Some years ago, my brother Tim was driving on a two-lane highway after dark, returning home from college in Southern California.
At that same moment, about fifty miles away, my grandmother was hosting a prayer meeting in her home. It was an eclectic group — a Catholic, several Mennonites, a Nazarene pastor, and a Baptist.
As they prayed, the pastor suddenly stood, a stricken expression on his face. He turned to my grandmother and said, “Anna, do you have a grandson who goes to college far from here?”
“Yes,” my grandmother said. “That would be Tim.”
“We need to pray for him right now! He’s in danger!”
So they prayed for my brother.
At that same time, out on the two-lane road, Tim came up behind a slow-moving tanker. He edged over the broken center line and saw no headlights ahead. It looked clear to pass. He pulled out into the oncoming lane and tromped the accelerator.
He didn’t know that there was a hill up ahead. Hidden below the crest of the hill was an oncoming car.
As Tim pulled even with the truck, the headlights of the oncoming car appeared in front of him. There was no time to react. The car was simply there, a glare of headlights rushing at him. In the next instant, the vehicles were three-abreast with the oncoming car on the left, the tanker on the right, and Tim sandwiched between them.
The next instant, the other car was disappearing in Tim’s rear-view mirror. Shaken, he swung around the tanker and pulled back into his own lane. He had escaped death by inches.
Arriving home, Tim was surprised to find my mother frightened and alarmed. “Did you almost have an accident?” she asked.
“About fifteen minutes ago. Mom, how did you know?”
“Well, for one thing, you look as white as a sheet. For another, I just got off the phone with Grandma. The pastor in her prayer group had a premonition that you were in danger, so they’ve been praying you.”
Tim was able to confirm that the pastor had voiced his fear for Tim’s safety mere minutes before his brush with death.
Coincidence? I think it takes more faith to believe my brother’s experience was a coincidence than it takes to believe that God answered the prayers of my grandmother and her prayer group.
When I was about fifteen, my Uncle Chet was seriously ill with cancer. At that time, I had never lost a loved one before, had never thought much about death, and knew little about cancer. I could tell from my mother’s concern that the situation was serious. But we were all praying for Uncle Chet, and I knew that everything was going to turn out all right. I remember a conversation I had with my cousin Cliff (one of Chet’s nephews) about the situation. Cliff and I talked it over, and decided that, with so many people praying, Chet was sure to recover.
But it was only a few weeks after my talk with Cliff that Chet passed away at the age of 54. I was stunned and bewildered. How was that possible? We had prayed so faithfully. How could God say no to all of our prayers? How could God let such a terrible thing happen to such a good man? I’ll never forget what a blow that was to my young faith. Ever since that first disappointment with God, I have been seeking answers to this deep mystery called prayer.
Can the power of prayer be proven? Can prayer be studied scientifically? Does prayer truly call forth the active, dynamic involvement of God in human lives?
“Unequivocally, yes,” says Dr. Larry Dossey, an internist and author of Healing Words: The Power of Prayer and The Practice of Medicine. “I base this answer not just on faith, but on the outcome of scores of scientific studies.”
The most carefully documented of those studies was published by cardiologist Randolph Byrd in the Southern Medical Journal in 1988. Over a ten-month period from August 1982 through May 1983, Dr. Byrd randomly chose (using a computer-generated list) 393 patients from the coronary care unit at San Francisco General Hospital. These patients were divided into two groups. One group was prayed for by home prayer groups; the second group was not prayed for.
Prayer was directed to the Judeo-Christian God by prayer volunteers from both Protestant and Roman Catholic churches. Each patient in the prayed-for group had from three to seven prayer volunteers, who were given the patients’ first name and diagnosis. Each prayer volunteer was asked to pray daily and specifically for a speedy recovery and for the prevention of complications.
It was a carefully constructed “double-blind” experiment: Neither the patients nor their physicians and nurses knew which group the patients were in—prayed-for or not-prayed-for. The results were startling. The study found that the prayed-for patients were five times less likely to require antibiotics than the not-prayed-for group; they were three times less likely to develop pulmonary edema (fluid in the lungs). Prayed-for patients also “had fewer episodes of pneumonia, had fewer cardiac arrests, and were less frequently intubated and ventilated.”
According to Dr. Byrd, the findings were so significant, the differences between the un-prayed-for and prayed-for groups were so dramatic, that the odds of those findings occurring by sheer random chance are 1 in 10,000. Very few scientific studies ever reach such a high level of statistical significance.
Nearly every parameter measured by Dr. Byrd’s study was shown to be affected by prayer. Additionally, Dr. Byrd noted that there was no way to know how many people in the “un-prayed-for” group were actually being prayed for by friends or relatives who were not part of the study. If it were possible to completely isolate the “un-prayed-for” group from all possibility of being prayed for, the results might have been even more dramatic.
Other double-blind scientific studies (such as a dramatic study conducted at Saint Luke’s Hospital in Kansas City, Missouri, published in 1999) have independently confirmed the results of Dr. Byrd’s study.
The scientific evidence is clear: Prayer really does work. The next obvious question is how does prayer work? What is the mechanism behind the power of prayer? Neither of these studies attempted to answer the question. “This trial,” concludes Dr. Harris, “was designed to explore not a mechanism but a phenomenon. . . . We have not proven that God answers prayer or that God even exists. It was intercessory prayer, not the existence of God, that was tested here. All we have observed is that when individuals outside of the hospital speak (or think) the first names of hospitalized patients with an attitude of prayer, the latter appeared to have a ‘better’ CCU experience.”
I want to underscore that patients should not abandon medical treatment in favor of prayer alone. These studies show that prayer works in concert with the best available medical treatment—not in place of medical treatment. Prayer is certainly not a substitute for bypass surgery or chemotherapy or an emergency appendectomy.
Prayer does not guarantee any particular outcome. Even though friends and family are praying for them and even though they pray for themselves, well people do get sick, sick people often get sicker, and eventually everyone dies. My grandmother prayed for my brother Tim, her grandson, and he escaped death. My grandmother prayed for my Uncle Chet, her son, and he succumbed to cancer.
Why does God say yes to some prayers and no to others? I don’t know.
But I do know that prayer is not a form of magic, and it does not place the total outcome within human control. Prayer can influence the circumstances in many cases—and even when the circumstances do not change, prayer can often change us. God is sovereign, and we are in no position to command Him to do our bidding.
But our sovereign God often chooses to pour out his grace in our lives, and in the lives of people around us, through the power of prayer.
And if you’d like to learn more about how to write faster, more freely, and more brilliantly than you ever thought possible, read my book Writing In Overdrive, available in paperback and ebook editions at Amazon.com. —J.D.