does prayer really work?

Updated: May 5, 2020

I was driving home from college one weekend and I was an emotional mess. The guy I had been going out with for the past three months had just told me he didn't want to see me anymore. I was speeding down the highway with my car radio blasting break-up songs and an overly large iced coffee in my cup holder. I came up behind a car that was not speeding, causing me to switch into the left lane in a hurry to pass him. In the left lane, there was a pickup truck in front of me with various items packed into his truck bed. My cruise control was on and my speedometer surpassed 85 MPH. Suddenly the items in the truck bed came loose and were tumbling across the road in front of me. I panicked, yanking my steering wheel to avoid the debris.

I instantly knew I had made a big mistake.

I was going way too fast for such a sudden movement. My car spun out of control rocking unstably back and forth on its wheels, threatening to flip over. For the first time ever I was having a near-death experience. As I flew across multiple lanes of traffic, I screamed out just one phrase, "Jesus save me!"

That was possibly the most sincere prayer I ever prayed.

The back of my car slammed into the guardrail and my real-life nightmare finally stopped. I looked around me, afraid to move. Cars were stopped across all six lanes of traffic. Several people pulled over to check on me. My car was totaled, but I was completely unharmed. My prayer had been answered. I was saved.

What has your prayer life been like? Were you raised on prayer or did you learn it later on? Growing up in church, I was taught how to pray from an early age. Every day my family prayed before our meals. Every day I got down on my knees, closed my eyes, and prayed before bed. As a child, I didn't fully understand the value of these rituals but I thoughtlessly carried them out. As I got older I became much more skeptical.

Entering into my teen years, prayer became a burden for me. I dreaded the part of the church service every weekend when we would get down on our knees and listen to someone ramble on, and on, and on about basically nothing. Our church congregation was very conservative and methodical. The prayer leaders seemed to believe that the more scripture they quoted, the fancier the words were that they used, and the longer the prayer went on would somehow determine the quality of the prayer. I hated it. Sometimes I would open my eyes, sit back in my seat (my knees hurt so bad!) and just look at everyone who was still "praying". Most of the kids were squirming in their seats, and the guy in the back pew was sound asleep. I didn't get it. What was so special about prayer?

When I was in college, I decided I didn't like prayer at all. I had prayed many times and it seemed no one was listening. I started to wonder if perhaps I did need fancier words and more scripture quotes to actually be heard. Praying for my food was utterly meaningless. I wasn't thankful at all, I was just hungry! I figured out how to say thanks for my food in the fewest words possible so I could get to the eating part of the meal.

I didn't understand how prayer worked. How could God possibly hear all of the prayers at once? What did he do if two people were praying for opposite outcomes in the same situation? Why did some people always seem to get answered prayer and others never did?

I asked people these questions, but their answers never satisfied me.

When I got to know God on a more intimate level through reading the Bible, I found myself having to re-teach myself how to pray. I had to let go of all the previous stuff I had thought or concluded about talking to God and instead, come to him with an open heart. I touched on prayer in a previous post, and I am going to repeat what I stated there:

Prayer is not what people think it is.

Prayer does not have to mean getting on your knees, locking yourself in a closet, or even closing your eyes. I actually pray frequently with my eyes open. I pray a lot while driving in the car. I pray a lot out loud when no one is near me. I often pray in my head while in conversation with other people! I am not saying this to brag but to give you inspiration- I pray off and on all day constantly. Half my thoughts in my head are for me and half are for God. Prayer is a direct discussion with God.

God is always with you, He is always watching and experiencing your life with you. You do not need to start every conversation with him saying "Dear Jesus" and ending with "Amen". Honestly, when it comes to private prayer time I would urge you to stop doing that. Stop doing it because it makes your experience with God feel rehearsed. Think about it... who else do you talk to like that? Dear Melissa, can you help me find my lost dog? I hope what I just told you comes true. We simply don't talk like that. Talk to God like you mean it. Talk to God in a manner that makes it real for you. I'm not advocating for disrespect, but when I first came out of a lifestyle of drinking and chasing after boys many of my prayers included profane language. Of course, I'm not saying you should curse at God! My point is, that was where I was at in my life at that time. That is what it took for God to become real for me in those low moments.

Perhaps you are thinking of the Lord's Prayer as I discuss all this. The Lord's Prayer is found in Matthew 6:9-13 and Luke 11:2-4. It is often referenced and used to "teach" people how to pray. I am going to give you something to think about. Perhaps the explanation of the Lord's prayer in the Bible is less about structure and more about topics. It's less about using perfect grammar or wording and more about what you are saying. We see evidence of this through various Bible characters. I think of David, Job, the prophets, and the disciples. Go read their prayers and you will see that it is not about formatting or vocabulary. Speak from your heart, and God will speak back. Often He will speak back to you through what you read in the Bible.

My husband is an avid lego lover. When he was young he had many lego sets. I bought him a new set while we were dating. He eagerly took out all the pieces in preparation to put it together. If you know anything about lego sets, you know that they come with a detailed instruction manual. The instruction manual has been produced by the designer who works for the lego company and created the kit you are working on. Every kit has a manual.

Now imagine if my husband took out his pieces and his manual and became very upset. I would ask him what was wrong. "I don't know how to put this together! I am going to have to call the company!" he complains. Ignoring the manual completely, he calls the corporate lego office. They tell him to read his manual.

Perhaps he calls them every day, every week, every month, and eventually every year. Yet despite his calling, he never gets an answer on how to put the kit together. It isn't because the lego company can't tell him how to do it. After all, they are the ones who designed it. They made it. The thing is, they have already provided the instructions, the answer to his question, in the manual.

Do you understand my lego metaphor? The lego kit is our prayer request. The designer is God. The manual is the Bible. God can answer our prayers, but sometimes he already has- if we would just read what He says in His manual.

Prayer and Bible study go hand in hand and I have come to a point in my life where I do not believe you can have one without the other. It is a prayer that opens our minds to what God has to say and it is the Bible that speaks the words for Him. I promise you every answer to every prayer you have ever prayed is found in the Bible. Maybe you don't think so. Maybe you feel like the statements of the Bible are too broad or too generic to apply to your specific situation. If that is the case I would challenge you to start reading the Bible by putting your name in it. Let me show you an example using my personal favorite Bible verses:

But now, this is what the Lord says—

he who created you, Melissa,

he who formed you, Melissa:

“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;

I have summoned you by name; you are mine.

2When you pass through the waters,

I will be with you, Melissa;

and when you pass through the rivers,

they will not sweep over you.

When you walk through the fire,

you will not be burned;

the flames will not set you ablaze.

(Isaiah 43:1-2)

Some people might even replace all of the "you" statements with their names as well. Adapt it in a way that is meaningful and sincere for you.

Another great way to strengthen your prayer experience is to start a prayer journal. This is an especially great method for me as a writer. If I have had a busy day where my thoughts have been more directed towards me than towards God, I will set aside time to sit down and write. I write to God as if I am writing a letter. Some people will also write prayer request lists that they can reflect on or pray out loud with. This is a beneficial activity because in the future you are able to look back at what you wrote and see how far you've come. You can see what God has done for you. You can see all the answered prayers you didn't even know existed.

Prayer is not limited by the boundaries of how other people pray. Stop looking at other people for how to do stuff! Look to the Bible and look to your own heart. Speak to God in your own way, in your own language. Speak to Him out loud or in your head. Don't let anyone ever tell you that there is a wrong or a right way to pray. You don't need someone else to pray in place of you. Your own prayers are enough. Prayer is literally just talking to God. If you are being honest with Him, you're doing it right. Jesus is our intercessor, He takes our prayers and makes them "good enough" for God. Our only job is to believe.

Take a moment every day this week, or maybe even this month to have a truly honest conversation with God.

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