4 Reasons Why Prayer is Ineffective, Harmful, and Makes a Good God Look Really Bad

4 Reasons Why Prayer is Ineffective, Harmful, and Makes a Good God Look Really Bad January 23, 2018
Courtesy of Pixabay
Courtesy of Pixabay

*Note, this is a guest piece by Mark Karris. He is an ordained pastor, licensed marriage and family therapist, speaker, musician, adjunct professor, and all around biophilic. He is the author of Season of Heartbreak: Healing for the Heart, Brain, and Soul (Kregel, 2017). He and his family live in San Diego, California. Visit him at ConspiringPrayer.com.


Many of you won’t know me, so let me introduce myself. I am a therapist, ordained pastor, husband, father, adjunct professor, and the author of the newly released, Divine Echoes: Reconciling Prayer with the Uncontrolling Love of God. My book is divided into three sections: Investigation, Deconstruction, and Reconstruction. The focus of my book is on a specific type of prayer, petitionary prayer to be exact. Allow me to skip to the Deconstruction section and offer four reasons why petitionary prayer is ineffective, harmful, and makes a good God look really bad. First, let me define petitionary prayer.

Petitionary prayer is a specific form of prayer aimed at making requests of God. They make requests of God for answers to life’s questions and concerns. They are also pleas for God to be the sole responsible agent to act on behalf of the one who is praying. Petitionary prayers can be offered on a small and personal scale for oneself or for others, or they may involve requests on a larger scale that concern changing undesirable circumstances within society or, indeed, the world as a whole.

While there are petitionary prayers that ask God to continue the wonderful work that he is already doing, I define the traditional understanding of the typical petitionary prayer as talking to God and asking God to love in a specific manner in which God was not doing so beforehand.

We have all heard such petitionary prayers:

  • “God, pour out your love on aunt Mary. Please save her.”
  • “God, root out the hatred, prejudice, and bigotry in our country.”
  • “God, give the doctors wisdom.”
  • “God, give my dad traveling mercies as he travels across state tomorrow.”

Such beautiful pleas come from sincere hearts desperately praying for God to intervene in the lives of those they love. But does petitionary prayer offered on behalf of another effect any real change? Or, are they ineffective, doing nothing but distort the loving character of God and ultimately make matters worse? I have to lean toward the latter. Let me share four reasons why.

  1. God is Portrayed as Unloving

A Christian relative praying anxiously, “God pour out your love on Aunt Mary. Please save her,” is based on an assumption that God is not already loving and seeking to save aunt Mary. The person praying is unknowingly praying prayers that are not in alignment with the reality of the profound goodness of God. God has always loved aunt Mary and is presently loving her, even while her relative is praying. God is also seeking to save aunt Mary—mind, body, and spirit. God wants “all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4). A person does not need to twist God’s arm or talk him into doing what automatically flows out of God’s nature and character. Is God good some of the time or all of the time?

Praying for God to love, heal, and be gracious to loved ones suggests that God is not loving, healing, and being gracious to them. It’s like asking a world-renowned heart surgeon, known for her skill and compassion, who was in the middle of performing perfect heart surgery on your family member, “Can you perform the surgery with skill, professionalism, wisdom, and care?” Many petitionary prayers question God’s goodness without realizing it.

A Christian who prays, “God, please don’t hate me,” is praying a theologically incorrect prayer because a God of love cannot hate us (John 3:16). Such a prayer doubts the goodness of God.

A struggling Christian who fears God’s punishment and prays, “God, please don’t pour out your wrath on me,” also prays a prayer that is contrary to God’s loving nature (1 Thessalonians 5:9). The same can be said of a Christian who prays, “God, grant my dad traveling mercies,” as though God must be petitioned to protect his children from danger. The implication of such a prayer is that God may allow any Christian who doesn’t pray for traveling mercies to be harmed on the road due to lack of prayer. Really? Is that what a loving God would do? Likewise, a Christian who prays, “God, pour out your love and save my aunt Mary,” as though God is withholding his love from her and intentionally choosing not to save her, is praying in a manner that is theologically contradictory to God’s loving nature and perfect will.

  1. God is Portrayed as Passive and Cruel

The common Christian belief is that God could increase his active love in the world and maximize the good in people’s lives. But, he chooses not to because other people did not make a choice to pray for these people. God, the very definition of love, allows people to become sick, to miss rent payments, to remain unregenerate, to be raped or murdered just because other people did not pray for them to get well, have rent money, become saved, or stay safe. Such logic distorts God’s image into one of passiveness and even cruelty; God becomes a bystander who simply watches people suffer while doing nothing to alleviate the evil in their lives, despite having the power to do so.

Atheistic philosopher Georges Rey adds his voice to those who are uneasy about a God who allows people to suffer because other people are not praying for them. He writes:

“The idea of an omni-god that would permit, for example, children to die slowly of leukemia is already pretty puzzling; but to permit this to happen unless someone prays to Him to prevent it—this verges on a certain sort of sadism and moral incoherence (imagine a doctor who acted in this way!), and one wonders what people have in mind in worshipping Him.”

Georges Rey and other deep-thinking theologians and philosophers who share his concerns have a valid point. There is a moral incoherence and inherent contradiction in the idea that God requires petitionary prayer before he increases his loving action in the world to stop evil. A God who can intervene and stop evil in its tracks but chooses when and where not to do so is logically and morally incomprehensible.

What would we think of a man watching a child being sexually assaulted, who has the power to do something about it but chooses not to because no one asked him? The Spirit of love and justice within us would rise up and object that such a man was unjust and immoral. This same Spirit would also rise up against a view of God as someone with full ability to intervene in horrific events but who simply chooses not to.

  1. Science Doesn’t Prove It is Effective

The scientific evidence does not demonstrably prove that praying on behalf of others is effective. And, there have been a lot of studies trying to prove its effectiveness. I will just share one study.

One of the largest and most expensive studies of intercessory prayer to date, costing $2.4 million, was carried out by Harvard researchers and supported by the Templeton Foundation. The study examined the therapeutic effects of intercessory prayer on patients recovering from coronary artery bypass graft (CABG) surgery. The patients were randomly placed into three different groups. The members of two of the groups were told that they may or may not receive intercessory prayer, though only one of those two groups were actually to receive it. A third group was told they would receive prayer. Christians and Catholic intercessors prayed for fourteen days for the participants who were designated to receive prayer. The researchers came away with two main conclusions:

First, intercessory prayer itself had no effect on whether complications occurred after CABG. Second, patients who were certain intercessors would pray for them had a higher rate of complications than patients who were uncertain but did receive intercessory prayer.

Many declared the study a $2.4 million failure. The critics and media had a field day. Newsweek titled one of its stories “Don’t Pray for Me! Please!”  The point is, from a scientific perspective, praying on behalf of others doesn’t really make a difference.

  1. It Contributes to Evil and Suffering in the World

Every 10 seconds, a child dies from hunger.

Every 98 seconds another American is sexually assaulted

Every 33.5 minutes, someone is murdered.

Every, 20 seconds, a burglary occurs.

Over 52,000 will die from drug overdoses this year

On a single night in January 2015, 564,708 people experienced homelessness.

Systemic injustice, suffering, and evil do not prove that petitionary prayer for others is ineffective, so what is their relevance here? For me, these statistics are evidence that the stakes are too high to ignore. We cannot afford to spend our time engaging in immature forms of petitionary prayer and superstitious practices. We cannot engage in spiritual activities that cause us to feel good, thinking we are accomplishing great things, but ultimately do not achieve the good they set out to accomplish. Or worse, they contribute to the evil and suffering in the world.

If people believe that praying to God in a certain manner, at a certain volume, and with certain words will convince God to single-handedly root out prejudice, reduce hate crimes, solve the problem of homelessness, heal drug addicts, stop people from committing arson, stop rapes from occurring, and so on, they are engaging in magical thinking and superstition of the worst kind.

Petitionary prayers can become an ironic gesture. Their intent may be to increase God’s loving activity and shalom in the world. But a problem arises when we pass the responsibility of shalom solely to God (“God, you fix the problem!”). We thereby avoid God’s primary method of achieving shalom; humans, filled and led by the Spirit of God, fulfilling their vocation as God’s empowered emissaries.

In New York City, a congregation had gathered for a prayer meeting. A winter storm was expected the following day, so they took time to pray for a group of homeless people who frequented an area not too far from the church: “God, pour out your love on the homeless people downtown. Help them find shelter. Protect them from the cold and from illness. Show them the salvation of your dear Son, Jesus Christ.”

Perhaps those church members were the ones who needed to be saved from the pitfalls of petitionary prayer. They may have meant well, but their prayers indicated a belief that talking to God would absolve them of any responsibility to do something about the problem by placing all responsibility for resolving it upon God. Ironically, instead of being beneficial, their prayers became an obstacle to God being able to use that congregation as his Spirit-led and empowered emissaries to love, help, and save those homeless people. God is not the one who needs to be coaxed, persuaded, or reminded in any way to love the homeless. God longs for them to be holistically saved. God grieves that some will suffer in the freezing cold. If prayer in its simplest form is an act of talking, then perhaps God whispered to that congregation: “Church, pour out your love on the homeless people downtown. Help them to find shelter. Protect them from the cold and from illness. Show them the salvation of my dear Son, Jesus.”


Okay, you may think I hate prayer. I actually don’t. I love God. I love the Church. And, I am a big fan of prayer, especially seen through the lens of God’s uncontrolling love. You are just getting some snapshots of the type of content found in the Deconstruction section of Divine Echoes. To find out more about my attempt to investigate, deconstruct, and reconstruct petitionary prayer, pick up the book. You may be surprised at what you find. As theologian Thomas Oord has said about my book, “His proposals may shock you, but good medicine can sometimes do that.”



Georges Rey, “Meta-atheism: Religious Avowal as Self-Deception,” in Philosophers without Gods: Meditations on Atheism and the Secular Life, ed. Louise M. Anthony (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 261.

Herbert Benson, Jeffery A. Dusek, Jane B. Sherwood, Peter Lam, Charles F. Bethea, William Carpenter, Patricia L Hibberd, et al., “Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer (STEP) in Cardiac Bypass Patients: A Multicenter Randomized Trial of Uncertainty and Certainty of Receiving Intercessory Prayer,” American Heart Journal 151 (2006): 934–42.

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  • Jon-Michael Ivey

    This reminds me of an argument I had with my preschool teacher when I was 5 years old and enrolled at a Christian preschool through my family’s church. She said it was my turn to pray before lunch. I bowed my head and started praying silently. She said that I had to pray aloud for everyone to hear, and asked how I can be sure God can hear if she cannot. I told her that was ridiculous, as God was omniscient and would know my prayers even if I did not so much as consciously think them. I told her that she has no right to hear my prayer’s or anyone else’s, as Jesus forbid us from praying publicly for others to hear and commanded we do so in private. I then added that ever trying to use prayer to convince God to do anything would be stupid, as an omnipotent and omnibevelovent God would surely have a better plan that anything we could devise and that having our prayers answered could only turn out for the worst. I told her God would surely act exactly the same regardless of how anyone prayed, and that the purpose of prayer was obviously to make us contemplate how to align our wills to God’s wills so that we know how we should act.

    She just stared at me dumbfounded for a while before picking some other kid to pray over the meal instead. At our preschool graduation I would receive the “Most Intellectual” award.

  • This had me dying. Spot on, mate!

  • Frank Blasi

    Some good points in the main article. To be thoroughly honest, I do find intercessory prayer difficult, particularly in a prayer meeting. However, a spontaneous reaction to news received can bring me to my knees in prayer. However, in Paul’s letter to the Philippians, he does advise us to present our petitions to God along with thanksgiving (Philippians 4:6). If such an exhortation is found in the Bible, maybe it’s not because God is dilatory, but rather to increase and strengthen our faith in him. This, along with the Lord’s Prayer which contains four personal requests: 1.Give us this day our daily bread, 2. Forgive us our trespasses, 3. Lead us not into temptation, and 4. To deliver us from evil.

  • Libertysdefender

    You posted a comment on the Denver Statement but I could not find it there. You were upset that I was a prick regarding JD Everland (?)
    You are projecting. If you read my posts you would see my comments were full of repentance and grace. I backed up my observations with thought and research.

    You and JD just don’t like it when informed and rational people pop your SJW construct and safe spaces
    Get used to it. You no longer control the debate

  • You seriously came over here to tell me that? I deleted it because I realized talking to you was futile.

  • Libertysdefender

    I thought you were sincere! Silly me. You guys just cannot stand to be challenged can you? Cheerio!

  • Libertysdefender

    Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

  • Mark

    Great thoughts Frank! While Jesus encourages us to pray, “Give us today our daily bread” (Matthew 6:11), I this prayer is a symbol of our dependence on the God who always desires to freely provide our basic needs. It is an implicit acknowledgement that God is the ultimate source of the fulfillment of those most basic needs. Asking for our needs to be met opens us up in the moment to receiving God’s freely available graces in their various forms.

    God always seeks to lovingly meet the basic needs of humanity and the rest of his creation. Moment to moment, God offers pathways to meet those needs. God’s primary medium for providing for basic needs is people. Remember, God has an opendoor policy. God continually looks for open-hearted faith on the earth and seeks the cooperation of human beings to co-steward creation toward shalom. While the motivation to pray common, petitionary prayers for the basic needs of others is pure, God is already actively seeking to meet those needs. God isn’t keeping us from shalom; we are, or those other agencies we have no control over are.

  • Iain Lovejoy

    God doesn’t always save people, prayed for or not. It is this, not the fact that he often doesn’t do so specifically after prayer that leads people to question God’s goodness, I would have thought.
    The Lord’s Prayer, the only prayer Jesus taught us to pray is entirely petitionary, and we are told in the Bible over and over to prayer to God for things. If Jesus, the apostles, the psalmists and the prophets all see the value in and emphasise petitionary prayer then I’m not going to argue.
    That being said, as the article says, it can’t be right that prayer is some kind of magical incantation or a way of manipulating God by cajoling him into doing what he would not otherwise do.
    Possible reasons for its importance are, perhaps:
    1. As an acknowledgement that we do indeed depend on God for these things.
    2. As an expression of free will: God is uncontrolling and will not act without our consent and cooperation.
    3. God can act through prayer as a gift of grace to enable us to serve others by praying for them, if we can do nothing else more practical to help.
    4. As an expression of hope and trust, that God can intervene and will, and that we should remain in hope and expectation, praying until he does.
    5. As a spiritual exercise, praying for a thing so as to school ourselves as to its importance, and that God will respond by showing us what we can and should do ourselves in response to the need we are expressing.
    BTW I’ve read a number of reports of similar studies of the effect of prayer, and don’t see how they could possibly work: the whole premise is wrong. All you are demonstrating his how God responds (if he does at all) to a cack-handed attempt to experiment on him of which he is fully aware. It is as meaningless as carrying out a psychological experiment where the subject not only knows in advance it is an experiment, the purpose of the experiment and how the results are going to be in interpreted, but is also then given complete freedom to choose what the results will be.

  • Brad Feaker

    The person praying is unknowingly praying prayers that are not in alignment with the reality of the profound goodness of God. God has always loved aunt Mary and is presently loving her, even while her relative is praying he is killing Aunt Mary with cancer or whatever other disease He inflicted on her in the first place. (You know – God is in control, He has a plan for everyone – including dying in terrible ways).

    There FTFY.

    Does God love the 26,000 plus people who die from starvation each day? A large percentage of whom are children?

    And are your exhortations not just another smokescreen apologizing for Matthew 7:11 or John 14:13? And I am glad to see you mention the STEP study…living proof of Christian confirmation bias.

    It is exactly questions like these that made me seek a seminary education while I was a believer. Boy did that have the opposite effect.

  • Amanda Jane Derry

    Some good points made here. I wonder though where it leaves Jesus’ promise that where 2 or 3 people are gathered in his name, He will be there?

  • Jan Westbury

    Very thought provoking, and I agree with the arguments presented. The only thing is, there’s no way—and I mean NO way—I’m not going to pray for my daughter as she drives back to college on a cold winter night, illogical as that is.

  • Cynthia Brown Christ

    It is so sad IMHO that biblical literalists are taught to favor their head, their minds while forgoing their heart, their soul. It is as if spirituality is a dirty word to most of them. I blame their church leadership.

  • Cynthia Brown Christ

    Is that from the Bible?

  • Cynthia Brown Christ

    When I pray for “something” I think about that prayer very seriously. The something is most often for myself – some change in myself.

    It always has these components:
    1. I thank God for the thing he has given me.
    2. I ask God to take this thing away becUse it is no longer serving me (or Him).
    3.I tell God I know he will answer my prayer (this is important).
    4. I assure God I will listen to him and do what is necessary to make the change or get the “thing”. I am asking for

  • Cynthia Brown Christ

    When I pray for stuff like Aunt Mary or more likely homeless or people I see in car accidents I always pray that they will find God and have him in their lives.

    That is as far as my petitions for others goes.

  • Amanda Jane Derry

    Yes I’ve given up on that one; I say live and let live and just leave them to it!

  • Libertysdefender

    Yes it is. Philippians 4: 4-7. One of my favorite scriptures.

  • Libertysdefender

    Actually we are encouraged to “pray without ceasing.”

  • One of my favorite passages as well. It underscores what is one of the major purposes of prayer, prayer changes us rather than God. I’m not willing to jettison all prayer of a petitionary nature as the author is suggesting, as, when done with the right understanding and attitude results in peace…confidence that whatever the outcome God loves us and cares for us. On the other hand, I come from a Pentecostal background where there is a great deal of misunderstanding about prayer, as though we are Jacob wrestling with God. Not helpful.

  • Mark

    There is nothing illogical about that Jan. Praying, or rather talking to God, is a beautiful and relational act. We share the deepest desires and hopes with God. There is nothing wrong with that. Now, talking to God as a relational act is one thing. But, praying “God, protect my daughter as she drives back from school,” as if God would not protect her if you didn’t pray or thinking that prayer would motivate or encourage God to protect her even more if you did, is what I am pushing back on. God loves your daughter, more than you do. God doesn’t want anyone to crash and get into an accident. So, perhaps part of your prayer could be, “God, thank you for loving my daughter. Thank you for doing everything you can to protect her and keep her safe. My desire is that she is safe and I know that is your desire to.” Our prayers demonstrate our picture and portrayal of God. I ask myself, “Do my prayers portray a God that is good all the time? Or, do they portray a God who needs to be cajoled and begged to love and protect those who he loves deeply?”

  • Mark

    That is a beautiful and heartfelt prayer!

  • EXACTLY. I also don’t really think God changes the laws of nature or interferes in people’s free will (maybe occasionally?), although IT (God) will work in people who have offered/given their hearts and minds to him. I still ask things as simply expressing my thoughts, desires and heart to God, a simple conversation during which i also hopefully listen(!); but it does feel empty in the functional sense of expecting God to love and help simply because I asked (as if he wouldn’t otherwise). I feel better praying for myself when it is hopefully in line with offering/giving myself to what IT wants over my petty desires, but that seems selfish if it’s all i do. Prayer can still “work” even if just because it focuses us and helps define our desires and goals, and to some extent creates cognitive dissonance and may get us to actually do something about it. Praying for others or in a group also promotes community and empathy for others. The people praying for the homeless could have been offering their homes AND asking God for help!

  • jekylldoc

    Happy to see some of the reconstruction. I agree with most people here that petitionary prayer is perfectly natural. Okay, we can pray in a more theologically tuned-up voice, but I think most of us are looking past how God is portrayed in our address to how we think it is affecting us to plead with God for these things. As Pope Francis is reputed to have said, “First you pray for [God to feed] the hungry, then you feed them. That is how prayer works.”

  • Timothy Weston

    Prayer is why I am a deist.

    About a decade ago, my dad was giving a list of prayers and petitions offered by his congregation and it read more like a list of complaints made by first-graders. He reached into a worship manual for his denomination and read one of the prayers. It struck me that prayer is often used as a substitute for action because that was how they were taught as children to pray. The prayer out of the worship manual was one of those prayers prepares a supplicant to be its answer.

  • Tim

    Wasn’t it C.S. Lewis who said that “prayer doesn’t change God, it changes me”?

    I think you’re on to something here.