Do ‘Thoughts and Prayers’ Work?

I know an ardent skeptic of Christianity who likes to wear a t-shirt with the following slogan:

Thoughts and Prayers Don’t Work.

Maybe you’ve seen different versions with a similar sentiment: Thoughts and Prayers Don’t Stop Bullets, Thoughts and Prayers Mean Nothing, Policy Change not Thoughts and Prayers, etc. 

If you’re like me, your knee-jerk reaction is to think, “Well, that proves you don’t know prayer! I’ve actually seen prayers answered — so it does work.”

But let’s pause a moment and consider: What would the skeptic actually hear us saying? (We might also examine our level of humility and graciousness as well). 

The implication of the “Prayer Works” argument is that “God responded and did exactly what I asked him to do.” Sort of like pushing the buttons on a vending machine to get what I wanted, as writer Carey Nieuwhof says.

Except that real prayer isn’t a button we push to get what we want. And the skeptic sees right through the impersonal, “vending machine-god” or genie with a lamp who doesn’t come through and give them what they want…

Nieuwhof writes,

“There are scores of people inside and outside the church whose spirits are crushed because they prayed (fervently) and:

They didn’t get the job.

Their mom died of cancer.

Their child was born without a heartbeat.

They ended up in a car crash that left them permanently disabled.


“Prayer is not a button to be pushed; it’s a relationship to be pursued.”


Nieuwhof continues,

“Prayer does ‘work,’ but it works very differently than we’d like. It still ‘works’: 

When we can’t trace out any direct result from our prayer.

When the opposite of what we prayed for happens.

In those moments when we feel very distant from God.

When we bang down the door of heaven for years and are not sure anything is going on up there at all…

… The parade of saints across the centuries would have been shocked to see prayer reduced to God-doing-what-I-asked-him-to-do-when-I-asked-him-to-do-it. God is not a puppy to be trained or a chef in the kitchen who prepares food to suit our every whim. He is sovereign.”

The issue then comes down to this: which version of prayer and which God does the t-shirt wearer really need to see? A vending machine imitation that we’re supposedly in control of? Or the true and Sovereign King who rules the world in ways that we don’t always understand (read Job 38–40), but is good, and meets us in our neediness?

The Truth about Prayer

Prayer is a privilege for God’s children, the opportunity to pour out our hearts (praises, laments, confessions, requests) to our loving Father. He doesn’t need it from us but actually desires it because he loves us and knows that we need it.

Prayer helps us come back to our right mind and place in the universe as we engage with him.

Does the idea of talking to God as Father seem hard to grasp? Jesus said, ‘If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father’ (Jn. 14:9). If you want to know the Father’s heart, look at Jesus. He alone is the doorway into the Father’s presence.

So prayer helps us remember who our Father really is, and also that he’s so much better than we give him credit for. And when we don’t get what we ask for, we can thank him that he’s not a vending- machine-god, but a personal God and Savior who gives us exactly what we need most: a relationship with himself. 

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