Intercessory Prayer: Does It Have An Effect on Sickness?

The Dallas Morning News reported, “to many people who believe in God, there’s no question that prayer works. Proving it by scientific means is another matterâÂ?¦âÂ?¦.”
There appears to be a complexity involved in attempting to measure prayer rationally, statistically, or empirically. How much is understood about the power and mystery of prayer, spirituality, divinity, and how it intersects with the human/social equation?

Social science and religious communities seem reluctant to mesh on the subject of examining the efficacy of prayer and health. This type of research, though, is receiving more attention as the role of faith and spirituality in health and healing is being seriously examined (O’Mathuna, 1999).

Prayer means different things to different people. Some researchers think it is just a mental effort by the afflicted person to improve his/her physical or emotional well being, or that of another. Others believe it is a form of sending healing energy. But for Christians, prayer is a humble request to God to bring about His will, what He knows is best, in a particular situation. It impacts the state of mind, but is not a state of mind. The person praying requests something specific, but must remember that the prayer will only be answered if it is in the perfect will of God. In this context of Christian prayer, it is difficult to measure the outcomes of prayer scientifically.

In researching prayer, therefore, researchers must sift out the type of prayer being utilized. It is obviously difficult to know God’s will in many circumstances. He may allow some illnesses to proceed, while He heals others. So how do clinical trials control for this?

Faith is also an important ingredient in prayer, and everyone’s level of faith is different. How do researcher measure for that? Whether or not prayer is answered, is dependent upon God’s power, whether it is in His will, and whether it glorifies Him. How much of prayer research glorifies God?

There are still many unanswered questions for researchers to delve into with regard to prayer and health. Do prayerful people expect positive response to all they prayer for, and should they? What constitutes a positive response? God’s responses to prayer are intricate and complex, so how can they be adequately measured? Is prayer only needed when someone is ill, or when other resources are exhausted?

An article in Time magazine in 1998 revealed that 82% of Americans believed in the power of prayer, but though they are concerned with any factors that affect patients’ physical health, in the clinical arena many nurses and doctors fail to recognize patients’ spiritual needs. Most studies examining prayer and health are correlational, leaving unanswered the question of whether prayer is causing the observed changes in health (Munson, et al.). Like all aspects of healthcare, spiritual care involves assessing the patient’s present status, identifying any problem areas and developing a strategy to help the patient overcome their difficulties (Carroll, 2001). Nurses recognize the inherent uniqueness of the individual and that the individual’s spiritual beliefs are very personal to them (Carroll, 2001), but a trusting relationship between patient and nurse has to be present before a patient’s spiritual concerns can be explored (Carroll, 2001).

Anandarajah (2001), says physicians (as well as nurses), can begin to incorporate spirituality into medical practice in three ways: scientific study of the subject; assessing the patient’s spirituality and diagnosis of spiritual distress; and therapeutic interventions. Scientific study involves evaluating the current evidence for a link between spirituality and health and planning further study to clarify these effects (Anandarajah, 2001). It is important to keep an open mind regarding new methods of study and to be aware that there are some things that may never be fully understood (Anandarajah, 2002).

Spirituality and prayer are very complex areas, and are even more so when meshed with healthcare. In the nursing profession, both are defined in the context of each nurse’s own personal, social, cultural, and religious beliefs, as well as the patient’s. Indeed, in the 1990s virtually all definitions relating to spirituality in the medical and nursing literature recognize that spirituality is not always associated with religion (Carroll, 2001), but nurses don’t always relate the two. In order to recognize the patients’ spiritual needs, nurses must first explore their own spirituality. A nurse’s mental, social, and spiritual experiences influence the practice of patient care, and assist with spiritual assessment and support for hospitalized patients. Studies reveal that generally nurses are uncomfortable assessing patients’ spiritual needs, except for hospice nurses who are more aware of such support needed by patients and families.

Patients who are ill often are fearful, and spiritually distressed. At times, these fears may be hidden well and are manifested in several ways: anger, withdrawal, and restlessness. When a patient is first admitted, the spiritual assessment is superficial and is an ongoing development as the patient and nurses get to know one another. Also, nurses cannot force prayer and spiritual conversations on patients, as it is the patient’s right to decided when and if they will occur. Nurses can demonstrate that they are able to help the spiritually distressed patient through acceptance, warmth, and a genuine desire to understand the patient’s thoughts, feelings, and self-evaluations (Carroll, 2001).

The spiritual dimension of healthcare cannot be separated from other aspects of care. The literature shows that there is a varying difference of opinion on whether health outcomes are positively correlated with prayer. Prayer is very complex and multidimensional, depending on one’s beliefs. Scientific study involves evaluating the current evidence for a link between spirituality and health and planning further study to clarify theses effects. It is important to keep an open mind regarding new methods of study, and to be aware that there are some things that may never be fully understood (Anandarajah, 2001).

As far back as 1872, Francis Galton conducted the first empirical study of the role of petitionary prayer and health. In 1883, he considered the question again, “do persons who pray or are prayed for, recover on the average more rapidly than others?” Galton tested the hypothesis that prayer would enhance the well being of those who prayed, as well as the well being of those who were prayed for. He examined the average life span of the English aristocracy who, despite the practice of the English people praying for their sovereigns, had only a modest life expectancy. He also noted that the clergy of the day had a shorter life expectancy, and were generally in poor health, as compared to lawyers or physicians. Galton also observed the high rate of insanity, and religious madness, among the nobility. He concluded in his study that there was little statistical evidence for the efficacy of petitionary prayer. The study was interesting, though, in that it raised many questions about empirically studying petitionary prayer.

Attempts to study petitionary prayer have been made throughout the 20th century, demonstrating the inherent difficulties entailed: design problems and deficiencies, including no random assignment to the treatment groups, and studies that were suggestive, but not statistically significant. Some researchers have asserted that though they don’t discount the efficacy of prayer itself, they doubt it could be effectively subjected to empirical analysis.

One ground breaking study, completed in 1988 by Dr. Randolph Byrd, investigated the therapeutic effect of intercessory prayer on coronary care patients, producing results that were described as remarkable. The double-blind randomized test of prayer efficacy, with a sample of 393 coronary care patients at San Francisco General Hospital, concluded that patients fared better when they received prayer. While the positive results are certainly welcome, this study reveals the problems of basing conclusions about the effectiveness of prayer on scientific research (O’Mathuna, 1999). Other studies have concluded that prayer is interwoven with a person’s view of his or her own health and healing, and that it may be just a helpful coping mechanism.

In 1997, it was reported that at least 30 of the top medical schools in the United States are offering teaching programs on the subject of faith and prayer in the healing process.

Drs. Theodore Chamberlain and Christopher Hall, in their book, Realized Religion, say that while the overall paucity of research in this area limits conclusion, it is deemed possible to say that “prayer that is mature and characterized by meditative, mystical and fuller religious experience appears to be related at least in some aspects of adjustment, happiness, general life satisfaction, and perhaps healing.” Even though more research is called for, they say scientific evidence convincingly demonstrates that the natural by-product of religion shows long life, less illness, better physical and mental healthâÂ?¦âÂ?¦.and less abuse of alcohol and other substances.

The book documents more than 300 studies demonstrating a positive relationship between the practice of Christianity and the survival rate of surgical patients, recovery from depression and anxiety, and more. Some of those studies, to be expected in those that are unbiased, show conflicting results. Researchers interested in investigating the literature dealing with the nature and efficacy of prayers will soon discover that this is a subject that has historically been largely unexplored from an empirical approach (Chamberlain, et al. 2000).

Does intercessory prayer have a positive effect on the clinical outcomes of patients? Do persons who pray or are prayed for recover faster than others? Is it possible to control for God’s will in certain circumstances? Can petitionary prayer be studied in a scientific way?

Contemporary research on prayer and health takes two forms (Petrowsky, et al., 1996): ask subjects if they think or have evidence that prayer impacts health positively, or acceptable scientific methods. The former approach has respondents making retroactive assessments of prayer benefits. It does not control for other variables that could have caused healing, such as type of medical treatment and passage of time. This type of research is considered too subjective. The latter approach manipulates prayer to determine its impact on health, and the measurements are made while holding constant other factors that could influence the outcome.

Many patients, doctors, and nurses believe spirituality and prayer play an important part in their lives. Studies suggest a positive correlation between prayer, spirituality and health outcomes, and that this positive relationship continues to increase.

At this time, though, it does not seem to be a pervasive topic in healthcare, but only in scientific circles. Even though regulatory agencies for healthcare providers mandate questioning patients upon admission on their spiritual/religious beliefs, the assessment continues to be superficial. Therapeutic interventions of prayer should be incorporated into the medical encounter between patients and healthcare staff, but because of many variables (time constraints, nurse/patient ratio, paperwork, etc.), it is not done consistently across the board.

More studies need to be done to evaluate whether prayer is important, and helps or hinders the healing process. The efficacy of prayer is not easily measurable, but it is generally good for human health. Chamberlain and Hall say that religion ��.promotes a healthy lifestyle, opposes self-indulgent and self-destructive behavior, encourages moral behavior, provides vital social support and an ethical value system, establishes an interpretative framework to understand the complexities of life and human existence, and promotes spiritual growth, which generally assists believers in overcoming the stresses and vicissitudes of living.

Biblical teaching underscores the truth that âÂ?¦âÂ?¦.the Christian doctrine of the sovereignty of God allows for a divine purpose to be achieved in oblique, non-direct, non-intrusive, and highly paradoxical ways (Chamberlain and Hall, 2000). So, basically, prayers are answered if what one is asking for is aligned with God’s will.

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