Prayer, Healing, and the Medical Community
by Rev. Thomas R. Rogers, Ph.D.
Presented by Saint Luke Evangelical School Of Biblical Studies
Stories about people who were healed through prayer are abundant. Some of these stories are truly spectacular and are well documented. Christine Hughes, a nursing student at the University of Texas with an interest in the holistic approach to nursing (involving mind, body, and spirit), recently published one of these stories. She did a case study on a patient whose cancer tests revealed abnormal cells. The woman went to her church and was the object of healing prayers there. On her subsequent tests, her cells had returned to normal. Hughes was impressed. Then, the case led her to an even more extraordinary story. Hughes learned that the womanís grandmother had once been diagnosed with advanced cancer and had been the object of healing prayers. Her advanced cancer also disappeared (Hughes, 1997). Witnessing these kinds
of results leads
to the question, "Why arenít people who are in the healing professions more involved with prayer to promote healing?"
The question, as posed, implies that that there is a tendency for medical professionals not to be involved in prayer with their patients. That is probably a good implication. While it is true that hospitals usually do welcome the clergy to pray with patients and that they usually maintain a hospital chapel, it is also true that not many of us can attest to healing sessions that involved prayer with the medical personnel of hospitals. The medical staff usually has very little to say about prayer. Why?
The reason given often relates to ďfreedom of religionĒ and the need to respect the differences among patientsí beliefs. Another answer that is often given is that prayer is neither science nor medicine, and that it is not in the domain of the medical professional.
Letís look at those two answers.
The first appears respectful of the patientís rights. However, it ignores and an
important Christian responsibility, that of delivering the life-saving Gospel to the lost. This is a disturbing oversight.
The second, separating prayer from medicine, is equally disturbing. It shows a conscious effort to divide the world into that which is Godís domain and that which is not. It ignores the fact that God is Lord of everything, including all that we describe as science and/or medicine. Many scientists and medical professionals seem to have a tendency to overlook that aspect of their subject area. Their training may be partly to blame.
Scientists and medical professionals undergo rigorous training that results in a specific sort of mindset. They are trained to ignore their inner feelings and to place their faith in scientific methods. Prayer doesnít fit into the scientific paradigms; therefore, there is a reluctance to defer to it. And, unfortunately, scientific thinking has become so prevalent in our modern world that even among believers there is a reluctance to openly defer to prayer.
The reason prayer cannot be explained scientifically, according to author Peter Jaret, who wrote about it in Health magazine, is that, for the most part, prayer canít be tested using the accepted scientific paradigms. It canít be isolated in laboratory experiments, using a control group and an experimental group, to test its effectiveness. The reason, he said, is that it canít be quantified (Jaret, 1998). In other words, there is no way to measure it.
If an individual is ill and we wish to measure the effects of prayer on that individualís recovery, we are not able to accurately do so. We can set up a prayer group and count the people who are praying, but we cannot measure all the other variables that are present. We may not even be able to accurately count the number of people who are actually praying, because people outside the experimental group may also be praying for the ill person. We canít determine how often prayers are said, because the ill person may come to mind and extra little prayers may be said outside designated prayer times. We canít measure the intensity of any of the prayers, because we are not able to determine levels of earnestness or belief. Even with recovered patients, we canít test the reliability of
prayer for effecting the cure, because researchers cannot make the patient sick with the same illness again so that the healing can be replicated using the same prayer (Hughes, 1997). Because the subject is concerned with so many things that cannot be isolated, tested, reproduced, and neatly packaged, scientists and medical professionals generally have come to the point where they prefer not to deal with prayer and faith in their work. Prayer and faith involve too much that is not "knowable" within their systems for defining knowledge.
In the Christian community many of us view the scientific paradigms as flawed. They have severe limitations when dealing with the non-physical aspects of our world. To use an illustrative metaphor, "scientists may be trying to fit the universe into a box that is too small".
In all fairness, it must be noted that there are many in the science community who realize that there is more to the universe than that which can be physically measured. Many of them are people with deep religious faith. Nurse Hughes, who was cited earlier, is one of those people. She understands the drive by scientists to know that which can be known and proven. However, she maintains an attitude that is valuable from a ďfaithĒ viewpoint. In her report, she wrote, "With our finite minds, perhaps only the tiniest portion of the universe is knowable" (Hughes, 1997). She implies that we wonít ever be able to know everything about all that exists in the universe. Some things will have to be accepted on faith, and that we shouldnít ignore things just because science canít explain them.
Ms. Hughes and others have ventured into the study of prayer. They want to break through the barriers of scientific prejudice. To do so, they are conducting studies on the relationship of prayer to healing, that are somewhat scientific in their design, feeling that these kinds of studies can make inroads into the scientific culture. They bring word of Godís presence in healing to the medical community using formats and language that are familiar to scientists and medical professionals. The work is evangelical, targeted at the "show me the scientific evidence" people.
One of the most famous studies of this type culminated with the release in 1988 of findings by cardiologist Dr. Randolph Byrd. He divided 393 heart attack patients randomly into two groups. One of the groups got only standard medical care. The other group got standard medical care plus daily prayer. The prayers were done by volunteers, who described themselves as born-again Christians. Neither the patients, nor the hospital staff, nor Byrd knew who was prayed for and who wasnít. Byrd reviewed the records of the patients later and matched them to the list of patients for whom prayer was conducted. He found that the patients who were the objects of prayer "... required fewer antibiotics, suffered less congestive heart failure, and were less likely to develop pneumonia" (Jaret, 1998). The results were more dramatic than his statement sounds. Actually, the patients who were not the objects of prayer were five times as likely to need antibiotics and three times as likely to develop complications as those who were the objects of prayer (Wallis, 1996).
More recently, Dr. Mitchell Krucoff and nurse-practitioner Suzanne Crater at Duke University have been doing a study to determine whether prayer by strangers might influence the medical outcomes of patients at Durham V.A. Hospital. In 1998, they started with a group of 30 patients in a pilot study. As in the Byrd study, the group was divided between patients who were the objects of prayer and patients who were not. The patients were not aware of who was prayed for and who was not prayed for. Their initial group, which was too small to be statistically meaningful to scientific investigators, got results that Dr. Krucoff called "intriguing". Medical outcomes for patients who were the objects of prayer were 50% to 100% better than the outcomes for patients who were not the objects of prayer (Van Biema, 1998). Because of these results, they are planning to extend the research to a larger group this year.
Other research has been done. Dr. Larry Dossey reviewed the literature and found more than 130 studies on prayer, mostly done since 1950. They showed a variety of benefits from prayer, including positive effects on high blood pressure, asthma, heart attacks, headaches, and anxiety (Driedger, 1995).
There clearly are some significant scientific studies on the positive healing effects of prayer. Some scientists, however, want to dismiss the effects of prayer as nothing more than the placebo effect at work (Wallis, 1996). They argue that the patient gets better because he believes he is going to get better, which makes his body subconsciously do the things it needs to do in order to get better. The placebo effect is a reality, and it is miraculous, but studies like those done by Drs. Byrd and Krucoff, where patients donít
know they are part of the experimental group (the objects of prayer), eliminate the placebo effect as the reason for improvement.
Results like those documented by Drs. Byrd and Krucoff have successfully captured the attention of some of the other scientists and members of the medical community. One very noticeable effect is a rising interest in holistic approaches to health. Many of the medical practitioners and scientists, who once considered interest in holistic and alternative approaches to medicine, including prayer, to be "professional death", are becoming concerned with more than the physical and mental health of their patients. Now they are including spiritual health as well (Wallis, 1996). They are finally acknowledging its importance in the healing process.
Studies are beginning to be done at other respected secular institutions to validate prayer, as much as possible, in scientific ways. Among researchers currently studying the healing power of prayer are Dr. Elisabeth Targ of the California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco (Wallis, 1996) and Dr. Herbert Benson of Harvard University (Jaret, 1998).
Some of the medical practitioners, who have become aware of their Christian responsibilities and of the effects of prayer on healing, have made it a part of their daily professional life. One physician, Dr. James Krahn of Winnipeg, Canada, is an outstanding example. He not only admits to the proactive use of prayer with his patients, he has become a real advocate. He has even helped to establish a health center in Winnipeg that combines medical and spiritual care (Driedger, 1995).
Progress in being made, but it is not known just how prevalent the inclusion of prayer has become in the work of the scientific and medical communities? Nobody has yet done a survey to directly measure that, but information can be pieced together from indirect sources that creates a reasonable picture of the state of things. A CNN survey in 1996 showed 73% of the respondents believed that praying for people can help cure their illnesses. Sixty-four percent said that physicians should join their patients in prayer if requested (Lebowitz, 1996). In contrast, a survey by the journal Nature found that only 40% of scientists believe in a God who answers prayers (Jaret, 1998). The faith of scientists, it can be deduced from this comparison, is significantly less than that of the general population. Christians need to work harder at getting the Word to them. They need to be reminded, perhaps, of something once said by one of their imminent fellows, Albert Einstein,
1. Keep a positive attitude toward scientists and members of the medical professions. Keep in mind that many of them are very dedicated to God and to
fulfilling His will. Many of them pray regularly and believe in the power of their prayers. Those who are skeptical simply need to be brought into greater wisdom.
2. Have more than just a positive attitude: look upon the members of the scientific/medical community as brethren. Respect them as such. If there are brothers in that community who need counseling, seek to counsel with them just as you would other brethren.
3. Help those who are in need of wisdom to discover it. Talk about the scientific studies that show the positive effects of prayer if doing so will serve as a bridge to discovering life in the Body of Christ.
4. Pray with members of the scientific and medical communities whenever you can. Prayer for them always.
Driedger, Sharon Doyle. "Prayer Power", Macleanís, Vol. 108, No. 39, September 25,
Hughes, Christine E., and Timmerman, Gayle M. "Prayer and Healing: A Case Study",
Journal of Holistic Nursing, Vol. 15, No. 3, September, 1997, p. 318-326.
Jaret, Peter. "Can Prayer Heal?", Health, Vol. 12, No. 2, March, 1998, p. 48-54.
Lebowitz, Holly J. "Doctor Believes Prayer Helps the Medicine Go Down", The Dallas
Morning News, July 27, 1996, p. 4G.
Van Biema, David. "A Test of the Healing Power of Prayer", Time, Vol. 152, No. 15,
October 12, 1998, p. 72-73.
Wallis, Claudia. "Faith and Healing", Time, Vol. 147, No. 26, June 24, 1996, p. 58-64.