Another Perspective

Divinely Naive

A Duke University medical study fails to understand the purpose of prayer.

By 8.25.05

RALEIGH -- Every day in the online journal Jewish World Review, publisher Binyamin Jolkovsky solicits prayers from readers for a friend who is ailing.

But if a recent study of the "medicinal power of prayer" is to be believed, then such pleadings aren't worth the trouble.

Researchers led by a Duke University Medical Center cardiologist divided a sampling of 748 heart disease sufferers, with about half receiving prayer and the other half not. Intercessory responsibilities, unknown to those who were ill, were divided among congregations of Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, and Muslim faith. The heart patients had received either catheterization or "percutaneous" treatment, and their conditions were tracked for six months. The findings were published in the Lancet, a medical journal.

Researchers discovered that those receiving prayer showed results that were little different from those not receiving prayer. Patients' conditions either improved or worsened in roughly equal degrees, regardless of divine entreaties or a lack thereof.

That's not surprising, because the study demonstrates a logical misunderstanding of God's nature, of prayer, and of His purposes.

The first obvious flaw is that believers from a variety of religions were asked to pray. Now this would be fine if the question was, "Who does God respond to?" Then the study might have determined that God reacts positively to one faith, while He disregards others.

But that's not why researchers divided prayer responsibilities. They exhibited no belief that an all-powerful, authoritative God would discriminate against certain religions. To the researchers, prayer to a Christian, a Jewish, a Buddhist, or a Muslim God were the same. They ignored each faith's claims about access to God, which are mutually exclusive of the others' (whether they admit it or not). To believe all paths equally lead to God, even if they contradict each other, denies that ultimate truth exists and that God is the source of it.

Another problem is that the researchers' premise assumed prayer is an earnest request that is always answered by an acquiescent God. If patients subjected to masked prayer didn't get better, then that demonstrated such activity was fruitless.

Assuming that God is obligated to respond to prayer in such a way diminishes His power and authority. It would show that He is at the mercy of man's demands, which would therefore not make Him God.

Nor can He be bound to respond affirmatively to all appeals, or else inevitable conflicts between requests would occur. For example, farmers in one area may pray for rain while vacationers might pray for sunny weather. Somebody's not going to get what they want.

For Christians, the real purpose of prayer is for believers to align themselves with God's will ("Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven" -- Matthew 6:10), rather than viewing God as a source to fulfill their wishes.

Also the prayer researchers, like many people, mistakenly believed that bodily health is the highest purpose for intercession. That approach presumes that the temporal condition is as good as life gets, and dismisses the hope of eternal glory.

If Jesus is your God, even the purpose for His healings in the Gospels was not the healings themselves. It was so that people would believe that He was the Savior and would lead them to eternal life. The healings were merely a means to that end -- a sign -- and an incidental benefit to His believers.

Indeed, the ultimate goal for God's uniquely created beings -- humans -- is to reach heaven. Whatever physical healing may occur is temporary in the ultimate sense. The purpose of prayer for the sick is to appeal to the One who truly has the power to save both the body and the soul.

Everyone will die eventually (unless you believe in the Rapture), so why should a study at an arbitrarily chosen time accurately reflect prayer's effect on healing? God's purpose for certain ill people may not be recovery, but death. Despite petitions on their behalf, the sick may have reached God's appointed time to bring them into eternity. That's not evidence of the failure of prayer, but proof of God's sovereignty.

The mystery of God's plan and purposes for individuals -- especially with regard to healing and death -- is not knowable, at least on this side of heaven. That's why studying prayer and its results are impossible.

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About the Author

Paul Chesser publishes CarolinaPlottHound.com, a news aggregator for North Carolina, and is a contributor of articles, research and investigative reports for both national and state-level free-market think tanks.