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If a person prays to God and does not receive any clear response, does that mean that God doesn’t answer prayer? Most Christians would say, “No. God always answers prayer. Sometimes the answer is ‘yes’, sometimes the answer is ‘no’.”

What does “yes” or “no” mean? It’s not always clear. But from what I can tell, “yes” typically means you get what you asked for and “no” means you don’t get what you ask for. Sometimes a Christian takes subtle “clues” in their life to mean that God is saying “yes” or “no”.

But what does it mean if the answer is “no”? What is the explanation for such a response from God?

Aside from praying for things that are not in accordance with God’s will (James 4:3, 1 John 5:14-15), praying for bad things (Matthew 7:9-11), not asking in Jesus’ name (John 14:13-14; 15:16), living in sin or having unconfessed sin (Mark 11:25-27, John 15:7, 1 John 3:22) etc., many Christians would say it’s because the person did not pray with faith.

So from here on we’ll assume that the prayers are in accordance with God’s will, the person prayed for good things, the person prayed in Jesus’ name, the person is living righteously etc. (i.e. all necessary conditions for a prayer to be answered, aside from faith, are met)

Now, if a prayer prayed with faith must be a “yes” and any prayer that is a “no” must have been prayed without faith, is there any way prayer can fail? Yes, I know that if you’re a Christian you don’t want prayer to fail, but for the sake of argument, is there any room for prayer to fail?

Prayer with faith Prayer without faith
God’s answer Yes No

Figure 1: Comparing answers to prayers with faith and prayers without faith

For us to be able to say that prayer works, we need to be able to show that there is a possibility that it does not work. Otherwise, it becomes nothing more than chance. If there isn’t a possibility that prayer doesn’t work, then we could just as easily substitute the word “prayer” for “karma” or “magic”. There is no shortage of things that would fit within such a framework.

In order to distinguish prayer from such things and for us to be able to legitimately say that prayer works, there needs to be a way for prayer to fail. If it doesn’t fail, then we can confidently say that prayer works.

So let’s try to construct the system differently. This time we’ll assume every prayer is made with faith. And let’s add in another type of answer that Christians sometimes accept: “wait”. This type of answer is even more enigmatic than the previous two, but I think an explanation of it would be: “When you don’t get what you ask for immediately, but you want it really bad and it seems you might still be able to get it, so you continue praying until it becomes a clear ‘yes’ or ‘no’.” (of course, the Christian doesn’t want a “no”.)

In other words, “wait” is an ambiguous answer that a Christian hopes will become a “yes” (Luke 18:1-8). It’s waiting for a “yes” when the Christian perceives there has been no definite “no” answer (whether that “yes” comes or not).

There are other types of answers that Christians accept, but we won’t consider them here for simplicity (and also, because they can get rather silly).

Prayer (with faith)
God’s answer Yes No Wait
Christian’s response “Blessed be the LORD, because he has heard the voice of my supplications!” (Psalm 28:6, NKJV) God is good. He knows everything. He has a plan for me (Jeremiah 29:11).

OR

Am I lacking faith? Did I sin?

Okay. I’ll try to be patient. (This might mean continuing to pray for the same thing while maintaining “patience”.)

Figure 2: Comparing God’s answers to prayers with faith to the Christian’s response

In trying to create a falsifiable system, we’ve made the assumption that the prayers are being made with faith. But if it’s possible for God to say “no” to a prayer made with faith (that meets all other conditions), then we have a contradiction with verses such as Matthew 7:7-8, 21:22; Mark 11:24 and Luke 11:9-10.

This is why many Christians maintain that if a prayer’s answer is “no”, then the person who prayed didn’t have enough faith (or no faith at all). Some even insist that the person must have sinned in some way. Like I said before, this is a problem because it means prayer cannot fail – which makes it no different from luck.

It also has the disadvantage of invalidating the experience of the person who prayed. When a person who prays in faith is told they have no faith or that they have done something wrong, they will likely not take it well.

There’s another problem with this system. If we are praying in faith, then we have already taken out the possibility that prayer can fail; we believe that God exists and that he answers prayers (see Hebrews 11:6). In which case, it must be that prayer cannot fail. But if there is no possibility that prayer can fail, we simply cannot say that prayer works.

As you can see, prayer is a non-falsifiable system. “No” (in the case that all necessary conditions are met) should be the indication of the failure of prayer, but instead the Christian makes it an opportunity to rationalize and/or divert attention to God’s plan.

But if God’s plan is factored into the activity of prayer, why pray at all? God’s will is done anyway. If your prayer can cause God to change his plan in any way, then God is not omniscient. If it can’t cause God to change his plan, then prayer is ineffectual. So this means that even though Christians must pray (1 Thessalonians 5:17), their prayer doesn’t really do anything. When their prayers are “answered” with a “yes”, it’s only because they coincide with God’s will. When the prayers are “answered” with a “no”, they simply did not coincide with God’s will.

Scenario 1 Scenario 2
God’s plan Event 1 Event 1
Christian’s prayer Event 1 Event 2
Christian’s interpretation “Yes” answer “No” answer

Figure 3: Comparing the occurring event in relation to God’s plan and what the Christian prays for (and the Christian’s interpretation of this event)

If we disregard rationalizations such as lack of faith when the answer to a prayer is “no” (assuming, of course, the prayer meets all necessary conditions), we remain with two options: the failure of prayer or the impotence of prayer in view of God’s divine plan.

Thus, the question is, does “no” mean prayer fails or does “no” mean prayer is ineffectual? When you think about it, this is really the same thing. It’s either prayer doesn’t work because of God’s sovereignty or it doesn’t work because he doesn’t exist.

But maybe, this is what is meant by the power of prayer.

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