Should we trust 'Scientific' Prayer Studies?
In this past week's sermon, I mentioned a 2006 study published by the American Heart Journal on the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer. The study consisted of evaluatiing what effect, if any, intercessory prayer had on producing an uncomplicated recovery for cardiac bypass patients. The conclusion of the study was that there was no correlation at all between the number and regularity of prayers offered and the likelihood that the person being prayed for would have improved health. In fact, the report found a higher rate of complications in patients who were prayed for!
As Christians who believe in the importance and power of prayer, what are we to make of such a study? After all, If "the prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working" (James 5:16), should we not be able to see the results in a study like this?
The answer is no, actually. There are (at least) three fundamental flaws with this study that invalidate its claim to measure the effectiveness of interecessory prayer. As a result, Christians should not be troubled in the least by the findings of this report, nor should they give much weight to it - other than as an interesting look into what our culture thinks about prayer.
Flaw # 1: Which God?
To which God was the intercessory prayer offered? As I looked at the constraints of the study, I could not find a definitive asnwer. This is a crucial question, however. Prayer is not a magical incantation that by itself produces an effect. Prayer is only effective because we intercede with the one true and all powerful God. If prayer is not directed to the Triune God of the Bible, then it is prayer directed to nobody, because there is no other God. Alcoholic Anonymous may encourage us to pray to "God as we understand him," but prayer to this generic God should bring no confidence in answered prayer. According to Scripture all other "god's" are false gods, and thus have no power to hear prayer or to answer. "All the gods of the peoples are worthless idols, but the Lord made the heavens" (Psalm 96:5). Prayer not made to the Father in the name of Jesus is prayer to an imaginary God, and we should not expect intercessory prayers to imaginary gods to receive an answer.
Flaw # 2: Assumed Healing
The study is carried out on the assumption that God will answer prayers for healing every time. As I mentioned in the sermon, the Christian understands that this assumptions is false. God can heal, he does heal, and he often heals in response to our prayers. Nevertheless, God does not promise that every time we pray for healing (or anything else, for that matter) that we will get what we ask for. God is still God, and sometimes in his wisdom and perspective his answer is "No" or "Not yet." When the apostle Paul was wrestling with the Lord to remove his thorn in the flesh (2 Cor 12), the Lord did not remove it. Instead, Paul was told "My Grace is Sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." Our Lord Jesus Christ asked that the cup may pass from him, but God did not remove it. His answer to His Son was "No." But we know that behind that denial was the best possible purpose - the salvation of sinners. Once it is understood that God does not always answer prayers for healing with "Yes," the findings of the study become irrelevant.
Flaw # 3: What would have happened if people had not prayed?
Let's assume that the prayer offered in this study was in fact Christian. Still, the only real way to scientifically measure the effectiveness of prayer would be to know what would have happened to each patient who was prayed for if the prayers had not been offered. For example, let's assume that of 100 people who were prayed for 80 experienced an uncomplicated recovery. To really measure the effectiveness of prayer, we would need to know how many of those 100 would not have had an uncomplicated recovery if the prayers had not been offered. And that of course, is something that cannot be measured.
Let's not be distubed by so-called scientific studies that claim to invalidate prayer. Take God at his word - "The prayer of a righteous man has great power as it is working."