The topic of scientific prayer studies recently came up on Twitter. As an outcome of that exchange, I committed to responding to the failure of one particular prayer study to establish a link between prayer and healing. The study in question is discussed in an article titled "Power of prayer flunks an unusual test" where it is described as follows:
Dr. Herbert Benson of Harvard Medical School and other scientists tested the effect of having three Christian groups pray for particular patients, starting the night before surgery and continuing for two weeks. The volunteers prayed for "a successful surgery with a quick, healthy recovery and no complications" for specific patients, for whom they were given the first name and first initial of the last name.
The patients, meanwhile, were split into three groups of about 600 apiece: those who knew they were being prayed for, those who were prayed for but only knew it was a possibility, and those who weren't prayed for but were told it was a possibility.
And here is the deflationary outcome:
Results showed no effect of prayer on complication-free recovery. But 59 percent of the patients who knew they were being prayed for developed a complication, versus 52 percent of those who were told it was just a possibility.
Let's focus on the fact that Christian prayer showed no effect on "complication-free recovery." Does this provide a good reason to believe that Christian petitionary prayer is ineffectual?
I don't believe so. And I will organize my response into three main reasons.
Is prayer analogous to treatment?
First, double-blind tests of particular treatments depend on the assumption that the same treatment is being applied to all members of the test groups. There is good reason to believe this does not occur in the case of prayer studies. Here I'll note two important considerations.
To begin with, Christians have reason to believe that the effectiveness of particular petitionary prayers is informed at least to some degree by the relationship the one who is praying has to God (e.g. James 5:16: "The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working."(ESV)) If various people are praying as part of a study, it follows that the effectiveness of their particular petitionary prayers could be shaped by the prior relationships of the one praying. Needless to say, the precise nature of each individual intercessor's relationship to God would not be available to those conducting the prayer studies.
Christians also have reason to believe that the power of particular prayers is informed by the specific degree of faith exercised during the praying of that particular prayer (e.g. "Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you." (Matthew 17:20)
To be sure, Christians have not typically drawn a simple correlation between the degree of faith exercised and the effectiveness of the resulting prayer. Nonetheless, the degree of faith is a factor. With that in mind, note that the same intercessor could exercise various degrees of faith as they pray various different prayers depending on a variety of factors. For example, Smith may find herself exercising great faith when she prays for Jones on Tuesday. But she may find that her faith is wavering when she prays for Chung on Thursday. The wavering degrees of faith in which these prayers are prayed could affect the ability of those prayers to achieve the desired outcomes.
These are but two factors — there could be several more — that would affect the power of various petitionary prayers. And these factors, in turn, undermine any simple attempt to measure the effectual power of prayer in comparison to the measurement of conventional invariant treatments.
What is an answered prayer?
Let's now turn to the second problem. In the study, individuals prayed for "a successful surgery with a quick, healthy recovery and no complications." The assumption is apparently that if there is not a quick, healthy recovery with no complications then the prayer was not answered.
But of course, this is false. If there was anybody ever in a place to get his prayers answered, it surely was Jesus. This is what he prays in the Garden of Gethsemane: "Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me." (Luke 22:42a) Of course, God did not take that cup –the cup of suffering — from Jesus. Thus, by the assumptions of a prayer study, this would come up as a miss rather than a hit.
However, note two things. First, Jesus immediately ends his prayer by stating "yet not my will, but yours be done." Thus, Jesus, in fact, expresses two petitions. And that provides a general mandate for the Christian as well. When we pray, we also should be praying two petitions. In the present case, we pray for "a successful surgery with quick, healthy recovery and no complications". And we should add (explicitly or implicitly), "yet not our will, but yours be done."
Second, note that immediately after Jesus' prayer we read: "An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him." So it follows that Jesus' prayer was answered in two ways: first, the Father answered Jesus' second petition by not removing the cup of suffering in accord with the divine will; second, the Father responded by sending an angel to strengthen Jesus for the journey ahead.
The lesson here is that any proper theology of Christian prayer needs to recognize that prayers can be answered in ways far beyond the intentions and expectations of the intercessors. Nor should this be surprising given that the one to whom we pray is infinitely more knowledgeable and wise than we are.