Attempts to Measure the Effectiveness of Prayer


The other day a friend sent me the link to an article reviewing an attempt to quantify and thereby verify or debunk the effectiveness of prayers offered by others for the healing of the sick. Personally, I find such experiments annoying, but aside from that personal reaction, I want to look at the situation.

The scientist needs to clarify what s/he is examining, and the experiment should not include reference to activity on the part of God, because God cannot be controlled. If the scientist confuses science with theology and asks the theological question, “Can God be controlled by prayer?” the theological answer is a resounding, “No!” So, let it be clear from the outset that if the experiment is set up to test the hypothesis that God can be controlled by prayer, the default answer of biblical theology is negative. The expectation, if such an experiment could be devised (the theological default answer is that it cannot), is that the experimentation would fail to show a correlation between prayers and results.

To be clear, let me interrupt myself and say I do believe in God, and part of my belief (trust) is that God is moved by our prayers and cares about us in our distresses. But prayer is not given to us as a means for controlling God or God’s power to get the results we want. That’s magic, and biblical theology considers magic antithetical to faith. “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” Further, the Bible maintains the mystery of God and God’s freedom from any attempt by humans to control or manipulate divine power.

The paradigm comes in Exodus chapter 3 when Moses investigates the bush that appears to be burning without being consumed. The voice of God from the bush tells Moses to come no closer but to remove his sandals because he has entered upon holy ground, meaning simply that God is present there at the moment in a special way (not that the soil or the geographical location itself is holy or that God resides in one spot on earth). But, having prevented Moses from coming closer, God promises to be with Moses on the mission for which God is calling him for the sake of the people of Israel.

The experiments described in the article belong to recent attempts to quantify God’s activity in the world by setting up experiments involving religious activity. All of them I have seen reported so far involve prayer – not fasting, sacrifices of various kinds, sacraments, deeds of compassion, monetary offerings, or any other of humanity’s wide variety of religious acts. The whole idea of seeking to prove or disprove God’s activity in the world by such experiments is bogus, on two counts. It is bogus science, and it is bogus theology.

What is the hypothesis? Is it based upon somebody’s apparent theological claim, such as “prayer works”? Prayer does not work. Biblical theology insists that nothing done by human beings “works” on God. God’s intervention in human life and history is purely a matter of grace. We humans cannot perform any act to trigger it, manipulate it, or control it. God is free. Of the Spirit of God, the Christian Newer Testament says in a word play on wind/spirit (same word in Greek), “The wind blows where it will.” We do not manipulate God, we trust God. We do not wheedle God with prayer; we ask the One we trust, believing that God is both wiser and more compassionate than we are.

We believe further that all born into this world die their way out of it. As another friend of mine said some time ago, “None of us is getting out of here alive.” (Yes, I know what Paul says close to the end of what is now First Corinthians chapter 15, but Paul there is talking about the eschaton, the consummation, what many Christians call the “second coming” of Christ.) So, all hurts will not be healed, all diseases cured, all deaths prevented “until that day comes.”

The bogus experiments seek to quantify God’s responses to religious actions, as though God had no will but were merely mindless or mechanized power into which humans can tap if they know how. In the terms of my New Jersey roots, forgetaboutit. Faith is trust in the love and mercy of God, and we trust God’s love and mercy to hold on to us in life and in death. Attempts to prove or disapprove the validity of our trust in God by somehow measuring the effectiveness of our prayers are ridiculously invalid. They are as though Moses would charge the burning bush and seek to seize God by the throat and compel God to do his will – the will of the man, Moses. No way. But God does promise to be with Moses as he, reluctantly, follows God’s command to return to Egypt and demand the release of God’s children from slavery. That’s the paradigm.

Do I pray for people who are sick? Yes, every day. Do I believe God hears those prayers and cares about those for whom I am praying? Yes. Do I pray for results I know might not be granted? Yes, I do. I do not believe in editing my own prayers by calculating what I regard as likely outcomes. Like the child who freely expresses his/her desire to the parent, I say what I mean, what I want, what I hope or long for. (Praying aloud with others requires more care, but that’s another subject.) And I feel no need to tack on the disclaimer, “If it be your will.” Why should I? Do I think I have the power to make God do what is not God’s will? No, I am asking as honestly as I can. Beyond that, I trust God as well as I can.

So, if you’re looking for a way to manipulate God and get results, try magic. I believe you will fail, but at least you won’t be calling your efforts faith or science. If you’re looking for a way to prove or disprove the love and mercy of God, well, please don’t call your experiments faith, and don’t call them science, either. Spare us more silly experiments pretending to control and quantify variables that cannot be controlled or measured.

Faith is trust in the love and mercy of Another who commits to us but not on our terms and who, therefore, remains free.