By Greg O’Brien, Codfish Press
Much ado is being made of a new medical study questioning the power of intercessory prayer. The New York Times reported on the front page of its Friday edition that a ten-year medical study, led by Harvard Medical School cardiologist Dr. Herbert Benson, indicates, “Prayers offered by strangers had no effect on the recovery of people who were undergoing heart surgery.” The study, involving more than 1800 patients, noted a higher complication rate in patients who were the focus of prayer.
So, where’s God in all this: encased in kryptonite; resting on the seventh day; or perhaps the Lord didn’t get the memo?
“One conclusion from this is that the role of awareness of prayer should be studied further,” Dr. Charles Bethea, an Oklahoma City cardiologist and co-author of the study, told the Times, responding to the controversy the study has engendered.
As well intentioned as this and related studies might be, a quick check of scripture tells us that God doesn’t do tests. The premise is as scientific, as it is spiritual: You can’t put the Lord in a box when the heavens the Almighty created know no bounds. Moses himself finally got the point after wandering aimlessly in the desert for 40 years with the grousing Israelites. “Why do you quarrel with me,” Moses asks them in Exodus 17:2. “Why do you put the Lord to the test?”
In fact, there is only one place in scripture, whether you are reading from a Catholic, Protestant or Jewish perspective, where God encourages a test of faith. In the last word of the Old Testament—Malachi 3:10—the Lord promises to bless those who tithe: “Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in My house, and test Me in this.”
The problem with studying religion in scientific terms is that “you do violence to the phenomenon by reducing it to basic elements that can be quantified, and that makes for bad science and bad religion,” Dr. Richard Sloan, a Columbia University professor of behavioral medicine, said in the Times report.
In short, God is not a spiritual primate who will do tricks for a pellet. Intercessory prayer has worked since the beginning of time, ever since God promised Cain in the Book of Genesis that no one would harm him, and all the Harvard studies in the world won’t change that. Does intercessory prayer work all the time? Hell, no! We often ask for the wrong things, like a Red Sox World Series championship in less than 86 years. We regularly quench our thirst on the salt water of the earth—making us even thirstier and discarding the free and inestimable supply of the Living Waters of redemption and the Holy Spirit.
Weighing in on the prayer study, Dr. Harold Koenig, director of the spirituality center at Duke University Medical Center, notes that within the Judeo-Christian tradition, God would be expected to be more concerned about a person’s eternal salvation, not whether one survives a triple bypass, states an Associated Press report.
Something to chew on next time you go to prayer!