank on John 3:16 or any verse promising you eternal salvation? Why are those verses quoted as if they are sufficient?

And, lastly, if Jesus’s promises are not to be taken literally how about the miracles that were mentioned? Ie people finding rent, payments for their cars, etc. how do you explain that if Jesus didn’t really promise to do those things? Why would people pray to him for those things? What gave them the idea?

But God IS a vending machine when it comes to salvation, no? Or pretty much anything that can’t be verified.

I think that the prayer verses are one of the few things in the Bible where Christians can interpret them as meaning the opposite as what they say.

Matthew 21: 21 And Jesus answered and said to them, “Truly I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what was done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and cast into the sea,’ it will happen. 22 And whatever you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive it all.”

Compared with my twist or typical Christian interpretation:

Matthew 21: 21 And Jesus answered and said to them, “Truly I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what was done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and cast into the sea,’ it will happen OR NOT. 22 And whatever you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive it all, OR NOT.

Believe me, I heard all sorts of interpretations. Yours is the most typical one, but I heard some say the promise only applied to the disciples and they were able to do what was promised. Verbal acrobatics are amazing. And they are all on the par of a politician who has to explain why he promised did not take place or was not delivered.

“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” -Colossians 4:6

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