Does Praying for the Sick Do Any Good?
Every once in a while, a group of scientists will design a new study that attempts to prove whether or not intercessory prayer helps medical patients recover.
I understand why these studies are attempted. When I was completing my graduate degree, I worked with a local medical school on a cancer research project. We found that superstitious beliefs about prayer tend to cause far too many unnecessary deaths in Appalachia. There are people here who refuse to take medicine that could heal them because they decide to "trust God" instead. God doesn't intervene. Then those people die.
It has to be so frustrating for doctors to watch this over and over again. Imagine devoting years of your life to the medical practice, staying up late studying, exhausting your body in long years of residency, finally learning the secrets of how to help people live... then because of some backwoods, twisted view of faith, a patient refuses to follow your instructions.
If I were an unbelieving physician in a medical community plagued with this sort of behavior, I would be desperate to find some way to prove this sort of faith irresponsible. I would be designing studies on prayer, trying to expose flaws in superstition, and urging people to follow simple medical instruction.
But there are also reasons some of these studies are inherently flawed, and I'm not sure an unbelieving scientist would discover those reasons without receiving input from a believer in God. So I'm writing out a few of the problem areas I've noticed below, hoping they will provide clarity for future discussions on this matter.
1. First, there is no empirically-responsible way to qualify or quantify studies on intercessory prayer.
Even students participating in fifth-grade science fair projects are taught that research variables must be measurable. Meeting this requirement becomes very difficult in studies on prayer. Most of the research that I've read has allowed prayer to be defined as (a) anything considered an appeal by (b) any given soul (c) aimed at any sort of immortal being that a soul imagines.
This would be the empirical equivalent of a scientist attempting to research canine parvo vaccines by injecting random fluids that he decides to calls parvo vaccines into any animal he decides to call a dog. Sure, he could inject 10ccs of Gatorade into a chicken and say some sort of point has been proven about parvovirus and dogs, but his research would be inherently flawed because it hasn't been properly qualified.
To study prayer with any measure of scientific credibility, (a.) a specific deity would have to be determined, (b.) a means of establishing legitimate communication between that deity and the deity’s supposed followers would have to be established (to eschew imposters or frauds), (c.) and some means of deciding that all prayers offered in the study were in accordance with that deity’s theological standards would have to be named. Here's the rub. Steps two and three are virtually impossible to measure empirically.
Scientists may presuppose that a single true God does not exist, or they may presuppose that any god worth his salt would accommodate all requests regardless of a prayer's form. They may also push those presuppositions to the side out of desperation to stop superstition from killing their patients. However, these presuppositions would also distort the scientific strength of a study. If the goal of a study is simply to produce a rhetorical tool that urges naive patients to take their medicine, that's one thing. But these studies prove very little about how a true God might relate to prayer.
2. Secondly, studies on intercessory prayer tend to assume that a god would allow himself to be discovered and validated empirically. They demand that the transcendent subject itself to established rules of physics and biology instead of existing within and beyond those principles.
This assumption violates what most religious beliefs claim about the mechanics of the transcendent. The Christian God, for instance, openly says that He hides Himself at times, and He says that we are not to test Him. When someone who is proud or defiant comes to God, demanding to see Him "or else," God is free to put up walls to prevent Himself from being found. If God were a physical substance like Mammoth Cave or the McDonalds on Fifth Street, He couldn’t reveal or conceal Himself at will. But He is a powerful, living being, and engagement with Him comes on His terms.
While it’s understandable that doubters may see this as a “loophole” that people of faith can hide behind – or even accuse God of being cruel for not revealing Himself equally to all people making all demands -- when placed in the context of a human relationship, the trust required by God becomes more clear.
Imagine a girlfriend being told by her boyfriend that she has to complete a series of scientific tests to prove her loyalty. Imagine a husband being told by his wife that he has to undergo a series of diagnostic experiments before their relationship can continue. If most of us were approached like this by another human, we would say, “Something is wrong here, not with me, but with you. You don’t know how to have a decent relationship.”
Marriages that require obsessive checking of one another’s texts and search histories don’t prove faithfulness, they prove a reliance on fear and suspicion. And to think that a God (a superior life form) would allow us to call the shots on how we find him is a bit silly. Yes, He is loving. No, He’s not a pushover. If we try to bully ourselves into an engagement with the transcendent, insisting on finding Him on our own terms, we are unlikely to find Him at all.
3. The Christian God has often disappointed His own believers by not doing what He was asked when He was asked to do it.
Yes, I know that there are some Christians who claim that if we have enough faith God will start obeying us like a cosmic border collie. Yes, I know that some Christians claim that because Jesus negated the Fall, all sickness and suffering could easily be under our command if we just believe enough.
I think those claims are bad theology.
Jesus delayed in coming to Mary and Martha when Lazarus was sick. He even let Lazarus die so that another purpose might be fulfilled. Paul (the primary writer of the New Testament) asked three times for some physical malady that was plaguing him to be removed, but God had other purposes. He denied Paul’s appeal for healing. David begged God for the life of an infant son who died. Even Jesus prayed for God to provide some way out of His upcoming suffering and death, but God turned that appeal down.
In John 9 the disciples find a man who was born blind, and they ask Jesus: “why was this man born blind? Was it a result of his own sins or those of his parents?”
“Neither,” Jesus answered. “But to demonstrate the power of God.”
We want God to obey us; we want Him to make life stop hurting. That's understandable. But God is not a lucky rabbit’s foot, and sometimes He allows horrific, hard things like sickness and death to happen. I don't mean that He causes these things, but I do think He is able to redeem pain in ways that cannot make sense to us in the present. (And no, we shouldn't minimize the deep confusion and sorrow of the suffering by dismissively stating a platitude like, "God has a plan for this!" But that is a relational problem to be tackled in another essay.) In regard to miracles, yes, God did say to pray and mountains would be removed. But sometimes the mountains that need to be removed and thrown into the sea are in our souls instead of in our bodies.
I do believe in occasional miracles. I do pray for the sick to be healed. Sometimes God has answered my prayers in unexplainable ways like I hoped He would. I believe there are situations in which God allows His hand to be moved by our requests, but I don't understand how all of that works or why. It's not like a magic formula... and in attempting to understand requestive communication with God, I've learned a lot more about the beautiful depths of His heart and wisdom than I have about how to steer Him.
But also, what is a miracle other than the bending of common rules of physics, chemistry, and biology? In attempting to get to the bottom of this, we can get hyper-focused on outliers, because we are scared of loss, and we want to be in control. But if we stand back and look at this synchronized universe that runs like a marvelous machine, there's also a lot to be in awe of without requiring God to shazaam a new puff of purple smoke out of which white doves of healing fly. He loves us; He loves us; He loves us...whether He does what we want Him to or not.
For either scientists or people of faith to approach human illness as some sort of laboratory for determining God’s existence or goodness, in my view, is missing the point entirely. I think that if we could see God as He is, we would realize that prayer is as much about aligning our hearts to His as it is about asking for miracles.
I understand why these tests are conducted and how a world that worships human power might think that dimensions and beings beyond our capacity can be tested like bacteria in a petri dish. But folks who try to determine such things tend to remind me of children drawing on cardboard boxes to make space ships so they can fly them to the moon. Nice ideas, but they just aren't going to ever get off the ground.
It’s all too primitive. No matter how noble the intentions, these are works of flawed science and flawed theology. We cannot commandeer God’s revelations to us, and any attempt to do so reveals a gross misunderstanding of who God is and how He works.
P.S. And by the way, Christian patients... take your medicines. God asks us to respect and honor those we encounter, and your doctors have worked hard to help you. Sure, be discerning. Sure, get a second opinion. But while you are being treated, be a good witness to these caregivers. Show the love of God, and do not insult those who are trying to care for you.