Update: This post is about one kind of confusion: whether the Bible promises we get anything we want when we pray. For other kinds of prayer and confusion, you may want to read Bible verses for the overwhelmed.
I think there is an unhealthy trend to see if prayers "work" -- by which people typically do not mean whether God hears us (which he always does, and in this sense prayers always work); but instead whether God gives us what we want. I think that's a dangerously misleading concept of what prayer is for. Prayer is not like dropping a quarter in a vending machine, pushing a button, and mechanically we get what we want as if God had no more thought in the process or design for our lives than that. That's one reason many people find religion frustrating; God's ideas about bringing us to maturity are very often at odds with our ideas of what we want.
Before I launch into one source of misconceptions, I'd like to make a crude example. Once, someone I had never met called me to ask a favor which would take probably an hour and a bit of trouble. I'd never even heard of this person before. But she said "Bobby (last name omitted) said I should call you to take care of it." That changed everything. I worked with Bobby for a long time; he was like a father to me, a completely trustworthy man, and I would do anything for Bobby. So as soon as this complete stranger asked something "in Bobby's name" I was going to do it. That was that. But what if she had asked me to do something illegal and still said "Bobby said I should call you to take care of it"? Well, I'd know she was lying; one reason Bobby has my complete trust is that I know he'd never put his name behind a request like that.
Now, some people look at the time when Jesus told his followers to pray for anything "in his name" and they would have it (see John 14). Some people seem to have no more thought for that than to tack the words "in Jesus' name" to the end of the prayer as if it were a magic incantation like "abracadabra" and because you said the Magic Words (not "please", but "in Jesus' name") that poof presto God will do what you ask. I've heard of people praying for a Cadillac "in Jesus' name". That strikes me as completely absurd, much as if someone had asked me in Bobby's name to do something illegal. Jesus spoke those words "ask anything in my name" to the twelve at the Last Supper, and the discussion was about the disciples continuing His work on earth after He had returned to the Father, not about getting Cadillacs. The point was to bring glory to God, not to bring riches or comfort to ourselves, not to avoid hardship because we just don't want to deal with it. (Funny, we avoid hardship as if it were an evil and run towards evil as if refraining from it is hardship, and we wonder why things are the way they are.) The disciples prayed boldly -- but generally it was for others, not for their own personal benefit. The disciples did not pray to have luxury, to escape from hardship or to have an easy life. The same night that Jesus said they could ask for anything in his name, he also said they would have trouble in this world; hardship is a given.
I don't mean to discourage anybody from prayer, not in the least. I think a misguided view of prayer discourages prayer, and that the pseudo-magical application of the phrase "in Jesus' name" -- without any effort to understand what that means -- has done some damage.
I hope to take up some more thoughts on prayer in upcoming posts.