Fred just wasn’t sure he believed in God anymore. He was certain he didn’t believe in prayer. For six months he had prayed that God heal his wife, Beth. She had been diagnosed with cancer in March; by August she had died. He had prayed several times every day. His children had prayed. His parents had prayed. The church prayed. Not a day went by that their family didn’t get an e-mail, letter, card, Facebook post that said someone else was praying for Beth. But she still died. Now Fred was empty, broken, lost. Prayer had been a comfort for many of those months, now he wondered what was the point. “Does prayer even work?” Fred wondered.
Can you understand Fred’s question? Have you been there?
Surprisingly enough, prayer has even been studied “scientifically” (I put that in quotes because I doubt prayer can be truly studied scientifically). In April 2006, the American Heart Journal reported on a study claiming intercessory prayer provided no benefit for those who had undergone coronary bypass surgery.
Here is what they did. They established three groups. One group was told they may or may not receive intercessory prayer and they did receive intercessory prayer. One group was told they may or may not receive intercessory prayer and they did not receive intercessory prayer. One group was told they would receive intercessory prayer and they did receive intercessory prayer.
The results? Complications occurred in 52% of those who received prayer and only 51% of those who did not. Further, complications occurred in 52% of those who were told they may or may not receive prayer but a whopping 59% in those who were assured they would receive intercessory prayer. Major events and 30-day mortality were the same in all three groups. Yikes. Atheists and skeptics are touting this study as a demonstration that prayer just doesn’t work.
Are they right?
Well, I could start spinning this study. I could point out that James 5:16 says the prayer of the righteous is effective. It doesn’t just say any prayer is effective. This study doesn’t take into account who is doing the praying and their relationship with God. In fact, that is impossible for any person to measure. Only God knows. I could also point out that the Bible verses these kinds of studies are trying to test claim prayers offered in faith and in Jesus’ name will be granted (e.g. Matthew 21:22; John 14:13-14). There is no way for this study to be able to assess the level of faith their pray-ers had for each individual patient or whether it was Jesus’ authorized will that the person should be healed without complications. I could also point out that this study doesn’t have the right control groups. Where is the group that was assured it would receive intercessory prayer, but then no prayer was offered? Where is the group that was told it would not receive intercessory prayer, but people offered prayers anyway? Where is the group that was told it would not receive intercessory prayer and then it didn’t? There weren’t enough control groups to make this study legit. I could also point out how much I doubt the scientific accuracy of this study because they couldn’t actually have a control group. How on earth could they be certain that 597 people had bypass surgery and nobody in the world would pray for them (597 was the number of people who supposedly did not receive intercessory prayer)? Are we really to believe that no one anywhere prayed for those people just because no one hired by the study did? I could also point out that with all of the factors already mentioned, this study really didn’t prove or disprove the efficacy of prayer but did prove that prayer is not just a placebo crutch for folks. It is not simply a psychological benefit for people. If it were, then the folks who knew they were getting prayer would have done better.
I could point those things out, but I won’t, because none of them address the real issue. The real issue with this study and with our common question about whether or not prayer works is that we don’t understand what it is that prayer is striving to do. We often think prayer is the means by which we bend God to our will. We often think the purpose of prayer is to let God know what we want so that He’ll do it. Certainly, I can point to Biblical examples of people making requests and God granting them. But that is not the purpose of prayer.
The purpose of prayer is not to bend God to our will. Rather, it is to bend us to God’s. Prayer is not for God’s benefit; it is for ours. After all, God doesn’t need our prayers to know what we need or want (Matthew 6:8). The purpose of prayer is not to inform God. It is to change us.
Notice Jesus’ model prayer in Matthew 6:9-13. After the one praying offers praise to God, what is the first thing prayed for? “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). What is the foundation of prayer? Not that I get what I want, but that I do what God wants. All of my requests for me and others are to be predicated on that foundation.
Consider the example of Jesus’ prayer in the garden before His betrayal: “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will” (Matthew 26:39). The Father told Jesus, “No,” to His initial request. He had to drink the cup. But notice Jesus’ prayer was that He wanted the Father’s will even more than His own. Prayer is intended to get us to that point.
Then there is the example of Paul’s prayer regarding his thorn in the flesh in II Corinthians 12:7-10. Paul prayed three times that God remove the thorn in the flesh, but God denied His request. Did Paul think prayer didn’t work? No, he recognized that God gave him what he needed even when he asked for what would have hurt him spiritually. Sometimes, what we are praying for is really not in our best interest. Only God truly knows what is in our best interest. Therefore, we should not view denial as saying prayer doesn’t work, but rather that God knows what is best for me even when I don’t and what is best for me is not always what is easy. In this study, there is no way to tell how the complications or lack thereof impacted people on a spiritual level helping them become more like Jesus and depend more on God.
Finally, the very passages that these folks are trying to test, such as Matthew 21:22 and John 14:13-14 demonstrate this nature of prayer. The concept of a prayer with faith is not stated in a biblical vacuum. According to Romans 10:17 faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God. Thus, we can only pray a prayer in the ultimate faith that God will grant us our request if our prayer is based on God’s word. In John 14:13-14, a prayer offered in Jesus’ name is one that has been empowered by Jesus. Again, we can only know that based on His word. What does this mean? This means many prayers are offered with the faith that God can do something. In fact, all of our prayers can be offered with that faith (Ephesians 3:20-21). However, not all of them can be offered with the faith that God will absolutely do what we’ve asked. We do know that prayers offered in faith about wisdom will be granted (James 1:5-6). We know that penitent prayers seeking forgiveness will be granted (Luke 18:13-14). To be completely honest, we have to admit that no prayers for health or safety have God’s biblical stamp of certainty on them. Can we let God know what we want in those areas? Sure. Will He sometimes grant our requests? Clearly. Consider Paul’s statements about Epaphroditus in Philippians 2:25-27. There is no biblical promise that this man would be healed. However, since Paul says his healing was a mercy to him, we can be assured he prayed for it. However, there is no promise that God will heal everyone we ever pray for or that if we pray for someone they will have no complications in their healing.
So, the long and short of this is prayer is working, not when we convince God to do something on our behalf, but when it draws us closer to God and His will. Here is the key, prayer truly offered as God directs in His word, will always draw us closer to God and His will. However, I’m pretty certain it will be impossible to measure that scientifically.