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Science and the Power of Prayer

In recent years much public attention has been directed to the so-called “scientific studies” of the validity of prayer. One of the more widely publicized reports involves “experiments” performed by Dr. Randolph Byrd. Supposedly, Byrd’s ten-month study, involving 393 patients at San Francisco General Hospital, demonstrated the therapeutic effect of “intercessory prayer.” Coronary patients were divided into two groups. One group was prayed for by “Christians” of that area; the other group had no prayers offered in its behalf. Allegedly, the difference in the improvement of the former group was dramatic.

Of course the assumption is that no one was praying for the control group, and that the people who were praying for the recipient group were qualified to do so. Further, it is difficult to fathom the attitude which suggests: “We will pray for one group (for experimental purposes), but not for the other.”

Of what value was this procedure? It is utterly meaningless. Let me explain.

(1) The Christian believes in prayer implicitly. Why? Not because of worthless “experiments,” or because he can “scientifically” document prayer’s effects. He believes in prayer because of his confidence in the testimony of the Scriptures – divinely inspired documents, buttressed by a wide variety of incontestable evidences. The Bible affirms that godly prayer can “avail” much (Jas. 5:16).

Further, the Christian believes in the power of prayer because Jesus Christ, the best and wisest Person who ever lived upon this earth, utilized the avenue of prayer. Jesus is represented as praying some fifteen times in the four Gospel records. We are, therefore, confident of the power of prayer.

(2) But prayer is greatly misunderstood, and, in fact, is a force shrouded in mystery. First, there are laws associated with effective prayer. Jesus said, for example: “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatsoever ye will, and it shall be done unto you” (Jn. 15:7). This indicates that valid prayer requires an “in Christ” relationship, and personal fidelity to the teaching of Jesus. Even the comprehensive “whatsoever ye will” must be balanced against prayer limitations mentioned elsewhere in Scripture.

May one confidently pray for the immediate resurrection of a departed loved one who has been in the grave five years? Certainly not. Why? Because such would require a miracle, and the age of miracles is past. Suppose a study is initiated of a group of ten amputees. If “Christians” pray for five of them, but not for the other five, do you suppose that the prayed-for five will grow new limbs?

(3) The responses of God to prayer are veiled and much too complicated to be subjected to statistical analysis.

“O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and the knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past tracing out [or computing]! For who has known the mind of the Lord? . . .” (Rom. 11:33-34).

What if one’s illness was providentially allowed by God for a special purpose (as in Job’s case), and prayer was made for removal, but, seemingly, it proved ineffectual? How would such a circumstance factor into a statistical study? The life of David’s baby was taken by God in spite of the king’s prayers (2 Sam. 12:15ff). And yet, king Hezekiah’s life was extended fifteen years because of his prayer (2 Kgs. 20:1-7). One would know nothing of the heavenly movements orchestrating these situations except for explicit divine revelation.

How does one “scientifically analyze” the unrevealed workings of the Creator? And what about the circumstances involving Epaphroditus and Paul? The former was rescued from the very jaws of death (Phil. 2:25ff), whereas Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” was not removed, though the apostle prayed fervently for that result (2 Cor. 12:7-8). Put that under the microscope and analyze it!

(4) These so-called “scientific” testings: are speculative, subjective, susceptible to manipulation, involve many variables, are disputed by other scientists, and in fact, smack of the absurd. Some reported “studies” claim that prayed-for grass grew taller than grass not prayed for! (Might I pray for mine to slow down?!)

Similarly, prayed-for test tube bacteria supposedly multiplied faster than neglected bacteria. In his book, Healing Words: The Power of Prayer and the Practice of Medicine (Harper, 1993), Larry Dossey has argued that a person “may be mentally able to shape [his] medical past in order to bring about health, not illness, now in the present and in the future” (p. 122). And William Braud of the Mind Science Foundation in San Antonio, Texas, believes a person can “reach back” into his past and “shape subatomic processes” so as to influence health now.

That makes no sense under the shining sun. Nobody – not even God – can change the past! The Lord can forgive a murderer, but he can’t go back in time and cause the victim to be “un-murdered.” And that is not a reflection upon God; it is simply a recognition of his operations within the confines of truth.

The studies cited above, therefore, should be wholly ignored. This does not suggest a forfeiture of faith; rather it is a result of accurate Bible knowledge combined with common sense. There is no indication that God responds to “scientific experiments” at the behest of misguided investigators. And such claims do nothing but cause Christianity to be needlessly held up to the scorn of society.