This document is going to try to answer the question about the validity of prayer. As such, while it is intended to help the faithful better understand their faith, it is hoped that it will also help them be able to teach this faith to the non-believers as well. In my opinion, we do a great disservice to our apostolic mission by telling the curious "Oh yes! God grants all our wishes. Try it and see, then post your results on #Askandreceive." Okay, this is a slight exaggeration, but let's be honest. When a non-believer asks you if your prayers do indeed work, do you say "It's not about getting what I want, it's about furthering my personal relationship with God by being honest with Him about my wants.", or are you more prone to say "my husband just got laid off, so I prayed about how we would pay the mortgage and the next day an old army buddy of his that he gave a loan to 20 years ago finally paid it back with a check in the mail!" I hope the answer is closer to the first one, but in my experience (both from personal practice and personal observation), the second answer seems typical of what usually happens.
It is understandable: we have someone's attention and we don't want to miss this opportunity to lead them into the faith by discouraging them. Or maybe we just don't know how to explain why the so called "unanswered prayers" are not a contradiction to our faith. Or maybe something else. In any case, I hope what I write here will help in both cases.
I will begin with the simplest of the issues: fear of loosing a potential follower of faith. I believe that Christianity is ultimately about the truth of why we are here. Truthfulness is a virtue, and demanded by the 10 Commandments. Kindness is also a virtue, but it is not the Greatest Commandment (or the 2nd greatest) or part of the 10 Commandments. Now, I know we are told by the world today that kindness is how we demonstrate the greatest virtue of "love". But this is false. Kindness is indeed part of love, but Biblical Love is so much more. This is essentially the same as a foreigner, after visiting New York City, saying he has "see America."
But the truth is not always kind (being told a loved one died in an auto accident) and being kind is not always truthful (remember the line from the movie Titanic when a woman, scared of boats, asked it was safe and the White Star Line attendant said "Not even God can sink this ship."?). In the Bread of Life discourse (John 6:22-59), Jesus tells the people they must eat of His body and drink of His blood. All but 12 of them leave (verses 60-71). Who can blame them? Drinking blood was explicitly forbidden by Mosaic law and there is no reasonable explanation to make one think they thought differently about eating human flesh. We know that there would have been 5,000 men (not to mention their family members) because it was the day after he fed the 5,000 (verses 1-15). Now, I don't want to lose Christians who don't believe in the Eucharist with this example (for those interested, however, I recommend Dr. Pitre's Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist), but look how resolute He was to tell the truth. While this was considered a foolish move by worldly standards, look what those 12 men did. Furthermore, I cannot find a single example in the gospels where Jesus twisted His message so as to convince someone to follow them.
I often hear someone say "Ask, and you shall receive." It is either implied or even explicitly explained "since it's in the Bible, it must be true." But this is not true. It is text taken out of context and used a pretext for what, I don't know. All I know is that it is deceitful to say only that. The whole passage is "Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives; and the one who seeks, finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. Which one of you would hand his son a stone when he asks for a loaf of bread, or a snake when he asks for a fish? If you then, who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good things to those who ask him." (Matthew 7:7-11). The whole issue here is the word "receive". When the passage is taken out of context, the listener is allowed to (and almost always does) imagine that what is received is what was asked for. So, he thinks to himself "I ask google to find me a restaurant and it finds one for me, so if I ask for a million dollars, God will give it to me." But rather than realize how poor an analogy this is (after all, Google does not promise the service is good or the food tastes well, and we all know that the ratings usually don't reflect reality), he just focuses on not getting the $1 million. By quoting the whole phrase, we see that God will necessarily answer the prayer in a literal sense, but that no bad will come of the request.
Now, this person may indeed say "what good is this religion then?" and walk away. Don't worry, for it would be the sin of pride for you to think you have to convert them. You planted the seed, let God take it from here. The absolute worst that will happen will he will know you were truthful to him by your actions. In today's world, we are subject to 4,000 to 10,000 advertisements a day (www.redcrownmarketing.com, 10 September 2015)! Very few are very truthful. Maybe your truthfulness will be what stands out to him that day. In any case, let the seed grow or wither as Jesus tells us (Matthew 13:1-9).
In truth, I can find no gospel passage that, if taken in context, gives unfettered reign to prayer. Most ultimately tie this ability to one's faith, and every Biblical example of faith in action involves doing God's will even when there is no rational expectation for it to come to fruition. In my mind, it is not by accident that St. Paul, arguably the biggest proponent of faith in the Bible, chose Abraham over Moses for the model of faith. Abraham believed God would grant him a mighty nation for him, despite being told things that seemed completely contrary to this (leaving said land, impregnating Sarah, sacrificing Issac, etc. Moses, as great as he was, still needed signs every step of the way to assure God was actually going to make this happen. Consider all the excuses Moses made at the burning bush.
So, if we tie prayer to faith, and faith to trusting God's will (which is where everything should have been in the first place), we see that when we offer prayer for things to happen (there are other types of prayers, but petitions are the heart of this study), it is an expression of faith that God will ultimately provide what is good for us. As I've heard it a few times, "God always answers. It may be yes, it may be no, it may be 'I got a better idea', but He always answers." This is theologically sound, but not for an outsider. And one can hardly blame them, for it sometimes even troubles the faithful (there are mysteries to the faith, after all).
For those who already believe, we understand that this world is passing. What must be understood here is that any happiness we have on Earth is, if moral, a temporary taste of the eternity of joy we will receive in heaven. As all (moral) petitions are invariably to provide a benefit to us and/or those we pray for, what we are really asking is for a taste of the joy we hope to get in heaven. In this respect, no moral request is really denied if we keep our faith and make it to salvation. Even for the faithful, this can be a bit to grasp, so I'll use an illustration. Suppose a mother is praying for her son to get a job. If God says "yes", then it is easy to see the immediate joy the mother and child will experience. It is also not to hard to see God saying "I've got something better for you," as being turned down for this job often times has led to an even better one. But when God says "no," we can only speculate as to the why. I do not pretend to know myself, but it does seem to me that there are at least two very good reasons, a third that is mentioned in the Bible, and likely many more.
The first one I can come up with is that granting the prayer would lead to sin, in which case God is protecting us. It is pride to think we know what we need to be spiritually healthy better than God does, and there are times we just need to humble ourselves to God's wisdom. The second reason I can think of is that our faith needs growing. When the disciples asked for more faith, Jesus responded they needed stronger faith by using the mustard seed as an example (Luke 17:5-6). Faith is like a muscle and must be exercised. It is a shallow faith that only follows as things go well (remember the 5,000 that left Him after the Bread of Life Discourse?). A toddler needs help taking the first steps, but sooner or later the parents have to let go if the child is ever going to truly walk. The Biblical reason, which is closely related to my first reason, but also includes prayers made in bad faith, is found in James 4:3-"You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions."
Now I want to address the question of "no" from another angle. I do not believe it enough to simply say "why" not all prayers are answered in an Earthly fashion. After all, we Christians believe that God's will will be done no matter what we want (I hope I don't need to quote scripture for this, there is not a single passage in the Bible worth keeping if it were not the case). We are also told that God loves us not matter what ("For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. " John 3:16-17). So, if God will look out for our best interests no matter what, and we are not necessarily going to benefit in an Earthly manner from petitions, then what is the motivation? Is it optional? I think not. In no small manner, we should petition God because Jesus has commanded us in the numerous scripture quotes I have presented, as well as some I included at the end for the interested reader. Furthermore, the one specific prayer we told us to pray (the Lord's Prayer, Matthew 6:9-13, we see only 2 lines of praise yet 4 unique petitions). But we also have a practical reason to do so.
If it is pointless to pray for a change because God already has it worked out, then it can also be said the same about actions. If it is pointless to pray to God to save your sick mother's life because God already has decided if she will live or die, then is it not also pointless to call the ambulance when you see her collapse?
In truth, while God does indeed have a master plan for us, He has called us to be an active part in the plan. He deliberately left parts "unfinished" that we can fill in. I do not want to go into great detail here, but when God created the world before the fall of man, He only created frame when he grew the garden and raised the animals. It was up to Adam and woman (she was not called Eve until after the fall) to make it as they wish. With the notable yet singular exception of the tree of good and evil. Much like a contractor might build a house, knowing that the new occupants are going to change things around. Or like a drama teacher at school teaching Improvisation Class, creating a setting that, to some degree or another, the students influence with their acting.
Now, there are two ways we can add our part to God's master plan: action and petition prayer. In many ways, they are very alike. But there is a critical difference between the two and it is that difference that is why we should actually be grateful that God sometimes says "no."
Every time we take an action, we modify this world. This action may be for the good (feeding a starving child) or for the evil (shooting it in the head). Unless one believes in the double predestination theory (and it is my understanding that even Calvinists don't go take this theory this far), one had the choice, not God, as to whether the child was helped or killed. God simply knew the outcome before the person making the choice even came to the situation to begin with. Whichever choice is made, the world will be changed (either a hungry child will be fed, or the world's population dropped by one). God's master plan, through this foreknowledge, was arranged to that this outcome will not affect the final ending, but this individual left his mark on it nonetheless.
Prayers have the same effect, we can ask God to make the change to this world in a way we cannot. But no man made action can affect the world as much as the whole population of the world all praying separate prayers. The comedies Bruce Almighty and Evan Almighty show this from the amusing aspect, but is it so hard to think of the horrors that really would have come out of such a situation? I will go so far as to suggest that even the extreme case of the horrors of a cold war nuclear winter (something I grew up with as a very real possibility) would not have the destructive effect that a similarly extreme case of all prayers being answered in this world as a "yes".
So, if one agrees with my bold statement there, I would like to point out an important conclusion. Prayer is stronger than action. God does not limit our actions because actions are really rather weak. God does limit our prayer because prayer is powerful in the sense that a nuclear weapon is weak.
Thank you for your time to read this, I hope it is useful.
Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it
If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.
On that day you will not question me about anything. Amen, amen, I say to you, whatever you ask the Father in my name he will give you
And whatever we ask we receive from him, because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him.
And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him.
Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.
And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith.