Who Can Pray Successfully?

There was a recent thread that cited the Templeton Prayer Study and its unexpected results - that intercessory prayer was not effective. The critics (see same link) said that prayer couldn’t be quantified, and that there was plenty of anecdotal evidence for having seen prayer work.

But how can prayer be judged to work? Those who claim to have seen the results of prayer are implying, by their conclusion, that prayer can be done in such a way that it is certain that it is prayer that works and not chance or coincidence. Of course all the science in the world isn’t going to persuade people who believe that all the reliable evidence comes from the bible. So let’s see if prayer works in the bible with a case study of Jesus praying in the garden just before his death.

Was Jesus praying correctly? I think the answer is obvious. If there is a single person to cite as an “expert” on how to do this properly, it would be Jesus.

Was this within God’s will? Naturally it would be in part of God’s will, as it was clear that Jesus didn’t want to be killed. You could argue that it was in the Father’s will that Jesus be killed, but there is at least one story in the bible of a believer asking for the Father to act against his will (and God’s will changed).

The bible claims “ask and ye shall receive”. So if your son, a perfect son who has never done wrong, asked for bread, would he be given a stone? It is clear, from the events that followed, that his prayer was either not answered or answer with a “no, you can’t have what you asked for”. Why?

And what implications does this have for our prayers? If absolutely any request can be vetoed by The Father, no matter how perfectly we pray or act, then why should we ever have faith that we will be granted our request? And if our request is granted, then how can we be certain that it wasn’t through chance?

I know there’s a lot of questions here… I don’t intend anyone to answer them all, but I welcome it.

The only thing I can say to this is that a perfect prayer must always be accompanied by a perfect obedience. Jesus was obedient even unto death, and so were/are thousands/millions of saints following His example. If one expects God to be some sort of divine vending machine, then, perhaps, they should switch to Paganism.


I have very little patience for “health and wellness” and pseudoscientific Christians

“If absolutely any request can be vetoed by The Father, no matter how perfectly we pray or act, then why should we ever have faith that we will be granted our request?”

Well, the faith that we have when we pray isn’t necessarily that God will grant us what we desire. When we pray, we have faith that whether God answers with a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ that it will be in our best interests - or be for some other greater good that God calls us to sacrifice for.


You ask good questions and I know that we cannot give you pat answers. But I will try to give you some little insight from my own journey…

To me the problem stems from two areas.
From the purely scientific aspect the matters are not understood sufficiently to make a good valid study with proper controls etc…
From the Spiritual stand point the same thing often occurs. There is a poor understanding of these matters.

On the surface, it seems simple. As you noted, Jesus said ask and you shall receive, but note to that Jesus said if you have faith the size of a mustard seed you can move a mountain. Again, he says that one should ask with confidence and not doubt. So here we have other clues/aspects to the issue of “praying right”.

In the Garden when Jesus prayed, He looked did ask for the cup to pass Him by, BUT more importantly he prayed that “Thy Will (God’s) and not mine be done”.

Praying right then is not a matter of words or location or or some formula. Rather it is a matter of attitude and position. And interestingly enough, the right attitude and position means that we pray for fewer specific things because we are satisfied with how God is running things.
Instead our prayers will run toward more general needs…winning souls…granting grace etc.

As an example, let’s consider the matter of praying for someone to get well, to not die. A very common prayer…But let me suggest that, even though we all have made such a prayer, it is a “wrong headed” prayer and the reason is simple.
If the person is a believer and, so far as we know, in a state of grace, why should we wish to prevent them from going home to Jesus? It seems odd that we should wish to keep them here on earth when their own desire should be to go home to heaven.

I mean if you think about it, based on the fact that most everyone has people praying for their recovery, if such prayers were always answered in the affirmative, no one would ever die. No one would ever make it to heaven. This is simply not good thinking on the part of the Christian.

No - The thing to recognize about “praying right” is that prayers for “requests” is a very small and relatively insignificant part of what prayer life should be.

Hope this helps a bit - I have a heck of a time trying to explain it.


All of these assume that prayer is some mystical formula that either has to be answered if done perfectly or God is a liar. God is not an atm machine that if you have the right card and code has no choice but to give you a dispensation of money. Prayer is not a spell that is cast and works if you do it right.

Prayer is answered when it is best for us. Just as when my children come to me and ask me for something, I do not always give it to them. I have a child who is a tween but thinks she’s an adult. She sometimes asks to do things that she should not be doing at her age. Now by your standard above if I say no… I’m giving her a stone instead of bread, when in fact I’m giving her bread… it’s just not the stone she is really asking for.

Anyone who has had a prayer answered has prayed successfully.

Well, there’s the old saying that all prayers are answered, but sometimes the answer is “no”.

Really, ideally I think a Christian would always pray either for something which is certainly good such as that God would give someone the grace to convert or to resist temptation, in which case the thing prayed for would indeed certainly be granted, or they would qualify their prayer with something like “but Thy will be done.” Thus all good prayers would actually always be answered positively, either by God bringing about the thing the person had in mind or by an alternative course of action which God Himself knows to be better, which we prayed for when we said “but Thy will be done.”

The Catechism of the Council of Trent discusses prayer and the various qualities necessary to pray well. It would be good for anyone interested in praying successfully to review that writing. Meanwhile, I know that praying with our entire being - pouring everything out to God while editing nothing - is one way to pray well.

In my opinion, it doesn’t really matter how many studies are done on the results of prayer: I can attest, as one who gratefully acknowledges God’s many favorable responses to my prayers in the past, that prayer is our active connection to God and that prayer can bring many blessings including that which is requested!!


Petitionary prayer is always dependent on the perfect will of God, not on whether or not we prayed perfectly, and so got what we prayed for. God is the Ultimate Mind/Heart/Eye/Spirit who exists outside time and space. We are His creations to whom he granted sentience and free will, still we are nothing, and yet He loves us infinitely. It’s a mystery and a paradox, something those who measure everything according to flat-footed materialism cannot grasp.

If God deigns to answer our prayers we ought to be grateful not think that God did what we wanted because we prayed the perfect prayer. The perfect prayer includes the understanding that God answers prayers according to his will. Jesus knew this intimately, which is why he didn’t end his prayer with “Let this cup pass from me”, knowing the Father’s will, but added, as a dutiful Son of Man and a Son of Abraham would, “not my will but yours be done”. God decides what we will have, we pray to ask that we be conformed to his will.

In instances where it appeared that God changed his mind, even if the wording says that, what had actually happened is God made allowance and let the person have his way–not always to that person’s benefit. God does this at times to correct us or to let us exercise our free will when it is obvious to God that we will not have things any other way.

I want to start by saying that I love your answer. A lot of thought went into it, and it shows.

I know that attitude and position are relevant to prayer, but these aren’t quantifiable or measurable. So how can you know when you have the proper attitude and position?

Unless I’ve missed something, Jesus never turned down a single request for healing. Why would that change now that he’s in Heaven? I know it’s obvious that people get sick and die despite prayer, but I see that as prayer having no effect. It’s a very natural conclusion to draw from the death of many from sickness despite the prayers. We’re both looking at the same evidence, and drawing different conclusions from it based on our different worldviews. I don’t see your “supernatural” conclusion as necessarily wrong, but I still think Occam’s Razor applies here - there’s no reason to compound the explanation with a God if you can see the cause and effect without one (people get sick and die, unless they get the proper medicine to fix the sickness).

There are a lot of answers along this line, that deal with the fact that God’s will plays a part. Let’s take another look at this.

If a young man gets shot, we pray for him. If he makes it out of the hospital like new, we call it a miraculous healing. If he survives but is crippled, we say that it could’ve been worse and say that God must have a purpose in mind for it. If he dies, we say that’s for the best because now he’s in Heaven.

What I’m trying to say is that you can ascribe an answer to prayer no matter what the outcome. It’s not that you knew what God would do and then drew a conclusion from how the results matched your prediction (like a scientific test), but rather you analyzed the conclusion and drew your prediction based on the outcome… and it’s no wonder that you see God’s answer being what you expected 100% of the time when you “expect” the answer to be whatever it is afterwards.

Even without prayer, these are the same endings that the shooting can have. You don’t need God to arrive at any of these endings, just to arrive at the reasons for them.

So I’m trying to look at it scientifically by removing as many variables as possible. Obviously you can’t see Jesus as having prayed wrong, and nobody has even tried to argue that. Many of you are trying to make the answer sound like a “yes” by saying that he prayed for God’s will to be done, although if that’s all he wanted then it’s illogical for him to make such a request (or for anyone to make any request of God).

So if you want to say that God’s will is variable and unknowable, then you’ll always have an excuse to look at prayer being answered. But is God’s will really variable? When you ask for a neighbor to come to God, is God really saying “no”? When you ask God to keep you from sin, do you really believe that you’ll sin again because God didn’t say “yes, that’s a great request”? Or do you then attribute the failure to the method, because there are so many variables that you can’t account for?

We don’t have a lot of examples of Jesus praying. So when we what looks like a “no” to our prayer, we can always blame the method because we’ll never know if it’s being done correctly. But Jesus did it correctly, and still got a “no”. It’s something that he wanted so badly that he sweat blood, and he still got a “no”. So by what basis are we to believe that by asking we “shall” receive, if even when Jesus prays he “may” receive what he asks for?

Jesus didn’t get a “no” answer just because he, in his humanness felt the awful dread of what was to come, asked for a different way. As I pointed out, and you have ignored (not saying deliberately), Jesus didn’t stop his prayer there. He finished it by saying, “Not my will but yours be done.” THAT was where his heart truly lay. If not, he would not have concluded with “your will be done” but with “my will be done”, as Judas and Eve and Adam and a host of others down through time have said. Jesus wanted to do his Father’s will. He said on several occasions that that was why he’d come among us. You don’t have a grasp of the larger picture here, but are picking out a few words, making a point that doesn’t apply, and then expecting us to resolve a non-issue. :shrug:

Thank you. It is a matter that I have pondered for some time. you see my wife has Alzheimer’s and I would dearly Love to have her healed of that terrible affliction. I have prayed for it. Through prayer we have received many graces, and even healings, but not that one.

I know that attitude and position are relevant to prayer, but these aren’t quantifiable or measurable. So how can you know when you have the proper attitude and position?

Indeed. They are NOT quantifiable or measurable and I don’t believe they are intended to be - in the scientific sense. In fact, it seems that one of the prerequisites for such things is that one does NOT try to measure it. Instead, one simply needs to “Be” without trying to describe, quantify or measure.
From what I have been able to glean from reading the saints is that, for the most part, you know when you are in a good position when you more or less know ahead of time whether someone will be healed or not. And from that position and understanding, you are able to give advice comfort and encouragement to those asking.
I know that this is not the best or most direct or most expected answer…but it is what I have learned so far.

Unless I’ve missed something, Jesus never turned down a single request for healing. Why would that change now that he’s in Heaven?

This is largely true, but not entirely. First of all we know that not everything that Jesus did is recorded. But just looking at what IS recorded, we find that in one case Jesus did not do many signs (at Nazareth) because, we are told, of their lack of faith (Mt 13:53-58)

I know it’s obvious that people get sick and die despite prayer, but I see that as prayer having no effect. It’s a very natural conclusion to draw from the death of many from sickness despite the prayers. We’re both looking at the same evidence, and drawing different conclusions from it based on our different worldviews. I don’t see your “supernatural” conclusion as necessarily wrong, but I still think Occam’s Razor applies here - there’s no reason to compound the explanation with a God if you can see the cause and effect without one (people get sick and die, unless they get the proper medicine to fix the sickness).

I agree we are indeed looking at things from very different worldviews. And I think to an extent “natural” world view tries too hard to hold the “Eternal” world view too much to a natural standard. I don’t mean that as demeaning to you. It is simply that the natural scientist tries to look at prayer in the same way he looks at everything else and tries to measure the unmeasurable.
As to your comment about people dying unless they get proper medical treatment…the fact is that people DO die after getting medical treatment, either the treatment is too late, or is ineffective, or there is no cure or… Does the fact that people die in spite of medical treatment mean that medicine has no effect??
Of course not. One needs to look at the various factors that go into each case.
Same with prayers for the sick.

I think that is what you are trying to do here…But - as you say we (meaning a believer and a non-believer) have very different world-views and that colors many very basic assumptions and approaches.

I enjoy the discussion though.


I pointed out earlier that God can change His will (by citing the story of Abraham asking for Sodom and Gomorrah to be spared). And one could ask why God didn’t change His will in this case for the most deserving person ever making a request.

We take it as a given that Jesus had to die on the cross… but why would that be logically true? These rules about sin, that it can be only atoned through blood for instance, weren’t always true… it logically wasn’t true before the creation of blood. If these rules actually came into being, it’s because the one in charge of the universe designed these rules to be true. Is it fair to say that He could’ve changed His own rules? Of course. Jesus could’ve returned any number of times, and died on a subsequent visit, and in such a case still be fulfilling prophesy (since some predictions about his coming obviously weren’t fulfilled in the first visit, anyway).

And the case you’re making isn’t logical. He asked for “this cup to be taken from me”. If the point of his prayer was “Your will be done” then the rest of his prayer is pointless. It obviously wasn’t for his spiritual growth (if anyone needed it, it wasn’t him) or for his “learning about God” (because he knew everything he could know about Him). Whatever benefits you claim that prayer has weren’t not benefits that he’d gain anything from. If all he asked for was “Your will be done” then there would be nothing to discuss. But you’re selectively sampling, suggesting that the only important part of his prayer was the part that was answered, and you ignore the rest. It wasn’t “filler”. He wasn’t saying it “just because”. I think it’s intellectually dishonest to say that he was praying for the sake of prayer, knowing that he wouldn’t get what he desired.

Starcrash, I’m just curious, :slight_smile: You are an atheist so I was wondering why this question was relevant to you?

You pose some very good points above from the human viewpoint - which of course is the only one that we can really grasp.
The difficulties of understanding why God chose to proceed the way he did and/or how it is expressed in the Bible come in large part from our very limited capacity.

In a larger Spiritual sense (not bound by purely Christian Catholic thought) It is my view that these things grow out of the fact that we cannot understand God - but we are curious. God knows that we can’t understand Him but tries to explain in ways that we can understand…and uses language and imagery and such that the people of a given time could grasp.
Of course time passes by and newer understandings, languages cultures etc come along and the older ones can become difficult to fathom when coming from a different viewpoint (back to that “world-view” problem).

It should also be noted here - and this is part of what I have been alluding to in my posts on this subject - human modes of expression are very crude at best. It isn’t that God can’t make Himself well known to a person. The problem lies in the ability of people to express this knowledge and understanding to others through the poor and rough mediums available.
As and example…When one is truly, deeply and completely in Love with another, it is impossible to express in words. The feelings that rush over one in a moment would take pages and pages of explanation - and even then it may not adequately express the joy, contentment, peace, excitement, etc…that one feels in that instance.
In order for another to understand, they themselves must have felt this same thing - or something similar.
AND - These feelings of love, I might add, are not measurable in a scientific manner. No one can be put through a scientific test to prove that they are in love - or that they are loving correctly…

Just some more food for thought.


Prayer eventually changes our attitudes. Hopefully… toward and in favor of God’s will.

Jesus taught us to pray in the Our Father, “…Thy will be do done on Earth as it is in Heaven.”

Accepting God’s will is what Catholics mean when they say “Offer it up”. Offer up the physical and mental suffering, pain, bad experiences, horrible test results, deaths of loved ones, etc.

If God is going to do what God is going to do - why pray at all. Why not accept we are all His whim and go about your business of living?

I’m sorry I only confused the issue when I was trying to clarify some things. :blush: Let’s chalk it up to my poor words and the limitations of communicating this way.

What I was trying to convey is the very real human reaction Jesus was experiencing in that prayer. He was struggling between his very natural desire for life (he was only 33 remember) and doing his Father’s will. Jesus was as human as you or I. The only difference between his humanity and ours was that he was without sin. Jesus could be surprised and he made decisions based, not on divine foreknowledge but on aligning everything with what he knew would please his Father. The fullness of Jesus humanity is just as important as his divinity. When he became man he laid aside his divine privileges. His miracles were done through the Holy Spirit in accordance with his Father’s will, not simply because he was divine.

Of course God could have chosen to redeem man however he pleased, but he pleased to do it in a certan time and under certain circumstances because he sees the whole of time and knows when and how things ought to be done. St. Paul tells us:

Gal.4:4 But when the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law.

I believe Jesus would have come among us at some time even if Adam and Eve had not fallen, but speculating about how else things could have happened really doesn’t help us in the here and now, does it? We were/are in need of a redeemer and savior and God provided him. Exactly how and when was up to God, and he brought it about when he saw fit.

God did indeed create blood–what a marvelous creation it is! And one drop of Jesus’ blood would have sufficed to satisfy God’s justice, but it would not have shown us the extent of God’s love for us nor been truly an act of love but a mere demonstration of power. Life is in the blood. If we bleed out we die. Blood carries nutrients and oxygen and antibodies to the whole body. I am in awe of such an intricate and ingenious bodily function, as all bodily functions are. But I digress. God chose blood as the means of salvation. I imagine it was because it holds such meaning for us rather than it being something God preferred, but that’s just my own idea. :wink:

I often think people get these things backwards. Instead of asking why couldn’t something be some other way, why not ask why is it that God cared enough about us insignificant creatures to go to so much bother? The answer lies in who God is–God is love. He begot the Son out of love, for love is not love unless it is shared, and the Holy Spirit is the personification of that love. Love is the heart, the core, the answer to all God’s actions, even those we don’t understand. We believe in a person not a concept. One can only get to know another person by accepting him as he is rather than by demanding he be someone/something else. Yes? :slight_smile:

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