Problems and Promises of Petitionary Prayer

Experimenting With Prayer

We pray for all sorts of reasons. When we’ve done something wrong, we may unburden our conscience by confessing our sin to God. When we’re grateful for some blessing, we may offer up a prayer of thanksgiving. When we’re contemplating God’s work in creation, we may offer up a prayer of worship or adoration. But one reason that almost all of us pray is to ask God for something. Granted, we may often do this selfishly, or foolishly, or with all manner of wrong motives. But the thing itself, our making requests of God, is a perfectly legitimate thing to do. Indeed, when Jesus taught his disciples to pray, he taught them (among other things) to make requests, such as “Give us each day our daily bread” (Lk. 11:3).

Although heaven undoubtedly receives millions of requests each day, there’s possibly none more common than that which asks God for healing. While I was writing this article, my father was admitted to the critical care unit of a local hospital. Each day, I (along with many other Christians) prayed that he might be healed. But after two weeks, he went to be with the Lord. Naturally, this raises a very serious question. Do our prayers really make any difference, or are we just wasting our time?

Recently the New York Times ran a story with an intriguing title: “Long-Awaited Medical Study Questions the Power of Prayer”.{1} “Prayers offered by strangers,” the story began, “had no effect on the recovery of people who were undergoing heart surgery. . . . And patients who knew they were being prayed for had a higher rate of post-operative complications like abnormal heart rhythms.” What are we to make of this? Are prayers for healing to no avail? Might they even be counterproductive?

In a fascinating essay titled “The Efficacy of Prayer,” C. S. Lewis questioned the value of such experiments. He realized, of course, that one could set up such an experiment and ask people to pray. But he doubted the wisdom of it. “You must not try experiments on God, your Master,” he wrote. He also observed:

Simply to say prayers is not to pray; otherwise a team of properly trained parrots would serve as well as men for our experiment. . . . You are not doing it in order that suffering should be relieved; you are doing it to find out what happens. The real purpose and the nominal purpose of your prayers are at variance. . . . The experiment demands an impossibility.{2}


Although on one level such experiments with prayer might be interesting, nevertheless, for those who have witnessed dramatic answers to their prayers, such studies aren’t likely to be convincing. But can we know whether or not prayer is really effective?

Providence or Coincidence?

A few years ago I was traveling to Kansas to attend a friend’s wedding. The sun was just about to set for the evening when I suddenly got a flat tire. I pulled to the side of the road, got out, and prepared to change the flat. I soon realized, however, that this was going to be a bit tricky. Although I had a spare tire, I had no tools to change it!

Now there have been many times when this would have really made me angry. But on this occasion, I simply bowed my head in prayer and asked God for his help. I then sat down on the hood of my car to wait. I was a bit concerned because I knew it would soon be dark. But since there wasn’t anything that I could do about that, I simply determined to trust the Lord.

In less than a minute, a friendly looking guy with two kids pulled to the side of the road. I explained my situation, and before I fully understood what was happening, he had his tools out and began to change my tire for me. Within about five minutes I was back on the road, praising God for his help in my time of need!

Now understandably, I looked upon this incident as a direct answer to my prayer. But can I really know if this interpretation is correct? Was it really God who helped me, in response to my prayer? Or would that man have stopped and changed my tire anyway? Unfortunately, apart from God telling me one way or another, there just doesn’t seem to be any way to know for sure.

But I don’t think we should be troubled by this. The fact that we can’t prove a strict causal connection between what we ask God for in prayer and what actually happens in the world shouldn’t really surprise us. After all, we can’t always prove a causal connection between what we ask our neighbor for and what actually happens! Your neighbor may feed your cat while you’re away on vacation because you asked. Then again, “Your neighbor may be a humane person who would not have let your cat starve even if you had forgotten to make any arrangements.”{3}

Of course, it may sometimes be possible to prove a causal connection between what I ask my neighbor and what he actually does. But this isn’t always the case. “Thus in some measure the same doubt that hangs about the causal efficacy of our prayers to God hangs also about our prayers to man. Whatever we get we might have been going to get anyway.”{4} On the other hand, the Bible also assures us that sometimes we don’t have because we don’t ask (James 4:2). So in the end, we may just have to learn to live with a bit of mystery about our prayers.

Whatever We Ask?

The most radical promises about prayer found anywhere in Scripture occur on the lips of Jesus. The nature of these promises is nothing short of staggering. Just listen to what Jesus tells his disciples: “And I will do whatever you ask in my name . . . . You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it” (John 14:13-14). Or again, “I tell you the truth, my Father will give you whatever you ask in my name” (John 16:23).

What are we to do with such incredible promises? On the surface, Jesus seems to be saying that he or the Father will do whatever the disciples ask. But is this really what Jesus meant? If so, it seems to raise a very serious problem. After all, do we always get what we ask for? And would it really be good if we did?

If my own experience can be trusted, then it seems to me that Christian philosopher William Lane Craig is quite correct when he writes, “If we are ruthlessly honest with ourselves, every one of us knows that sometimes God does not answer our prayers.”{5} Indeed, he continues, sometimes God “cannot answer our prayers because Christians are praying for contradictory things.”{6} He asks us to imagine “two Christian athletes playing on opposite sides in the Super Bowl . . . . Each would naturally be disposed to pray that his team would win, and yet both prayers could not be answered, for the two athletes would be praying for contradictory results.”{7}

In addition, it’s not very hard to think of examples in which it might be unwise for God to give us whatever we ask. After all, finite and fallible human beings are often inclined to ask God for rather foolish things. It wouldn’t always be best for God to give us whatever we requested. For example, suppose a godly young man who desperately wants to serve the Lord as a foreign missionary is praying that God will grant him a particular young lady to be his wife. But suppose that this young lady has a passion to serve the Lord here in some way. Finally, suppose that they would both be miserable and spiritually unproductive if they married each other, but they would both be deeply satisfied and productive in the work of the Lord if they each married someone else. Would it really be wise for God to grant this young man’s request? It sure doesn’t seem like it. Sometimes, as Garth Brooks observed, we can all thank God for unanswered prayers!

Qualifying Christ’s Promises, Pt. 1

But if all this is so, then what’s become of Jesus’ radical promise to do whatever we ask in his name? It seems to me, quite simply, that Jesus’ promise must be qualified somehow. But is it really wise to tamper with Scripture this way?

Let me suggest two responses to this. First, I think that when his words are properly interpreted, Jesus himself qualifies his promises right from the start. Second, the other qualifications I will mention are all firmly rooted in the Scriptures. In other words, we won’t be tampering with the Bible. We’ll rather be looking at its teachings to see if there are any qualifications expressed elsewhere in its pages that might qualify Jesus’ promises in some way.

But let’s go back to that first point. Notice what Jesus says in John 14:13: “And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father.” Immediately we see that Jesus hasn’t really given a blanket promise to do whatever we ask. Rather, he’s qualified his promise to do whatever we ask in his name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father.

What does it mean to ask for something in Jesus’ name? Many people treat this phrase as something akin to a magical formula. By saying the right words, in the proper sequence, they think that God is somehow obligated to give them what they’ve asked for. But this is certainly not what Jesus had in mind! Instead, to pray for something in Jesus’ name is to pray for something that’s consistent with the character and purposes of Christ in the world. As Merrill Tenney observes, “In prayer we call on him to work out his purpose, not simply to gratify our whims. The answer is promised so that the Son may bring glory to the Father.”{8} So when Jesus promises to do whatever we ask in his name, He’s not promising to do whatever we ask—period! He’s qualified his promise to do whatever we ask that’s consistent with his character and purposes in the world.

But there’s more. As we search the Scriptures we find yet other principles that appear to qualify Jesus’ promise. Dr. Craig mentions several of these in his book Hard Questions, Real Answers.{9} For instance, our requests might be denied because of unconfessed sin in our lives. The psalmist wrote, “If I had cherished sin in my heart, the Lord would not have listened” (Ps. 66:18). Further, our requests might also be denied if they arise from impure motives. James states quite pointedly, “When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives” (4:3).

Qualifying Christ’s Promises, Pt. 2

What are some more reasons why our requests to God might sometimes be denied?

First, our prayers may sometimes not be granted because of our lack of faith. Jesus told his disciples, “Whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours” (Mk. 11:24). This verse makes it clear that the Lord expects our prayers to be joined with faith in his ability to grant them.

Second, as William Lane Craig observes, “Sometimes our prayers are not answered because, quite frankly, we don’t really care whether they are.”{10} This was certainly not the pattern of the great prayers recorded in Scripture. Consider the example of Hannah, who prayed out of “great anguish and grief” for a son (1 Sam. 1:16). Or Daniel, who upon learning from the writings of Jeremiah the prophet “that the desolation of Jerusalem would last seventy years . . . turned to the Lord . . . and pleaded with him in prayer and petition, in fasting, and in sackcloth and ashes” (Dan. 9:2-3). If we’re honest, many of us would probably have to admit that our own prayers are often just a pale reflection of the earnest examples we find in Scripture.

So too with perseverance in prayer. We tend to give up far too quickly and easily. Apparently, things weren’t much different in Jesus’ day. Indeed, he told his disciples the parable of the persistent widow “to show them that they should always pray and not give up” (Luke 18:1).

These are a few more reasons why our prayers to God might not be granted. But what if none of these reasons applies in our case? What if we’ve confessed all known sin, our motives are pure, and we’ve prayed earnestly, with perseverance, and in faith, and still our heartfelt requests to God are denied? What should we conclude then? That God doesn’t really care? Or that he doesn’t even exist?

Although we might be tempted to doubt God in such times, it’s important to remember one last qualification that the Bible puts on our requests to God; namely, they must be consistent with his will. The apostle John wrote that “if we ask anything according to his will . . . . we have what we asked of him” (1 Jn. 5:14-15). But sometimes our requests to God just aren’t consistent with his will. In cases like these, although it may not be easy, we need to trust that our loving heavenly Father really does know what’s best and that he can be counted on to do it. In other words, we may not always know his mind, but we can always trust his heart.


1. Benedict Carey, “Long-Awaited Medical Study Questions the Power of Prayer,” The New York Times, March 31, 2006,
2. C. S. Lewis, “The Efficacy of Prayer,” in The World’s Last Night and Other Essays (New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1988), 6.
3. Ibid.
4. bid., 7.
5. William Lane Craig, Hard Questions, Real Answers (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 2003), 43.
6. Ibid.
7. Ibid., 44.
8. Merrill C. Tenney, “The Gospel of John,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, gen. ed. Frank E. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981), 9:146.
9. The remainder of this discussion is much indebted to William Lane Craig, Hard Questions, Real Answers, 47-55.
10. Ibid., 49.

© 2006 Probe Ministries