How Does Prayer Work?

How Does Prayer Work? | Christian Mom ThoughtsA few nights ago, we finished our prayer time and Kenna and Alexa ran off to their beds. Nathan, however, remained seated where our prayer circle had been. He had the look on his little face that means he’s lost in thought.

“What’s up, buddy?” I asked him.

“Mommy, God doesn’t always heal. Sometimes it’s medicine, right?”

One of the things we had just prayed about was that Nathan would get well quickly from his cough. Earlier in the day, I had given him some medicine. I was pretty surprised that at age 4 he was contemplating the relationship between God’s work and human work! I was even more surprised at how unprepared I was to respond to his question.

“Well, God is the one who created the doctors and gave scientists the knowledge to make the medicine.”

Hmmm…not a great answer. God did do those things, but if that’s all that’s necessary, why did we just bother to pray for healing? I tried again.

“But here’s the thing. Even though God gives us doctors and medicine, that’s not always enough for our bodies to heal. Sometimes they are too broken. We don’t always know when medicine will work, so we want to ask God to heal us too.”

Oh gosh. Even worse answer. Now I’ve made the effects of medicine seem completely ambiguous and reduced God to a medical insurance policy for when medicine falls through. I tried again.

“The Bible doesn’t tell us how exactly prayer works, but it does tell us to pray all the time and bring all our worries to God. So that’s what we do each night.”

Sigh. That’s true, but it feels like such an unsatisfactory answer.

Truth be told, Nathan’s question only scratches the surface of prayer questions I have. Consider the tragedy in Boston this week. When I have no idea how to pray in such circumstances, I ask for things like God’s peace and comfort for those who were hurt. If I didn’t pray, would God not give those people peace on His own? Is there some critical mass, where if 10,236 people pray for peace, God answers, but not before that? Does God add one more person to the “receive more peace” list each time He receives a new prayer? Does He comfort someone just a little if no one prays, but more and more when lots of people are praying? 

I don’t mean to sound sarcastic. These are genuine questions that parade in the back of my mind when I really think about the nature of prayer. Perhaps you can relate.

I’ve spent most of my life pushing those questions to the back of my mind because I assumed I just wasn’t spiritually mature enough to have a better grasp of the possible answers. I thought I just didn’t get it. But I realized recently it’s not just me who doesn’t have those answers. None of us do. Because the Bible never tells us how prayer “works.”

Think, for a moment, of the prayer process as a machine with 3 parts: 1) Our prayers (the input), 2) God’s consideration of those prayers (the inner machine that uses the input) and 3) God’s answers (the output).

How Does Prayer Work? | Christian Mom Thoughts

The Bible does tell us quite a bit about the input into the process – our prayers. It tells us how often to pray (constantly!) and gives us examples of how we should pray, what we should pray for and whom we should pray for.  It also gives us examples of the output – answered and unanswered prayers.

But what does the Bible tell us about how God considers those prayers – taking into account the entirety of His perspective, His working together of millions of prayers, the role of an individual’s prayer vs. the collective prayers of others for that person, etc.? Nothing. We simply don’t know how God’s “prayer machine” works.

It’s funny that, despite the absolute lack of information we’re given about how prayer works, we are quite concerned with the prayer machine’s efficiency. In the world of real machines, efficiency refers to how much good output you get relative to the input. We often treat prayer as a machine by analyzing the potential efficiency of various prayer choices; we try to figure out what topics and words we can input that will produce the most desirable output from God.

We do this because we don’t want to feel like our words are simply inputs into a machine with no output. That would be too inefficient for us. We want to be productive people, never wasting time on something without an understandable or measurable return. We want to contribute meaningful input to get meaningful output.

The problem is, we have no actual ability to create “efficient” prayers. A machinist would tell you that you can’t control efficiency without understanding the machine’s process. Similarly, without the knowledge of God’s process, we have no ability to control the “output” with our “input.”

Perhaps that’s precisely why God kept his “prayer machine” a mystery. If we understood all the pieces, we would only need to rely on our correct inputs rather than God’s sovereignty.

The fact that the Bible tells us over and over to pray while giving us little knowledge of how God actually uses our prayers leaves me with the conclusion that prayer is overwhelmingly about humility. It’s a posture of total trust placed not in anything we do or say, but in the power of God’s sovereignty. It’s an understanding  that God is God and we are not. It’s a gratitude that God has even chosen to hear us.

May we all march on as prayer warriors who understand that participation is our role, not battle management.

21 thoughts on “How Does Prayer Work?”

  1. Avida Del Genio

    God looks at the motives of the heart, we have to believe first them see it come to pass. Without faith it is impossible to please God.

  2. This is so great!!! I love how you bravely uncover the questions you have thereby giving me permission to acknowledge I too have those questions. I also love the illustration!! I commented on your FB post yesterday about praying for Boston, but not sure what to pray. My family and I were obedient to do so, but we also acknowledged in that prayer that God was already in the situation. He was making a way loooong before any of us heard the news. To know how big our God is and how small we are can intimidate one’s prayer life and so I appreciate your exposing this real truth (at least for me) and not letting that stop us from praying without ceasing 🙂

    1. Thanks so much, Kellie – I have all kinds of other questions I could “bravely” uncover if it would help. lol 🙂 I loved your post on Facebook, with suggestions of what to pray for. Very inspiring! It’s hard to find words, and all too easy to get intimidated. Maybe we just need to transform intimidation into humility.

  3. I got a little giggle about your attempts to explain the very loaded question’s answer to your son. I would have had a very similar response. Then I would have told my child to go ask daddy, cause he knows everything. Lol! I read a lot on this subject when I was writing the prayer portion of my book UnEmployed Faith. Here’s one thing I wrote about it in the book, “Although God is all-powerful and all-knowing, He has chosen to let us help Him change the world through our prayers. James 5:16 tells us “the prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.”” I think beyond the truth of God’s word comes faith. When we ask God to change our hearts and desires to accept His plan and will for our life, we then pray according to His will and our prayers will be answered as such. How does that reflect when we’re very sick and it’s not God’s will to heal us because He’s calling us home as opposed to our determined desire to remain alive. Well, I would hope God would intercede for us as Romans 8 (I think) teaches us He’ll do, and pray the words we can’t seem to say, words of acceptance to His will and to give us trusting hearts to know He knows best. I guess that’s my really wordy answer and it still has “holes” in it. 🙂 Then there’s the whole…If you believe with your heart that you can move mountains and tell the mountain to move, than it will move…scripture too. So, I don’t know. When is it our determined faith as opposed to God’s will? That’s always been my struggle.

    1. Wonderfully said, Rosann! Faith indeed is such a central part of the prayer life according to scripture, yet “when is it our determined faith as opposed to God’s will?” I suppose if we are so in touch with the Spirit’s work in our life, our will is ultimately molded to God’s will to the point they become completely in sync. I don’t know if that’s ever completely possible given our limited perspective, but somewhere in there touches on God’s mystery I think.

      P.S. I’ll refer my kids to daddy next time too. 🙂

  4. What a great post. Thanks for walking us through your struggle. Sometimes as a parent, I need the reminder that I’m not the only one struggling with “the right answer” (and this is coming from a Family Pastor and dad of 5). One thing we point our kids towards every time we talk about healing, medicine, and the power of prayer is THE question that God answers. God’s question in each of our “praying situations” is going to be “What is going to be the very best way to show everyone my love and that I’m in charge. Sometimes the answer is healing and sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it’s about the person who’s sick and sometimes it might be about their friends, family, or someone they don’t even know. Either way… God’s in charge. He’s good. He loves us all unconditionally, and most importantly He wants everyone else to know about His love and strength.

    1. Thank you Joe! Conversely, it’s great to know that even pastors struggle to come up with the “right answers!” I love your one question. I’ll have to think more about that so I can share it in appropriate ways with my 4 year olds. It’s hard to explain that “best” to God might look very different than “best” to us. But I think an early focus on how God’s perspective differs from ours is key. Thank you for sharing!

  5. I’ve thought a lot about this too. The conclusion I came to is that God has a Will, but in a way, He leaves it up to man to put that Will into action with our prayers. (In Job, it was God’s plan and will to forgive Job’s friends for the way they spoke of God, but He didn’t do it until Job prayed for them. God’s plan and Will hinged on Job’s obedience to pray as God commanded him.) Now, if it is not in His Will, it won’t happen. But God does change His plans sometimes according to our prayers, like the prayer of Hezekiah (?) when God added 15 more years to his life because he prayed or when God relents and doesn’t destroy a city because someone prayed for His mercy. And God is always ready to give direction and help, but He doesn’t just do it if we want to go out on our own. You read a lot in the OT how people inquired of God and He led them. But in the battle of Ai, it says that the people “didn’t inquire of God”. And that battle ended in disaster. I believe God would have led them in the best path if they would have inquired first. So, yes, our prayers do make a difference if we are praying for the things God Wills, as well as humbling us as children and acknowledging Him as God. I wrote about all my conclusions at in Child of Mine’s Appendix I: Your Will be Done! And in Through the Furnace’s Chapter 8: The Importance of Prayer. I am by no means a scholar or expert on the subject. But I did wrestle a lot with this issue too, and I’d love to share my conclusions with anyone who wants to read them. Love the post! I love these great, deep, thought-provoking ones.

    1. Thanks Heather, these are wonderful examples of prayer (or lack thereof)! It looks like you have so much great content on your site from your books – is it available in a downloadable PDF? It’s hard for me to read long format in a browser, but I’d love to download a PDF version if you have it. I came across your 250 questions to ask God – love that!!

  6. Thanks for your interest. I don’t yet have it in PDF form. But you’re the second person to ask. I don’t even know how to do that, but I’ll try to look into it. I’m just sooo not computer savvy. Thanks again for your wonderful blog. It’s one that I often check up on.

  7. Hi I am fairly new to your site, I have blessed
    With an abundance from many of your
    Postings, I felt a release after praying from
    The many years of guilt that I carried from decision
    That at the time I felt were in my children’s best
    Interest as I look back and need to now let go to know
    God was in control I’ve prayed then and need to
    Fully trust him.
    Thank u for clarification in dealing with pastures
    And the blessing to know that he was always
    In control not me.

  8. Once I heard from Pastor David Guzik ; “you are not responsible to heal people but you are responsible to pray for them.” It gave me so much relief ..

  9. Thank you very much for your thoughts on the topic. I am still trying to understand from the four Gospels, on how Jesus prayed so that the process of prayer and the answers can be established. I am hoping God will reveal to me His process on prayer so that I can be more effective in my prayer life.

  10. Thank you so much for this. My son is in the hospital and I am going through a dark period. I so many people praying for us, yet I have those same unresolved questions you addressed. Your words on humility and knowing that others have similar questions has truly uplifted me today.

    1. I’m so sorry that your son is in the hospital, Jillian. It is in those moments of feeling desperate dependence on God that these questions most come to the front of our consciousness. I’m so glad this post helped in some small way. I pray that your son will heal and come home to you as soon as possible.

  11. With many thanks ,
    Saying prayer is a natural act by human but it is itself beyond nature as well as it’s mechanism . I do believe in prayer because it has worked for me many times .I would really like to know how it works but having no knowledge about its mechanism doesn’t have anything to do with my valuable experience and belief .

  12. What a wonderful discussion about how prayer ‘works’! For what it’s worth here is my view:
    God gave Adam dominion on the Earth which means that man makes the decisions, God has put man in charge. But how do we know the right thing to do? This is where prayer comes in. I see prayer as getting in touch with Jesus in me, he is wisdom, truth, knowledge – everything. When I am ‘walking in the Spirit’ I will make the right decisions, say the right things and do the works of the Father just like Jesus did. Isn’t this why scripture tells us to pray without ceasing; converse with God in our mind, our heart, believing that we will then walk by the spirit (I deliberately used the lower case ‘s’ because we are one with Him and anyway the Greek has no distinction). One of the contributors mentioned ‘talking to the mountain’, this is exactly what Jesus did, He spoke to sickness and demons, He thanked His Father for bread and it multiplied, surely we should do the same, isn’t true worship when we emulate someone? Who better to be like than to be like Jesus!

  13. I have enjoyed reading your sharing and also all of the comments other folks have sent. Recently, I’ve come to believe that when we pray, we ourselves become direct conduits for God’s love to flow toward persons and situations. We believers are His agents on Earth just as Jesus was when he walked the Earth. For me, this explains what Jesus meant when he said we could be used by God to perform seemingly miraculous acts just like he did. When we are “open channels” to the flow and direction of God’s unconditional love, amazing things can happen. My job is to ask God to “heal me so that I my heal” and be joyfully used for the sharing of His unconditional love.

  14. Thank you for this! I’ve been pondering prayer a lot and this was a thoughtful perspective to consider. It’s a relief to know I’m not the only one with those questions tumbling around my head!

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