Tuesday, April 04, 2006

The Power of Prayer

Last Friday, The New York Times ran an article detailing the findings of a recent study on the effects of prayer on seriously ill people.

The patients were sorted into three groups: a control set which was not prayed for, a set that was told they were being prayed for, and a set that was not told. Results showed no real difference between the patients who were prayed for and patients who were not; the patients who knew they were being prayed for had somewhat higher rates of post-operative complications.

Is this evidence that prayer does not work?

It depends on what one means by “work.” I have serious concerns about the merits of such a study, and the potential for misinterpretation of the results.

First and foremost, God is not a genie in a bottle. “Ask and ye shall receive,” says the Bible, but inconveniently there’s a catch: what we ask for must still be in accordance with God’s will. “With prayer and thanksgiving, make your requests known to God,” says Paul, but we still must be careful what we ask for. Even Jesus, the night before his death, asked “if it be thy will, let this cup pass from me,” but he added, “yet not as I will, but as thou wilt.”

This dilemma is one of the core challenges with faith: when people pray, they often don’t get the answer they hoped for, or perhaps it doesn’t come within the timeframe that they would like, and they assume their prayer has not been answered. All prayers are answered. Sometimes the answer is no. Not because God doesn’t like you, but rather because He knows you and your needs even better than you do; the Bible tells us He will always provide us with what we need.

The second problem is a presumption that we should always be happy and healthy, and that illness or adversity is an indication of God’s disfavor. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Bible is full of stories of people of perfect faith – Jesus included – who suffered immensely. Just think of the grisly demise of most saints.

Suffering must be looked upon as a spiritual gift; in Christianity, as in many other religions, suffering is the path to enlightenment. Suffering strengthens us and teaches us important lessons. Anyone who tries to tell you that Christianity will give you a life without suffering is probably selling a book.

Tied to this is the idea that if God loves us, He will let us live, that we won’t fall victim to a heart attack or a car accident or a terrorist act. But we can see that clearly isn’t true: there isn’t one single person in history who achieved earthly immortality through faith. Everyone dies, and death is often unpleasant and uncomfortable, if not downright agonizing. It has nothing to do with whether God loves us or not; there is no “whether.” God loves all equally, even those who do not love Him. God is not just “love,” but unconditional love.

Dr. Richard Sloan of Columbia University told the Times, “The problem with studying religion scientifically is that you do violence to the phenomenon by reducing it to basic elements that can be quantified, and that makes for bad science and bad religion.”

I couldn’t agree more. The search for scientific evidence of God is thoroughly misguided; it will never be found. The Christian religion is one of faith, and it’s not possible to have “faith” in something that can be proven. God wants for us to believe He is there despite a lack of scientific evidence. Any Christians pursuing scientific proof of Divinity are wasting their time.

So why pray?

It is pleasing to God that we remember our friends and loved ones – as well as strangers – in our prayers and wish good things for them. For our own sake, though God may not always indulge our request for a better job or a cute boyfriend or a mansion in Malibu or the end of a trying illness, He does always grant requests for patience and guidance in trying times, and people who pray regularly testify to an improved ability to relax and to calm troubled hearts and minds.

Don’t be discouraged by these misleading results. Prayer does work, but this study fundamentally misunderstands how. The success of prayer can only be measured in spiritual means, not in a laboratory.

Finally, always remember that God never sends a challenge we can’t handle. Even if a challenge ends with our death – and inevitably, one of them will – prayer will get you through it.


Luke said...

This post reminded me a lot of a recent story I heard on NPR about Thought Field Therapy (http://www.tftrx.com/).

People suffering various mental health effects after Hurricane Katrina were helped by professional thought field therapists. The technique itself is quick and simple. The therapist asks the patient to close their eyes and physically tap certain areas of their bodies in a specific order (depending on their ailment I assume). What was interesting was that most people felt significantly better after the session (at least in the short-run). Much better than a set of control subjects who were not given any therapy.

Because this technique does not have any scientifically sound studies verifying its claims (and it does claim a lot of things), I believe this falls into the placebo effect. Not that that lessens its effectiveness in any way. Honestly, I find it quite amazing how powerful people's belief can be in affecting their physical temperment, whether it be faith in god or in doctors in white coats telling them they will feel better. Often the placebo effect is as great as the effect of the scientifically proven method when mood or "state of mind" is the parameter being measured.

Andy said...

Well, the "tapping" you describe sounds like energy medicine, which is really amazing (admittedly there are some kooky practitioners out there -- remind me to tell you the story of the q-tip sometime). If you doubt me, come over and let me tap you in a couple of places and tell me you don't feel better afterward. NO, I'm not talking about THAT, silly. I'm serious.

I think this also points to the major, major flaw with western medicine, and that is that it's almost 100% centered on symptom relief. Americans, especially, are super lazy with regard to health care. They want a pill for everything; they don't want to be told that what's wrong with them is the way they live their life. Remember the woman who sued her doctor for telling her she was overweight?

Illnesses are often the result of spiritual disharmony; address the root of the problem, and the symptoms disappear. Suppress the symptoms through chemical means and they will manifest themselves elsewhere until you get the message. Our bodies are very effective at communicating with us; we're just often determined not to listen.

kr pdx said...

It's called "energy medicine" now? Rock on, we finally have a Western term for it :)! I'll have to tell ~N, who doesn't read your comment strings.

Cool post. Those prayer studies kep rolling in, some positive, some negative--about every two years the media seem to think it will garner headlines again. But proving prayer wouldn't necessarily prove God (or religion), so I'm not sure we should write them off as a waste of time. Lots of folks who don't believe in a God believe in the power of positive thinking (one way or another, more formal or less), which at least resonates with "prayer."

Did you ever see "What the [Bleep] Do We Know, Anyway?"

little-cicero said...

Just an anecdote: my cousin was in delivery with what I think was a premature infant, and the infant's lungs collapsed. I was younger at the time, and had no idea whether the baby would live or die. I prayed a rosary for her, which was a rather laborious task as I did not know the rosary, but I did my best, and pleaded with God for her life, and today Julia lives a healthy, normal life.

That being said, this study really is a lot of nonsense, and I have to wonder if there is an agenda behind it. Prayer is not the act of commanding God, it is the act of testifying before him, or bringing his attention to a situation that consumes an individual. We should not expect Him to answer our requests like a DJ, rather we should expect Him to use his infinite wisdom to make a proper judgement.

Wouldn't you say prayer is really an act of questioning God, since we are asking God to change his plan for the Universal order of things? I relate the two, and agree that both are perfectly permissable.

Andy said...

I don't really know the answer to this, honestly. Can we get God to change His mind about something? I have no idea. I read once in an inspirational text about prayer in difficult situations that "God is thinking along with you." I'm not sure whether that's true, but I like to think it is.

Jade said...

The second problem is a presumption that we should always be happy and healthy, and that illness or adversity is an indication of God’s disfavor. Nothing could be further from the truth.

I'd love for you to explain that one to my mom. Growing up, if I ever banged my knee on the coffee table she'd call from the other room "God is punishing you!"

Energy Medicine, creative visualization, meditation... these pracitices have a lot of deep breathing involved with them, putting the body in a relaxed state. I've always considered them to be a New Age form of prayer anyway, but whatever you call it there is no doubt that the practice of any one of these will make you feel better as a whole. Deep breathing is supposed to help your immune system too (I was told this by my pilates instructor, who mentioned that as Mr. Pilates was developing his exercises with dancers and the flu swept through the area, none of his dancers got sick)

Illnesses are often the result of spiritual disharmony; address the root of the problem, and the symptoms disappear.

Andy - have you ever read any of the Seth books?

huomiseksi said...

Hi, Andy-

Since you're a C.S. Lewis reader, you might want to know what he said on this very subject. He wrote a fun essay called, "The Efficacy of Prayer." You can find it in his book, "The World's Last Night." Check it out of the library. I think you and he would agree on certain things.

Nice blog. I'm going to keep reading.

Jarred said...

Wasn't it C.S. Lewis who once said (or wrote) something along the lines that prayer is not about changing God's mind, but about changing your own? I've probably butchered the quote, but hopefully you get the gist of it.