Dr Pamela Prince Pyle

Does Prayer Really Work?

According to a 2016 survey by the Pew Research Center, 55% of Americans pray every day. (Perhaps that number is even higher in times of medical crisis.) What about prayer and healthcare issues? Does prayer affect healthcare outcomes? Do praying patients have better outcomes than those who do not? What is the role of intercessory prayer for others?

The Science of Prayer

Beginning in the late 1990s and especially during the first 15 years of the 21st century, there was great curiosity and debate in the scientific world regarding prayer and health.  Scientists explored this subject with different methods including using randomized controlled studies (the gold standard for medical research) and meta-reviews (a review of the studies in total at any given date). Despite hundreds of studies, it became clear that a religious/scientific consensus would never be reached. 

Some used the 2006 Harvard Prayer Experiment (also referred to as the STEP study) as the launching point for their arguments against the benefit of prayer. This study evaluated the effects of distant intercessory prayer upon the outcomes of patients after coronary artery bypass grafting surgery. There was not a significant difference in outcomes between those patients who received prayer and those who did not. Those who participated in the study as the intercessors reported later that they were asked to read a scripted prayer which did not reflect their personal spiritual prayers. 

Others cited studies did show some health benefits. Jeff Levin, a social epidemiologist, reviewed 1600 studies that evaluated the correlation between religious and spiritual participation and health. His review suggested that regardless of religious affiliation, disease, health condition, age, sex, race, ethnicity or nationality, prayer does seem to make a positive difference in some cases. Another meta-analysis reviewed studies that evaluated the efficacy of distant intercessory prayer.

Can We Measure the Power of Prayer?

Some dubious scientists were quick to point out that the problem with such intercessory prayer (IP) studies is that it is difficult, if not impossible, to conduct accurate testing. How can researchers adequately measure and monitor how much prayer is being offered on behalf of someone who is sick? How many people are praying? How often are they praying? Where are they praying? 

Since these factors vary widely from patient to patient (as do patient treatments), the obvious question is how can the “results” of individuals be meaningfully compared and correlated? Perhaps, the real reason some reject these studies is found in the statement that they consider the whole subject matter “incompatible with the current view of the physical universe and consciousness.”

The truth is that some people will never be open to the possibility of spiritual reality and will refute all suggestions otherwise. They find science and religion incompatible. However, to paraphrase C.S. Lewis: Men expected to find Law in Nature and they expected Law in Nature because they believed in a law giver. Galileo, Newton, Kepler, Maxwell, and other founders of scientific thought sought answers because of their Biblical Worldview, not despite it. In the end it comes down to trust. Who or what exactly will we believe? A scientific study? A mysterious experience? A respected scholar? A saintly grandmother?

I personally don’t see a specific value of scientific study of prayer outcomes. Prayer and outcomes are supernatural events. While the supernatural determines the foundational principles of science, science cannot explain the foundational principles of the supernatural. Can you imagine God the Father observing the folly of scientific research aiming to determine if He was a genie in a bottle? I am reminded of the response from Jesus Christ after he was tempted by Satan in the desert:

Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

Matthew 4:7

While further study seems illogical to me, it doesn’t deny the truth that there are positive effects of prayer for the patient regardless of outcome. These prayer studies revealed improved physiologic, biologic, psychologic, and spiritual well-being. It is logical to believe that the Creator designed a creation that receives positive reinforcement when the creation is obedient to the Creator’s design. 

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances;

 for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.

1 Thessalonians 5:16-18

Why I Pray

I am a person of prayer. I pray for my patients and my loved ones. And the act of praying and being prayed for comforts me. I do not have a scientific explanation for why certain prayers seem to be “answered” in the way I had hoped, and others are not. This inability to know in advance which of my requests will receive a positive response and which petitions will go (seemingly) unheeded does not keep me from praying or believing that prayer is effective. 

A friend who is a gifted counselor believes that my prayers and my faith in God are simply coping mechanisms for life (well-constructed ones passed down by desperate souls through the generations). That is her perspective, and that is okay. I pray for her, too! 

When a patient is curious about prayer or faith, I am always glad to explain what I believe and why. Through thousands of patient encounters and with those whom I meet along the way, I have yet to hear no, when the Holy Spirit gently guides me to ask the question, “May I pray for you?”.

The key in these encounters is to discern the Holy Spirit’s prompting. We are surrounded by hurting people. When we have ears to hear and eyes to see, the opportunities are endless to bring hope through prayer. Sometimes, on a crowded sidewalk I will consciously notice those whom I pass. I will send what I call, “a prayer dart” their way. You would be surprised how many people will turn around after we pass each other and there is a sense of wonder upon their face. They had a moment with God, and it takes them by surprise. 

Science explains the natural world which is created by God. Prayer exists in the supernatural and is a conversation with God. We should be overwhelmed with gratitude that the Creator of all, hears all. 

Thank you, King of Kings, Prince of Peace, and Lord of Lords!

[1] Sloan, Richard P, and Rajasekhar Ramakrishnan. “Science, medicine, and intercessory prayer.” Perspectives in biology and medicine vol. 49,4 (2006): 504-14. doi:10.1353/pbm.2006.0064

[1] Benson, H., Dusek, J. A., Sherwood, J. B., Lam, P., Bethea, C. F., Carpenter, W., Levitsky, S., Hill, P. C., Clem, D. W., Jain, M. K., Drumel, D., Kopecky, S. L., Mueller, P. S., Marek, D., Rollins, S., & Hibberd, P. L. (2006). Study of the therapeutic effects of intercessory prayer (STEP) in cardiac bypass patients: A Multicenter randomized trial of uncertainty and certainty of receiving intercessory prayer. American Heart Journal, 151(4), 934–942. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ahj.2005.05.028

[1]  Levin JS. God, faith, and health: exploring the spirituality–healing connection. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 2001.

[1] John A. Astin, et al. The Efficacy of “Distant Healing” A Systematic Review of Randomized Trials Annals of Internal Medicine June 6, 2000 vol. 132 no. 11 903–910 [1]

[1] Bernardi L, Sleight P, Bandinelli G, et al. (2001). “Effect of rosary prayer and yoga mantras on autonomic cardiovascular rhythms: comparative study”BMJ323 (7327): 1446–1449. doi:10.1136/bmj.323.7327.1446PMC 61046PMID 11751348.

[1] Francis, Leslie; Robbins, Mandy; Lewis, Christopher Alan; Barnes, L. Philip (2008). “Prayer and psychological health: A study among sixth-form pupils attending Catholic and Protestant schools in Northern Ireland” (PDF). Mental Health, Religion & Culture11(1): 85–92. doi:10.1080/13674670701709055S2CID 56432949.

[1] Mind and Spirit Archived 2009-02-01 at the Wayback Machine from the Health Library section of CentraState Healthcare System. Accessed May 18, 2006.

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