The Effectiveness of Prayer
Prayer is a vital part of the Christian religious experience. Any pastor will tell you the importance of prayer. They will also tell you that prayer works – that is effective; that there is a living, loving, attentive God who – at least if you have believed on his son and are saved by his blood – will hear you and respond. God will not always grant your wish, but he delights in his children who are attentive enough to pray, and God will sometimes at least, intervene to change the course of human affairs in answer to your prayer. The Bible itself confirms this. Jesus himself said, “Therefore I say to you, whatsoever things you ask when you pray, believe you receive them, and you will have them” (Mark 11:24).”And whatsoever you ask in my name, that I will do, that the father may be glorified in the son”(John 14:13). “Most assuredly I say to you, whatever you ask the father in my name he will give you” (John 16:23). In Luke, Jesus tells us that like a good father who gives his child what he asks, God will give us and not deny us – “Ask and you will receive...”(Luke 11:9-13). We are told that if we had faith “like a mustard seed” [a tiny amount] it would be sufficient to move mountains.
Now pastors and preachers will often not admit that they feel uncomfortable with these verses. Universally, they will admit that God does not grant the prayers of the faithful. The reasons given can for the most part be catalogued:
1) God always answers prayer, but the answer is sometimes “No.” This is a good answer, but it completely undermines the very premise of the above promises – that God will grant your requests because this is what he wants to do and wills to do. What consolation is it that God heard your prayer but said “no”?
2) A variation of the same argument: You were praying for something contrary to God’s will so of course you could not get it (“You bad, selfish boy [or girl]! You should know better! God intended that your two year old baby die, as a test to your faith”).Proponents of this view, such as R.A. Torrey, often point to I John 5:14 as a qualification to all of these promises by Jesus:”Now this is the confidence that we have in him, that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us .And if we know that he hears us, whatever we ask, we know that we have the petitions that we asked of him.” So in other words, all of these grandiose promises have an unspoken caveat: God will only grant our prayers if he was already planning on doing those things anyway!! In common parlance this is what we call false advertising. I would like to see this on any contract for services – that the company will perform its promises under the contract only under the unstated condition that it wants to, and it does not have to perform its promises if it doesn’t feel like it. This overwhelming exception renders the promises completely illusive. They are no promises at all! This is the kind of ridiculous, circular reasoning we often encounter in the Bible and/or among Bible proponents.
Isn’t the whole point of Jesus’ promises, that God’s will is to grant our requests? It certainly appears to be so (or am I reading to much into the above, unequivocal promises?) So imagine the above promises of Jesus, with this exception included: “Therefore I say to you, whatsoever things you ask when you pray, believe you receive them, and [if the father already has decided to give you them] you will have them.””And whatsoever you ask in my name,[if I want to], that I will do, that the father may be glorified in the son.” “Most assuredly I say to you, whatever you ask the father in my name [if he already wills it] he will give you [“unless he doesn’t want to, then he will not]. “Ask and you will receive [unless I do not want you to receive it, or have other plans – in that case forget it. You are wasting your time!]. Very consoling isn’t it?
3) You have sin in your life, so God doesn’t hear you. It is your fault, not God’s.
4) You are praying for selfish concerns. It is your fault! This is an unstated, undisclosed exception to the unequivocal promises (you could have fooled me). You must pray altruistically. So it’s your fault. You really wanted your two year old baby live and not die of an infectious disease so that you could enjoy his company, not so that his life could honor God! You bastard!
5) You do not have faith. It is your fault. You doubt God. This is more Pentecostal argument.
6) A more sophisticated, logical and frankly better argument is the dispensationalist argument. These are “Kingdom” promises to the Jews relating to the time when Christ rules on the earth as King of Israel. So the promises are really to Jews in the Millenium, when they live on the earth with Jesus as king. So these are not promises to the Gentile church at all. Or in another version of dispensationalism, they are promises to the church also, but in the Kingdom Age, when Jesus returns. In either version, the principle is that Jesus was rejected by Israel and crucified, so the promises did not take effect at that time. So in this school of thought, what seem to be clear and present promises are anything but. You need to be a lawyer to understand the whole context of historical biblical dispensationsalism (and so one of the founding fathers of this school, C.I. Scofield, was a lawyer).
Regardless of which approach to prayer Christians may take, all Christians will agree, and must agree, with the slogan that “prayer changes things” – it is efficacious. Praying is better that not praying and at a minimum “The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much” (James 5:16). So, empirically, we should be able to pinpoint a verifiable difference between situations and crises that benefited from prayer of the faithful and those that did not. This has been effectively done.
Dr. Herbert Benson, a cardiologist at the Mind/Body Medical Institute in Massachusetts, is a believer in the efficacy of prayer in medical recovery. He undertook to prove the same through a research study funded under a grant from the Templeton Foundation, a foundation of convinced theists which exists to prove the existence of God though science. The foundations purpose was likewise to prove, not to disprove, the efficacy of intercessory prayer, and thereby the existence of a personal, omnipotent God. Dr. Benson’s team monitored the recovery of 1,802 patients who received coronary bypass surgery at six different hospitals. The patients were divided into three groups. The first group received prayers but didn’t know it was being prayed for. The second group received no prayers and did not know it wasn’t being prayed for. The third group received prayers and knew they were being prayed for.
Now the persons praying were genuine evangelical Christians who naturally believed absolutely in the benefits of prayer, wanted to show the efficacy of intercessory prayer, and prayed sincerely for the patients. They were members of three churches, one in Minnesota, one in Missouri, and one in Massachusetts. All prayed earnestly for the patients by their first name and the first letter of the last name. All prayers were directed to be “for a successful surgery with a quick, healthy recovery and no complications.”
The results were included in the American Heart Journal (H. Benson, “Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayers”(STEP) in Cardiac Bypass Paitents) AHJ, 151:4, 2006, 934-42) of April, 2006. Considering those involved in the experiment – with the experiment being originated, contrived, conducted, and financed by those with a vested interest and desire to see the results they wanted – we would normally expect to see the result that the researchers and “prayer warriors” desired. In fact, the results were overwhelmingly disappointing and humiliating to the researchers. The results went in the exact, opposite direction! Those that were prayed for and knew that they had been prayed for had substantially more complications than the others. This was the only statistical anomaly from among the groups.(Quoted in Dawkins, The God Delusion, Houghton Mifflin, 2006, pp. 85-88)
Naturally, the results incensed many Christians. The most likely response and excuse to be given would be the righteous slogan “Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God”, even though the test was not undertaken by any means to test God’s powers, since those undertaking the experiment already believed in God’s power and, in fact, the experiment was undertaken to glorify the “God of the Universe” and cause others to pray, thereby bringing others to God. What could be more worthy goals? (from the Christian point of view). If the experiment had been successful, it would have been heralded by Christians as demonstrating empirically the power and responsiveness of God. As it is, the experiment demonstrates what the skeptical world already knows, that Christians are unable to demonstrate the existence of their God of the Bible by any means whatsoever. For all apparent purposes, when they pray they are praying to nothing and wasting their time and their breath.
The foregoing merely confirms and corroborates what I and millions of others that have bothered to look have already observed millions of times over – that there are not two kinds of people in the world –distinguished by whether they have accepted Christ or not. I have encountered born-again Christians countless times in the prison setting culpable for the most heartless, selfish bestial crimes – such as child sexual molestation and other sordid crimes. And I have met scores of non-believers with selfless hearts and souls a thousand times greater than any self-righteous “saved” Bible-beater that ever set foot on the earth. God is not glorified by his brood.