Why Your Prayers Don’t Work


After our responses to the Ask A Mixed Faith Couple were posted, someone commented on Facebook that they prayed for Jason and me to become a one-faith couple again. They said that God answers prayers and would answer this one as well.

This isn’t the only time I’ve seen that expressed. I get emails along these lines pretty regularly. People who tell me with their words that they are praying for my husband to come back to God.

I appreciate your concern, but I want to be honest with you. At three and half years in, I don’t see your prayers doing any good. 

I know it’s not great to admit that. I’m supposed to exercise faith. I’m supposed to remember that “the prayer of a righteous man avails much.” I’m supposed to believe that whatever we ask in God’s name will be given to us.

Certainly something like the recommitment of my husband to the Christian faith would fall into the category of prayers that God would be happy to answer in the affirmative, right?

Here’s the thing.

You’re not doing anything.

These words often come from those who would agree that God is not a genie who we can summon at will to do what we want. They would never suggest that God is beholden to our whims. And yet when it comes to the issue of salvation, they abandon their ideas about what God must do with regard to prayer.

When you tell someone else that you are praying for their unsaved loved one, while making no effort to spend time with the unsaved person, that communicates a lack of care for the person for whom you claim to be praying. My husband is a person, not a project. The Sunday night atheist group that I visit isn’t just a collection of souls to be saved, it’s composed of people who have lives way beyond their lack of belief.

Far be it from me to suggest that we are to be a part of any kind of works-based faith. But when I read passage after passage that talks about God answering prayers, there is action required along with prayer. And that action is almost always rooted in community.

We don’t simply pray for healing, we visit with the person who is sick. We don’t simply ask God to give us things, we go and bear good fruit with our actions. Our prayers are accompanied by some kind of act of caring for the people for whom we are praying.

Even when Jesus suggests that we go into our closets to pray, that serves the community by taking the attention away from us. The prayers that we utter in private bring about actions that occur publicly.

This action is what makes our prayers effective.

When I go to the person who is sick to pray with them, I’ll probably bring food with me to share with them. When I pray with a friend who is sad, I give them my arms to comfort them. When I pray with the person who is waiting for news, I let them know that I’m rooting for them and I will support them no matter the outcome.

These actions allow the person to know that my prayers are more than words. They invite the person into my life in a more profound and intimate way. They show how we are a part of the Kingdom of God together.

If you want to effectively pray for those without faith, involve yourself with the people. Get to know them: their likes, their dislikes, their hopes, their desires. Laugh with them, cry with them. Celebrate with victories, commiserate with defeats.

Your actions will be the prayers. And regardless of the state of belief, your actions will include them in the Kingdom.

And those are the prayers that work.

  • Gordon Duffy

    Wouldn’t “free will” be a fairly standard rebuttal to those prayers? If some christian prayed for me to come back to Jesus, and God answered that prayer, wouldn’t that mean I had no free will?

    Would my return to faith really count?

    • sheila0405

      Those are really good questions. I think it goes to the heart of what Alise said: are we trying to manipulate God into bringing about our own desires? Shouldn’t people be quiet about the fact they are praying, unless there is a true bond and shared trust?

    • Alessia

      I like an atheist guy and never prayed for him to “see the light”. Sometimes I wonder if I shouldn’t be more concerned about his salvation, because I just feel this way about free will and compared with people who seem to take at heart to change people’s minds and convert them it feels like I’m keeping a gift for myself and not sharing.

  • http://www.thechurchofnopeople.com/ Matt Appling

    Alise – I can totally relate. Different situation, but people offering prayers for a situation that is several years old. I have seen my own prayers for others’ situations remain unanswered. Either we are praying for things that we have no control over, or we have not offered any help for the situation. It’s hard to know how to encourage people, but sometimes, telling people you are praying for them is actually a little bit discouraging!

  • http://jenniferluitwieler.com/ Jennifer Luitwieler

    Gordon raises merely one issue that is too sticky for a blog comment. But my main thought is that when people share direct and specific prayers for ME , about MY life, about which they may know nothing, I tend to feel similarly. And here is why I love James dorective to seek wisdom. I cannot spend time with Jason, and I don’t know God’s heart for your family. I cannot presume to know how to pray for your family, except that he love you, and provide for you, and comfort you, and that he give you wisdom. And that, I do believe, I see in you. So.

  • http://jesuswithoutbaggage.wordpress.com/ jesuswithoutbaggage

    I like it. Good job!

    A few years ago, I had a serious bout with cancer in which the doctor’s gave me little hope to survive. Many friends, acquaintances, and strangers began to pray for me. Prayer warriors got involved and I was put on the prayer list of a huge church.

    But support was expressed in other ways. A Catholic lady made a quilt and had it blessed by a priest, someone told some Buddhist monks about me and they…did something; I don’t know what they did. A friend told me that a Native American shaman had performed a ritual in my behalf. Some people said they were sending positive thoughts my way.

    Now, before I became ill I had already decided that God does not manipulate situations in our favor because we ask him to, so I did not ‘pray’ even for myself. But the feeling of support from all those people was simply overwhelming. I survived, and perhaps their support helped me to fight the cancer more effectively.

    I accepted all this goodwill on my behalf; it meant very much to me. I shared this with an evangelical friend who had been praying, and they told me “I would only accept Christian prayer.” Oh well.

    You can decide. I am still unsure how prayer works or whether it works at all. However, I suspect that prayer changes us–not God. We need not appeal to him to care about us because he cares about us already.

    • Monika Jankun-Kelly

      Beautifully and thoughtfully written, jwb and Alise.

      <3 <3 <3

      This is why I get annoyed when random strangers tell me to "have a blessed day", but I am comforted when a trusted friend says they are praying for me AND they take time to listen to me, comfort me, care about me.

      • http://jesuswithoutbaggage.wordpress.com/ jesuswithoutbaggage


    • Amber-Lee

      “I would only accept Christian prayer.”

      How would that even work? Do you put up a prayer shield that only lets in Christian prayer?
      This is beautiful. I know in my own prayers with God, I feel a little silly if I’m just sitting there with my eyes closed. I want to be moving. I want to be praying while washing dishes, or kneeling and prostrating, or something tangible. Without action, I always feel like I’m talking to air.

      • http://jesuswithoutbaggage.wordpress.com/ jesuswithoutbaggage

        Amber, I am not sure how to ‘not accept’ non-Christian prayer and ritual. Perhaps you just reject it as being of no value, which is dismissive to those who take the time and heart to care about you. Or maybe you use additional Christian prayer to counteract the unholy or demonic impact of non-Christian, but that seems a bit silly.

        I don’t really pray, because I honestly can’t see why to do it. God is not going to step in and hold that green traffic light because I am late to an appointment. And God is already more concerned about people than I am, so asking him to help someone doesn’t add to his motivation. I can still support them, though, and wish them well.

        Because I am religiously oriented, I am often asked to pray in public or before a meal at gatherings, and I just tell them to ask someone else.

        If prayer is simply communication with God, I don’t need to close my eyes, or bow my head, or kneel (though these things are okay if they are helpful to the person praying). God already knows me transparently; he knows me better than I do and I don’t have to explain myself, so I open myself to him in full honesty and just think. I don’t expect him to answer.

        I don’t know all there is to know about prayer. In fact, it is one of the main things I do not understand and I am happy for anyone to help explain it to me.

  • http://saunsea.wordpress.com/ Saunsea

    Personally, this is why I think viewing others as “un-saved” is quite an arrogant viewpoint to have toward another person, always desiring to change who they are.

  • http://bethmorey.blogspot.com/ Beth

    Yes. Thank you.

  • sheila0405

    If people want to pray for Jason, they should shut up about it. It comes across as trying to “fix” him. It implies that they think you should be praying that way, too. I agree with you about God’s love. It is infinite. He loves us right where we are. We don’t have to do a thing to obtain that love. It seems to me that you both are true models of what love looks like. Thanks for your honesty and your sharing. And, thanks for the tips about children. I teach children myself, and I appreciate your insight into protecting each child’s sense of safety, security, and that sense of being truly loved.

  • http://jesuswithoutbaggage.wordpress.com/ jesuswithoutbaggage

    The Aslan-type story is really beautiful, Thanks!

  • Bethany Ringdal

    Ah, this is important to me. I’m in a similar situation–a lot of good people have been praying for my fella to know God for several years. I’ve prayed my butt off. He’s working really hard on being open, and even praying himself (in the way that a not-exactly-believer can) for clarity and wisdom and for God to ‘show himself’ or do something to start making sense to him. So far, to no avail. I’m frustrated and confused. This shakes MY faith some. So many people have said that the moment you become open to God, GET READY, cause it’s gonna be an avalanche… and we’ve got nada by way of holy spirit avalanche up in this joint.

    I still want him to know God, because from my experience I’m convinced that following Christ and striving for the kingdom is a really darn good way to live. And also (mostly) because I want to share it with him. I want to have Christ in common. But I don’t know how to proceed. Should I try to stop wanting this? Can I want it and still honor, respect, and accept him? Can I pray that his eyes would be opened without thereby implying that they’re currently closed?

    • Gordon Duffy

      you say you want him to convert because it’s a good way to live, but you also write as if you have a long, stable relationship. Doesn’t that suggest he’s already found a good way to live?

      • Bethany Ringdal

        There’s the rub, Gordon. He DOES live well, and anyone who knows him will agree… and perhaps it is just selfish of me to want him to ‘live well’ the same way I do, with Christ at the center of our ‘wellness.’

        • Gordon Duffy

          I wouldn’t say selfish, because I don’t want to demean your intentions. I’m going to work on the assumption that you are a good person and that this is a loving relationship.

          I don’t think there is a god, but I’m pretty sure there is a Bethany.

  • Agrajag

    I love this post. It’s very brave. As an atheist, I’m fed up with people who say things like “I’ll pray for you!” yet don’t actually do anything more. To me, this sounds like “I want credit for having somehow helped, allthough I ain’t actually willing to do anything to help.”

    If I’m lonely, talk to me. If I’m hungry, give me food. If I’m sad, comfort me. If I’m struggling to manage a 101 tasks, offer to help me with one of them.

    And if you’re unwilling or unable to do any of those things, yet insist on “praying” for me, please keep it to yourself, under those circumstances I really don’t want to hear about it.

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  • Stan Adermann

    I always felt the Bible was pretty explicit on prayer. Pray alone. Pray in secret. Is there a difference between announcing your prayer to the world or praying on the street corner like the hypocrite?
    And as an atheist I can say that “I’ll pray for you” always feels like an insult.

  • http://confessionsofayec.wordpress.com/ Matthew Taylor

    A very good post Alise,

    I am an atheist husband to a christian wife and the knowledge that there are people who are praying for my salvation bugs me. However it is a complicated subject.

    There are Christians who are close friends and know my (our) story and continue to be good supportive friends, who also pray for me in private. The thing about these Christians is, why would they not pray for me? They love me and support me. They would be failing in their Christian duty if they didn’t pray and I would be disrespecting them if I requested they didn’t. So for this group of Christians I have to let them do it, I just prefer not to know about it.

    Then there are Christians in the church who know I don’t have a faith but don’t know my wife or I well enough to know that I used to have a very strong Christian faith. These Christians either smile at me across the room on the odd occasion I do show up at church, or greet me in a friendly way but don’t fully engage. Sometimes it feels like I have a disease that they don’t want to catch. Some of these Christians also pray for me.

    The sad thing for me is that in my Christian days I knew people like me now. I saw those unsaved husbands and I pitied their wives and felt sorry for the men and I prayed for them but I rarely got to know the men themselves. So I know what its like from the other side and I feel disrespected and patronised by it.

    Not one person has asked me directly about my state of faith, but I have been lent books to read. Its well meaning and I will take the intellectual challenge of reading the book, I just wish they’d do the same and ask me the questions that they seem so afraid of. I’m more than happy to engage and discuss issues of faith.

    There is also the wider issue that some people appear to view my wife as a less fulfilled Christian because of my faith state.

    My advise to Christians would be to back up your own good advice and say that ‘Friendship Evangelism’ will be far more effective than prayer. Get to know the person and never view them as a project.

  • M. A.

    For what it’s worth, this is one of the saddest posts I’ve read in a long time. My brother (whom is an atheist) has told me he has no desire to discuss salvation or Christianity. We still have a relationship. We still hang out. We still discuss other things. But I have agreed to his wishes and continue to pray for him, to the point of tears. To say that my prayers are ineffective and are of no good b/c “I’m not DOING anything” is essentially to say that my heart isn’t really in the right place. That my prayers are offered just to make me feel better, and not with a legitimate concern for my brother’s salvation.

    Shall I not respect his wishes? Shall I not pray for opportunities to discuss salvation with him again in the future? Shall I not pray that God would bring someone else into his life to discuss the wonders of the gospel? Shall I not pray for his salvation?

    • http://www.alise-write.com Alise Wright

      I said in the post that actions are what make our prayers effective, and I do believe that. If you engage with your brother regardless of his faith, then that engagement is an effective prayer. This post is geared to those who pray for people without engaging them in any way. I don’t think that’s how Scripture teaches us to pray and I believe that it is ineffective.

      • M. A.

        I think the NT shows that Paul prayed for a number of people he was never able to personally engage with. He prayed for Christians, Jews and Gentiles and surely his prayers were effective. If not, it would be ineffective for me to pray for the hungry in 3rd world countries. Instead, i should only pray for the ones in my community I’m able to feed and serve. As I reasoned above, shall I not pray that God would provide food for hungry children? Are those prayers ineffective because I’m not able to personally engage with them? My understanding of scripture shows that prayer is always beneficial if my heart is for the Father and his children.

    • Gordon Duffy

      Why not just accept your brother and love him as he is?

  • http://marniarnold.com/ Marni Arnold

    Throughout scripture in the NT, as it has been noted already, Paul prayed for those he wasn’t interpersonally engaged with. In fact, His letters to the churches…such as Ephusus…he opens with a blessing and covering prayer over all the church. He doesn’t know these people per se personally, but he still prays for them.

    I fully understand where you are coming from Alise…for I too am in a similar situation, but not anywhere near a duplication. My parents are very much unsaved people, as Jewish as you can find ‘em…these are my parents. It became such a divisive line between us (of their choosing), that it separated us at the beginning of this year. Without communication of any kind, and almost a full country-wide amount of miles between us, God pressed in on me to pray for them. It is hard space, for how do I pray for their hearts if I am not even connected with them physically? How can they even “see” the fruits of my prayers?

    The truth is revealed in Hebrews 11:1 – for faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.

    My faith isn’t in them to make these steps toward salvation, but my faith is in God to simply bless them and be with them. To not leave them as He has promised to never leave nor forsake any of us.

    It is their decision to make these steps, but God already made the decision to be with all of us – even outside of acceptance of Him in some of our lives. However, prayer (faithful prayer in Him…not in others) softens the hearts of those we cannot be physically connected with…just like Paul did faithfully while writing all his letters to the churches during his time on Patmos.

    Again, I see where you are coming from…but I must leave with a tid bit of encouragement not to discount the prayers of those who do truly and faithfully pray your husband though they know him not personally, nor have personal connection with either of you personally. Prayer like this has more power than we truly comprehend. It’s one of those mysteries of our Father that we simply must trust that our faith as small as a mustard seed is truly enough here. It is how God fashioned the church to work…and not just a local church body…I mean The Body of Christ. The body of believers praying not because it is lip service or that is magnifies any of us, but because it edifies and glorifies Him…even when we don’t see physical results for often times many linear years with our corporeal eyes.

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  • http://worldsandtime.blogspot.com/ sphericaltime

    Are prayers only important if they have the effect prayed for?