ou see it everywhere—on bumper stickers, church signs, refrigerator magnets. I have it on a small cross, handmade by a dear friend. It took me a while to realize it made me vaguely uncomfortable, that small phrase, “Prayer works!” Longer still to understand why.
Everything became clear, though, when I read a special report on recent scientific studies to find out whether the popular phrase is true. Does prayer really work? The specific situations under consideration were medical. Researchers divided patients, some terminally ill, some less so, into groups. One group would simply be treated in the normal way. A second group would be prayed for, and would know it. The third group would be prayed for, but would not know it. Some studies even focused on how near to the patient the pray-er had to be. Could someone in Japan pray for someone in Canada? And would it “work”?
I began to frown over the article I was reading. Work how? The researchers wanted to know the answer to that question, too. Did patients get well faster? Did more people who were prayed for get well compared with those no one prayed for? Did people who were expected to die live after all? Were there miracles?
To the researchers’ disappointment, results were inconclusive. Some studies seemed to indicate that a few people got well more quickly or had fewer complications. Strangely, it didn’t seem to matter whether they knew they were being prayed for or not. (My own added control question: Did the patients have to agree that their own family and friends couldn’t pray for them, thus skewing the study?) But there was no definite benefit. People still died. Still remained sick. Still suffered.
Clearly, prayer doesn’t work.
As I recall, the article did say that some people seemed
to feel better because of the prayer, whether they got better or not. It made them more calm, gave them peace. Why? Spiritual placebos are as good as sugar pills, right? Perhaps this indicates that, as some have said for a long time, just believing in something, anything, whether it’s true or not, is good for you.
The secular community can be pardoned for thinking that prayer is a kind of magic charm—a spell, if you will. Too many times we Christians talk about it that way.
“God answered my prayer!” (Read: I got what I wanted.)
“God is good!” (The weather was good for the church picnic . . . My daughter didn’t die in the car accident, even though someone else’s did . . . I got the promotion.)
Christians are, after all, the source of most of the knowledge about prayer that secular people have. Secular people aren’t often reading the Bible. They may not even be concerned with whether prayer “works” if we didn’t assert so often that it does.
Have we told them the truth?
“God answered my prayer. He said ‘No.’ But He also put His arms around me and whispered that He’d be here with me, and in the end I will praise Him. So I guess I’ll start now. God is good! All the time! I did live through the divorce; He gave me the support I needed. I did lose my child—and I’ve never stopped crying—but God also cried with me.”
Have we told them the whole truth?
“Let me tell you how prayer worked for me. I ran screaming to the throne of God, climbed onto my Father’s welcoming lap, and beat on His mighty chest. I told Him just how I felt, and just how unfair and horrible it all was. He cried too. Then He wiped my tears and told me He knows what He’s doing. He has a plan for me, and all will be well. He is still working.”
Prayer is not a magic spell. It’s just the name we have for the dialogue. Never, never quit talking.
Prayer doesn’t work—God does! Pass it on!
www.cbc.ca/health/story/2006/03/30/prayer-heart-surgery-20060330.html is one of numerous media reports on this study.
Debbonnaire Kovacs lives with her husband on a small farm in Killbuck, Ohio. She is author of the book Gardens of the Soul.