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Prayer in the Science Lab, Part 1

by Cheyenne Francis Reiswig

A little band gathers in a country chapel. It’s Wednesday evening, and the people have come for prayer meeting. An elder steps to the front and asks for prayer requests. Hands go up all over the room, and people share about mission projects, family needs, and, perhaps more than anything else, sick neighbors, friends, and relatives. Then all kneel and unite in prayer.

It’s a familiar scene to many of us, and it’s not limited to one denomination—or even to Christianity. People have been praying ever since Adam and Eve lost their privilege of talking with God face to face. The results of different polls and studies on the subject have some variation, but in one survey of over 35,000 adults in America, 58% said they pray every day, while 75% pray at least once a week. Only 18% said they never or hardly ever pray!1

What do people pray about? Nearly everything under the sun, and for just about every reason. One of the most common subjects of prayer, however, is personal health. Recent data shows that 49% of Americans pray over their health concerns, and this number has been on the rise—up from 43% of the population in 2002.

Healthcare professionals list prayer as the most widely used form of “complementary medicine,” or a healing practice used with regular medical treatments. In other words, more people pray than use acupuncture, chiropractic, herbs, and other alternative forms of treatment. Imagine caring for patients in the intensive care unit. When critically ill patients unexpectedly recovered, how often would you hear families say it was a miracle, an answer to prayer? Perhaps half the time, according to the percentages of praying Americans. In any case, doctors say they hear these testimonies often enough to get their attention!

Since so many of their clients pray, and attribute their good health to God, some physicians and scientists have taken an interest in prayer research. Though tricky to perform, studies on the medical effects of prayer have ranged from small surveys performed by individual practitioners to large-scale research by health institutions such as Harvard Medical School and the National Institutes of Health. While some criticize the study of prayer as being unscientific, many thoughtful doctors want to know the role of prayer and religion in health and healing, so that they can know how best to help their patients.

Of course, we as Christians know that prayer brings results. But in order for treatments to be considered scientifically and medically valid by our society, they must be proven by careful scientific analysis. Because answers to prayer are often subjective,3 and different religious traditions prescribe different ways of praying, researchers find it difficult to conduct prayer studies that meet the requirements of science.

There’s another difficulty with a scientific analysis of prayer. The researchers assume that prayer is answered only if the person receives exactly what he asked for—or at least some measurable physical benefit. Studies don’t take into account that God must often say “No” or “Wait”—and that when He does, it is because this is the best answer possible.

True faith isn’t founded on scientific research—it can’t be. Instead, we have a more trustworthy source: the “more sure word”4 of the Bible. That sure Word tells us that “if we ask any thing according to His will,” God “heareth us.”5 God’s Word also reminds us that we “ought always to pray, and not to faint,”6 regardless of how God chooses to answer our prayers.

As long as we remember this, scientific research on prayer can be encouraging—and an exciting way to share our faith with unbelievers!

(To be continued.)

1. “National Day of Prayer,” Pew Research Center, May 5, 2010.
2. Wachholtz, Amy; Sambamoorthi, Usha, “National Trends in Prayer Use as a Coping Mechanism for Health Concerns: Changes From 2002 to 2007,” Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, Volume 3, Number 2, 2011. Note: Smaller polls and surveys show a higher percentage of people who pray about their health or others’ health.
3. Relating to individuals and affected by personal views and background.
4. See 2 Peter 1:19.
5. 1 John 5:14.
6. Luke 18:1.

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