Friday, September 17, 2010

Prayer and Medicine

Man, talk about writer's block. Apologies.

Earlier in the year I was asked to help lead a small group study on prayer in medicine which provided much food for thought. Amongst other things we considered trials to assess prayer as a mode of healing. I am sure most are familiar with its premise: does intercessory prayer make a difference to medical or surgical outcomes? The hypothesis? That praying to YHWH of the Bible is associated with better medical outcomes. The results: intercessory prayer leads to improved medical outcomes. The conclusion? That we should pray for patients because they get better quicker.

Really? Far from being encouraged by these sorts of studies I was left a bit cold. It was not necessarily the structure of the trial: many were double-blind trials, the gold standard for clinical experiments. It was not even the premise: that prayer makes a difference to patient outcomes. The sincerity of the Christians involved in the studies to 'prove' God in these atheistic and secular times is touching. It was not even that praying for others is a good thing - clearly it is. No, what I struggled with is the idea that you could 'test' God and a fundamental misunderstanding of prayer.

The first trial to look at this found that praying for patients without their knowledge of such prayer taking place was associated with a better outcome following what I presume to be myocardial infarctions. The medical care was the same for all patients. The study found that those who received prayer did better afterwards (Archives of Internal Medicine. 1999; 159:2273-78). However, many methodological problems were raised for this and other subsequent studies and another further study found deleterious outcomes for patients who received prayer without their knowledge (American Heart Journal. 2006; 151:934-42).

Clearly it is easier for Christians to harrumph about the 1999 study than the 2006 study. How do we answer that on the basis of the premises above? What does that mean for the God of the Bible who is a loving God? After all He loves to answer prayer doesn't He? What is the theological outcome we arrive at following this?

In my opinion, nothing. Nothing whatsoever. Again I do not doubt the sincerity of the investigators but I just cannot see how God would show Himself through these studies or even if that were never the case that prayer should be associated with better outcomes. Why do I say this?

Firstly, consider the nature of Jesus' miracles. Why did He perform them? Undoubtedly because He truly felt the pain and anguish of those suffering (Matt. 14:14), but was it not more for the fact He was demonstrating the coming Kingdom where the effects of the Fall would not be known? Jesus was trying to demonstrate that with Him the Kingdom of God was being ushered in reminding us of pre-Fall days. So healing is looking forward to something which I believe should shape our thoughts towards the Resurrection and new Heaven. Healing, I do not believe, is the 'best' outcome every time. To consider it the 'best' outcome denies the resurrection - sure, it is a 'good' thing, but not necessarily the best.

Then consider the methodology. How do you perform such an experiment? What do you pray? How do you pray? How do you account for fervency? Will every prayer mean as much as the last? How do you stop it denigrating into some sort of legalistic project? I am not sure that you can account for these things and the great danger is turning prayer into a mechanistic pursuit, as opposed to the incredible honour it is to pray and speak and commune with God. After all Jesus had to die to bring direct access to God (Mark 15:38) so we need to respect it with great reverence. Again I am not suggesting this was never the case with these studies but given how easily we slip towards Pharisaic religion I would always exercise caution.

Whilst I do not think the authors meant to be I feel somewhat uncomfortable putting God under the microscope. It is not just for Jesus' words (Luke 4:12) but that God and His divine and providential plan cannot be subjected to scientific scrutiny. His revelation to us shouts through all creation, the calling and nurturing of Israel and ultimately and most visually in His Son. Do we genuinely think that science with prove (or disprove) the existence of God? Science has become a demi-god in our times, but it can never answer questions of the nature of God. Will we ever find Mr. Ford in an internal combustion engine? To use the age-old aphorism: science is the how but never the why. Unwittingly, we assume God is a performing monkey who just waits for us to ask Him something so that He may perform for us. If He shows mercy to those who He will (Exodus 33:19; Romans 9:14-16) then He will show healing those that He will.

Consider the implications if these studies were to be used in a Christianity versus Judaism or Islam model. Whoever 'won' would surely trump the result whilst the losers claim that it means nothing. Or consider the 2006 paper above - prayer may have a deleterious effect. How do we interpret that? Could God be angry at us for putting Him to the test?

What then, should we not pray for healing? Of course not. We should pray for others - including those who are sick and suffering. Paul makes this clear in passages such as (1 Thes. 3:9-13) - as Carson points out in "A Call to Spiritual Reformation" Paul prays for the good of others as an outworking of a genuine affection and love. It is no mistake that when John (in 1 John) calls us children he uses the Greek root tekna meaning that those children that are 'begotten' as opposed to paida which means 'child'. We are a family, God's family, and we are to have just such a yearning for each other. But more than this we should be praying for God's will whatever that may be - it may be for healing or better outcomes, it may not. What we know is that works for the good of those that love Him (Rom. 8:28) - what this entails is that He make work in ways in which we cannot understand (Gen 45:5). More than this consider:

"Father, who art in Heaven . . . Your will be done on earth as it is in Heaven."

That was how Jesus taught us to pray (Matt. 6:8-10). God answers those prayers that are in sync with His will - He delights in such prayer. So praying for the sick is a good thing and we should continue to do so. If it is His will then He will heal, if it is not then He won't. We should divorce our preconceptions of what is good and set our sights on the Resurrection of Christ and eternity. Our minds and prayers should be centred on things above not things of man.

1 comment:

Scott said...

Thanks for posting this. As a physician and a Christian, I often find myself in the role of a critic on the subject of prayer and healing.

As you point out, the studies on the efficacy of prayer are full of holes: bad methodology, low numbers of test subjects, difficulty of reproducing experiments or findings. You simply can't treat prayer like a drug and try to get FDA approval.

So I advise my patients: Pray. But don't expect that the prayer will cure your physical illness. Do expect that it may cure a spiritual illness. Miracles happen. But God gave us antibiotics and anesthesia and surgery as gifts to heal the body. Prayer is to heal the soul.

If our theology is correct, our prayer sincere, we do not need the false comfort of "scientific" studies to justify our faith.

Scott Stockburger, MD
Bellingham, Washington