November 18, 2005

See for Yourself

illions of us kneel to pray without a moment?s thought that 10 million others might simultaneously be seeking the ears of God. It doesn?t concern us because, instinctively, we know that God can handle it. And we?re right. God is the supreme multitasker, capable of giving the entire universe of creatures His full attention at the same time, as if each of us were the only suppliant.

But what comes easy for God remains an impenetrable mystery for us. And in our penchant to know everything, we seek to probe the intricacies of prayer: how it works, why it works, when it works, for whom it works. In an effort to silence the skeptic, we even conduct experiments to prove it works.

That was the goal of cardiologist Randolph Byrd when he designed a study ?involving 393 patients in the coronary care unit of San Francisco General Hospital? some years ago. Prayer teams all over the United States were organized--their assignment, to pray for a group of patients at Byrd?s hospital, patients they?d never seen. Another set of patients, the control group, remained unprayed for. ?Except for prayer, all the patients received the same high-tech therapy. This was a double-blind study: No patients, no physicians, and no nurses knew who was and was not being prayed for.? The result? ?Byrd found that the prayed-for patients did significantly better on several outcome measures.?1

Physician Larry Dossey, who tells about the experiment in his book, lauds the approach. ?It is possible for scientific studies of prayer to be totally devoid of arrogance and hubris,? he says. ?They can be sacred, reverent exercises in which we invite, not compel, the Almighty to manifest. Testing prayer can actually be a form of worship, a ritual through which we express our gratitude for this remarkable phenomenon.?2 ??We are not setting a trap to catch God in,?? he argues, quoting one of the prayer experimenters, rather ??we are opening a window to watch God work.??3

I believe the experimenters mean well.

And yet, consider what such experiments say about the character of God. Here?s a God who, presumably, helps one group of patients simply because they had the good fortune to be selected for prayer in an experiment, while leaving another group untouched in their misery simply because they had the misfortune not to be selected!

What kind of arrogance prevents us from admitting we simply do not know--nor can we know--how prayer works? One is reminded of Jesus? words to Nicodemus on a similarly mysterious experience in the life of faith: ?The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit? (John 3:8, NIV).

At the end of the day, prayer will remain what it?s always been: a mystery. So here?s the point: Don?t dissect it; just do it, and see for yourself what God can do.

1 Larry Dossey, M.D., Prayer Is Good Medicine (New York: HarperCollins, 1996), p. 30.
2Ibid., p. 10.
3 Ibid., p. 15.

Roy Adams is an associate editor of the Adventist Review.