When Prayer Doesn't Work
by Rev. Tres Adames, MDiv, BCPC
Have you ever asked God for something but didn’t receive it? If we are honest, we all have. Yet prayer is not something similar to wishing on a star. There is nothing inherently wrong with asking God for things — sometimes we do get what we ask for. But a lot of times we don’t. It's heartbreaking when it’s something huge, like praying for healing from a serious illness or praying for some type of suffering to end.
As a pastoral counselor, I try to get people to connect with their spiritual resources, that is, practices and activities that can help them grow emotionally, relationally, and spiritually. A lot of people are hesitant about prayer. Some feel guilty that they don’t do it enough. Some have been let down by its results. What does it mean that “prayer changes things?” Also, what does it not mean? In this article, I will be sharing some insights on understanding the purpose of prayer and how to more deeply utilize prayer in your own faith journey.
What Prayer Doesn't Do
Prayer isn't about manipulating God. We aren’t trying to twist God's arm. Yes, God can do anything, but that doesn’t mean that God does anything we ask. There are a lot of reasons why prayers go unanswered. Some say God knows what is better. There’s even a song by Garth Brooks called “Unanswered Prayers.” Some of the lyrics go:
Sometimes I thank God for unanswered prayers
Remember when you're talkin' to the man upstairs
That just because He doesn't answer doesn't mean He don't care
Some of God's greatest gifts are unanswered prayers.
Sometimes, good things result from not getting what we want. This is a popular theme in movies. The main character doesn’t always get what they want (or have even been fighting for), but end up discovering what they need all along. Some say God does answer each of our prayers, but not according to what we know, but according to what He alone knows.
The fact of the matter is, sometimes prayer doesn't work the way we want it to. Often, our circumstances don’t change—in fact, they may get worse. I have a lot of clients who don’t practice prayer for this exact reason. If their prayers worked the way they wanted, they probably wouldn’t be sitting in front of a counselor!
I do believe in miracles, and we see in scripture where God does miraculous things in response to prayer. I think that still does happen, but it all depends on the will of God. However, I feel like we are missing out on what prayer has to offer — on what God really has to offer — if we only focus on supplication, that is, asking God for things to change.
One of the things I do as a pastoral counselor is train other pastors and lay leaders in the areas of pastoral care and mental health first aid. I’ve had the chance to help develop a special curriculum through my association (ACPE) called the Pastoral Care Specialist training program. One of the principles we discuss, is that of spiritual bypassing. What is spiritual bypassing? According to an article by Kendra Cherry:
“Spiritual bypassing describes a tendency to use spiritual explanations to avoid complex psychological issues. The term was first coined during the early 1980s by a transpersonal psychotherapist named John Welwood… According to Welwood, spiritual bypassing can be defined as a ‘tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks.’”
So what does that mean? It’s when we try and use our faith to escape reality, to avoid responsibility, or to avoid facts that we don’t want to face. What are examples of this? If you say or hear these phrases, they might be examples of spiritual bypassing:
What Prayers Does
“If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.” — James 1:5
Here James says to use prayer to ask God for wisdom. Why wisdom? So we know what to do. The Epistle of James has a lot of practical wisdom in it. Throughout, the writer is advocating for more than just words, faith, and hoping for the best. He is challenging the reader to ask God for wisdom then do what it takes to carry it out. There’s a saying that is often attributed to St. Ignatius (though it’s doubtful that he said these exact words), but it states: “Pray as if it’s all up to God and work as if it’s all up to you."
Prayer Changes Us Individually
“I pray because I can't help myself. I pray because I'm helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping. It doesn't change God. It changes me.” — C.S. Lewis
Prayer imparts wisdom, peace, and strength to do what we need to do. It helps us endure difficult times. But doesn’t God already know what we need? Yes. It reminds me of a scene from The Chronicles of Narnia. Author and Conference Speaker, Christin Ditchfield describes it this way:
“In C.S. Lewis’s novel The Magician’s Nephew – the prequel to The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe – the Great Lion Aslan sends Polly and Digory and their flying horse Fledge off on an important quest across the land of Narnia. But when night falls and they still haven’t reached their destination, the children grow hungry – and realize they have nothing to eat. “Polly and Digory stared at each other in dismay. ‘Well, I do think someone might have arranged about our meals,’ said Digory. ‘I’m sure Aslan would have, if you’d asked him,’ said Fledge. ‘Wouldn’t he know without being asked?’ said Polly. ‘I’ve no doubt he would,’ said the Horse, (still with his mouth full [of grass]). ‘But I’ve a sort of idea he likes to be asked.’”
Ditchfield goes on to remind us that: “In Matthew 6:8, Jesus assured His disciples, ‘Your Father knows what you need before you ask Him.” But then He went on to give them instructions on how to pray.’” Yes, God knows everything we need, but He still wants to talk with us because He loves us.
Prayer Changes Us Corporately
Prayer not only connects us with God, it connects us with one another. With the growth of social media, talk about prayer has also increased online, to the point that Facebook is currently testing a new prayer feature:
"A Facebook spokesperson confirmed to Religion News Service that the social media platform currently is testing the prayer post feature. The idea for prayer posts grew out of the myriad of ways users have connected over Facebook while distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the spokesperson.“Our mission to give people the power to build community extends to the world’s largest community — the faith community,” said Nona Jones, head of Global Faith Partnerships at Facebook."
Intercessory prayer (which is praying for others), helps us build empathy for other people. It helps us get out of our own head, our own problems, and connects us with others. Intercessory prayer helps us see the bigger picture. It helps us realize we are all connected and that we aren’t alone. However, we want intercessory prayer to be more than just giving our “thoughts and prayers” when disaster occurs (that would be spiritual bypassing).
What does this look like? If it’s a friend we are praying for, maybe it’s offering to bring over a meal or setting aside time to allow them to talk to us over coffee to share what’s on their heart. If it’s a bigger event we are praying about, like praying during the aftermath of a mass shooting or a big issue like the fight for racial equality, it means praying with our feet and not just on our knees. It means getting involved in change in a very real way.
Developing a Richer Prayer Life
Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus." — Philippians 4:6-7
Rather than worrying, Paul says to share your problems with God. My grandmother taught Sunday School and Children’s Church for over 50 years. She not only taught children stories from the Bible, but also taught them to pray. She would always ask for prayer requests from the kids, and always made a point to say that: “If it’s important to you, then it’s important to God.”
That always stuck with me — because it’s true. It’s easy to view God as distant and detached when the opposite is true. God is here with us, within us, and cares deeply about us. 1 Peter 5:7 says: "Cast all your anxiety on Him because He cares for you.”
Be Honest When You Pray
I encourage clients to be raw, real, and authentic with God. Tell God how upset you are — be angry — God can take it. Need proof? Look at the Psalms. They are full of prayers that aren’t nice, neat, and polished. They include the full range of emotions. Some psalms are filled with sorrow (which we call lamentations). Other psalms are angry at God and demand Him to do something. There is no sinful emotion. God accepts all of it.
Write Your Prayers
I encourage people to write their prayers out — to journal all that they are feeling. Some describe wrestling with God through the process. James Pennebaker, a social psychologist and researcher, pioneered what is known as the expressive writing method, which is an intervention that has shown to improve the mental and emotional health of participants. The research done by Pennebaker has shown that writing about one's own story can help with coping and processing memories. This simple exercise can definitely be combined with prayer journaling.
Pray with Thanksgiving
In this passage, Paul says: “In every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” So, when you pray, don’t just ask for what you need, take time to be thankful for what you do have. Why? Reminding ourselves of how God has been faithful in the past helps us trust Him in the present. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism said: “Thanksgiving is inseparable from true prayer; it is almost essentially connected with it.” Taking time to be conscious of what one has — to show gratitude — has been shown in various studies to increase overall happiness.
Pray for Others and with Others
Take time to pray for other people — really do it. Just scan through Facebook and I bet you’ll see at least one of your friends asking for prayer. Commit to praying for them and their situation. Also follow up with them. You’ll be surprised at how much it might help you move past your own anxiety by consciously attending to someone else’s needs.
Finally, pray with other people. There’s something incredibly intimate about praying with your loved ones. Especially when people are being real with one another and pray with each other.
There’s incredible power when you feel other people praying for you — so give that gift to others.
Prayer is more than just asking for what we need. God knows what we need, but he still wants us to talk to Him. Prayer is not about avoiding responsibility and it doesn’t help us escape reality. Prayer helps us engage with reality, to cope, and to endure — to grow in wisdom and find the strength to do the right thing and ultimately fulfill our calling.