Does Prayer Really Work?
If you have ever spoken to non-religious friends about praying, chances are that you have been met with some skepticism or resistance. The question underlying that skepticism is very often this: Prayer is nice and might make you feel better, but does it really work? Some people might even see prayer as a cop out or a substitute for taking any action (more on this in the post “Is Prayer a Cop Out?”). Maybe these are questions you have asked yourself, too.
First off, it’s important to figure out what we really mean when we ask, “Does prayer really work?”. There are a lot of assumptions built into that question. One is that prayer is meant to tangibly, noticeably do something and orchestrate things according to our desires. Another assumption is that prayer is just one thing among a list of ways to tackle a problem—i.e., prayer is Plan C or D…or even Z, if nothing else works.
The reality of prayer means we have to reframe the question. Prayer is not an attempt to force God’s arm so that things go according to our plan. Rather, and much more beautifully, it is a conversation with God, our creator and the one who loves us perfectly. Since He wants to know our whole heart that we give Him freely, that means prayer will include the description of our desires. Prayer should also never be a last-ditch effort, but something we do daily in conjunction with any action we take. As St. Ignatius of Loyola said, "Pray as if everything depended on God and work as if everything depended on you."
Perhaps, then, a better question is this: How does God answer our prayers? God always hears us—whether we are in a state of grace, whether we are hardened sinners, whether it has been years since we spoke to Him. He answers all our requests, but sometimes the answer is “no” or “not yet.” Since God is good, we can trust that His response is what will bring us to holiness.
Sometimes, though, God answers us in really powerful or noticeable ways. You should always try to perceive how God is answering you personally, but here are a few real stories of the ways God has powerfully answered people’s prayers (stories have been edited for length and clarity):
From a youth minister: When I was a freshman in high school I started going to an awesome Youth Group. At the end of that year the person in charge moved and it ended. My actual church tried to have one but it was really inconsistent and rarely got anyone involved. By senior year/college my friend and I wanted to start one ourselves and the priest felt we were still too young. So I moved on. 10 years later I was 3 years into an admin job. I was loved by the company with potential to move up over the years. I was great at what I did but did not enjoy it. I was stressed by others every day, anxious to go in, complaining to my fiancé daily, etc. I wanted to leave but felt like my coworkers would fall apart without me. My fiancé reminded me my mental health isn’t worth that and it’s the company’s fault for not having enough workers there. At the same time I also was lacking spiritually. I heard a homily about serving the Lord and immediately joined choir as a fun ministry option. While in choir during a Mass I heard the youth minister speak about their mission trip that summer/upcoming youth plans and reached out to her saying my schedule was busy but I would like to help if I could. I started to work with her and loved it. Suddenly in November she resigned. After a few days I considered the position. I told her it was on my heart to apply and she said to do it because she already recommended me. I didn’t think I’d get it because I didn’t technically go to school for theology, but I did! When deciding if I should leave my current job, I knew the risk. There’d be a huge pay cut. I’d lose that opportunity to move up. But I’d actually be serving Jesus as my job and leading teens to Him. I was praying out loud on a drive and went to say “Lord, help lead me to the right decision” and accidentally mixed the words and said “Lord, help me lead.” And right then I knew my choice. I took the position and all the years of stress vanished. It’s a 10-plus year prayer to be a Youth Minister coming into fruition, one that I mentally put aside years ago thinking it would never actually happen. All the things that happened were little divine steps from God to get me to that place mentally and literally.
From a person living with celiac disease: I didn't die. My heart rate dropped to 28 BPM and I said “God, I don't care if I live, but you do. Help.” The nurse in the hospital said he'd never seen someone so dead not die after that. But that's beginning in the middle. When I was diagnosed with celiac disease, I was so ill physically and mentally I ended up in the ER, and then the hospital at ~80 lbs. I was 20. Then I was hospitalized for 2 months, in-patient to recover from crippling clinical anxiety and malnutrition. My parents had 6 kids, no savings. We did not have anything close to the insurance to cover over 80k in medical bills. My mum sent out a prayer request, and prayed a novena to St. Philomena. Out of nowhere, a distant acquaintance heard of my illness and sent a first class relic of the saint. Preparing to file bankruptcy after the 9-day novena and outpouring of prayer, my mum had gone distractedly to check the mail. In the box was a letter with no return address and a check with no letter. It was exactly the amount they owed the hospital.
From a person who performed a random act of kindness: A few years ago, I was going to get a massage. I had just taken $100 out of the ATM for tip and a trip I was going on. I don’t know what sparked this prayer, but I prayed and asked God that if he had better use for the money than I did to let me know. At the massage, the masseuse was telling me that he’d love to bring his fiancé and son on a duck boat tour, but... it cost $100. I knew right then it was God telling me to bless them. He went on the tour and sent me a picture after. He said he couldn’t afford to pay for the duck boat tour, money was tight. The crazier thing is he just got done telling me about paying for cable or something kind of frivolous. I could’ve judged and been like, well, manage your money better. But I didn’t even question it because it was God the whole way answering that prayer.
From a granddaughter: When my grandmother passed away, I used to pray (still do) that she would send me a sign that she was doing okay and is well. Her sign to me is finding change on the ground, mostly pennies and dimes. When she passed, I found so much change and every now and again change pops up when I need a guiding hand or smile.
These are just a few of the many ways God has answered prayers. We’d love to hear from you about how God has answered your own prayers!