Does Prayer Work?

April 3, 2011



John 14:12-14

(12) Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do; because I go unto my Father.

(13) And whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son.

(14) If ye shall ask any thing in my name, I will do it.


A man was at home when the rains came, the river crested, and the town flooded. As he stood on his front porch, the neighborhood completely under water, two men came by in a rowboat. "Can we take you to safety?" one called out. The man shook his head. "No, thank you. I have prayed about it, and God will save me." Some time goes by, the rain continues to fall, the water continues to rise. The man is now on the roof of his porch when several folks happen along in a motorboat. "Say, there, would you like to come with us?" one of them called. "No, thank you," the man replied. "I have prayed about it, and God will save me." The waters continued to rise with alarming speed, and the man soon found himself on the roof of his house, even on the chimney. A helicopter came by and hovered overhead as the pilot shouted, "Let me drop a line and get you out of there." "No, thank you," the man called back. "I have prayed about it, and God will save me." Shortly thereafter, the flood washed away the house and the man drowned. He went to heaven. He went past the pearly gates and right up to the throne of God. The man was very upset. “Lord,” he cried, "I had faith in you, and I prayed for you to save me from the flood, but I drowned. What happened?" God replied, “What are you talking about, you dolt? I sent you two boats and a helicopter.”

Now that is an old joke. You probably have heard it before, but it contains some truth about prayer. Some folks think that if they want something all they need do is pray for it. That is ALL they do, just pray. They pray for a better job to come along. They pray for more money. They pray for a girlfriend/boyfriend, husband/wife. Then they sit back, put their feet up, and do absolutely nothing. They think God will provide for them if they just pray hard enough and long enough.

My experience in prayer is that it usually does not work that way. Prayer is supposed to be for guidance and strength. Prayer looks for a helping hand from God when the road gets rough or things do not look promising. Prayer is not a substitute for applying ourselves. There is an old saying that is not in the Bible: “The Lord helps those who help themselves.”

Everyday, God gives us signs and shows us the way. The problem is, in this media-crazed society of ours, most of us do not notice the signs unless we are hit over the head with them—which is maybe why some folks say prayer does not work. They are not looking for answers. At least, they are not looking for the kind of answers that God gives in prayer.

Let me give you a principle of prayer that is often ignored. The person who prays is influenced and changed by their prayers. There used to be a bumper sticker, “Prayer changes things.” Now the implication of the bumper sticker was that you pray about a situation that is troubling you and God will change the situation and you will live happily ever after. That happens sometimes, not always. Sometimes our prayers change us so that we can deal with the situation that is bothering us. Prayer gives us new insights, new attitudes. A woman told me about a person she was having a problem with, and she was really disturbed about this situation, and angry and frustrated, and so she prayed. She asked God to help her deal with this person. Somewhere in her praying, she suddenly had an insight into why this enemy of hers was acting like an enemy. She realized that from her enemy's point of view, her enemy was at least partly right. That was a blow. She said that was an answer to prayer she was not expecting. She wound up apologizing to this person, this enemy. When last I talked to her, they were, as she said, learning to be friends. She prayed, she got an answer; it was just not what she thought.

A lot of prayer is like that. We pray and we get answers, and we have to implement the answers. We have to apply the answers. The woman got the answer to her prayer, but then she had to reconcile the wrong that had been done to this other person.

Then again, sometimes people treat answers to prayers as coincidence. For example, suppose you need a job and you are praying about that. You are going to a job interview and your car breaks down. You do not give up, you call an auto repair service to tow your car, and you hire a taxi to take you to the job interview, but by the time you get there, it is too late. Someone else was already hired to fill the position. So what about your prayers? Were they ineffective? No, God just did not want you to have that job. Your prayers are in the process of being answered. There will be others jobs later on.

Or it can go the other way. This is an actual story a man told me. He said, “I hated my job, but I did not want to leave until I could line up something else, but I was not having any luck finding anything. Then I ran into an old classmate of mine whom I had not seen since graduation, and it turned out he was vice president of this company, and it so happened that they were looking for someone with my qualifications. Isn't that the wildest coincidence?" No, it is not a coincidence. It is an answer to prayer. In fact, here is another principle of prayer: “Coincidence is God's way of remaining anonymous.” I wish that I had been smart enough to think of that, but I am not. That is a quote from Albert Einstein.

God is working in the world. God is doing miracles. Every time I see a newborn baby, I am reassured that God is still in the miracle business. This is true not only of human babies. Just the other day I was watching a TV program on blue whales, and one segment was about what happens when a whale gives birth at sea. Remember whales are mammals. They do not have gills; they breathe air just like we do. So the mother whale has to teach the baby how to breathe. She gets underneath the baby and pushes it to the surface, and the baby takes a breath, then she lets it float down a bit, and pushes it back up for another breath. Thus she teaches her baby how to breathe and dive in the ocean. As I was watching this program, I thought, who could not see God in this. I am aware that there are scientific explanations for the whale mother's behavior, and I am not denying that, but still who could not see God in that mother teaching that baby whale how to live.

Furthermore, God is with us. God never abandons us. God is always with us, lending support and comfort during rying times. Divine arms surround us, enveloping us.

What we must do is learn to see that God is here, and that prayer works. Think about the old joke I told at the beginning of this sermon. If God sent you two boats and a helicopter, would you recognize them as God's answer?

But that raises another issue, the issue of faith-healing.

Last year in Oregon, in July 2010, Timothy and Rebecca Wyland, who are members of a controversial faith-healing church, were charged with first-degree criminal mistreatment for failing to provide medical care for their infant daughter. Their 7-month-old daughter, Alayna, had developed a growth over her left eye that ballooned over several months to the size of a tennis ball and threatened her vision. Rebecca Wyland anointed Alayna with oil and prayed for the baby but never considered taking her daughter to a doctor. The Wylands are members of the “Followers of Christ,” a congregation that rejects doctors and favors spiritual treatments such as anointing with oil, prayer and laying on of hands.

The baby girl was seized by the court and was placed in a foster home until she could receive proper medical care. The article I read noted that two other children, whose parents belonged to the “Followers of Christ” died from untreated medical conditions (Carl and Raylene Worthington and Jeff and Marci Beagley were charged with failing to provide care to their children. The children, Ava Worthington and Neil Beagley.)


So these folks are saying that if you have enough faith, you can pray, and God will heal you directly without any medical treatment. If the person is not healed, that person just does not have enough faith; and going to a doctor would indicate you do not have enough faith. That is what they say. That sounds to me like insanity. It is nuts. Why cannot God answer your prayers by sending you to a doctor to get medical treatment? Why is that not an answer to prayer? We are back to the joke about the helicopter and the two boats. Prayer works. I do not have any problem with that. But I think that in the case in Oregon, involving the “Followers of Christ,” the state was right to seize that child and give her medical treatment. In fact, I think that was the answer to her parent's prayers.

The Bible is full of stories of miracles. Elijah and Elisha healed people. In Acts 9, Peter raised Tabitha from the dead. Jesus healed many people. But these were prophets, disciples, and Jesus. We are just ordinary people. Sometimes we wonder if our prayers work. Sometimes we feel like we pray, and we pray in faith, but we just do not see any result. I suspect we are looking for the wrong answer. What does an answer to prayer look like? What does a miracle look like? We are expecting comets and signs in the heavens and angelic choirs. It seems like a bit of a letdown, when I say the answer to prayer may be to go to the doctor. That is just too ordinary.

And then while the Bible is full of miracles, we must add that the bible has stories of people who were not healed, who did not receive a miracle. A multitude of people were waiting beside the pool of Bethesda for healing, Jesus healed one of them. What about all the others? (John 5:1-15). What about Paul's medical problems. We are told in 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 that Paul had a “thorn in the flesh.” He had some sort of physical problem, and he prayed about it three times, but God did not heal Paul. God said, “No”--because God had bigger and better plans for Paul.

That is another prayer principle: Prayer always accepts God's will over our will. Our prayers are always only half-blind gropings towards what we think we want. God knows better.

Let us take a biblical example.” In John 11, Martha and Mary prayed for their brother's healing. They sent word to Jesus that Lazarus was sick. Jesus did not come. Lazarus died. You might say, well, that prayer was not answered, but it was. It was answered in God's way. Jesus showed up four days later. Long after all hope for miracles and healing was gone. Then Jesus performed His biggest miracle and raised Lazarus from the dead. Prayer worked for Mary and Martha, but not in the way they expected. Prayer works for us, but God's answers are not just about what we want at this moment. God has bigger plans. God is preparing us for the New Jerusalem. God always answers us for the best.

Thirteen years ago, doctors discovered that Mary Ligertwood had cancer in her breast, kidney and lymph gland. At the age of 50, she was given a year to live. Yet within six months, she walked away free of the disease.

She says her recovery was due a combination of the power of surgery - she had five operations - and the prayers of her friends. Strangely enough, Mary Ligertwood does not consider herself a "miracle cure". But she says that she did experience a miracle. The miracle was that the whole experience of diagnosis, surgery and recovery was so enjoyable and so spiritual.

She said, "Again and again, people visiting me in hospital would say: 'Why are you so happy?' For me it really was a very wonderful time... There was no element of fear there at all." Prayer certainly worked for Mary Ligertwood. []

Prayer will work for you. We have a great prayer promise in John 14:12-14

Jesus said, I am telling you the truth. Those who believe in me will do what I do, will act like I act, and they will do greater things than I do. Then he goes on to say in v13, I will do whatever you ask in my name. He knows that we do not get it, so he says the same thing again in v14, if you ask me for anything in my name, I will do it.

In other words, Jesus says, live like me, act like me, and I will hear your prayers. That is a promise. Prayer works. You can depend on it. You better depend on it.


If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant

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