FAQ: If something good happens after someone prays, and the same thing happens to one who doesn't pray for it - how can you prove that the prayer was answered?
God is free to bestow gifts on people even if they don’t ask for them! Does a parent only provide good things for their children if they specifically ask? Moreover, God, who alone sees all things and what is necessary, treats us as the unique individuals He created us to be; not a ‘one size fits all’ approach, and He answers prayers and gives gifts on that basis, not simply on whether or not they are a believer.
But the non-believer does not recognise the hand of God in what happens, so the grace God gives doesn't deepen their love for Him. For those who do believe, the more you pray, the more you recognise God at work in our life, the more you understand of His ways. You come to understand that God always answers your prayers by everything working out for the good for those who love him. But prayer changes you more than it changes God. You learn to rely on God's care and providence and to ask for the right things (St. Paul said be ambitious for the higher gifts of faith, hope and charity).
In fact prayer is not first and foremost about asking for things. Prayer is about adoring God, giving him the praise that is His due and so raising our own minds and hearts to him to be in communion with his own most holy and perfect Mind and Will. This very act is a blessing for us as we are drawn into the life of the Blessed Trinity and our own lives are conformed little by little to God's purposes, shaped by his grace and guided by his providence.
So we do not judge prayer by whether it "works". The more we listen to God, and the more we learn about how he does answer our prayers and guide our lives, we learn more about what to ask for, how to use his gifts, and how to trust him through good or bad times. All prayers are answered - but not necessarily in the way expected or desired. All good things are gifts of God. Also His permitting of suffering can be an invitation to learn about ourselves, to become more Christ-like, and/or fruitfully to share in others’ suffering. The mature Christian learns to see the hand of God in all things, working for our good.
God can and does bless others too, even if they don't believe. Of course that could be because someone else is praying for them. In fact all blessings are because Jesus prayed for us on the Cross and continues to offer himself for us in heaven and in every Mass. Jesus said that the Father makes the sun to shine and the rain to fall on good and bad men alike. But the unbeliever does not recognise God's blessings. The believer goes back to Jesus in deeper prayer and gratitude, so we grow in love of God, humility of heart, joyful trust and inner peace. This is the real fruit of prayer.
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