Does Prayer Work?

So today, two sorts of explosive news: first, that a prominent general authority has been excommunicated, and second, that Donald Trump is going to rain "fire and fury" upon North Korea if they should threaten the United States again.

These two events make me ask: does prayer work?

James tells us (chapter 5):

Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. Elijah was a human being like us, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain and the earth yielded its harvest.

Can prayer prevent the world from ending? Can prayer change remove my addiction? Can it keep our friends righteous, our water clean, our families safe? When we look at the question specifically — e.g., can prayer actually help us to return to our homes in safety — it starts to look like a little more of a stretch. Does God really intervene on such a micro-level? Does God intervene in our lives at all, finding keys and making food nutritious? Skeptics — and rational thinkers — say no. Those who think about the problems of evil underlying the notion of an interventionist God also hesitate to say. After all, what does it say about a God who is helping me on my law school exams, while letting refugee toddlers drown and while millions are on the brink of starvation?

Despite the folly of prayer, God commands us to pray, to call upon Him in the name of His Son. God tells to to pray these minute prayers, to put before God the taunting improbability of granting our supplication. Why are we asked to offer these prayers when they are so impossible?

But the Gospel is impossible. It is impossible that a man should be killed and rise from the dead. It is impossible that our sins be wiped away. It is impossible that we should expect to be resurrected. It is all impossible. None of it makes sense. We live in impossibility. God tells us that we will overcome the world. That faith can move mountains. We swim in these waters whenever we study the words of Christ or when we read the testaments of Him. We are comfortable with this impossibility, or at least we recognize it, when we seek forgiveness of our sins and we feel that the Holy Ghost dwells within us.

This is a bit of a dodge. Yes, God can speak to my heart and tell me, "you are loved, you are forgiven," but that doesn’t answer the question of if, why or how God intervenes in more "conventional" matters. I don’t know. It doesn’t make sense. But, in keeping with scriptural injunctions, I must recognize the hand of God in my life. This presupposes that God has a hand in my life, that He has guided me, protected me, answered my prayers. And I believe He has. So the "if" question is answered, at least for me. The "how" is not always plain. And the "why" we may never know at all.

So, I’ll pray that we can avoid nuclear holocaust. I must do that, because I only have so many options available to me on that point. And I’ll pray for our Church leaders, because I want good leaders that are inspired by God. And I’ll pray for James Hamula, who is likely feeling in the gall of bitterness, alone and weak. And I’ll pray for my family, my home, and my own soul. Perhaps the act of prayer in itself is enough to make a difference, at least in changing my perspective to be more charitable, more open, and more obedient to God’s will. Faith brings me to have hope that it all really works.


  1. it’s such a conundrum, since we can’t reliably measure it as we can the physical sciences. What if your prayer helped make a disaster less disastrous? What if your prayer helped just one child survive an earthquake? How could you possibly know?

  2. Herman Mackay says:

    Excellent post. Can i get some prayers for my addiction? My wufe and daughter..

  3. Does prayer work? In the short-term, immediate sense it doesn’t seem to solve problems. And if it does solve problems in the long term, it’s hard to measure the success to know if it is really working or if the prayer is coincidental to the outcome.

    And yet I still believe it matters. Perhaps that is because if nothing else, prayer changes me and my expectations/response/emotions toward the problem at hand.

    And I vaguely recall that 10ish (possibly more…?) studies done on hospital patients being prayed for long distance and the patients being prayed for had better outcomes than the patients not being prayed for. I’m hazy on the details, but it made an impression on me when it comes to group prayer.

  4. I appreciate your reflection on prayer. I often feel like the act of prayer raises my consciousness and enlarges my soul, and then makes me more aware of what I need to do. For me, prayer is both communion (becoming one and connecting) with God and meditation (becoming conscious of God’s hand in my life, and of my needs and others’). I also feel that it is an energy and a frequency that moves me to act or project love to those who appear on my radar (via the Spirit). My current prayer is that I might be an answer to someone else’s prayer–an instrument in God’s hands, if you will.
    (Btw, I’m shocked about James Hamula. I knew him at BYU….)

  5. “Does prayer work?”

    For what?

    To alter the universe and physical law to our will and demands? Never.
    To alter the universe and physical law to the will of the Creator? Sometimes.
    To purify our souls, and alter out own will so that it can learn to align itself with the Creator? Always.

  6. Mary Lythgoe Bradfford says:

    Just what I was thinking but more wonderfully said!

  7. N., it’s the 2nd aspect that should give us pause. I believe my post is pretty straightforward about it.

  8. You mentioned finding keys by the power of prayer. I think everyone has experienced finding something by the power of prayer; I think that is a child’s tutorial in the efficacy of prayer. I absolutely can say, yes, I found a set of keys by the power of prayer.

  9. Does prayer work?
    For me? — Pshaw on the idea that I can come up with an original idea and manipulate an interventionist god into doing my will. What ridiculous irrational hubris!
    For God? — I begin with praying to know what to pray about. If I pay attention, then “what to pray about?” leads to “now I’m doing what God says” which leads to “now in some real sense I am part of the mind and will of God” which leads to the conclusion or determination that my tiny egocentric prayer is part of a symphony and I ought to keep playing my part.

  10. Christian, you would have made a wonderful Ainu.

  11. I listened to a podcast a while ago about the science of finding lost keys (or similar items). Apparently there have been studies on why this happens and the ‘finding’ of the keys has less to do with the prayers and more to do with how the human subconscious mind works. Super fascinating stuff. If I can find the find podcast, I’ll post a link.

  12. I’m inclined to the Muslim view that prayer is an obligation, not a way to ask God for favors. If there is any connection between prayer and intercession, it is a divine mystery.

  13. “If there is any connection between prayer and intercession, it is a divine mystery.”

    So mysterious that latter-day revelation and the prophets tell us the pattern time and again.

    I’ve received answers to my prayers. Veil piercing answers. There’s always a pattern to them. Read your scriptures, listen to and read the prophets, act on it and you’ll establish a pattern of revelation that comes line upon line, and you’ll learn something about prayer.

    Reading some of these comments is like listening to a blind man tell you there’s no such thing as color because they’ve never experienced it. It would be understandable if we didn’t have so many witnesses otherwise.

  14. I’ve come to believe in prayer primarily as a forum in which God can change me. On my reading, N. T. Wright seems to understand faith in terms of faithfulness to the Spirit’s work within me. In those terms, prayer (and the action that follows it) may be the supernal act of faith.

  15. Bpe, clearly God answers prayers. Revelation is a real thing. We’re talking here about physical blessings, which can be a little trickier. No need to criticize.

  16. Bpe, I should by now know better than to be surprised when someone generalizes from personal experience to the unfounded assumption that following the same pattern would lead everyone else to the same personal experience. Your view of a universal nature of formula for revelation and prayer would be understandable if we didn’t have so many witnesses otherwise, including those who read scriptures, listen to and read the prophets, act on their messages, pray sincerely and receive answers only erratically and in many different ways (or never) and certainly not “line by line.” There is not always a pattern to such answers or lack thereof. You might consider allowing the Holy Spirit to blow as it will — unpredictably, as suggested by scripture, instead of jumping to judgment on your assumption that others have not studied, prayed, acted, etc. I would love to hear your experience and testimony, but not in the form of negative judgment on others, even if some of those others also seem to generalize inappropriately from their personal experience. I hope I have not misunderstood your comment.

  17. I don’t know how prayer works for things outside of me (when I pray for another person), but I do know that prayers requesting comfort work when I feel particularly in need. Is this psychological? It doesn’t feel like it is, but maybe. Either way, for me it definitely works. As a result, I always think of prayer as being for my own benefit, not to alter things outside of my own internal state.

  18. The more I pray, the more I see the hand of the Lord in my life. After 6 decades of praying, both as a Protestant & as a LDS, I am more certain than ever that the Lord wants us to talk with Him.
    All of my prayers are answered: sometimes ” yes”, sometimes ” no”, sometimes “not yet, or not now”, and sometimes silence, usually because I am not asking the right question. I have seen answers to prayer that were almost immediate, & others that took decades for me to see the answer.

  19. I want to add that there’s some real power in the way that my 6yo prays for his recently widowed great-grandmother not to feel too lonely, and for his great-grandfather to find friends in heaven. Part of the power is that this is the genuine outpouring of his heart rather than something we told him to do. My grandma was pretty deeply moved when she learned about this. So, putting aside the question of whether and how God intervenes in our lives, prayer can bring about some pretty powerful bonds of love between people.

  20. Ditto what Marivene said.

    Moreover, I recognize that God deals with each of us in unique ways, so my experience is different from others’. I’m not sure I can recall an experience where I can conclusively say my prayer impacted another. I fasted and prayed for a son to pass an exam that he really had no business passing and he got a great score. I don’t know if that was impacted by prayer, however.

    I’ve had plenty of personal experiences, though, where I can’t deny I received an answer and/or help from God. And I don’t count finding keys. I’ve had lots of experiences where I’m not sure if God helped or not. But I’ve had them where the help has been pretty clear.

    So does prayer work? I guess that depends on one’s definition of “work.”

  21. This is an excellent question and one I have thought deeply about for the past several weeks. I believe ALL prayers are heard and answered in different ways to include no answer at all (say what?).

    I learned a valuable lesson for me a couple months ago. I learned that in my life, I often ask the wrong questions in my own prayers and look for the wrong answers. For example, I may plea for God to remove a “thorn in my flesh” and then assume that if God does not remove it from me then God must not answer prayers or maybe their is something wrong with me.

    A simple plea such as this could be framed as, please help me learn how to deal with or accept the “thorn in my flesh”. Sometimes my prayer is answered by God giving my a new perspective or a change of heart. I’m trying to learn to ask the right questions and leave the results in God’s hand knowing that He knows what He is doing and the answers I seek may do more damage than good.

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