Prayer Proof?

In Wisconsin, USA, Leilani Neumann is found guilty of second degree reckless homocide of her 11-year-old daughter Kara.  During her recent trial, the prosecution alleged that she ignored the worsening symptoms of Kara’s undiagnosed diabetes for two weeks, and chose prayer instead of seeking medical advice.  Even during the last hours before Kara’s death, Leilani stood with her husband and Bible study members praying for her.  Witnesses said that it was only when the comatosed girl stopped breathing that someone called paramedics.  Neumann family supporters state that the trial was misconducted, without a single witness called for the defense, and an appeal is planned.

Across the other side of the US, Billy is a graduating student of the Bethel School of Ministry, in Redding, California.   He reported on a recent trip to Ecuador where he prayed for a seven year old boy with leg deformities from birth. It was hard for the boy to walk and impossible for him to run, which made him the target of taunts when he tried to play soccer.  Despite their best efforts, doctors had failed to correct the deformities.  Billy prayed for him three times, and after the third prayer, the boy said he saw “the hand of God come down” and touch him.  He took a few tentative steps, and his legs became straighter and straighter.  His mother tearfully confirmed that her previously lame son could now walk and run.  The last thing Billy saw as he was driving away from the crusade was the boy running up and down the car park, staring in wonder at his perfectly straight legs.

Same act of prayer, same God, but two contradictory results.  It is a conundrum that has confused the church for centuries.  Why does God answer some prayer with miracles, and why are some prayers for healing seemingly unanswered?  What is the effectiveness of prayer?

There have been some attempts to measure the effects of prayer scientifically.  One of the first published clinical trials of intercessory prayer was a 1988 study by Randolph Byrd.  Almost 400 patients over a period of time were randomized to receive prayer from born-again Christians, while the other half received no prayer.  The results showed a positive outcome for prayer in six of the twenty-nine variables observed.  Unfortunately, the study was plagued by problems in the construction of the trial, and many feel that the positive results were because of study bias, not the prayer itself.

There have been better studies since then.  The “Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer” (“STEP”) was a well conducted trial that took 10 years and $US2.4 million.  1800 patients, all admitted to hospital for the same condition, were divided into three groups: one received prayer and knew they were prayed for, another group received prayer without knowing about it, and the last received no prayer.  The prayer was performed by committed Christians experienced in praying for the sick.  The results were not encouraging for intercessory prayer, with the two groups receiving prayer actually having poorer outcomes than those not prayed for.

On the surface this does little to help the dilemma of prayer for healing.  On deeper analysis, there may have been confounding factors.  Those in the control group (without prayer in the study) may have been praying themselves.  Or perhaps the answer to prayer in those studied came outside of the study’s parameters.  Perhaps God wants us to trust in him and his word, the raw power of faith, rather than in the science of a clean-cut clinical study that “proved” the benefits of prayer.  When it comes to the studying of prayer, Christians and clinicians have noted that prayer is not an easily quantifiable substance.  And neither is God for that matter.  When God works supernaturally, he works super-naturally, literally above the laws of nature.  Prayer, then, cannot be studied scientifically since the scientific method relies on observing and controlling variables within the natural order.

In fact, I personally think that God delights in performing miracles that are beyond our reasoning.  The miracles of Jesus provide many good examples – he placed mud, made out of the mixture of dirt and his saliva, onto a blind mans eyes.  He touched lepers.  He told Peter to find tax money in the mouth of a fish.  These sort of miracles perplex yet inspire us.  Scientifically quantifiable or not, they still move us to worship the greatness of God.

How do we find the wisdom to know when to choose medicine or miracle?  Two of Jesus’ miracles come to mind that might shed light on this delicate balance.  The woman with the issue of blood (Luke 8:43-48) had “spent all her living upon physicians, neither could be healed of any.”  She touched Jesus and was healed, and Jesus told her “thy faith hath made thee whole.”  The lame man at the pool of Bethesda (John 5:1-9) waited patiently near the waters edge and tried as best he could to make it into the waters to be healed but was unable to get there by himself.  When Jesus told him to walk, he got up instantly and was healed.

Both stories are of people in need who didn’t wait passively for healing.  Each did whatever was in their power to find healing, and were at the point where their effort was not enough.  The woman pursued Jesus, whereas Jesus came to the man, but in both cases their faith engaged God and they received healing.  I think the same is true in modern day life.  Healing is by the grace of God.  We do nothing to earn it.  But like many things in the kingdom of God, we also need to ask, to seek and to knock.

I understand that my profession as a GP makes me a little biased, but the healing or prevention of many diseases is available simply by following modern medical advice, or by using simple therapies like vaccinations or antibiotics.  For Kara Neumann, the answer to prayer was in the insulin and fluids that doctors would have given her had they been called in time.  Perhaps it’s because we are so used to the benefits of medicine that we do not see immunizations or pharmaceuticals as miracles, or answers to prayer.  But imagine if you could go back in time one hundred years with some of todays basic medicines like penicillin.  You would be able to cure diseases like syphilis or pneumonia, in that time untreatable and fatal, and you would be labelled as a miracle worker.  Modern medicine is miraculous.

But when modern medicine cannot touch a sickness, either because of limited access to medicine or the limits of medical science itself, the “miraculous” can take place.  Like the boy in Ecuador, or the woman with the the issue of blood, physicians could not heal them, but God did, when personal faith touched his power and grace.

It would be absurd to stand outside in a thunderstorm and pray for God to shelter us when we could just walk inside our house.  In the same way, common sense dictates that we thank God for modern medicine and use it appropriately, because it is just as much a gift of God as our houses are.  Medicines sit along side the astounding phenomena of supernatural power that we define as “miraculous.”  And while the power of prayer may not be quantifiable or reproducible like modern pharmaceuticals, it is nevertheless tangible, just like the love of God that has provided them both.

(Originally published in Alive Magazine, June/July 2009)

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