Does praying work?

Note:  This homily was delivered to the 3rd year students during their Batch Mass on October 6, 2010.

About five years ago, an interesting scientific research was conducted by a team of doctors.  The study is called STEP, which stands for “Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer.” The research is interesting because it’s a kind of experiment on the effects of prayer on patients undergoing a delicate surgery called CABG–or Coronary Artery Bypass Graft.

The doctors behind STEP wanted to answer two research questions:

First: Does intercessory prayer–or praying for the patients–help them recover from surgery?

Second:  Are there benefits if the patients are assured of prayers?  In other words, do they recover faster?I’d like to talk about this today because during the Gospel reading, we just heard what’s probably the most famous biblical passage about prayer that people love quote to encourage us to pray.

“Ask and you will receive;
seek and you will find;
knock and the door will be opened to you.”

So, did the study prove these passages true?

Here’s what the doctors did in the study. They observed a total of 1,807 cardiac arrest patients who are about to undergo CABG surgery.  The patients were divided randomly into 3 groups:

First, Group A:  Patients in this group were assured that prayers would be offered for their surgery and recovery.  Three Christian groups were given a list of their names and these prayed for them for a total of 14 days.

Group B: Patients in this group were not given any assurance about prayer, but their names were also submitted to the Christian groups, who secretly prayed for them for 14 days.

Group C:  These were the unlucky ones since their names were not submitted to any group for prayers.

Obviously, no patient was assured of prayers but was not prayed for. That would be lying.

Group A: 601 patients 0 patient
Group B: 604 patients Group C: 597 patients

The researchers figured that based on the results, they could make some conclusions about the effect of prayer.  For example:

1.  What if Groups A and B recover significantly better than Group C?

2.  What if Group A recovers significantly better than Group B?

3.  What if Group B recovers significantly better than Group C?

4.  But what if Group C recovers significantly better than Groups A and B?

For this study, recovery was measured by the incidence of complications after the surgery.  The less complications there were, the better the recovery.

Here are the results:

Out of the 597 patients in Group C, those who didn’t get any prayers or any assurances for prayers, 304–or 51%–experienced post-surgery complications. That’s half the patients!  Not a very good number.

What about those in Group B, those who no promises of prayer, but actually got prayed for? Out of the 604 patients in Group B, 315–or 52%–got complications!  That’s statistically the same as Group C so we can’t really make any conclusion about the effects of prayer yet.

Our only hope now lies in Group A, the patients who got both assurances of prayer and actually got prayed for.  Out of the 601 patients, complications were evident in 352 of them. That’s 59%–statistically higher incidence of complications than Groups B and C!

Group A: 59% (352/601)
Group B: 52% (315/604) Group C: 51% (304/597)

The study came up with two major conclusions:

First, prayer had NO significant effect on the patients’ recovery.  There was almost no difference between Group B and Group C.

But worse, assurance of prayer was associated with a higher incidence of complication:  Group A patients had more complications than those in Groups B and C.

What happens now?  First, if we think about it carefully, there’s something wrong with the study.  It has some flaws or loopholes.  The problem with the research is not so much the results, but the design. Aside from prayer and assurances of prayer, there were two other factors in the study that the researchers were not able to controll and these factors could have affected the results.  In scientific lingo, we call these factors “extraneous variables.”  What are these so-called extraneous variables?

First, how did the three Christian groups pray for the patients?  Did they use the same type of prayers?  Did they mean their prayers?  Did they even pray at all?

Secondly, who else was praying for the patients of Group C?  How sure are we that these patients did not have relatives and friends praying for them?  Is it possible that some people also prayed for them, maybe even in a more sincere way than the Christian groups officially contracted for the study?

Even a non-believing scientist would notice these flaws in the study.  In other words, we can’t say that prayer has no effect because maybe those who were supposed to pray didn’t do so properly, if at all, and those who weren’t supposed to get any prayers may have actually gotten them. It’s like concluding that a particular vaccine doesn’t work when you can’t say for sure which patients received the vaccine and what type of vaccine they got!

Now, what if we correct the design of the experiment, and we’re somehow able to control these extraneous variables?  First, we are guaranteed of the kind and quality of intercessory prayers from the Christian groups; and second, we make sure that the Group C patients don’t get any prayers from anyone.  Would the results be different?

Possible. But it’s also just as possible to get exactly the same results!  However, it won’t mean that prayer doesn’t work.  It only means that prayer works differently.  Many people think of God as a virtual vending machine.  For them, prayer is like going to a vending machine, inserting the right number of coins or bills, pressing the right button, and you automatically get the product you ordered.  But the reality is, praying isn’t as simple as that.

Just because we go to God, assume the right kneeling position, for example, and say the right words, doesn’t mean that we’re assured of getting exactly what we pray for.  God is not a vending machine that we can control or manipulate.  That’s why He’s God:  He is beyond our control and He is free to give us what He thinks is best for us at the right time.  We can’t put Him in a box and control or predict exactly what He will do each time.

Remember, our Lord said:  “Ask and you shall receive.  Seek and you shall find. Knock and the door shall be opened.” He didn’t say:  “Whatever you ask for, that’s what you will receive.  Whatever you seek, that’s exactly what you will find.  Knock and when the door opens, you will find exactly what you want behind that door.”  There is a reason for all those missing direct objects in our Lord’s sentences.  All the Lord promises us is that He will do something and He will give us something in response to our prayers. But what we get may not be exactly what we’ve asked for in the first place.

To understand what true prayer is and what kind of God He is, we should drop the metaphor of the vending machine and use the original metaphor our Lord has taught us in thinking about God.  God is Father, and as we know fathers don’t and shouldn’t give to their children everything their children want.  They give their children what they need–and our needs aren’t always the same as our wants.

It is the same with God.  We may pray to Him asking for something we really want, but like a father who provides well for his children, He will make sure to give us what we need.  Going back to the medical study I talked about earlier, it’s quite possible that God, Who knows what is best, has given to the patients exactly what they need–which may not always be a full recovery.

So what are the implications of this?  Does this mean that from now on, we should stop expecting God to give us more than what we need?  Should we stop praying for what we want and if at all, just pray for what we need?

Well, as I said earlier, God is God and we can never limit Him with any set of expectations.  We can never put Him in a box–not even in this box!   If God is God, He is free to do whatever He thinks is good for us, and if He wants to behave like a vending machine, He is actually quite free to do so.

Just between us, I think when God decides to act like a vending machine–and He has been known many times to do that–He will still not be like your typical vending machine.  He will surely surprise us and give us something else and something more.  I suspect He would most probably behave like the strange vending machine in this Coke commercial.


2 Comments to “Does praying work?”

  1. very interesting and a good homily especially for the youth of today who should be taught the proper way to pray. Prayer has become so mechanical that students just recite the prayer from the mind and not said from the heart. In fact if they would be able to understand the beauty and meaning of the “recited” prayer especially the Lord’s Prayer, they would find it is teaching them to become humble and appreciate the things they have, to thank the Lord for each day that He keeps us away from sin,

  2. Sometimes, God just wants us to figure out what’s wrong by ourselves. Only until we open our eyes and acknowledge our weakness and do something about it, only then will our condition improve. We may not know it but God is always there to lighten our burdens All we have to do is to open ourselves and accept Him into our hearts so that we can HEAR his message to us. Trusting in Him will save us a lot of unnecessary anger and frustration. Praying and meditating in silence help us see our lives from a perspective and help us understand the right direction we should be heading to. Stay connected to Him. You will always find the way He has set for you.

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