How Does Prayer Work?

Aug 22, 2019

Prayer can be a confusing practice in the life of the Christian. Some mock it, claiming it is nothing more than deluded self-talk. Others have difficulty understanding why we need to ask God for things He already knows He will provide. For many, the seeming lack of answered prayer can cause us to doubt God’s goodness, or even his existence. This week, Vince and Jo discuss the nature of prayer and suggest some helpful ways to understand how God uses it to relate to us and to work in our lives.

Question Asked in This Episode:
“How does prayer work?”

Have a question you want Ask Away to cover? Email us at or use the hashtag #askrzim on Twitter. You can also talk about this episode with fellow podcast listeners and the RZIM team on our online community.

Don't miss another episode, subscribe wherever podcasts are found (quick links: iTunes, Google Play Music, and Spotify).

Follow Ask Away on Twitter:

Vince Vitale - @VinceRVitale
Jo Vitale - @Joanna_Vitale
Michael Davis - @mdav1979

Want to listen to this later?


Please Note: Ask Away is produced to be heard, not read. We strongly encourage you to listen to the audio. Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

Michael Davis: Hello and welcome to another episode of Ask Away with Vince and Jo Vitale. I'm your host, Michael Davis.

There are few things in the Christian life that can bring more peace and joy than communing with the God of the universe. Prayer is but a taste of what is to come, but it can also be confusing as to what it is and how it functions within the life of a believer. Even the apostles asked Jesus how to pray. If we're being honest, for many, prayer can at times feel like we're talking to ourselves rather than to God. How are we to understand the purpose and effect of prayer? If the believer is commanded to pray, why is it so difficult for so many?

But before we get started, Vince, can you give our listeners a little update about Ask Away in this new format?

Vince Vitale: I can. We are excited about where Ask Away is headed. The response has been tremendous. It's really exceeded our expectations. All across the globe, people are writing in. Everywhere we travel to speak, people are really engaging deeply with this show. We're so thankful for that. We're thankful for all of you who are listening.

So we're actually going to be going back to once a week with the show. One of the ways we're going to do that is that rather than covering several questions in one episode, we're going to focus on one specific question for each episode. That will allow us to go deeper with that question and hopefully it will also allow the episodes to be more easily searchable after the fact, because you'll be able to see from the title exactly the question that we deal with in that episode.

Also, one other thing to note, if you want to engage more deeply with the questions and the discussion from Ask Away, we have an online community with RZIM. It's an incredible place. You can get to it by going to Connect.RZIM.Org. There's an Ask Away community within that larger community. Every week, there are people who are discussing the episodes further, asking their questions, digging deeper into the content that's been discussed.

Actually in the next few weeks, we're going to be taking questions from that community for the content of the episodes. So go there, engage, ask your questions and we'll look forward to responding to them.

Michael Davis: Okay. Let's get to the first question...Not the first question. You see? I almost fell for it. The only question of the week. This one comes from Harris on behalf of his brother-in-law. It's very simple. “How does prayer work?” The simple ones are always...

Vince Vitale: I like the longer ones. I get scared as soon as you say it's very simple. Well, the first thing I would say, Harris...And so glad you're talking with your brother-in-law. Family is often the most difficult to talk to about faith, so really glad you're having these sorts of conversations with your brother-in-law.

The first thing I would say is just let's think about the definition of prayer first, and it's not just making requests. Sometimes this question comes from the perspective of someone saying, "I'm asking for things from God and I'm not getting those things." Just as a starting point for our conversation, I would want to say that prayer is a lot broader than that.

Prayer is really just talking with God, and that can take many different forms. That can be praising God, it can be confessing to God, thanking God. It could just be updating God. Sometimes my prayers are just updating God, just letting him know how I'm feeling or what's going on with my emotions. It can also be petition, it can also be asking for something specific.

Actually, I think prayer is even broader than that. Sometimes it's not even talking. Sometimes it's just being in the presence of God, but with an awareness and a recognition that you are in his presence. If the sun breaks through a cloudy sky and shines on my face, and I feel that warmth, and I just recognize that that's a gift from God and I smile...Communication, it's often said, is 90% nonverbal. Well, some of our communication with God can be nonverbal as well. I think whenever we recognize him for who he is, and communicate in his direction, in whatever form, I think that that is prayer.

Jo Vitale: That's great. I think this is a question that is really worth digging into because actually it may surprise you, but this is one that you will hear as an objection to faith quite often. It really took me by surprise my first semester at university when over lunch, somebody raised this very question as a primary objection for why they didn't believe in God, because they just couldn't get their head around how prayer could possibly work, how it could be meaningful. After they said that, it wasn't even a question I'd ever thought about before, but I spent the next several months just really wrestling it out myself thinking she raised a really good point. How does this thing work? How is it meaningful? What is going on?

I think two things I really want to highlight in this episode today that just strike me as important about prayer, is that I really want to affirm that prayer changes us and prayer changes the world. I think it's absolutely crucial when we're talking about prayer that we hold onto both of those two things, because typically I think where I see Christians kind of getting confused about prayer or maybe making a mess of it sometimes, is because we only talk about one or the other.

So, for example, I've had so many Christians say, "Well we pray because prayer changes us." When you pray, you align with the will of God, you get changed, and that's really the whole point of it. But then when you hear that all the time, I can understand why actually it leads to a lot of Christians not bothering to pray. Because what they wind up thinking is, "Well, what is the point in prayer? It seems completely like a waste of time. If I'm just going to align with the will of God, and then God is going to do it anyway," which is the assumption there, "Why bother even praying? God's just going to do what he's going to do. What is the point?"

I think the other side of that though is we can focus the other way and say, "I pray because that is power in prayer, and prayer changes the world." We're going to get onto that. I think that's absolutely true. Yet sometimes, we can get so fixated on that aspect of prayer that we kind of treat it like this sort of magical wand that you can just wave over everything and just expect that, "Yes, it's going to come to pass," almost as if we're holding God hostage or we have some sort of power over him.

Sometimes atheists have mocked this. It was Dan Barker, he has this pretty brutal comments about one verse of scripture where at where Jesus says, "If you also anything in my name, then I will give it to you." He says, "Okay, so I could just say, 'Hey, well God give me a million pounds in Jesus name, Amen. Then it doesn't happen. So that's proof that this thing isn't true. Christianity doesn't make sense."

So I think we need to hold these two together and we'll get more into what does it mean that prayer changes us and it changes the world. But I think you need to believe both, but we also need to be aware that without one balancing the other, we're going to wind up with some weird theology.

Vince Vitale: I find it interesting even in that Barker quote, it seems like there's often the assumption that if prayer is not working, it's God's fault. But again, prayer is communication and communication is a two-way street. So it can be not working on either side in any relationship of communication. In any relationship, when you're communicating, one, it takes time. If you're not spending time communicating for a long time and then out of nowhere you try to reestablish that, it doesn't work that well, initially.

Secondly, it takes focus. If Jo and I are communicating, but I'm also...Not that this ever happens, also on my phone, multitasking...

Michael Davis: He's literally doing it right now.

Jo Vitale: No, it never happens.

Vince Vitale: ...doing three other things at the same time, then again, the communication doesn't work. So I think sometimes we assume that if prayer's not working, it has to be on God's side.

We also sometimes assume, even as Christians, that any prayer is better than no prayer. I'm not sure about that. There are some forms of communication between me and Jo where actually, if we weren't going to communicate in a healthy way, in a way where we actually gave time to each other, where it was actually focused and intentional, it would have been better for us just not to communicate. Sometimes I think with God, we don't give communication, that seriousness of thought and then we think, "Well, why isn't God responding? Why isn't it working?" Well, maybe for the same reason that our communication doesn't work in lots of our relationships. Because we're not giving it time, we're not giving it focus, we're not giving it intentionality.

Michael Davis: You hear a lot of times people talking about God's sovereignty and the fact that he knows everything. So a lot of times, I hear people talk about, "Well, if God is sovereign and he already knows what's going to happen, why even pray?"

Jo Vitale: Michael, I think you've really hit like the crux of the question. That is the underlying struggle that people have. God is going to do it anyway. He's going to do the best anyway, so why tamper with that or why even get involved in the process? I think the first thing I want to say here is actually, we get involved in prayer because the Bible tells us to. Not just the Bible. Jesus tells us to get involved in prayer, so clearly Jesus isn't taking that line of thinking. Jesus says, "If you ask anything in my name, I will do it." He says, "and whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive it, if you have faith." It also very powerfully says in James 4, "You do not have because you do not ask." Then he goes on to say, "When you ask, you do not receive because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures."

So clearly there's a sense in which you can ask for the wrong things for the wrong reasons. Then of course, it's not going to come to pass. But it's really interesting to me that he says actually, there are certain things that you could have that would be good to have even, but you don't have them because you haven't asked God for them. So this assumption that God is just going to do it anyway, regardless of whether we pray or not, actually doesn't seem to line up with the way the Bible itself is talking about, and the importance of prayer, and the importance of asking.

You know what? I think that makes a lot of sense actually, doesn't it? Because like Vince has been talking about, if prayer is about more than just petitioning, if it's about conversation, if it's about relationship, then could there be a sense in which it actually matters to God whether we've asked for something or not? Maybe sometimes God is more concerned about the relationship than just the outcomes.

If God just does whatever he's going to do and therefore we never learn to ask for anything in prayer because we're never lacking for anything, then do we reach a point where actually we start to even think, "Well, this has nothing to do with God's provision anyway. It's just the way the world is. I don't need God. I don't have to be dependent on God for this. I don't need to go to him?” Therefore, the conversation dries up, and before you know it, God is completely absent from anything. You wind up with this sort of deistic face.

So perhaps one reason why God tells us to ask for things, even things that he knows that he's going to do is because he actually values the relationship. It's an incredible thing actually, when someone's asked for something and then you get to give it to them, it's kind of a beautiful way that our relationship with God works. Like if something just happens and I won't necessarily think to thank God for it, but if it's been something I've been asking for and then I see it happen, that's so affirming and confirming of my faith. It tells me in a very specific important way that actually God cares deeply about me.

So I think we forget that with prayer, there's so much more going on than just outcomes. It also has a lot to do with the value God places on us talking to him in the first place.

Vince Vitale: I think that's really helpful to make it relational. Actually this morning when I was thinking about prayer, I was actually encouraged, because the more I thought about it, I thought, "You know what? This isn't as mysterious as we often make it out to be." It's communication, it's relational.

I was thinking it's not that different from children asking their parents for things. Some things parents will give to their children, regardless of whether they ask. They're just essential things that the children need. Some things parents won't give to their children, even if they ask, because there are harmful things and the parents love their children and don't want them to have those harmful things. Then there are some things that parents give their children only if they ask. If our son Rafael grows up, it would be fine for me to give him a football. It would be fine for me to give him a basketball. But if he comes to really love basketball and he requests that, and he asks for that, then as a parent, I'm going to delight in responding to his request in giving that to him. So even for human parents, this is what's going on.

It's just not always an easy call. There's real discernment necessary here. If you always gave a child what he wanted, you wouldn't be a good parent. But likewise, if you never gave a child what he wanted, you also wouldn't be a good parent. So even in our human relationships, that's what we find. Sometimes a good parent has to give the child what's necessary. Sometimes they do give the child what they want. Sometimes they don't give the child what they want, but for good reason. The child cannot always understand that reason. Isn't that exactly what we find with God?

It's just so interesting sometimes, the double standard that we look at God and get upset with him and criticize him for acting exactly the way that we think we should act as parents. But when he acts that way, then we think that he's doing something wrong.

Jo Vitale: It's just interesting to me because I think people assume that because the will of God is always good, and he's willing the good, therefore he's just going to do things the same way. Whereas maybe it might be the case that God has an end in sight in a certain situation, but how it comes to pass and when it does might be in response to the way that you ask. For example, if Vince says, "What are we going to order for dinner tonight?", if we're getting takeout, then there are certain things I'm going to be like ... Okay, no, there's just no realm in which I'm okay with us having sardines. That is not going to be for the good. That would not be my will.

Michael Davis: Wait, you would ask for sardines?

Jo Vitale: Probably not. There are very, very wrong things. Don't even get me started. Anyway. But the point is, it doesn't mean there aren't a range of options that could all be good. I'd be great with Italian. I would love Indian food and Chinese is my favorite.

So you know, there are a range of possibilities that would all be good, but they're options on the table. Maybe part of what it means to have meaningful relationship is there's that array of options which are good, which when it comes to our relationship with God, he may say, "Hey, I want good in your life, but I'm also willing to answer your prayers and be responsive to you, and the way that you desire for things to see happen. As long as they are according to my will, and they're for the right motivation, then actually, yeah, we can do it this way. It's a joy to get to answer your prayer, and for you to see that happen. This is a good thing, so let's do it."

I just think, isn't that amazing? That actually rather than shying away from prayer because it does nothing, it actually means prayer is something we can get incredibly excited about because your prayer actually makes a difference. I love it in James when it says the prayer of a righteous man...And I think he is including women within that. I would hope so, is powerful and effective. It's powerful and effective. Your prayer actually can be powerful when you have the courage to say, "My friend is sick. I'm going to go pray for their healing. I'm a longing to see this person come to know Jesus. Lord, please would you intervene in this way,” and actually believing that God delights in answering those prayers. That is exciting to him.

Vince Vitale: I think you glanced in an important direction earlier when you spoke about James 4, "You ask and do not receive because you ask wrongly to spend it on your passions." So we don't like to talk about this so much, but this is another aspect of this that if we're not living well, then sometimes God won't say yes to certain prayers of ours. I don't think that's because he's trying to punish us as his children, but he loves us, and he wants to protect us.

So again, there's going to come a point...It's hard to believe this, but there's going come a point where Rafael's going to be old enough to ask for a car or ask for money. Our decision about whether to give it to him is partly going to be based on how he's living. Is he actually mature enough and trustworthy enough when he asks for us to give him that gift, and know that he's not going to hurt himself and others but actually use it well?

So that's the other part of this again, where whenever we have a good question of God, it's important for us to be willing to turn the question around and ask it of ourselves as well. So if we're asking God, "Why aren't you answering our prayers?,” we also have to turn around and ask, "Are we asking with the heart and intentions that we need to be asking with?"

Jo Vitale: I think 1 Kings 8 speaks to this beautifully. I think this is a great verse in the Bible where it says Solomon is praying and he says, "May whatever prayer or petition your people Israel make be heard by you from heaven, your dwelling place, and may you forgive and act and repay each man according to all his ways, since you know his heart." I think that's what it's about. It's about, "What is in our hearts when we pray"? This is where we get to the other side of this that yes, prayer has the power to change the world, but it also...Prayer changes us too. I think it's coming back to where Vince started that actually prayer is...If prayer is a conversation, if it's so much more than just our wishlist that we're bringing to God, then actually when we come into prayer, we should expect that our hearts will be changed too. Because isn't that why we enter into conversation with anybody?

If you come into conversation with someone, just assuming that no matter what they have to say, your view is never going to change, and your opinion will not shift, and the way you see the world is going to stay exactly the same, then what's the point in even having conversations with people? That's why we engage. So how much more should that be true when it comes to God, who actually knows the end from the beginning, who has a clear view of everything that we do? We see in part, he sees him full, and he's better than are, and he's more loving than we are. Actually, even when it comes to our own desires, we tend to be self-destructive, whereas he always wants the absolute best for us.

So how could we sit down and come to him in conversation and not expect that he might have something different to say to steer us differently? Thank goodness. I mean, the number of times I thank God for not answering prayers I prayed years ago. Imagine if we came to God and said, "Lord, I know that you're perfectly good, but could you just...This guy's such a jerk. Could you just smite him for me in Jesus' name? Amen." Thank goodness God doesn't answer prayers like that. Can you imagine if we ran the world that way on the basis purely of our prayers? That would be a pretty scary world to live in.

Vince Vitale: That prayer wasn't about me.

Jo Vitale: No it wasn't.

Vince Vitale: I'm pretty sure I would not be here if that prayer was possible.

Jo Vitale: No, it's not about anybody. I just think that that's so important that that...And I think this is...When Dan Barker is mocking the idea of praying in Jesus' name, as if that were the magical password to prayer, he's missing the point. What does that mean? It means under the authority of Jesus. It means as long as it aligns with the will and the goodness and the heart of Jesus. So that's what our prayers are filtered through, but that doesn't mean there isn't a vast scope for God to act in our lives.

Craig Hazen, who's based at Viola, has actually written a really fantastic book on the subject of prayer. If you're someone who actually struggles to ask God for things, maybe you've stopped believing that things will come to pass in your prayer life. Then check out his book called “Fearless Prayer: Why We Don't Ask And Why We Should.” Basically pushing into this question of being people of faith who actually have great expectation that God wants to answer prayers.

Over time, if you do that, if you consistently pray, yes, there will be times where it's a no. Yes, there will be times where it's disappointing that God hasn't come through. But you will build up an incredible testimony throughout your life of all the times that you have seen God come through in incredible ways. Somebody recently...Someone I love dearly, basically we were having a conversation about faith. They said to me, "I don't think God exists, and I actually think Jo, that you just really read into things."

It was one of those moments where I've walked away from the conversation for about 10 minutes. I was sitting there thinking, "Do I just read into things?" Am I really right in this? Or am I just someone who has confirmation bias, who's always looking for the answer to kind of meet what I want it to be when it comes to my prayer life? But then the more I thought about it and the legacy of faithfulness that God has shown throughout my life, and the way he'd shown up time and again in answer to prayer in incredible ways, the more I realized, actually I don't think I'm reading into things. I think it comes to a point where there's such an abundance of evidence of God acting in your life that actually for me to not take that seriously and attribute that to the God who's answering those prayers would basically be like burying my head in the sand.

So I think prayer helps us just to recognize a God who is active in our life, who loves us, who will be there.

Vince Vitale: Because it's interesting...And I'm sure this is the truth for you, that sometimes I find myself in a situation where I'm so busy that I don't pray. Those are the times in my walk where I'm like, "Why doesn't it feel like God is present?"

Jo Vitale: That's so good. I actually think that speaks exactly to when Jesus says, "If you who are fathers can give good gifts to your children even though you are evil, how much more will God give his Holy Spirit?" there's something about prayer that more than anything else, when we pray, we get more of God. I was reminded of this actually in February when I was having just a really tough week. Very, very pregnant, waiting for the baby, feeling a bit discouraged. I prayed a prayer that I've never actually prayed before, but I just said, "Lord, I'm having a tough week. I could just really do with a reminder that you love me." But I was a bit sneaky and I said, "Please could you remind me of this through somebody that I don't know?" Because I just felt like I don't just want it to be the general things people say to me, but I really wanted to hear from God in an encouraging way.

That was on Tuesday. Then on Friday, this email came into RZIM's general delivery inbox and it just said, "Hello if possible, could you please forward this email to Jo Vitale? Jo, God has put you on my mind the last few days and he gave me an encouraging word for you. I do hope this makes sense and strengthens you." Then went on for several paragraphs with this amazing encouragement from God that was so very specific in the language that was used. It was very personal to me that this person couldn't possibly have known. I didn't even know who they were. We'd never met. Turns out, it was someone in Calgary. Then she just ended this beautiful, encouraging message by saying, "Peace be with you always and God bless you with comfort, peace, and even more love that runs through you like a river. Your sister in Christ, Sally."

She had no idea that I prayed that prayer.

Michael Davis: Aw, Sally. I hope you're hearing this. You're awesome.

Jo Vitale: You are awesome Sally, if you listen to Ask Away. I don't even know how you know who I am. But it was just this moment of...It just felt like God saying, "I hear your prayers and I can answer them." Not just the big things, but even the times when you just need a little encouragement, here it is. So dig into your prayer life because the Lord wants to encourage you. The Lord wants to be close to you, and this is the best way to be close to him.

Michael Davis: Well guys, we are out of time. Vince, sum it up for us.

Vince Vitale: Well, just a final encouragement for those who are asking, "Does prayer work?" Maybe you've had prayer requests that you've said in God's direction, and you're waiting, and you're waiting, and you're waiting. Many of you will know from the show that I became a Christian while studying Philosophy at Princeton my freshman year of college. It was in dorm room 122, Jolene Hall. Not long ago, I met a woman after a speaking event who came up to me, heard my story, and she said to me, "I lived in 121 Jolene Hall." She was about 15 years older than me. She said, "I spent my four years in college praying for the salvation of the guys in room 122 Jolene Hall." God had literally answered her prayer, word for word, in me, done it 15 years later.

Could it be the case that God is going to answer so many more of our prayers, even literally and truly? If he could answer that woman's prayer word for word, how many prayers that you've prayed that you think God hasn't answered has he actually answered, or will he actually answer? I hope that's an encouragement for you this week.

Michael Davis: Vince and Jo, what a great show! Thank you guys so much for joining me. Thank you all for listening, and see you guys next week.

Every article, podcast, and video on this website is made possible by the kindness of our supporters.

If you'd like to support our mission of sharing a thoughtful Christianity to the world, you can donate through our site.

Find more thoughtful content on these topics in RZIM Answers.

Get our free , every other week, straight to your inbox.

Your podcast has started playing below. Feel free to continue browsing the site without interrupting your podcast!