Living as I do in the heart of the Bible Belt, I am often told that people are praying for me. I used to find that comforting. Now I realize they are preying on me.
A new study published today in the American Heart Journal shows that prayer is not only ineffective as an agent of healing, it actually causes harm to patients if they know they are being prayed for: “Hi, Ken, how are you feeling? Not so good, huh. You know my church has been praying for you. Every day we pray… Ken? Hello? Ken? Oh my God, they killed Kenny!”
In trying to figure out why prayer doesn’t work, I came up with four possibilities:
1. God has nothing to do with healing.
2. Kenny lacked the faith to merit God’s healing.
3. God wants Kenny dead, which is why Kenny got ill in the first place.
4. There is no God.
There is no way to know which if any of these is true, so simply choose the one that makes you feel better.
Of course, ineffective prayer is one thing, but why, if prayer can’t heal, does it harm? I came up with three possible reasons for this.
1. Relying on prayer weakens your determination to fight for life.
2. God is annoyed by prayerful challenges to his will, and punishes the person prayed for.
3. The people praying really, although unconsciously, want the other person dead.
Here, too, there is no way to know which if any of these is true, so go with your gut.
Given this new study, should we stop praying? Probably, but I doubt we will. Prayer gives us the illusion of doing something helpful without obligating us to do anything substantive at all. But, now that we know prayer doesn’t work, we are robbed of the illusion and forced either to feel guilty or to do something else like visit the sick, or take care of their dog, or cook them a meal, etc.
So the next time you get the urge to pray for me, don't. Or, if you can't help yourself, just don't tell me about it. And if you plan to pray for someone else don’t tell them either. Better yet, pray for yourself, and ask God to give you the opportunity to be of real service to someone who is ill, and to free you from the notion that prayer is a substitute for action.