I empathize with you in your questioning, as I have often thought along the same lines as you. There is something mysterious about prayer, and it is difficult for our pea brains to reconcile things about prayer that cannot really be--nor were they meant to be-- reconciled, at least not according to our limited understanding of things. These things can be "big picture" things, such as "Please, God, remove Bashar Assad from power in Syria," or "little picture" things, such as "Please God, heal Aunt Ginny of her gout."
The only true constant, it seems to me, is that Christians are to pray. The disciples did not so much ask Jesus to teach them how to pray but to teach them to pray (see Luke 11:1). Big difference. The former question implies there is a method to prayer that just might be more effective than other methods; a formula, so to speak. The latter implies that instead of being a habitual and unceasing activity--a duty even--in our lives, prayer, because of its mysteries and difficulties and uncertainties becomes to many believers a feckless appendage to their lives and not their spiritual lifeblood. They therefore need incentives to get off their duffs and to pray.
It's as if prayer is a specialized activity engaged in by a small minority of Christians, in the same way that there is in the medical field a coteries of specialists (e.g., gastroenterologists and ophthalmologists), and general practitioners (GPs). Similarly, in the body of Christ here are the specialists, the “prayer warriors,” and there are the rest of us, the GPs, who dabble in prayer. (I am not suggesting that GPs are dabblers in medicine. It’s just an analogy, folks!)
The truth is, prayer is the responsibility of each and every Christian. Granted, some believers seem to be especially gifted in prayer and spend hours in prayer daily, not only as a spiritual discipline but also as a gifting from God. Not a spiritual gift, per se, but a special endowment by God. According to one tradition, the early Christians called the apostle James (step-brother to Jesus and writer of the epistle bearing his name) "Camel Knees" for his reputation as a man of unflagging prayer. He spent no small amount of time on his knees, beseeching God on behalf of the early church in Jerusalem and elsewhere, no doubt, and he had the calluses on his knees to prove it! James said a good deal about prayer in his epistle, and one memorable statement is in chapter 4:
"You ask and do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spent it on your pleasures. You adulteresses, do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God" (vv.4-5 NASB Updated).
Imagine, if you will, two extremes. On the one hand are Christians who consider prayer to be a way of cajoling God into giving us something he wouldn’t ordinarily give us. In other words, God is a divine Santa Claus at our beck and call. We ask; he gives. On the other hand are Christians who consider prayer to be simply a way of getting in line with God’s will, not ours. Put differently, God is a divine Scrooge who begrudges us any requests which aren’t in line with his sovereign, all-controlling will.
Is there a middle ground between the two extremes? I believe there is. More than a few preachers have suggested that 90 percent of God’s will is spelled out clearly in God’s Word, the Bible. The commands, exhortations, life-lessons of great men and women of God, life principles, rules of thumb (particularly in the Wisdom literature), and so much more are at our fingertips, day or night, 24/7. Even the purposes of God are laid out for us, at least in broad strokes, within the pages of Scripture. While it is true that
”. . . we have been predestined according to His purpose, who works all things after the counsel of His will” (Ephesians 1:11),
it is equally true that
”. . . all things [both good and bad] work together for good to those who love God and are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28 from memory).
On the one hand, there are God’s overall purposes which cannot be thwarted. Think of these things as comprising the Big Picture. For example, the following things cannot be changed or altered by any human or spiritual instrumentality:
God will “have the last word” by ushering in his eternal kingdom in which there will be no trace of sin or death. The war between good and evil, God and Satan, will be over, once and for all, and the Lord’s Christ will reign forever and ever without end.
God will be glorified in and through his Son, with every knee bowing and every tongue confessing that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Some will have bowed the knee and confessed Christ’s lordship willingly during their lives on earth. These are forever secure in the palm of the Father. Some will be forced to bow the knee and confess Christ’s lordship after having refused to do so during their lives on earth. These are consigned to eternal death apart from God.
A revived Israel will join with all God’s children in one holy catholic church, through which God’s will will be done, perfectly, on earth as it is in heaven.
I’m sure there are many unchangeables in God’s overall purposes; I’ve mentioned but a few.
On the other hand, there are aspects of God’s will which although they will always in some ultimate sense never be totally out of God’s control in some way, they will by the same token contain elements of human freedom and choice. How or in what ways those elements are circumscribed by God’s sovereign will, we will never truly know. There is nevertheless the law of “reaping and sowing” which has been built into the fabric of human behavior and human interactions.
It is in this nether region, so to speak, faith exists and thrives. Since we know that God honors the faithful and fervent prayers of his saints; and since we know that God’s will is for us to pray for his kingdom to come and his will to be done; then we also know that to pray for ourselves and for one another is a no-brainer. It’s a given. Since these things are all true and comprise, at least in part, God’s will, we would be remiss in our duty to God and one another to exempt ourselves from prayer. In short, prayerlessness is sin.
So, when someone in a local assembly of Christians has a wife who is gravely ill, and the church members tell the husband they will keep her in their prayers, they all can rest assured of at least the following:
It is God’s will to pray for the gravely ill wife.
God’s will may be to raise her up for his glory, or God’s will may be to take her through death for his glory. Even though they do not know what God will do in this situation, they at one and the same time pray for her restoration to full health and strength, but they also leave the ultimate decision up to God as to what he chooses to do.
They express their wishes, and God hears and answers. Sometime his answers contravene theirs, and he says “No, I have something different in mind.” Sometimes, however, his answers coincide with their wishes regarding their sister in Christ, and God raises her up in response to the concerted effort of faithful prayer (see James 5:133 ff.). Jesus could have prevented his friend Lazarus from dying, but he did not. Instead, he brought glory to his Father by allowing Lazarus to die and then raised him from the dead with a simple command, "Lazarus, come forth!"
In conclusion, I like Peter Turner’s answer, above, which reads in part,
”Not praying would be second guessing God. He says, ‘Ask and you will receive’" (Luke 11:9 / Mat 7:7).
In other words, since God tells us to ask, and asking is therefore the right thing to do, then not to ask is tantamount to (if not actually) sin. In the words of James,
”. . . To one who knows the right thing to do and does not do it, to him it is sin” (4:17).
Sobering words indeed for each believer in Christ.