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Prayer Research: What Are We Measuring?

Donal P. O'Mathuna, Ph.D.

{This article was published in the Journal of Christian Nursing 16.3 (Summer 1999): 17-21,
a publication of the Nurses Christian Fellowship.}

     Jennifer, a nurse researcher at a state university, called me one day. "Guess what I've been asked to do?" Jennifer asked excitedly. "Some physicians at our medical center are really interested in that research on prayer and healing. They want me to put together a protocol examining the effectiveness of prayer on recovery from open-heart surgery. What do you think?"

     "Congratulations. That's really exciting," I said. "What do they want you to do?"

     "They know I'm involved in my church and asked me to recruit people for some prayer teams. I'm also to develop the inclusion and exclusion criteria for the prayer subjects, the type of prayer we'll do and the outcomes we'll measure."

     "Will you have a control group?" I asked.

     "Oh, yes! They want a double-blind, randomized study. This will be top-quality research."

     "So," I replied. "You're going to do your best to limit the prayer some people get so that you can measure the benefits for those who receive a lot of prayer? Do you think that's how God intended prayer to be used?"

     A long discussion about the appropriateness of research on prayer ensued. This type of research is receiving more attention as the role of faith and spirituality in health and healing is being seriously examined. This interest is a welcome change from the way prayer was frequently minimized or dismissed. Larry Dossey, the secular expert on prayer for healing, writes about a man visiting a physician for chronic abdominal pain.[1]  Finding no medical problems, the doctor suggested some changes in the man's diet and attention to his stress. In parting, the physician said, "Good luck. I'll be praying for you." Overcome with fear, the man demanded to know what was really wrong with him. He, like many, assumed that prayer is needed only when all other healing resources are exhausted.

     Clinical findings bear this out. Many nurses fail to recognize or respond to patients' spiritual needs.[2]  Among one group of Christian nurses, seventeen percent initiated prayer with patients weekly, twenty-six percent monthly, thirty-two percent every six months and eighteen percent never initiated it.[3]  Fewer than one percent of physicians pray with their patients.[4]  More than two-thirds of patients reported never discussing religious issues with their doctors, yet sixty-four percent want doctors to pray with them.[5]  Eighty-two percent of Americans believe in the power of prayer.[6]  Picking up on this interest, some of Dossey's books have hit the bestseller list.[7]  Additionally, numerous research projects involving prayer have been launched recently.[8] 

     Research on prayer is not new. In 1872 John Tyndall, a professor in London, proposed having all Christians pray for patients in a particular hospital for a number of years.[9]  The mortality rates for patients with a particular disease at that hospital would be compared with those at other hospitals. Tyndall anticipated no differences, which would support his skepticism of prayer's efficacy. The proposal created much controversy, raising methodological, theological and ethical concerns that still apply today. One response was published by Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin. His retrospective analysis found that clergy and royalty, for whom a long life is frequently prayed for, had shorter life expectancies than those of other professionals.[10]  Thus, the scientific controversy began.

Defining Prayer

     We as Christians can welcome the current interest in prayer, but we must also be somewhat cautious. The term prayer means different things to different people. One researcher calls prayer "distance healing" and defines it "as any purely mental effort undertaken by one person with the intention of improving physical or emotional well-being in another."[11]  For others, prayer is sending impersonal healing energy. These broad definitions lead some to equate prayer with sorcery, shamanism, psychic healing and telepathy.[12] 

     Dossey sees prayer as a type of language, expressed either consciously or unconsciously. He prefers the term prayerfulness to express a general attitude of leaving things in the hands of some universal consciousness.[13]  He acknowledges that his view of prayer is "far different" from the "old biblically-based views of prayer," where requests were offered to a God distinct from humans.[14]  According to Dossey, biblical prayer arises from a worldview that "is now antiquated and incomplete" and constitutes a "uniquely 'pathological mythology.'"[15] 

     Christian prayer can only be seen as a humble request to the all-knowing, all-powerful God to bring about what he knows is best in a particular situation (Mt 6:25-34). Prayer is not just a state of mind, although it certainly should impact one's state of mind (Phil 4:6; 1 Thess 5:17-18). Prayer is not just an energy which, once emitted, takes on a life of its own with predictable outcomes. While we should ask for specific outcomes, we must always acknowledge that our requests will come about only "if the Lord wills" (Jas 4:13-16; 1 Jn 5:14).

The Available Research

     In evaluating research on prayer for healing, we must examine the type of practice being tested. Interestingly, the most significant study was carried out by a Christian cardiologist using only born again Christians practicing daily devotional prayer and actively involved in Christian fellowship.[16]  Dr. Randolph Byrd randomly assigned 393 coronary care unit (CCU) patients to either an intercessory prayer group or a control group. Between three and seven intercessors prayed daily for each patient in the prayed-for group. Intercessors prayed for three specific outcomes for all patients and added other requests perceived beneficial to particular patients.

     Byrd's positive results are widely cited. The prayed-for group had six significantly better outcomes:reduced incidences of congestiveheart failure (p<0.03),cardiopulmonary arrest (p<0.02), pneumonia(p<0.03) and intubation (p<0.002); and reduced useof diuretics (p<0.05) andantibiotics (p<0.005). The prayed-for group had a significantly better outcome overall(p<0.01). However, twenty-three other outcomes were measured. Fourteen of these favored the prayed-for group, but the differences were not statistically significant. The other nine measures showed no differences, or slightly favored the control group. For example, there were nonsignificant differences between the number of days patients spent in the CCU, the number of days spent in the hospital and the number of deaths. This is particularly unfortunate since two of the three specific outcomes prayed about for all patients were a rapid recovery and the prevention of death. The third was for the prevention of complications.

     While the positive results are certainly welcome, this study reveals the problems of basing conclusions about the effectiveness of prayer on scientific research. Byrd noted that the scientific studies conducted prior to his had inconclusive results. Since then, another double-blind study with fifty-three patients showed significant differences on nine of twenty-four outcomes measured(p<0.05).[17]  A study with forty AIDS patients found significant improvements in six of eleven outcomes measured.[18]  Two other recent studies found no significant differences between the prayed-for group and the control (although Bruce Greyson studied LeShan healing, which differs somewhat from traditional prayer).[19]  A systematic review found no clear pattern of effectiveness based on few completed studies.[20]  While frustrating from a scientific perspective, these results are precisely what would be expected, given the biblical teaching on prayer for healing.

Biblical Teaching

     The passage most directly applicable is James 5:13-16. James advocates that those who are sick should call the elders who should pray over them and anoint them with oil. While oil had medicinal uses at the time, it also had important symbolic value and was used by Jesus' disciples (Mk 6:13). "Consequently, oil was a powerful reminder to the church that God was able to heal and that his healing powers were already being made manifest."[21]  When sick, Christians should call upon the healing power of God through their own and others' prayers.

     James 5:15 (NASB) states, "The prayer offered in faith will restore the one who is sick." The context is a discussion of sin, with James concluding: "Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed" (v. 16). The Old Testament records numerous instances of God sending sickness as punishment for sin (e.g. Lev 26:16; Num 12:9-10; 2 Kings 5:27; 2 Chron 21:14-15; Ps 38). A similar connection is recorded in the New Testament (Lk 1:20; Jn 5:14; Acts 5:1-5; 1 Cor 11:30). As unpopular as it may be to believe, God sometimes sends illness because of people's sin. This leads many scholars to conclude that James promises healing only when sickness is the result of sin.[22]  John similarly promises that prayer will bring "life" (one aspect of healing)[23]  to those who have committed certain sins (1 Jn 5:14-16).

     However, Jesus emphatically denies that all sickness is the result of sin (Lk 13:1-5; Jn 9:1-3). The Bible describes illness as having natural, divine or demonic origins. The complexity portrayed accurately mirrors people's experience. While God is the divine healer (Ex 15:26), and Jesus is the Great Physician, healing is not always God's will for individuals. Paul prayed three times for the removal of his thorn in the flesh (2 Cor 12:7-10). God did not respond with physical healing but rather empowered Paul to be content in the midst of his weakness, suffering and pain. Paul similarly calls on all Christians to learn to be content with whatever they have (Phil 4:9-13).

     God's will may be to allow some illnesses to run their natural courses. We know that many influential Christians in the early church got sick--people such as Paul (Gal 4:13-14), Epaphroditus (Phil 2:25-30), Timothy (1 Tim 5:23) and Trophimus (2 Tim 4:20). We can reasonably assume people prayed for their healing, yet there is no evidence their health improved miraculously. Neither is there any mention that their illnesses were connected to sin, or that the lack of divine healing reflected weak faith. The clear implication is that much illness is of natural origin and exists simply because people live in a fallen world (Gen 3:16-19; Rom 8:20-25). Most people must rely on natural forms of healing or learn to cope with the disabilities resulting from illness and aging (Eccles 11:8-10).

Theologically Informed Research

     Appropriate recognition of the supernatural complicates any attempt to scientifically study prayer and healing. Prayer will have a different impact on supernaturally caused illnesses compared to illnesses of purely natural origin. How clinical trials could control for this is difficult to imagine. Controls are designed to remove all volitional and subjective aspects of a therapy. If that were possible for prayer, it would remove God's involvement and thereby could not be Christian prayer.

     A direct cause-and-effect correlation seems only possible if prayer is impersonal, like a drug or form of energy. Dossey claims that prayer's power lies in one's thoughts and intentions. This type of prayer is amenable to study because, once emitted, it should cause its intended effects. Dossey's book on negative prayer claims, "We are continually bathed in the negative intentions of other--various 'little curses,' comments and thoughts of an infinite variety."[24]  But then, why do we not see these intentions wreaking havoc in our lives? Dossey proposes that we are protected by a "spiritual immune system," just like our physical immune system.[25]  Dossey's unwillingness to accept that a personal God chooses how to answer prayer forces him to invent something (devoid of supporting evidence) to circumvent the implications of his view of prayer. The inconsistent research results are further evidence that Dossey's view of prayer is not correct.

     Christians must similarly beware of ad hoc reasoning to protect flawed arguments from contradictory evidence. We should always pray in response to illness, but we cannot guarantee its outcome. Experience shows that many prayers for healing are not answered by divine cures. Some claim this is because of people's weak faith. But the faith that moves mountains is not big faith but little faith, faith the size of the tiniest mustard seed (Mt 17:20). In fact, Jesus responded dramatically to those who admitted their faith or belief was weak (Mk 9:22-24; Jn 20:26-29). The mistake is believing that God promises to heal all illness.

     Faith plays an essential role in prayer, although the research apparently assumes that everyone's prayer is equally effective. James states that prayer offered in faith will heal (5:15), implying that prayer without faith will not heal. The Greek syntax shows that he is referring to the faith of those praying, not the sick person.[26]  He also tells us that the prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective (5:16). By implication, the prayers of the unrighteous are less effective. Our motives also influence prayer's effectiveness (Jas 4:3). A prayer study would have to control for all these factors. If someone had the gift of healing (1 Cor 12:9), things would be further complicated. Other factors make the design of prayer research complex, leading some to question whether meaningful conclusions could ever be drawn.

Guidelines When Praying for Healing

     Yet, Christians must remain committed to prayer for healing. James provides further guidance by mentioning Elijah's prayer for rain. A subsequent incident contrasts Elijah's effective prayer with the ineffective prayer of the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18). Elijah proposes a test to reveal the true God to the people of Israel. Each side would build an altar to sacrifice an ox and then pray to either God or Baal to consume the offering with fire. The prophets of Baal build their altar and pray to Baal. From morning until noon, they repeat like a mantra, "O Baal, answer us." They dance and leap around the sacrificial altar, working themselves into a greater and greater frenzy. They eventually slash themselves with swords until blood gushes from their wounds. At the end of the day, the pathetic picture is summarized by the narrator: "There was no response, no one answered, no one paid attention" (v. 29, NIV).

     Then Elijah takes over. He soaks his altar with water and prays, "O LORD, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your bidding. Answer me, O LORD, answer me, so that this people may know that you, O LORD, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back" (vv. 36-37). Suddenly, the altar and everything on it bursts into flames. The people know who the true God is. They fall down and worship him.

     The prophets of Baal thought their prayers were more likely to be answered by increasing the volume and repetitions. They believed their chances would improve by working themselves into a particular emotional state. They focused on what they had to do to get the answer they wanted out of their god. Theirs was basically an impersonal, mechanistic approach to prayer, similar to much of what is researched as prayer today.

     While few of us would slash ourselves with swords to impress God, how often do we pray in similar ways? Do we think that by denying ourselves something, God will be more inclined to answer our prayers? If we get up earlier or stay up later, or pray longer or louder, do we think God will be more likely to hear us? Do we believe that some meditative technique or yoga position will get us into a state of consciousness which will make our prayers more effective? All of these reflect the impersonal approach of the prophets of Baal; and all were in vain.

     In contrast, Elijah humbly turned to God and acknowledged his rightful place as Lord of the universe. He focused on what would glorify God. He approached God directly and personally, not through rituals and repetition. While the Bible affirms persistence in prayer (Lk 18:1-5; 2 Cor 12:8), meaningless repetition is rejected (Is 29:13; Mt 6:7). The emphasis is on God's ability to bring something about, not what we must do to convince him to answer. Answered prayer depends on God's power, not ours (Eph 3:20). And prayer is answered according to his will, not ours (Mt 7:11; Jn 14:13; 1 Jn 5:14-15).

     The incident with Elijah shows that there is nothing inherently wrong with testing prayer. Jesus' healings played an important part in validating his role and his mission (Jn 20:30-31). God promises to provide evidence for those willing to follow him (Jn 7:17). However, prayer research is not always done to glorify God. While he can and does heal in response to prayer, he does not seem to do this with the prevalence some would have us believe. We must be careful before claiming that God has worked a miracle, just as we must carefully authenticate any alleged direct message from God (Deut 18:17-22; 1 Cor 14:27-29; 1 Jn 4:1-3).

     Prayer research has the potential to distort people's view of prayer. Consistent healing outcomes would not be expected of biblical prayer. This should not discourage those already committed to Jesus Christ, since our confidence in him is based on faith, not on scientific research. But for those who have not yet come to faith in Christ, negative research results could be very disillusioning. Unless accompanied by a proper understanding of prayer, this could become a barrier between these people and Christ.

     However, God does promise certain outcomes from prayer. When we are ill or suffering, God promises comfort and the means to cope (2 Cor 1:3-6). If prayer research measures the outcomes of people's ability to deal with illness and tragedy, we should expect significantly positive results. However, this introduces a level of complexity to the research that will make definite conclusions difficult. We should also see benefits in those who pray. One of the studies, which found no differences between controls and those prayed for, did find that those who prayed improved significantly in ten of eleven mental health measures.[27]  Other research shows that those who pray in deep and personal ways are more healthy and cope better with illness.[28]  However, this takes us into another subject, too broad to cover here. Meanwhile, we as Christians must affirm our commitment to pray, regardless of what prayer research may reveal.

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[1] 1 Larry Dossey, Be Careful What You Pray For . . . You Just Might Get It: What We Can Do About the Unintentional Effects of Our Thoughts, Prayers and Wishes (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1997), 53-54. Return to Text

[2]  Laurel Arthur Burton, "The Spiritual Dimension of Palliative Care," Seminars in Oncology Nursing 14, no. 2 (May 1998): 121-28. Return to Text

[3]  Carolyn Hall and Hilreth Lanig, "Spiritual Caring Behaviors as Reported by Christian Nurses," Western Journal of Nursing 15, no. 6 (December 1993): 730-41. Return to Text

[4]  Dale A. Matthews, The Faith Factor: Proof of the Healing Power of Prayer (New York: Viking, 1998), 4. Return to Text

[5]  Dana E. King and Bruce Bushwick, "Beliefs and Attitudes of Hospital Inpatients About Faith Healing and Prayer," Journal of Family Practice 39, no. 4 (October 1994): 349-52. Return to Text

[6]  Claudia Wallis, "Faith and Healing," Time (24 June 1996): 58-64. Return to Text

[7]  Larry Dossey, Healing Words: The Power of Prayer and the Practice of Medicine (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993); Prayer Is Good Medicine: How to Reap the Healing Benefits of Prayer (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996); Be Careful. Return to Text

[8]  "A Test of the Healing Power of Prayer," Time (12 October 1998): 72-73. Return to Text

[9]  Stephen G. Brush, "The Prayer Test," American Scientist 62 (September-October 1974): 561-63. Return to Text

[10]  Francis Galton, "Does Prayer Preserve?" Archives of Internal Medicine 125 (April 1970): 580-81, 587; excerpt from "Statistical Inquiries into the Efficacy of Prayer," Fortnightly Review 12 (1872): 125-35. Return to Text

[11]  Elisabeth Targ, "Evaluating Distant Healing: A Research Review," Alternative Therapies in Health & Medicine 3, no. 6 (November 1997): 74. Return to Text

[12]  Marilyn Schlitz and William Braud, "Distant Intentionality and Healing: Assessing the Evidence," Alternative Therapies in Health & Medicine 3, no. 6 (November 1997): 62-73; Dossey, Be Careful, 11-13. Return to Text

[13]  Dossey, Healing Words, 5-8, 23-24. Return to Text

[14]  Ibid., 6-7. Return to Text

[15]  Ibid., 7. Return to Text

[16]  Randolph C. Byrd, "Positive Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer in a Coronary Care Unit Population," Southern Medical Journal 81, no. 7 (July 1988): 826-29. Return to Text

[17]  Z. Bentwich and S. Kreitler, "Psychological Determinants of Recovery from Hernia Operations," paper presented at Dead Sea Conference, Tiberias, Israel (June 1994); cited in Targ. Return to Text

[18]  Fred Sicher, Elisabeth Targ, Dan Moore II and Helene S. Smith, "A Randomized Double-Blind Study of the Effect of Distant Healing in a Population with Advanced AIDS," Western Journal of Medicine 169, no. 6 (December 1998): 356-63. Return to Text

[19]  Bruce Greyson, "Distance Healing of Patients with Major Depression," Journal of Scientific Exploration 10, no. 4 (1996): 447-65; Se n O'Laoire, "An Experimental Study of the Effects of Distant, Intercessory Prayer on Self-Esteem, Anxiety and Depression," Alternative Therapies in Health & Medicine 3, no. 6 (November 1997): 38-53. Return to Text

[20]  L. Roberts, I. Ahmed, S. Hall and C. Sargent, "Intercessory Prayer for the Alleviation of Ill Health (Cochrane Review)." In The Cochrane Library (Oxford: Update Software, 1999), no. 1. Return to Text

[21]  John Christopher Thomas, The Devil, Disease and Deliverance: Origins of Illness in New Testament Thought (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998), 28. Return to Text

[22]  Ibid., 31-33. Return to Text

[23]  John Wilkinson, The Bible and Healing: A Medical and Theological Commentary (Edinburgh: Handsel and Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1998), 23-24. Return to Text

[24]  Dossey, Be Careful, 196. Return to Text

[25]  Ibid., 8. Return to Text

[26]  Thomas, 29-31. Return to Text

[27]  O'Laoire, 45. Return to Text

[28]  Matthews, 4. Return to Text


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