Does Prayer Work?

Research and 'Unanswered' Prayer

Note: This commentary was delivered by Prison Fellowship President Mark Earley.

The headlines seemed almost triumphal in tone.

"Prayer Doesn't Aid Recovery, Study Finds." That was the WASHINGTON POST. "Long-Awaited Medical Study Questions the Power of Prayer." That was the NEW YORK TIMES.

Both papers were describing a study designed to determine the power of prayer. Not only did it show that prayer apparently makes no difference, but some prayed-for patients in the study actually fared worse than the unprayed-for ones.

The research, led by Jeffery Dusek of the Harvard Medical School, involved 1,802 heart-bypass patients. One-third were told they would be prayed for (but they weren't), one-third were told they might receive prayer, and one-third were told they would definitely be prayed for. Catholics and Protestants who agreed to pray for certain patients were told to ask for "a successful surgery with a quick, healthy recovery and no complications."

Patients in the two groups that did not know if anyone was praying for them had about the same rate of complications -- 52 percent -- regardless of whether they were being prayed for. But 59 percent of the patients who knew they were being prayed for suffered complications.

The researchers were quick to downplay the unexpected results. Knowing they were being prayed for may have led to stress among patients, they noted. And as one doctor put it, "Did the patients think, 'I am so sick they had to call in the prayer team?'"

Naturally, some observers were delighted at the results. They think the study proves conclusively that prayer doesn't work, and it's time for men of science to "stop dabbling in the supernatural," as one academic put it.

But wait a minute. The researchers acknowledged that they could not control for the fact that many "unauthorized" people may have interceded for loved ones in the so-called "unprayed-for" group. And plenty of other studies indicate that intercessory prayer does have an impact.

But perhaps the study's biggest flaw involves how the results were interpreted. Christians know that there are three possible answers to prayer: "Yes," "no," and "wait." The Harvard study measured only the "yes" answers. But just because we don't get the answer we're looking for does not mean God is not listening or answering.

We are given a glorious example of this truth by Jesus Himself. On the night before His arrest, praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, an agonized Jesus asked God to remove the cup that was before Him. He prayed that He would not have to go to the Cross. And yet, not long afterward, Jesus did die on the Cross.

To a modern researcher, this is the perfect example of a prayer that went unanswered. But we know that God did answer this prayer. He answered it in a way that led, over the next twenty centuries, to salvation for millions. And on Easter Sunday, millions of Christians around the world will thank God for answering it the way He did.

Yes, Jesus died on the Cross. But He rose again on the third day. And thanks to that so-called "unanswered prayer," you and I can say this Easter, "Hallelujah! Christ is risen!"

And no matter what the researchers tell us, we know we can trust God to hear, and answer, every prayer.

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Copyright © 2006 Prison Fellowship Ministries. Used with permission.