I noticed with some interest in the news that a study on the efficacy of prayer had been conducted by the John Templeton Foundation, involving some years of testing and many hundreds of subjects, and that the results, published in a respected medical journal, showed no significant difference between the group that received intercessory prayer (unbeknownst to the beneficiaries) and the control group. Researchers complained of difficulty in isolating the effects of intercessory prayer. (Maybe someone was secretly praying for the control group as well.)
Though the media and culture will try its best to misrepresent this result as meaning that all prayer is a merely human activity, do not be discouraged. The central premise of the study is atheistic and thus presupposes the outcome. The study authors evidently could not read, as Jesus did in His temptation (Matt. 4:7), the prohibition in Deuteronomy 6:16 against putting the Lord to the test. Accordingly, one should not be surprised that the test results were unsatisfactory. But don't worry: those conducting the test did not believe in Him in the first place, so nothing has been lost. The Lord is the same yesterday, today, and forever.
If you think about it, the study produced a wonderful result, on two levels. First, it strongly suggests that prayer doesn't work, which is what believers have known all along. The "power of prayer" is only and exactly the power of the One True God and nothing else. The Kosmic K-Mart is closed. Prayers to the Santa Claus God are wasted breath. Christians do not believe in prayer--they believe in God. Oh, it may be that certain sorts or practices of prayer are therapeutic, but for Christians, prayer is not therapy. Naturally, skeptics and non-believers ignore this: they badly want there to be a power in prayer that does not require believing in (let alone, following) the One True God.
Second, the entire exercise demonstrates precisely what Jesus had in mind when he quoted Isaiah 6:10, (NIV) in Matt. 13:15,
Make the heart of this people calloused;
make their ears dull
and close their eyes.
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
hear with their ears,
understand with their hearts,
and turn and be healed.
God will never let us quantify Him as though He were a force of nature. His sovereignty is absolute. Moreover, if God in His wisdom has visited affliction or hardship on some individuals, why would He want to reverse that course except, as the Scripture says, to glorify Himself? God uses afflictions to create the preconditions for the human example of suffering in patience. He does so quite intentionally. Jesus suffered. Are we supposed to be exempt? God uses death to bring His own people home to Him. Jesus died. Are we exempt? Still, Jesus knew He would rise again. True, but have we not the same promise?
Paul says that we do not know how to pray in a way that pleases God (Rom. 8:26). The Holy Spirit makes intercession for us, conforming our prayers to the will of God (Rom. 8:27). Prayer is our opportunity (seldom used) to conform our minds to the mind of Jesus. Should we pray for what we truly desire? Absolutely, yes. But while we are at it, we should take the opportunity to begin desiring the things that God wants. It is not easy, I realize. But the Spirit is there to teach us God's will in prayer, if we will listen. That is what prayer is for, and that is the single greatest virtue of the Lord's Prayer as an exemplar: every line falls squarely in the center of God's will for us.
Finally, Christian prayer presupposes belief, i.e., firm reliance on the promises and presence of the One True God, through His Son, Jesus the Messiah. We Christians, who have been called according to God's purpose, know that God works for our good in all things (Rom. 8:28). He has demonstrated that in the suffering, death, and resurrection of His Son. He is worthy of trust. After the Cross, He can safely be trusted with all our concerns. Above all, prayer expresses that trust.
The study authors' misunderstanding of prayer was complete: No, as our tool, prayer does not work, i.e., prayer is not a way of getting God to do what you want Him to. But prayer is one of the vehicles God uses to change us. Seen in that way, as God's tool, prayer works just fine.