Science and Prayer and Healing

By Dr. Bruce Prescott

For the OK State LPN Association Meeting at MetroTech in OK City

November 13, 2001

I’m thankful for this opportunity to talk about the healing power of prayer for four reasons.

First, it provided a reason for me to reflect on twenty-five years of pastoral experience in praying for people to recover from physical illness and injury.

Second, it prompted me, for the first time, to review some of the recent medical studies that suggest that prayer and other “noetic therapies” have beneficial treatment effects.

Third, it requires that I, as a Christian, think more deeply about the ways in which human beings are “co-laborers” with God’s activity in the world.

Fourth, it gives me an opportunity to share some personal observations about the significant and unique role that the nursing profession holds in modern society.

Let me begin with some reflections about my experience as a pastor.  As a person of faith, and a minister to persons who share my faith, I am accustomed to both leading others in public prayer and to praying in private for people who are sick and injured.  

Prayer is an act of worship.  The act of prayer is an acknowledgment that we depend on power and grace that is beyond ourselves.  Nothing demonstrates our dependence on a power that is beyond ourselves more than life threatening injuries or terminal illnesses.  When lives are at stake, prayer is usually spontaneous.  Prayer is the natural thing for people to do. 

People will pray and we should pray whether or not medical studies or prove that prayer has beneficial effects.  Intercessory prayer -- praying for others -- is a noble and good thing to do in and of itself.  Ultimately, it makes no difference to religious persons whether medical science demonstrates that prayer has beneficial treatment effects or if it shows that prayer had no demonstrable effects.  We live by faith, not by sight.  We pray because it is an act of worship.

I say this up front, because we need to be reminded that science cannot demonstrate that God exists nor can it prove that God answers prayer.  As researchers in Kansas City noted, the supernatural is “beyond the ken of science.”  What researchers are trying to test are the effects of intercessory prayer.  Those effects could be explained by natural processes.  The effects of intercessory prayer could be explained by positing “real” but currently unknown physical forces being “generated” by the “intercessors and “received” by the patients. 

Having said that, let me talk about the results of some of the research that suggests prayer and other “noetic therapies” have beneficial treatment effects.  (Noetic therapies = healing influences performed without the use of a drug, device or surgical procedure).  In 1988 R.C. Byrd published results of a blinded, controlled trial of 393 patients who had been admitted to the coronary care unit at San Francisco General Hospital in San Francisco, CA.  The patients were randomly assigned to either a usual care group, which received no organized prayer, or to an experimental, intercessory prayer group, which received remote (from outside the hospital) prayer from persons unknown to them.  Byrd reported a statistically significant beneficial effect of intercessory prayer as assessed by a summary “hospital course” score.  In 1999 W. S. Harris published the results of a double blinded, controlled trial of 1013 patients at the Mid America Heart Institute in Kansas City, MO that tried to replicate Byrd’s findings.  This study did not confirm Byrd’s results on the summary “hospital course” score measurement that had been used in San Francisco.  The Kansas City study, however, did find that patients receiving prayer did 10% better than patients receiving standard treatment on the hospital’s CCU score – reflecting lower overall adverse outcomes.  The latest research on prayer and other “noetic” therapies in regard to heart patients receiving coronary stenting is published in the November 2001 issue of the American Heart Journal.  There M. W. Krucoff reports results of a study of 150 patients at the Durham Veterans Affairs Medical Center.  These findings were most dramatic.  They reported a 25-30% reduction in adverse outcomes among the prayer and noetic therapy group (adverse outcomes = death, heart failure, post-procedural ischemia, repeat angioplasty, or heart attack). 

At first glance, from this untrained layman’s perspective, these reports make it sound like science is at the threshold of a new frontier in medicine.  A frontier where faith and medicine equal partners in the care and treatment of those who are sick and injured.  But, as is so often the case, the devil is in the details.  After my brief review of some of the research, I’m not sure where this research is leading and the kind of conclusions that will be drawn from it.  And, I’m not sure what the implications are for people of faith.

Here are some of my concerns.

1)    It appears that the intercessors in the studies in San Francisco and in Kansas City believed in a personal God who answers prayers for healing on behalf of the sick.  They were given the first name of the person for whom they were praying, and their condition, and asked to pray for the persons’ speedy recovery with no complications.   Both studies indicate that on average the patients prayed-for had fewer complications, but neither study indicated that the prayed-for patients were discharged from the hospital sooner than patients receiving standard treatment.  In fact, in Kansas City two of the prayed-for patients had hospital stays that were twice as long as any of the other patients in the study.  What happened to those two patients?   Does praying for a speedy recovery increase the risk for a long recovery for some people?   Did prayer have a different effect on them than on the others?  Did God say “no” to prayers for those two patients?   How do you know ahead of time how God will answer a prayer for healing?

2)    The most dramatic results were reported in the Duke Study.  The Duke study, however, did not limit research to the effects of prayer alone.  That study also involved the effects of other kinds of noetic therapy including stress relaxation techniques, touch therapy, and imagery.  While there was a 25-30% reduction of adverse outcomes among the patients treated with noetic therapy compared with patients treated with only standard therapy, 12% of the patients in noetic therapy died within six months while none of the patients receiving standard therapy alone died.  What happened to the patients who died after receiving noetic therapy?  Did noetic therapies increase their risk of death?  If the goal is to actually survive the treatment, would it be better to stick with standard therapy and endure more adverse outcomes?

3)    Other questions arise from the diversity of religious beliefs involved in the intercessory prayer group for the Duke Study.  Intercessory prayer groups included not only fundamentalist Christians, Baptists, Moravians, and Catholics, but also Unitarians, Jews and Buddhists.  From a theological standpoint, these are some strange prayer partners.  Theravada Buddhists don’t believe in a personal God, and some prominent Baptists have said that God does not hear the prayer of a Jew.  Researchers did not indicate whether records were kept on the effectiveness of the prayers by the different groups.   Should researchers be pressed to do further study and determine whose prayers were being answered?  If research produced results indicating that a 150 monks praying at a Buddhist monastery in Nepal were more effective than 17 Carmelite Nuns praying at a Monastery in Maryland and that the prayers of three congregations of Baptists in North Carolina had no demonstrable effect, should medical science begin prescribing that people change their religious beliefs?

These concerns lead me to conclude that I am on much firmer ground talking to you about the healing power of prayer from my own personal experiences.  What I have to offer is anecdotal, rather than scientific, but it raises fewer questions in my own mind than the research that I’ve had a chance to review.

From my own personal experience I can tell you that on more than one occasion I have prayed for people whose doctors did not expect them to live and have seen them revive and restored to health.   Over the years I have been involved in praying for countless people with a variety of illnesses and have seen many of them recover and restored to health.  I’ve also prayed earnestly for sick people to recover and have held their hands while they died.  I believe that God answered all my prayers – there are just times when I would have preferred a different answer.

There is a lot about God and his ways with men that is mysterious to me as a minister.  I do not believe that God created the world, wound it up like a watch and now sits back – uninvolved -- just watching what is happening.  I believe that all life and existence is sustained and preserved by God’s continuing and active presence.   I do believe that, at times, God intervenes to preserve and protect human life.  But, I would not attempt to predict when God would do so.  There are times when I have prayed and felt certain that God would heal someone or help them recover from an illness and God did not choose to so.   For some of them, the memory of those prayers and the pain of their loss is still great.

Ultimately, God and his ways are mysterious.  I think it foolish to attempt to predict how God would answer our prayers for healing.  I would also hesitate to devise an experiment that even hints at measuring how receptive God is to prayer.  No man or woman, not even a scientist, can put God to the test.

I am a minister.  As a minister, my primary task is to point a trembling finger to the fascinating, mysterious and terrifying presence of God.  Though our hearts are warmed by his grace and we live in the light of his love, human fingers should never stop trembling when we point to God.  Who are we to point fingers at God?  

There is a lot about the human mind and body that is still a mystery to medical science.  It is the role of medical science to probe this natural unknown and reduce the size of nature’s mystery.  I believe that God gave us minds with the power to penetrate the mysteries of the physical and psychical world and he expects us to use them.  Scientists are most faithful to God when they are skeptical about supernatural explanations for healing.  It is the task of science to search for natural explanations.  The world of nature can be controlled and manipulated to create treatments and remedies that can be beneficial to mankind.  God, on the other hand, cannot and will not be controlled and manipulated by us – no matter how good our intentions.

Finally, I’d like to share some personal observations about the role that the nursing profession holds in modern society.  In our society the field of medicine is viewed primarily as under the sphere of science.   Thank God, most of us no longer look to witch doctors, faith healers, and preachers for medical care.  But, at times, we have gone too far in separating medical science and faith.  Some reapproachment is needed.  Today in many ways, religion is being slowly reintegrated into field of medical therapies and treatments.  This is because science is recognizing that human beings are psychosomatic wholes and medical science needs to treat men holistically – acknowledging an interrelation between mind, body and spirit.  Research into the effect of prayer in healing is part of this new emphasis in medicine. 


It is my opinion that research in this area will prove less important than some common medical practices.  My experience has been that many good nurses have been practicing such holistic medicine for a long time.  On numerous occasions nurses have participated in prayers that I have led for their patients.   I know from countless hospital visits and conversations with church members that they feel especially blessed and are pleased when the nurses caring for them let them know that they are praying for them.  In a sense, such nurses are effecting a practical and useful mediation between medical science and faith.

 Nurses will need to be sensitive and not do anything that could be construed as pushing religion on people.  Some people are not interested in being prayed-for and their wishes should be respected.  Most people, however, I think would welcome it.  None of the people that I have ever visited in the hospital ever complained about someone offering to pray for them – even when they came from a different religious background.   Doctors and nurses who are willing to be open about their own spirituality will probably be most effective in bridging the gap between medical science and faith.  Surely such personal prayers are more effective than the blind and double blind intercessions of medical studies.



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