During the past 25 years, numerous medical studies have been conducted to try to measure whether prayer has any beneficial effects on patient recovery. The experiments usually involve two randomly assigned groups of patients, and a group of ‘pray-ers’. The ‘pray-ers’ are asked to pray for the recovery of one group of patients, but not for the other. Neither staff nor patients are told whether they are being prayed for, so that any effects are attributed to the power of prayer, rather than the power of suggestion.
What is the result of such experiments? In study after study, no statistically significant difference can be discerned between the recovery of patients who are prayed for and those who aren’t. For example, Randolph Byrd conducted such an experiment on 393 coronary care patients at San Francisco General Hospital in 1988. While six prayed-for patients had better results than the others, when it came to length of stay in hospital and mortality rates, Byrd reported no difference between the two groups.
Strangely enough, these results should come as a relief to Christians, for Christians don’t actually believe in the ‘power of prayer’. Of course we believe that prayer is important—indeed, it is vital and central to what it means to be Christian. The Apostle Paul begins so many of his letters with sincere and fervent prayer—prayer for his recipients to grow in love and knowledge, and prayer for the spread of the gospel in the world (e.g. Phil 1:3-11, Col 1:9-14, Rom 1:9-10, Eph 1:15-18). He clearly believes that prayer is foundational, and he is confident that his prayers will make a profound difference.
But Paul doesn’t believe in the ‘power of prayer’. Paul prays—not because he believes in the power of prayer, but because he believes in the power (and also the wisdom and goodness) of God. Witness Philippians 1:3-11: where is Paul’s confidence in his prayer? His confidence lies in God’s ability to finish the good work that he began in the Philippians, not in the power of the prayer itself. So Paul doesn’t pray like the prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18 who lacerated themselves and cried aloud to manipulate their god into waking up and doing what they want despite himself. Nor does he pray like the pagans whom Jesus mentions in Matthew 6:7 and who think that the power of prayer is in the repetition of their words. No, Paul’s prayer is a confident and joyous request to his loving heavenly King—a child coming before his good Father and asking him to graciously grant his requests.
Why did the medical studies mentioned above fail? Perhaps they failed because they treated God like a machine—a ‘supreme thing’ that may or may not respond to our scientific experimentation. But that is not at all how God asks us to pray. Prayer is all about a relationship with God. It is a request to a loving heavenly Father who loves to grant requests to his children who ask in faith (e.g. Matt 6:8, Luke 18:1-8). If my children tried to manipulate me like this, setting up conditions to see where and when I would answer their requests, I probably wouldn’t be too impressed either!
We must pray. We must pray deeply, fervently and sincerely. We must pray for the the glory of God, for the spread of the good news about Jesus Christ in our world (e.g. Matt 9:38) and, of course, we should continue to pray for those who are suffering in this broken and divided world. And as we pray, we should be confident that it will make a difference. But we must always remember that our confidence in prayer is not in our own ability to pray; rather, it is in our loving Father’s power and willingness to do what is best for his dear children as they speak to him, trusting in his wonderful grace through the Lord Jesus. What a great reason to keep praying!