Protection Racket Questions

INTRO: These are provocative questions meant to stir discussion. Please don’t over characterize me personally. I’m a facilitator of a discussion here. OK?

1. Would you tell a room full of atheists that your children are less likely to be involved in automobile accidents than theirs because you pray for them? If yes, on what basis? If no, why not?

2. Would you be willing to submit that claim or other claims about divine provision and protection to scientific verification by comparing two groups: one atheists, one praying Christians? In general, do you believe there is statistical evidence for a prayer answering deity?

3. Do you believe God gives us our daily bread because we pray the Lord’s Prayer petition? Do you believe he withholds daily bread from those who don’t pray it? What is your explanation to starving Christians in the third world who pray for daily bread but do not receive it in quite the same amount as Americans?

NOTE: I pray and I ask for prayer. I pray for the requests of others. But I do so because Jesus taught and modeled simple, childlike dependence on God that expresses itself in prayer to “Abba, Father.” Jesus is, as in all things, my sufficiency in prayer and my example in prayer.

63 thoughts on “Protection Racket Questions

  1. The questions regarding statistics, I guess, assume the correlation of prayer = answer we want. Looking at the question statistically is obviously very man-centered in that we assume the correlation that what we are praying for is what is good for us at that moment. It seems the statistics would be thrown off in several cases to include (among the most optimistic) cases where God has something better in mind.

    I’m reminded of when Christ is asked about the tower of Siloam falling in Luke 13. The people were questioning what the people did. In the end, I guess it’s a mystery, and Christ tells them to repent too or perhaps a tower will fall on them (I just heard Sproul talk on this passage). I guess the same is true in regards to prayer. We pray as we are taught and because we ought. God’s “using” it is entirely a mystery to us because the interrelation of people’s lives and God’s purposes is much too complex for us.

    I liked the questions, though. Challenge some subconscious ideas I may have had about prayer having grown up in the church.


  2. Late for this, but-

    Maybe this just comes from being raised in a different environment, but I never saw prayer (or was taught to see prayer) as anything other than a kind of deepening of communication and faith in God. My parents were very clear- praying is different than wishing, and God is not a magic genie that lives in a bottle. God has his own perogative, and we believe in God’s goodness, but we don’t expect or believe God will save us from pain or suffering or injustice. Nor can we expect to have the reasons for these laid out before us.

    When I was in my early 20s, and going through a rough time, I took a lot of comfort in the old testement figures who were flawed men who actively wrestled, argued, bargained with God. They took God seriously enough, and believe in God enough, to engage in that kind of behavior- and it seems that God blessed them by, in some way, strengthening them- their faith, their souls, whatever.

    I pray when I am scared or sad, because it makes me more reliant on God, and because I am scared and sad and don’t know what to do. Sometimes I get angry at God, or even decide to go away from God, when the events in the world seem too meaningless and painful. But I don’t think I ever expect God to fix my life. I think he gave us each other for the purpose of making the world into what it’s meant to be, and I don’t think that it’s my place to give that responsibility back. Much as I may want to.


  3. A man in my church, Harold Koenig, has built a global reputation for his research in the subject. Harold began his career as a nurse who was impressed by the different attitudes that distinguished patient patients with faith from fretful faithless patients. He wondered by nursing school had never mentioned this connection, so he went to med school, and met the same “news blackout” on widely available experience. Several years after beginning his medical practice, Harold earned an MS in medical statistics — and now churns out landmark research papers (and books) on the subject. I heard him sharing these insights at a Turkish Muslim association meeting. (ironically, the actuary tables testify to the faithfulness of God. Insurance costs less in Christian cultures than it does in Muslim cultures.)


  4. How refreshing it is to read thoughts from real people about real issues. It is these very questions/doubts that drove me from attending church. I was in a service where someone stood and praised God for protecting her daughter in a car accident the day before and sitting right there in the congregation were a set of good, faithful parents who had just lost their son in an accident a few months before! How this must have hurt these parents to the core.
    I have come to my personal conclusion that God does not interfere in the everyday lives of people. If he did, horrible things would not happen to good Christian people. If it is true that God changes events, then that would equal that he is fickle and yes, cruel. I just can’t abide that explanation. I’d rather believe that he does not interfere at all. He IS there with us to help us get through the pain and to comfort us. Even as I profess this, I feel heartsick. I’d rather believe the opposite – that God prevents injury, heals disease, protects the innocent; that he is trustworthy. I am grappling with this even as I pray.


  5. If I may give a slightly contrarian answer:

    1. I wouldn’t say that, because I don’t believe that atheists are un-prayed-for. All are touched by prayer in some way or another, and all are granted mercy by God. I would tell the atheists the protection them and their children have received is due entirely to God through prayers offered for all men.

    2. No, I don’t believe such a thing can be scientifically proved. Simply put, tell me these control groups without people praying for them and I’ll pray for them. Fervently. You can’t tie God’s hands to command Him “have mercy on these, but not on these.”

    3. As someone mentioned above, 3rd world Christians are in many ways better off than us. They typically have a much stronger faith, a growing church, and holy lives of charity. Materially, they are very poor but spiritually they are quite rich. If we look at what really matters, maybe the question should be “Why don’t Americans have the faith of the third worlders?”

    I have been learning that the richest prayer we can offer is simply “Lord, have mercy!” We deserve nothing but condemnation and misfortune, we should praise God for all that we have and all that He gives us, even if it is not always to our liking.


  6. Here are some references to some studies that have been done on the power of prayer.



    Other References (most you would have to look up):
    ABC News. 1996. “Junk Science: What You Know That May Not Be So” (A special one-hour report).

    Anonymous. 1999. “Patients fare better with prayer, study says.” Greensboro News and Record, 26 October (Associated Press).

    Archives of Internal Medicine. 2000. 160(12):1735-1870. (Several articles with specific objections to and defenses of the initial study.)

    Byrd RC. 1988. “Positive therapeutic effects of intercessory prayer in a coronary care unit population.” Southern Medical Journal 81(7): 826-829.

    Dossey, Larry. 1993. Healing Words, the Power of Prayer and the Practice of Medicine. Harper Paperbacks, a Division of HarperCollins Publishers, NY.

    Gallucci, K.K., L. Carloye, and M. DeVries. 2002. An Inquiry Approach to Biology, second edition, McGraw-Hill, Primis Custom Publishing, Boston.

    Hales, Diane. 2003. “Why Prayer Could Be Good Medicine.” Parade, the Sunday Newspaper Magazine, Greensboro News and Record, 23 March (Parade Publications).

    Harris, William S., Manohar Gowda, Jerry W. Kolb, Christopher P. Strychacz, James L. Vacek, Philip G. Jones, Alan Forker, James H. O’Keefe, and Ben D. McCallister. 1999. “A randomized, controlled trial of the effects of remote, intercessory prayer on outcomes in patients admitted to the coronary care unit.” Archives of Internal Medicine, 159 (19):2273-2278.

    Krucoff, Mitchell, W., Suzanne W. Crater, RN, Cindy L. Green, Arthur C. Maas, Jon E. Seskevich, , James D. Lane, Karen A. Loeffler, Kenneth Morris, Thomas M. Bashore, and Harold G. Koenig. 2001. “Integrative noetic therapies as adjuncts to percutaneous intervention during unstable coronary syndromes: Monitoring and Actualization of Noetic Training (MANTRA) feasibility pilot.” American Heart Journal 142:760-767.

    Kwang Y. Cha, Daniel P. Wirth, J.D., and Rogerio A. Lobo. 2001. “Does prayer influence the success of in vitro fertilization-embryo transfer? Report of a masked, randomized trial.” Journal Reproductive Medicine 46: 781-787.

    Milloy, Steven. 2003. “Junk Science?”
    National Public Radio. 2003. “Power of Prayer.” Interview with Marilyn Schlitz and Annie Laurie Gaylor by Tony Cox. The Tavis Smiley Show, March 26, 2003.

    Sagan, Carl. 1996. The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. Random House, NY. (Ch. 12, “The Fine Art of Baloney Detection,” is widely available online.)

    Sicher, F., E. Targ, D. Moore, II, and H. Smith. 1998. “A randomized double-blind study of the effect of distance healing in a population with advanced AIDS.” Western J. Medicine 169: 356-363.

    Tyndall, John, Francis Galton, et al. 1876. The Prayer-Gauge Debate. Congregational Publishing Society, Boston.

    VandeCreek, Larry, ed. 1998. Scientific and Pastoral Perspectives on Intercessory Prayer, an exchange between Larry Dossey, M.D. and Health Care Chaplains. Harrington Park Press, Binghamton, NY.


  7. One other thing …

    When talking to the people of Africa, I would point out the verse that says ‘to whom much is given, much is required’ — and that if I as an American have been given so much more wealth and opportunity than they, I am responsible to God for what I do with it. I will remind them that they will probably have an easier time on the day of judgement than I will, because they only need account for their day-to-day survival, while I have to account for the missed opportunities in the midst of wealth and splendour.

    I would read with them the book of James and remind them that wealth here is not the same thing as wealth in eternity .. that they had no choice about being poor here but there’s a very good chance they’ll be wealthy in eternity *if* they’re faithful, while my own wealth won’t carry over into eternity if I don’t apply it to doing good here.

    And I would remind them of the verses that tell the rich to ‘weep and wail’ because of the miseries coming upon them. And why? Because they lived in luxury while their brothers were starving.

    I’m not about to move to Africa and live poor among them. It wouldn’t do them or me the slightest bit of good. Besides which, I’ve *tried*, and God slammed that door in my face. Like it or not, I’m stuck here in suburbia — the last place I want to be — for the foreseeable future. And I don’t have the moral fiber to live as a monk in a cell, and if they think they can do better, I hope one day to give them the chance. I see a lot of 3rd world people in my city, and I don’t see any of *them* living in voluntary poverty because their literal family back home is.

    So I’ll do the best I can with what I have, and hope God approves in the end. Neither living in ostentatious luxury nor in voluntary poverty. And if God wants them to live in luxury in Heaven and me not, it is only just.

    Frankly, I wish we could all have an equally pleasant time. But that doesn’t seem to be the case either in Heaven or on earth. The difference is they — being poor — can look forward to Heaven with hope while I can view the prospect only with dread.


    Brian P.


  8. I haven’t read any of the comments, but I’d like to respond to the original questions.

    “1. Would you tell a room full of atheists that your children are less likely to be involved in automobile accidents than theirs because you pray for them?”

    No, I would not.

    Because that isn’t what Jesus promised us. While the Psalms does speak of a thousand falling on one side while you are untouched, and while Jeremiah does tell us God’s plans are to ‘prosper’ us, the overwhelming experience of both the Bible and normal life is that everyone on the wheel of life goes through pretty much the same things. We all get into car accidents, we all get toothaches, we all get old and stiff, we all struggle with sex, etc. “In this world you will have trouble; but take heart, I have overcome the world.”

    We are not promised safety from the hogwash of the world, only that we will be given the strength to through it.

    Jesus tells us in the Sermon on the Mount that God causes his sun to shine on the evil and the good, because he’s just good that way. He does good to those that do evil to him.

    So I wouldn’t say to a roomful of athiests that their children would be less likely to die in a car accident if they were praying people. I would tell them they should pray because they were grateful to the one who protected them from car accidents even when he was their enemies.

    Every hour of our life is borrowed, every minute a grace straight from Heaven.

    I would tell them, however, that walking with God would be a better way to go to Heaven then walking as his enemies. He has given us such a short time here, why not make the best use of it they can? Why respond to his grace and mercy and provision here by shutting him out, and doing without for eternity?

    “2. Would you be willing to submit that claim or other claims about divine provision and protection to scientific verification by comparing two groups: one atheists, one praying Christians? In general, do you believe there is statistical evidence for a prayer answering deity?”

    Absolutely I would be willing to submit the claim to statistical verification. In fact, I would insist on it. I insist on testing everything to find out just how true it is.

    I don’t believe, however, that we will find statistical evidence for a prayer answering deity. Why is this? Because that would imply that the prayer answering deity is a blind force, without intelligence, whose actions are statistically predictable. And I don’t believe God does that. I believe he considers every prayer — and every human situation — on a case-by-case basis, and he makes his decision based on many variables, some of which we are not even aware of. I would be very surprised if such a God , operating on so many unknown factors, would be in any way distinguishable from random chance, from the human point of view.

    I remember as a toddler being utterly unable to predict what my parents were going to do from minute to the next, because I didn’t understand what motivated them or their thoughts and attitude. Thus, their actions *appeared* random even though they were not.

    Consequently, I don’t believe we will be able to make valid statistical predictions about God’s behavior until we really understand God. We don’t. So our studies will continue to return the answer “Random”.

    “3. Do you believe God gives us our daily bread because we pray the Lord’s Prayer petition?”

    I know for a fact this is not true, because I never prayed that prayer for years and still got my daily bread every day. That is because the Lord was gracious to me, giving me what I never even thought to ask for.

    “Do you believe he withholds daily bread from those who don’t pray it?”

    Case-by-case basis. I do know that sometimes I don’t receive things because I don’t ask for them. I also know I have received things I never asked for.

    I think it has a lot to do with the attitude of the individual human being, their situation, and what God was trying to accomplish at a given time.

    Some people who weren’t convinced of the value of prayer .. God might withhold bread until they asked for it, to teach them dependence. Others might not need that lesson or might not be ready to learn it, in which case God might very graciously give it to them anyway, despite the fact that they failed to ask for it.

    God is not a computer program. You can’t push a set of buttons and get a guaranteed answer. He is a loving father, and what he will do will be unpredictable from the viewpoint of us toddlers but will eventually be seen to be totally consistent with that nature … once we understand him well enough to see that. Someday.

    “What is your explanation to starving Christians in the third world who pray for daily bread but do not receive it in quite the same amount as Americans?”

    I would explain that they were chosen to be born into miserable countries with corrupt politicians et al who impoverished their countries to their own gain (see case of Zimbabwe) , and thus suffered with everyone else in those countries, while we Americans were chosen to live in a land of freedom, justice, and prosperity, most likely to provide them support in their battles.

    I would explain that it certainly isn’t because God likes me better, or them less. Neither of us had the slightest bit of choice in the matter. If we had our choices, we’d all have been born in America as children of privilege. But we weren’t given that choice. We were born to our fathers, and now we have to reap what our fathers sowed for us. In the case of the US, our fathers built a nation based on justice and on equality and on a western heritage, and we’re busy squandering that inheritance. In their case, their fathers built a miserable squalid existence and now they’re stuck with the bill for that as well.

    We were each called by God to our different stations. Theirs is to be a light in the darkness, and he will provide them with what he believes they need to accomplish that. He will keep his promises to them. It may not be the degree of luxury we now have .. but then again, they won’t have to suffer what we suffer either. For the wheel WILL turn eventually. It always does.


    Brian P.


  9. BTW – When Jesus prayed “Not my will but Yours be done” it also gives us some light. Why would He pray that if God’s will could not be changed, and when Jesus prayed “take this cup” was He praying against God’s will as we then say “not mine but yours”?

    Is God’s sovereignty so fragile that even the slightest deviation is unacceptable because it throws Him off completely? Or is His sovereign power so great that He not only can weave everything into the fabric of His sovereignty, but He already has?

    I love it when God becaomes God, I sleep better! 🙂


  10. joe – very good observation. Jesus Himself created at least a hint of prayer power by suggesting effectiveness can increase with sacrifice and depth. Also Jesus said that the man would get out of bed and give his friend bread just because the man was desparate as evidenced by the hour (midnight). Not because he was a friend, but because the man was moved by his situation.



  11. I haven’t been seeing too much written here about the meaning of Jesus’ exhortation of prayer and its power. For example, Jesus implied more results (casting out demons) if you used prayer with fasting. Jesus also used stories (like the woman and the judge) to teach us that we should expect more results if we pray harder – as if nagging God and the attitude of “expect a miracle” will make prayers more efficacious. I suspect many bloggers here have had the experience of a loved one confidently saying that someone is healed of cancer after intense prayer, only to quietly hear of the ill person’s death a few months later. Why these teachings when the results are so hazy that people resort to scientific studies to prove any effect?


  12. I would suggest another answer to number 3:
    Jesus gives the Lord’s prayer in Luke 11.
    Then in Luke 12:29-31 (NIV) he says:
    “And do not set your heart on what you will eat or drink; do not worry about it. For the pagan world runs after all such things, and your Father knows that you need them. But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.”

    I think there are compelling reasons to believe that epiousios (‘daily’ bread)
    means much more than mere sustenance. But even if we restrict it only to food, it is clear that it means we are only to ask for what we need for the day, not to chase after it and not to seek after more than we need.

    With regards to starvation in the world:

    God provides everything we (the human race) need feed everyone on the planet. If we really wanted to eliminate starvation in the world, collectively we have the resources to do so. Therefore, this question doesn’t condemn God, it condemns us.


  13. Sorry to be frustrating.

    Charlie said: ‘If I understand your comments your primary motive for prayer is the imitation of Christ and conversation with God. I agree, but believe there is more.’

    This is what I heard.

    I’m not an evangelical although I grew up as one.

    At the very least I believe that prayer changes me. And I think that this is an important part of prayer.

    And I’m left with the prayers of the Psalmist. I don’t think that ‘the point’ of the Psalms is to recommend – for instance – that we are to bash the babies of unbelievers on the rocks. I believe that the Psalms give us sometimes very gritty and ‘nasty’ prayers that are in the canon as models of prayer. I have to ‘do something’ with that model and I’m not sure what. Certainly, many of them are prayers for action. And certainly parts of the Old Testament give us examples of a God who changes his mind. (And as anathema as that might be to the modern neoplatonic view of God.)


  14. AT Chaffee,

    I thought up all on my own something that sounds like C.S. Lewis????? Dang! Maybe I’m not as dumb as I thought. My day is made! Thanks!


  15. I believe one of the first epidemiological experiments on prayer was in the 16th century or some such. The hypothesis was that ships carrying royal or noble personages would be more prayed for (a big assumption) and therefore should sink less. There was no difference.

    I think that CS Lewis said something along the lines of what Bob said, that a prospective prayer experiment is basically asking God to heal this person but not heal that person and is therefore has a component of praying against healing.


  16. How’s this…when Jesus taught us to pray for “our daily bread”, he was teaching us to pray for intimacy with him. He is the daily bread. We don’t necessarily pray so that God will change our circumstances. We pray for the Spirit of Christ to fill us and sustain us in the midst of them. The difference between an atheist and a christian is not that our circumstances are different, but that we are different in circumstances. We pray as a means of appropriating the Grace of Christ so that in even the worst that life has to offer, we plead: Lord Jesus, abide with me, hold me, sustain me, give me faith, grant me hope, feed my soul, help me to worship, help me to love, forgive me idolatry, walk with me through this.

    The only, but huge, difference between me and an Atheist is that I have Jesus. Nothing more should be expected. Truly, nothing more should be desired.


  17. I think it’s time for Luther to weigh in on this. In the Small Catechism he wrote:

    The Fourth Request

    Give us today our daily bread. (Matthew 6:11)

    What does this mean?

    Truly, God gives daily bread to evil people, even without our prayer. But we pray in this request that He will help us realize this and receive our daily bread with thanksgiving.

    What does “Daily bread” mean?

    Everything that nourishes our body and meets its needs, such as: Food, drink, clothing, shoes, house, yard, fields, cattle, money, possessions, a devout spouse, devout children, devout employees, devout and faithful rulers, good government, good weather, peace, health, discipline, honor, good friends, faithful neighbors and other things like these.



  18. 1. No, but I’d probably believe it. I just wouldn’t tell them because I’d want them all to like me.

    2. No, because scientific studies are never satisfied. There is always some validity or reliability issue, or some resultant haggling over methodology, if for no other reason, to justify the sketicism of the skeptic. That said, after having my three children involved in nine or more car accidents – about half their fault, and two quite dangerous – the thought occurred to me that I had NOT been praying for their safety and protection. I began doing that in May 2006, and they haven’t been in any more. Of course, that’s just anecdotal evidence – easily dismissed by anybody who assumes that God isn’t interested or doesn’t actually participate in the process.

    3. Ah, the Lord’s prayer. Perhaps it would be helpful to remember what it was given in response to. “Don’t be like the Jews who pray long, extended, pious prayers to be seen of men,” Jesus said. “On the other hand, don’t fill your prayers up with empty repitions, like the heathen either.” Instead, pray something simple. Like this… What have we done since? Turned it into a vain repetition.

    “You have not because you ask not” (James 4:2) must mean something. As does the reference that follows about asking for the right things, but for the wrong reasons.


  19. Michael,

    If I understand your comments your primary motive for prayer is the imitation of Christ and conversation with God. I agree, but believe there is more.

    #1-Yes: I believe in common grace, but a praying Believer may receive more from the Lord than the one who doesn’t ask/believe.

    #2-Yes: If it can be done objectively and within proper parameters.

    #3-Yes, but not exclusively, to the first two questions. To the last question I say, “The poor you will always have with you.”

    As SottoVoce pointed out, prayer opens the door for God to act. Not that he needs it, for he often chooses to act unilaterally. But there are also times when he clearly chooses to act only when asked.


  20. I don’t think anyone has specifically mentioned the “prayer frees God to act” view. My impression of this idea is that God allows Christians to be partners with Him in His work in the world. (All right so far.) Our part in this, besides feeding the hungry and so forth, is to pray that He will intervene in our affairs because He has given us the responsibility to invoke Him. Essentially, if we don’t ask Him, He can’t do anything. (Slam on the brakes!) Seems to me this places a huge burden on Christians’ backs, to say nothing about diminishing God to a cosmic genie.
    So might those three questions have come out of this view of prayer? I heard a lot about it in my teen years (not so long ago). It would be interesting to know where it came from.
    And my answers are no, no, and no.


  21. God has become a means to an end. It reminds me of the story of the ten lepers, where only one returned to thank Jesus. All of them had their prayers answered; apparently only one was praying for a Savior. When God becomes a means to an end, He eventually becomes expendable – easily replaced with another god, demon, cult leader, ten-step process, or nothing at all.

    A growing number of people are concerned that evangelicalism is becoming the new pied piper of secularism and neo-atheism. Scripture and prayer no longer lead us to Christ. Instead, they lead to material success and security. One can convince an atheist to “pray” out of pragmatic motives, but if they are not lead to an encounter with Christ at the cross, they will only become more content in their atheism. More opiate to the people!

    I think I’ll take another look at Mike Mason’s “Gospel According to Job”.


  22. Where does our need to scientifically prove the veracity of prayer come from? Is atheism a scientifically reasoned conclusion? Not if you go by the leading atheists. It is a cultural verging on moral question. There is no statistically validating proof sufficient to change a morally committed individual from believing that which they believe for no other reason than their own prejudices and values dictate that they do. I think the prayer question is a straw man, no straw women allowed. It neither affirms nor refutes God’s presence and activity in our world. I would like to discuss it with a room full of atheists though. It would be fun to demonstrate that their “faith” in their atheistic assumptions function in the same way as our “faith” in a creator God who loves us, and yet creates a contingent world where there are consequences to our ideas and actions. There is little difference in us beyond our philosophies, and a great bit of difference between the sources of our hope in life.


  23. One of the values of liturgical prayer (think “Book of Common Prayer”) is its breadth and its ability to expand prayer beyond our own limited self-interest. So, in such prayer, we intercede not only for our own children’s safety but for all the children of the world. When we pray give us this day “our” daily bread, we really mean “our.” So, studies such as Michael mentions are really not possible. There are no control groups who receive no prayer if the church is praying aright.

    As to how God factors our prayers into his design, who knows? But Scripture is clear that he does. So I pray.

    Peace of Christ.


  24. “With the science of statistics, randomness is a reality, yet God can somehow be present in that.”

    Good thought. Maybe apparent randomness is actually apparent sovereignty filtered through man’s observable reality and processed as “randomness”. In the end, will it not be the final reality that God has and continues to track every atom, every thought, and every truth as a shepherd tracks his sheep?

    And who can tell whether God will or does change His mind, God Himself said to pray always. Sovereignty is frustrating to the understanding because it can only be understood on a human level but is difficult to substantiate its reality totally be faith and without visible evidence, which, is not faith.

    In the end faith is freedom.


  25. These are questions I ask myself a lot. I’m an American, who was raised in a middleclass Republican home and despite living overseas for one year during my upbringing, I’m still very American and grew up in the Christian subculture. As such, I naturally believe in spite of the skepticism built into me by modernism and a western worldview.

    Now I live in China and I don’t think these are questions my Chinese friends would ask. They pray fervently and much more frequently than anything I experienced in America. They pray for things that we would consider impossible such as praying for “resucitation” following unexpected deaths.

    (Now, since I know the skeptic in you will ask (as did I), how often do these “resucitations” happen? I’ve only been informed of one since I’ve lived here (15 months) where a baby was “dead” upon the arrival of an American medical professional and apparently hadn’t been breathing for awhile prior to his arrival. The American tried to revive the baby but was initially unable and was preparing to comfort the family at the loss of their child. The family insisted on further prayer for his revival and after thirty minutes, more CPR and some exposure to outside air, the baby revived. I’m friends with the American and know that he at the time was a cessationist and literally went didn’t know how to respond theologically. Unfortunately, the baby was wrought with medical issues and died finally about three months later. The family of the child were already believers, but all of the local people who witnessed the illness, death, resucitation and resolve of the family through these events believed in part due to seeing God at work in these events (about 30 people total). These new believers immediately started sharing money that they couldn’t afford to help with the medical costs of the resucitated baby. Obviously the child wasn’t a believer, and I wonder if the same events would have happened if the parents weren’t believers? The only thing I know for sure is that if they weren’t believers they wouldn’t have had the contact of the American medical professional and he wouldn’t have experienced the events, and thus I probably wouldn’t have heard about it. The final death of the child was one of the more moving stories that I’ve ever been told. The family’s faith was strong and they sang and worshipped as their child was sent down the conveyer belt and into the communal furnace at the mass crematorium while other unbelievers sent their beloved down the same conveyor belt not understanding but very inquisitive as to why this family had such hope in the face of death.)

    We westerners would probably call this type of prayer life “ignorant of reality,” but I would contend that many of these believers hold the same prestigious degrees in science and medicine that we would expect woudl cause them to be skeptical. Many of them have viewed the same evidence that we would use to feed our skepticism. They pray for every type of disease and sickness, praying for themselves and for others. They pray against demonic influences and seem to believe that they are just as present and real as you and I. One of these men who prays fervently is a scientist with degrees from some of the most prestigious universities in England (where he has also lectured in the past), yet he claims to have personally experienced demonic action and seen immediate answers to fervent prayers against it.

    Now, I’m going to be honest. I’m an American with an ingrained affinity for skepticism, especially in regards to the supernatural. As such, I still naturally doubt any effect to this type of praying and don’t personally partake in praying with the same fervency or frequency. When my son or wife gets sick I pray that God will conform them to experience his comfort, but I don’t really pray for healing. Honestly, I generally pray like a determinist (although I’m not one) who believes that God has already blueprinted the events and taht therefore my prayers will have little effect on events that I experience outside of drawing me into communion with God and thus resolving my fears.

    So in conclusion I would personally answer “no” to all three questions above, but I’m not sure if this is due to theological, biblical and experiential reflection or simply due to my western culture and natural tendency towards skepticism.


  26. With the science of statistics, randomness is a reality, yet God can somehow be present in that. We cannot statistically prove the supernatural.


  27. I thank God for prayer. It’s the thing that makes
    it possible to participate in things you’d not
    normally be able to participate in.

    Perhaps the cause and effect categories are not as
    applicable to prayer as relational categories.
    Thus all these questions.

    If you ask your wife to do something for you and she does,
    did you cause her to do it?


  28. I’m afraid you’ve misread a good bit of what I’m saying. I don’t think it’s quite a big deal that some of us think there’s a bit too much pragmatic “use” of God to “get results” and less emphasis on prayer as the conversation of the heart with its creator.

    I appreciate your prayers, though. I don’t think I’m a heretic for suggesting prayer’s value is not in what it prevents or fixes.


  29. You noted that you pray and ask for prayer, but after asking about a scientific case study to look at results of those that pray vs. those that do not. Scientifically I can’t prove there is a God either. Faith is not based on logic, reason or evidence. Based on your comments from the last post, it seems like you pray because you’re supposed to and not because you think it makes a difference. I teach that prayer changes things; you’re saying it humbles us, but makes no other difference…..

    I’ll pray for you.


  30. WebMonk:

    You neglected to reference the numerous peer-review articles that illustrate the flawed methodology that led to a positive result for intercessory prayer. (They were listed in the first link you referenced.)

    As for the power of retroactive prayer – it’s no time warp – it illustrates very clearly how less than rigorous testing can yield misleading results.

    (Scientific testing of homeopathic (i.e. placebo) remedies is a great example of this, by the way.)

    Even worse, in one study where some of the patients knew they were being prayed for, there was a higher occurrence of post-op complications!

    Furthermore, back on the theological track, I’d love to see a cogent biblical argument that shows that God seeks and blesses random intercessory prayer from one person about another to whom they have absolutely no relation. (RC’s in the back row, I see you waiving you hands about communion of the saints… I’m looking for an answer from the smartypants protestants.)


  31. “I don’t mean anecdotal evidence. I mean statistical evidence that more atheists than Christians are dying in wrecks and of cancer because they don’t pray and we do.”

    If anyone is really interested, the Templeton Foundation was sponsoring exactly this sort of research just a couple of years ago. Unfortunately, I don’t know their conclusions, but maybe you can find it on their website.

    This sort of work would be well nigh impossible for a Christian to do. I mean, there’s this atheist lying in a hospital bed and I know he’s not being prayed for, and then I have to refrain from praying for him because I don’t want to skew my statistics? So I don’t know how they actually did their study.

    You raise some good questions, though, Michael. Many of the same ones I would like to ask some people preaching “effective prayer.” And, for now, you and I seem to be in about the same place on this. Big difference, though: You seem comfortable with your conclusions, or lack thereof, while I just can’t stand it sometimes. Any advice for me?


  32. Scientific evidence of the effect of prayer?

    Kind of makes me think of the “Give us a sign” crowd in the NT. They wanted proof in Jesus abilities, we want proof of God’s ability to answer us.

    I don’t think we’ll ever get any “proof” in that sense, and chasing after it says more about us than it does about God.

    I think prayer and the experience of God’s presence are meant to be individual experiences with effects on the pray-er and not the pray-ee. Yet, at the same time, there is Jesus praying for future Christians in John, not long before his Crucifixion….so what do I know?

    Is this question related to the subject at hand: Why has Jesus’ prayer that His followers be “one” seem to have gone unanswered? The answer to that would seem to go the heart of this very question. What happens when God incarnate has his prayer not really answered in a way that we would recognize?

    Why aren’t we one?

    Answer that one for me and I think I’ll understand more about prayer, free will, and the nature of God.


  33. Do these questions at least nudge one to maybe possibly consider looking at the assertions of open theism? Or is that “ism” unmentionalble?


  34. More regarding Michael’s article on prayer.

    In my opinion there’s more lying within the vestibule of a Church (about miracles) than anywhere else in society, save a singles’ bar or during a political debate :>).

    The only things I know for sure are,

    1) God can work outside His natural laws,
    2) Historically, in Scripture, God did work outside His natural laws—on rare occasions,
    3) Now; In the vast majority of cases, God works within His natural laws and that’s not inferior to miracles,
    4) Now, God may rarely work outside His natural laws,
    5) In scripture we are instructed to pray with the object of “changing God’s mind” and having Him to act outside His natural laws and there’s no evidence that that has changed since Biblical times,
    6) The vast majority of testimonials by Christians, regarding miracles, are bogus,
    7) Lying FOR Jesus is still lying. :>(


  35. 1. No. God has not made promises that my children will be kept physically safe if I pray for them. I’m not prepared to be dogmatic about this yet, but I am submit this proposition: that my prayers of request should (only?) be for the promises that God has clearly made – I know those will be answered, since in Christ all the promises of the Father are yes and amen.

    2. I doubt that there is statistical evidence, although I believe there is much experiential evidence in the lives of believers. Moses and Joshua commanded Israel to remember the mighty works of God, but they didn’t keep a running tally of how they stacked up against the Moabites. I think there is a lot to be said for looking back at my life and reminding me and my family of the mighty works of God, but that needs to be focused first on the cross, and only after that on anything peripheral.

    3. No, I don’t think we receive our daily needs because we pray a certain formula. Don’t have an explanation for those whose needs are apparently not met. Although I often wonder how that squares with Psalm 37:25 “I have not seen the righteous forsaken, or his children begging bread.” I DO know the answer is not that starving believers aren’t quite righteous enough.

    On a side note, for some of those things that we receive in answer to prayer (or sometimes not), it seems to me that, in an infinitely greater measure than earthly fathers, our Heavenly Father sometimes simply loves to give unexpected good gifts to His children, for our joy and His glory.


  36. Mike Taylor,

    “Why does Jesus teach us to pray “give us today our daily bread”?

    I think Jesus teaches us to pray that prayer for our sakes. So that we will keep in mind where evreything we have comes from. To keep us from focusing on our achievements and to focus on the One that is the source of all things.

    “Daily bread”, encompasses all that we need for living.


  37. Interesting discussion. I have a problem with prayers in which I ask for things for myself. I don’t want to look at God as my cosmic vending machine, one that dispenses whatever I ask for, but at the same time, I want to trust God in every aspect of my life. To me, that means I do need to talk with God (pray) about all of the things that are going on in my life. So I pray that my husband will make it home safely from work, or that my children will stay out of trouble, or that our car won’t break down, but I look at this as more of a conversation with the most important person in my life. I don’t think this makes it any more likely that things will go my way, though. In the end, God does what He does.

    “What is your explanation to starving Christians in the third world who pray for daily bread but do not receive it in quite the same amount as Americans?”

    This question is kind of funny. God gives us what we need day to day when we trust Him for our provision, but what we need is not the same as what we Americans have. We have excess. Ungodly excess.

    Third world Christians might not have as much bread as we do, but they have a much purer faith. I doubt they are having the kind of crises you talk about on this blog. I doubt they have Christless sermons. I doubt they are discussing the triviality of prayer requests.

    But I suppose that is easy for me to say with my cupboards full.


  38. Pam,

    I, too, struggle with the best way to intercede for another while praying. I know that God is not a slot machine, that after so many prayers, He will indulge you with the desired answer. That seems to be the way that a lot of people pray.

    I also know that praying like so many do causes people to forget that God is terrible. He is awe-ful, and should be approached with humility, and possibly a small amount of fear.

    I also know that some prayers, were they answered the way we ask, cause hurt for others. Like praying for an organ to be available to be transplanted. That could very well mean another’s death, and a whole family in mourning. Mark Twain says it so much better in “A War Prayer.”

    I pray, and sometimes I would rather be doing almost anything else than that. And yet, I do.


  39. Michael, here are a few (there are hundreds) of the studies that do double-blind, randomized studies on prayer. These are all done by secular groups, as are most of the studies, since religious groups don’t normally run scientific research centers of any type. (my apologies for the ugly text links, can you turn them into regular hyperlinks?)

    “A Randomized, Controlled Trial of the Effects of Remote, Intercessory Prayer on Outcomes in Patients Admitted to the Coronary Care Unit”

    “Positive therapeutic effects of intercessory prayer in a coronary care unit population”;jsessionid=LLYFJ3SFpsDR5blZVY82FC6YnpFpXZ5R05vC4y0HhNZhndGQw11K!774718804!181195629!8091!-1

    And if you want to get really freaky, here’s a study that was done by having prayer retroactively applied to randomized cases. Anyone want to get into time travel paradoxes? :^)
    “Effects of remote, retroactive intercessory prayer on outcomes in patients with bloodstream infection: randomized controlled trial”

    There are also some (fewer) studies that show a statistically null result – everyone has heard the reminder that God isn’t a vending machine – insert 50 prayers and out pops a healing. (even if we do behave this way sometimes) There have been hundreds of prayer studies, and there are also studies of the studies, and they pretty universally show an effect had by prayer.

    While God isn’t a vending machine, neither does He ignore our prayers for favors. (though, if I were God, I would ignore a lot more of them than He seems to, especially the ones I make!)


  40. I could just say read Job.

    I would say yes to all of them except there is a component that can’t be tested scientifically – FAITH. And prayer alone is meaningless. Prayer motivated by faith and love is where it’s at. When we pray out of our love and dependence/faith in God, I absolutely believe it matters and changes things. I’ve seen it happen in my life too many times. I couldn’t be a missionary without it.


  41. 1. No, no, no, a thousand times no. Good grief, no. No!

    (Did I make myself clear???)

    2. No. Always intrigues me why people (and Christians in particular) could possibly think such research is likely to say anything useful. What part of “Do not put the Lord your God to the test” don’t they understand?

    3. No. As Luther put it:

    God certainly gives daily bread to everyone without our prayers, even to all evil people, but we pray in this petition that God would lead us to realize this and to receive our daily bread with thanksgiving.

    (Actually, the whole of the linked section from the Small Catechism, on the Lord’s Prayer, is very helpful on the balance between “we don’t need to pray” and “yet we do”. The whole emphasis is, “This happens anyway, but we should still pray that it will happen.”)


  42. “What is your explanation to starving Christians in the third world who pray for daily bread but do not receive it in quite the same amount as Americans?”

    While I wouldn’t assume to be able to answer this question adequately I would say that a partial answer is that daily bread isn’t food alone.


  43. The problem with the prayer studies, from a theological standpoint, is central: When people don’t know they’re being prayed for, they don’t show any signs of faster recovery or greater recovery rate. From a scientific standpoint, this looks far too close to a placebo effect.

    The problem with a lot of this is the implied “God loves me more than you” results from the “I prayed, and God protected me” witnesses. And sometimes, prayer is not as good as getting off your butt and doing something. The Mormon prophet Brigham Young once said that when milk and potatoes are needed to feed the hungry, prayer will not suffice. Prayer that God will give me the strength and ideas to help someone is better than praying for God to help someone.


  44. I wonder how much of my being confused by these issues (and I think I understand Michael’s point) is related to my equating power with the “sine qua non” of divinity. I pray because I think God can fix things…because he’s God. And in a related way, I often pray fearfully (as the Protection Racket analogy might suggest). I ask for something, but dread the “Monkey’s Paw” answer.

    “Teach me to be patient…but don’t take away my job to do it.”
    “Grant me repentance…but don’t hurt anyone I love to rattle me up.”

    I want mercy, but not Vanauken’s “Severe” variety. I may not vocalize the conditions, but they often go through my mind. I worry about God. I don’t trust him. I simply need him.

    It’s the sort of negotiating, I imagine might happen between a shop owner and a wise guy as they discuss the mob’s services. The only reason I can imagine talking to the Godfather is because I want something from him. That kind of relationship, even pissed off Don Corleone at the beginning of the movie, if I remember correctly.

    What if God were the weakest of beings; would he still be worthy of talking to and getting to know. Is it worth spending time with a father who lies dying in a Nursing Home bed, or does he need to be a strapping young “Bully Busters” to warrant my communion?

    I don’t mean to suggest that our God is ill, impotent or beyond helping us. The Pale Galilean is all the more wonderful for being the lion of the Old Covenant, but I wonder if we aren’t assuming a theology grounded in something other than the cross, when the majority of our prayers consist of petitions.

    Nor do I mean to suggest that God is like Don Corleone. I believe the gospel….most of the time, anyway. But I can’t imagine Michael’s remarks causing a ruckus if they were made about someone else whom he speaks to simply because he loves them.

    Imagine, “Does anyone believe that talking with Grandma or Grandpa keeps you out of trouble with the IRS?” Answers may vary. Conversation with these people may or may not help with audits, but asking such a thing wouldn’t cause anyone to question whether Michael thinks he ought to quit talking to his grandparents. If it did, shouldn’t his grandparents be hurt?

    Just thinking out loud.


  45. >it seems to be on the edge of throwing out intercessory prayer…

    This will make the fourth time I’m saying this. If you detect some frustration, you’re right 🙂

    Jesus taught us to pray. But that does not mean buying into all the assumptions of how prayer works and what prayer does that you find in evangelical or Christian piety.

    I pray, am prayed for and pray for others….in imitation of Jesus. To pray the Lord’s Prayer is not the same as praying someone’s theology of prayer. If by throwing out intercessory prayer you mean throwing out some ideas of how God runs the world then I may be guilty. But Christ followers pray. They must. They will. The Kingdom comes and we pray for it to do so on earth as in heaven.


  46. I have two other questions which are related to each other:

    1) How do you account for the prayer-images and prayer requests in the Psalms?

    2) Do you think that there is anything about praying that has to do with changing the person praying?

    I appreciate and agree with a lot of what you’re struggling with, but it seems to be on the edge of throwing out intercessory prayer (always a fraught subject) entirely?


  47. This is in response to your last two postings:

    It is refreshing to have this cyber place, because in my real world, with my real Christian friends, I can’t even have this conversation. Even to raise the question, is deeply offensive to many.

    Modern, American, colloquial Christianity ascribes to a strange doctrine of fatalism. They believe that every molecule of this physical world is attached to God’s (or Satan’s) puppeteer strings. Nothing (with a capital “N”) can happen unless it is the direct will of God or an attack of Satan.

    Like the youth pastor (at a previous church) sharing from the pulpit, “When I was at the concert, I stepped in bubblegum, which was a demonic attack, trying to distract me from the thrill of the praise band.”

    Here’s something worse. At another previous church, a young father was mowing his lawn and his 4-year-old son pushed the unlatched screen door open and ran across the yard. His dad didn’t see him and backed over him. The tragedy really struck home to me as I had kids the same age, plus I was working the ER where the child was brought. His precious head sliced to pieces and was dead on arrival.

    In the midst of our church’s great grief, the following Sunday, the head elder took the podium and announced in a highly emotional voice, “My God doesn’t make mistakes!” To which “Amens” spread across the sanctuary like a rising tide. He added, “God took little Jacob home to him for a reason . . . to teach us all to trust Him more!” Amens were shouted.

    It is strange what this God was trying to teach, because Jacob’s family eventually fell apart, his parents divorcing (as they continued to blame each other for the accident). “Our God,” in that case, must be a lunatic or sadomachist.

    It is my humble opinion that the emotional reasons that these strange views are so wildly held by Christians (and scripture is so misinterpreted) is because of:

    1) To make sure that their God is big enough, (omniscience), they assume that he is the extreme micro-manager.
    2) To make sense out of the daily life, every event MUST have a big reason.
    3) To feel secure, they must believe that there is no real danger in this world because a loving God controls every atom.
    4) Evangelicalism is deeply invested in Gnostic Dualism. So events in this physical world, controlled by God’s wonderful laws of physics (as described by Newton) has no meaning unless they are spiritualized . . . strings going up to the Heavens or down to Hell. To them, only the “spiritual matters.

    Some of scripture used to support these notions include: Matt 10:29-30 about the sparrow. But go a verse and looked at 28 (which is left off when quoted). It says, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.” So bad people CAN kill you, and God does not promise to protect your physical body . . . but they can not kill your soul. I expound on this at:


  48. This is raised every time there’s a news article that discusses a terrible road accident. 8 people die horrible deaths and there’s one survivor, whose sound bite says “God protected me, I’m so thankful.”

    We need to be very careful what we ascribe to God, and how we do it.


  49. You need to be very careful in evaluating any study on prayer and healing. First of all, most that I’ve heard of that are done in a scientifically valid way don’t differentiate between the prayers of Christians, Muslims, Jews, etc. The problem with that is we’ve got placebo mixed in with the test subjects.

    Since we all know that the God only hears and responds to the prayers of His children, all non-Christians who pray need to be put in the control group as well.

    After that, we need to weed out heretical sects such as JW, Mormons, Christian Science – into the control group with you!

    At that point, I guess we’re “close enough”, though some might be skeptical of Catholics, Anglicans or anyone whose sanctuary is longer than it is wide… Hopefully, the prayers of the faithful will rise above the statistical “noise”.

    Once I see a study that is both scientifically valid and controlled for the non-elect, then I’ll believe it. The problem is that it seems like every time we apply too much scientific rigor, God chooses not to do anything too far above or below the statistical averages. Probably because the people running the study didn’t pray hard enough about it in the first place.

    Maybe we should rely on faith instead… 😉


  50. Err … I think the evidence falls short.

    The studies actually “prove” that people who pray experience things such as decreased stress, blood pressure, increased good will and those sorts of things … which can contribute to a decrease in time spent in hospital.

    Now … my faith says that God has something to do with this. The cynic in me says that prayer/meditation of any sort will quite naturally have this effect. It’s the act of meditation which conveys the good effect, not the prayer to the deity.

    You have to be very careful about these sorts of studies. As my dad the statistician says, you can make statistics say anything you want them to.

    As for your questions … harsh. I don’t think I have the hubris to stand up and make the claims that God will do this or that on behalf of any given group of people. He’s not around to do my (or anyone else’s) bidding.

    I think it’s high time we separated our capatalist zero-sum paradigm from our theology and see what happens to our prayer life. I think it would change things rather dramatically.


  51. “Do you believe God gives us our daily bread because we pray the Lord’s Prayer petition? Do you believe he withholds daily bread from those who don’t pray it? What is your explanation to starving Christians in the third world who pray for daily bread but do not receive it in quite the same amount as Americans?”

    I may or may not have good answers to those questions, but can I first ask you one? Why does Jesus teach us to pray “give us today our daily bread”?


  52. Could you reference the studies from a secular or neutral source?

    I’ve seen such claims by Christians for years, but all secular studies I’ve read, including recent discussions of this, claim there is no difference that is attributable to prayer as opposed to family relationships, feeling loved, community, etc.

    I don’t mean anecdotal evidence. I mean statistical evidence that more atheists than Christians are dying in wrecks and of cancer because they don’t pray and we do.


  53. Actually, I would say yes, yes, and no, with caveats/explanations on all of them.

    It is perfectly possible that my kids will be in an accident no matter how much I pray for them. (rain on believer and unbeliever, God’s sovereignty, etc, etc, blah, blah, blah) But, God does interact with us and answer our prayers in some way.

    Going into the reasons for why/how/when/etc of God’s interactions with us is a wonderful exercise in giving yourself a migraine.

    There have been a number of studies, several of which were flawed, but a couple of which were quite rigorously double-blind, randomly selected, carefully non-interactive, statistically significant, and all that. They have showed that hospitalized people who were being prayed for recovered more quickly than those who weren’t being prayed for.

    Just answering your question, “do you believe there is statistical evidence for a prayer answering deity,” the answer is yes. I’m not sure about car crash studies, but there have been hospital studies that pretty clearly show that the answer is ‘Yes.’


  54. Everybody know’s the answer to those questions. People just don’t pray hard enough or believe in limited atonement enough to have their prayers answered.


  55. You said on BHT:

    “The constant tension between believing in the sufficiency of the cross and the seriousness of Jesus’ words of discipleship is very discouraging to me.”

    I’d like to hear more about this.


  56. Drum roll………..

    And the answer is – we do not know 1, 2, or 3.

    We do know Him.

    We are content with not knowing 1, 2, or 3.

    Because we know Him. 🙂


  57. I would answer “No” to all the above questions.

    “God’s rain falls on the believer and the unbeliever alike”. (not sure who said that. Many, I think)

    You can use “rain” in both the negative and the positive views for that sentence to be true.


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