DOES PRAYER CHANGE THINGS?

By: MIGHTY PURSUIT TEAM

"Thank God, our prayers were answered. He was healed from cancer." "I'll keep you in my thoughts and prayers." "Let me pray about it before I decide anything." Perhaps you've heard similar phrases spoken by friends, family members, colleagues, or strangers. When we hear people talk about prayer changing physical outcomes or situations, we're confronted with the possibility that prayer actually changes things. We've previously wrestled with what prayer is and how to pray, but diving into its effectiveness is worthy of a bigger conversation. Whether one consciously prays regularly or has observed it from afar, they have likely wondered: is prayer just a formality, or a potent agent of change? Some people see their prayer as a key to unlocking outcomes that would not have happened otherwise. They point to tangible, physical examples of miracles or unnatural phenomena taking place as a means of showing that prayer is dynamic. Famed theologian C.S. Lewis once described a story in which he almost didn't get a haircut but felt a voice in his head nagging him to do so anyway. Upon arriving, his barber said: "oh, I was praying you might come today." In the moment, Lewis weighed whether or not to put stock in the encounter or chalk it up to chance. "It awed me; it awes me still. But of course one cannot rigorously prove a causal connection between the barber's prayers and my visit. It might be telepathy. It might be an accident," he recalled in his essay "The Efficacy of Prayer." We often wrestle with a similar thought pattern when we consider whether prayer changes things. The challenge in measuring the effectiveness of prayer is that it’s quite difficult to put it through the scientific method. We can't take all of the prayers ever prayed in history and tally the rate of prayer effectiveness. However, there are a variety of markers at our disposal that allow us to evaluate its true impact. We can look at scientific studies, reports of unexpected phenomena, and historical and scriptural accounts of prayer to come to a better conclusion. The goal is not to get 100% certainty that prayer changes things, rather to consider if it is reasonable -- even most logical -- to believe that prayer has the possibility of changing things?

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THE PLACEBO EFFECT

We live in a culture that often promotes positive thinking or good vibes as a way to cope with the negative, depressing aspects of the world. However, prayer and positive thinking often get conflated into one category, making it confusing to understand if prayer is just a kind gesture, a self-help tool, or a catalyst for altering outcomes. Some believe that prayer might just be positive thinking or healthy processing, and that any effects we see from it are just a placebo: a "mind over matter" trick that makes us think something is changing. In other words, maybe it's just a self-soothing tool, and any actual effects of it are merely coincidences or inventions of our minds. Another popular term today for this is manifesting or to make something happen by wishing or willing it into existence. Stanford University professor Tanya M. Luhrmann once said that: "[Positive prayer] doesn't always work, but what you see is an effort to redirect your attention and see what is good." However, many scientists would agree that prayer is not just manifesting or a placebo and that it can have some kind of positive psychological effect. "Interestingly, spiritual meditation has been found to be superior to secular meditation and relaxation in terms of decrease in anxiety and improvement in positive mood, spiritual health, spiritual experiences and tolerance to pain," professor Chittaranjan Andrade noted in a 2009 study from the Journal of Indian Psychology. Dr. Herbert Benson, a professor at Harvard Medical School, had similar physiological findings in his studies on prayer. "We studied people who prayed repeatedly and were very focused during the prayer. The magnetic resonance imaging showed that there was a decrease in metabolism, heart rate, blood pressure, breathing rate and brain activity." Though the Harvard study did not scientifically prove the effectiveness of prayer in terms of outcomes, it's clear that at the very least there's a demonstrated effect on one's mental and physical health when a prayer practice is incorporated. In the most basic sense, this indicates prayer changes things physiologically. With the recent rise of studies on neuroplasticity, the idea that the brain can adapt to new environments by forming new neural connections, scientists are at least concurring that engaging in a practice like prayer leaves you differently than if you hadn't prayed at all. In other words, it doesn't just have a zero sum effect or the same outcome as a passing thought. The question is: what are the implications if an all-powerful, omniscient being is on the other end of our prayers? Can a connection to the divine be observed, measured, and shown to create a tangible difference?

STUDIES ON PRAYER

The word miracle, like prayer, often gets arbitrarily tossed around in our culture. Football commentators characterize desperation passes as "throwing up a prayer." Or say something like: "they won, it's a miracle!" Miracle is popularly used when something favorable and out of the ordinary happens in our lives, but the real idea behind miracles is something completely and utterly unexpected that could not have happened without some kind of divine assistance. Prof. Richard Purtill of Western Washington University puts it this way: "A miracle is an event brought about by the power of God that is a temporary exception to the ordinary course of nature for the purpose of showing that God has acted in history." When we witness a phenomenon that cannot be explained by the laws of nature or violates our preconceived ideas on what is possible, it opens up the conversation of questioning what was previously thought possible. Many throughout the centuries have challenged this idea. David Hume, the famous 18th century skeptic, asserted that: “A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature." He questioned whether it was possible for laws already set in place to be changed. Others have contended that if God is the law giver, then he is capable of intervening in the laws already created and can create outcomes originally thought impossible. Moreover, natural laws are derived from human observation. Some research studies have set out to find whether there are things that cannot be explained simply by natural laws or scientific knowledge. In 2010, Dr. Candy Gunther Brown, who earned her PhD from Harvard, set out to research and demonstrate the effects of proximate intercessory prayer, or PIP. For now, just keep in mind that intercessory prayer is intentionally praying for another person (or people) and petitioning God to help that person.

Dr. Brown studied PIP in Mozambique by evaluating 14 rural subjects with compromised hearing and seeing. After the subjects prayed, the results concluded that several of the subjects had experienced dramatic improvements in their sensory functions.

A woman named Maryam previously could not discern a person's fingers from a foot away. Yet after being touched and prayed for on her eyes, she was able to see all five fingers from the same distance and could even read a vision chart from a significant distance. Future studies done in Brazil found similar results. Gunther Brown's case studies were met with mostly positive reactions in the scientific world. Timothy T. Brown (of no relation to Candy Gunther Brown), a professor at UC Berkeley surmised that: "Overall, Brown has written a book of great importance that will serve both investigators who use empirical methods to study prayer as well as theologians seeking to understand the strengths and weaknesses of various types of evidence given in support of theological claims." John Ruthven of Regent University also underscored the importance of her study: "the analysis of pre- and post-prayer medical records for claims of healings that appear to have no other obvious explanation. Her seminal article in the Southern Journal of Medicine (2010) fuelled further widespread debate over how, or even if spiritual healing warranted scientific study." Though Dr. Brown's study was not "conclusive" to her fellow peers, it did pump up the volume on the conversation around studying prayer. As she put it in a recent interview: "If empirical research continues to indicate that PIP may be therapeutically beneficial, then -- whether or not the mechanisms are adequately understood -- there are ethical and nonpartisan public policy reasons to encourage further related research." While there's a severe shortage of intercessory prayer studies from a secular perspective, many of the ones extant have produced eyebrow-raising results. A popular prayer study conducted by Harvard University in 2006 concluded that prayer "provided no benefit to the recovery of patients who had undergone cardiac bypass surgery." This led many to question the effectiveness of prayer, and even its usage in the first place. The study based this conclusion on the fact that prayer "had no beneficial effect on patients’ recovery 30 days after surgery." However, the study was the subject of much debate due to the controversial conditions in which it took place. For one, the study did not prohibit family members and friends to pray for the hurting patients, so there's really no way to accurately measure how many people were being prayed for and how many weren't. Also, there were major red flags raised around who was doing the praying. The study vaguely described it being people of different faith denominations, but didn't explicitly mention who was being prayed to and under which set of beliefs, which was in stark contrast to Brown’s study. Interestingly, another study surrounding prayer and heart issues was done seven years before this and reached a very different conclusion. In 1999, Dr. William S. Harris, a professor at University of Missouri Medical School, conducted a double blind study with his colleagues on the effects of Coronary Care Unit (CCU) patients at a hospital. Harris gathered a group of intercessors from different Christian denominations and evaluated a little over 1,000 patients in the CCU. The patients, unaware of the study being done on them, were split into two groups, with about 48% being designated to be prayed for, and the other group not. The basic inquiry was this: would remote intercessory prayer for hospitalized, cardiac patients reduce overall adverse events and length of stay?" The research team came up with a scoring system in which certain negative events would add to a tally of points. The higher the "score", the worse a patient was considered. After a series of tests, the study ultimately found that "supplementary, remote, blinded, intercessory prayer produced a measurable improvement in the medical outcomes of critically ill patients." At the very least, the double-blind study shows that prayer must be taken more seriously than just being a placebo effect. The medical staff did not know that the study was being conducted, nor did the patients or intercessors have a personal connection or receive "updates" on how each side was doing. While there is compelling scientific proof that prayer has both psychological and tangible effects on patients' outcomes, as seen by both the Brown and Harris studies, many are searching for additional examples they can reference to see change. Science aside, there's also a strong case to be made for prayer's efficacy in history, and how it inexplicably changed certain outcomes.

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THE POWER OF PRAYER IN HISTORY

If prayer actually does things, then we should be able to look back through history and see tangible examples of divine intervention that cannot be explained any other way. Consider the curious case of Harriet Tubman, the famed slave-turned-abolitionist who liberated hundreds of slaves from the Southern United States. Tubman, despite being illiterate, had a deep knowledge of Jesus from her parents and from her church. She took to heart the idea that with prayer and faith, you can "move mountains," as Jesus once said. Improbably, she made the 90 mile walking journey from Maryland to Pennsylvania to attain freedom from slavery. Tubman had to make the trek in darkness to elude slave-catchers, and dealt with unpredictable weather and terrain conditions. Tasting freedom for the first time, she famously declared: "When I found I had crossed that line, I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything; the sun came like gold through the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in Heaven." After making such a treacherous journey, one would assume the logical thing to do would be to get farther away from the place that once oppressed you. Nope. Not Harriet Tubman. She returned to the South to complete approximately 19 slave-freeing missions over the course of a decade, risking her life frequently every year. Yet Harriet did not get caught once, nor did she lose a "passenger" that she brought with her along the Underground Railroad. Her secret to success was not a special map, a legion of bodyguards, or mere luck. Tubman attributed her knowledge of where to go and how not to get caught to her prayer life with God. "She spoke of how sometimes God spoke to her and guided her and, even though she didn’t always understand the purpose or intent of the message, she trusted God and followed what she heard," says Tubman biographer Kate Clifford Larson. The odds of 19 successful rescue attempts in a hostile environment, with no GPS or advanced intel, are pretty low if not for some divine help. Is there a possibility that this was sheer luck? Sure, but it seemingly takes more faith to believe that. Thomas Garrett, an abolitionist at the time, once remarked: "I never met with any person of any color who had more confidence in the voice of God, as spoken [directly] to her soul.” Tubman had a close call in one of her freeing attempts, says author Dan Graves. According to Graves, she heard God tell her to abandon the path they were on and instead cross a rushing river. No one knew the depth or ferocity of the river, yet Harriet prayed and asked God for guidance and help. Miraculously, the river never reached above her head. Tubman later found out that a slave catching group was waiting at the other path, and would've caught them if she hadn't trusted God's voice.

You can chalk it up to coincidence, but looking purely at the probabilities, her journeys seem much more probable with divine intervention. Around 2% of slaves escaped in the late 19th century, meaning that Harriet Tubman faced a 98% failure rate and succeeded nineteen times. Collectively speaking, when you run the math you discover that the chances of this happening are about as close to zero as mathematically possible.

In a similar way to Harriet Tubman, Dutch watchmaker Corrie ten Boom faced improbable odds in sheltering the oppressed. After the 1940 Nazi invasion of the Netherlands, ten Boom opened up her house as a refuge for Jews fleeing Hitler's persecution. The house was fitted with a safety room that Jews could hurry into if Nazi authorities were nearby. The family's decision to house these fleeing Jews was no chance occurrence. The ten Booms had been praying to help Jewish people since 1844 -- about a hundred years before World War II. Ten Boom asserted that her actions in the war to protect the most vulnerable were a result of her prayer life with God. But one of her biggest, most life-changing prayers was one she prayed after the war. She and her sister had been arrested by the Nazis after an informant uncovered the ten Boom's plan to hide Jews. While at a prison camp, a particularly vile guard had treated them disgustingly, even forcing her sister Betsie to strip naked at one point. The guard idly watched as her sister slowly deteriorated and eventually died at the prison camp. Just three years later, the same guard came to a church meeting that ten Boom was speaking at, and asked for her forgiveness. Rage boiling inside her at what this man had done, Corrie wrestled with what she described as "the most difficult thing she ever had to do." In desperation, she turned to prayer. "Jesus, help me! I can lift my hand. I can do that much. You supply the feeling," she cried out. Miraculously, her hand outstretched and locked with the man's, and she declared that she forgave him with all her heart. The rage disappeared. In her book, Tramp For the Lord, ten Boom asserted that it was not some kind of willpower or hidden love that propelled her to give this man complete, no-strings-attached forgiveness. "I realized it was not my love. I had tried, and did not have the power. It was the power of the Holy Spirit." Something external had to have changed Corrie ten Boom's posture and disposition, as the immediacy to completely forgive someone who just mere years before had tortured you takes extraordinary strength. While Tubman and ten Boom were spurred on by their personal prayer lives, the more recent story of demolition derby driver Grayson Kirby indicates that communal prayer changes things as well. In 2014, Kirby entered the Mid-Atlantic Power Festival in Virginia with hopes of quite literally wrecking the competition. Instead, he wrecked his own body. After being thrown from his car in a collision, Kirby smashed just about every part of his body, including his lungs and brain, which were badly beaten. If there was any chance of Kirby coming back, he would likely be a vegetable. His chances to live were around 5%, and that was being optimistic. Kirby's parents, followers of Jesus, felt that the only thing they could turn to was prayer. They rallied over 8,600 people on a Facebook page to pray for their son. Kirby's doctors were prompted to try an extremely risky and experimental treatment typically reserved for blood transfusions. They put him on an ECMO (extracorporeal membrane oxygenation) machine, which helps oxygen to circulate throughout the body's bloodstream. However, the process typically only works in non-trauma situations and has a very low success rate among trauma patients. Kirby's family, and the extension of people they'd reached out to, continued to pray. Ten days after being admitted to the hospital, Kirby opened his eyes for the first time and mouthed the words "I love you," to his parents. Doctors were elated at his recovery but equally as perplexed as to how such a thing could happen.

THE POWER OF PRAYER IN SCRIPTURE

Beyond science, historical accounts and personal stories, the other source we can look at to see if prayer changes things are spiritual books, such as the Bible. This is necessary because discovering if prayer changes things is well... a spiritual thing. Of course, this raises the question for some about the authority of the Bible. Why should we listen to what the Bible has to say about prayer? Hasn't it been corrupted and altered throughout time? There are good answers to these questions and we invite you to explore that here. In our own journey of exploration, we've discovered that the Bible is the most well-preserved collection of writings within all of ancient history. Contrary to public myth and misinformation, the field of textual criticism has confirmed the Bible has never been altered or changed. It's worth considering what it has to say about matters of prayer, especially given that there are many books in the Bible that record events that happened within history. We read about the real historical account of Hezekiah in the book of 2 Kings, who reigned as the King of Judah from 715 BC to 686 BC. Hezekiah who became seriously ill and winds up on his deathbed. Immediately, Hezekiah begins praying and weeping. Not long after, the 8th-century BC prophet Isaiah informs Hezekiah that: "This is what the Lord, the God of your father David, says: I have heard your prayer and seen your tears; I will heal you...I will add fifteen years to your life." In this account, God not only heals Hezekiah, but extends the course of his life considerably. In Ancient Near East culture, having a child meant carrying on the family lineage, having extra help in a mostly agricultural society, and naturally the pure joy that comes from adding a child to your family. Yet childbirth, especially before the advent of modern medicine, could sometimes be a tricky process. There were no in vitro fertilizations, operations, or treatments that could be done. So, infertile women turned to prayer. In the book of 1 Samuel, we are introduced to Hannah, a woman living around the 10th century B.C. After she had ben deemed infertile, she wept and plead with God for a child. Miraculously, Hannah became pregnant with Samuel, who went on to become a very key figure in the history of Israel. In these instances in addition to countless others, we see that God, on some occasions, responded to human prayer to change the outcome of a situation that seemed otherwise hopeless. When Jesus instructs his followers on how to pray in Matthew 6:9, he says the famous words "This, then, is how you should pray: “‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.'" We see both prayers of petition ("give us today…") and also relinquishment ("your will be done"). This highlights the themes we've been discussing around prayer being a relationship in which we can ask for anything and have deep belief, while also surrendering our view of the ultimate outcome to God.

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WHAT'S THE VERDICT?

So where does this leave us? With science, we witnessed the physiological effects of prayer changing things, in addition to outcomes being changed through Dr. Candy Gunther Brown's study. In history, the cases of Harriet Tubman and Grayson Kirby provide compelling evidence of divine intervention. And of course, the Bible also cites numerous examples of prayer changing things, which isn't that much of a surprise to the average person. But ultimately, one of the biggest things that is highlighted within this conversation is that prayer is not a formula. Some people pray, and they never see their desired outcome or answer to that prayer. This is one of the main reasons why we question if prayer does anything to begin with. Clearly, God + prayer does not equal an outcome in the exact time and way we expect. If this were true, it would make humans a form of mystical fortune tellers, who could dictate the time and medium in which breakthrough occurs, merely by the words we speak through prayer. Given this, we need a more complex and multifaceted understanding of prayer. That said, the invitation would be to consider the following:
    1. We humans have a limited lens into the events of history and how the story of humanity is unfolding. We often are limited to seeing the world through the perspective of our own story and experiences. It’s impossible for us to see/know the big picture.
    2. There is a divine creator who is both loving and all-knowing; who calls us to trust not in understanding the outcome of every situation but in his character and nature as a good God who has the ability to work all things for the redemption of humanity.
    3. We are designed with an autonomous free will, which fuels our ability to love, but also our sense of purpose and willingness to co-author history alongside God.
 These three variables form the lens in which we are invited to see that prayer changes things. Together, they are the collective foundation in which we are to explore our deepest and most painful questions. This does not belittle the grief and lament that is necessary to process the tragedy of unmet expectations and disappointment, yet these variables are the ultimate truth we come back to as we search for peace in the long-term. Some might say this creates a narrative in which “God” can never lose. That these variables set up a self-soothing, but ultimately naive assessment of reality. But this is what scripture has actually taught for thousands of years, an unchanging truth that calls for us to trust in all three of these variables. It’s not a new invention that was created to make us feel better about ourselves. And when you really meditate on each variable, it starts to make sense and gives the best explanation for how we experienced in the world. We all have this innate desire to understand all things, yet we will never be able to know the bigger picture and the full scope of what is unfolding. Simultaneously we are quintessential meaning-machines, who thrive off a sense of purpose and a desire to see the world restored into a perfect form that we’ve never known. And God invites us to take part in his own version of the famed Six Degrees of Separation, where he takes our prayers to create ripple effects into history, whether visible or invisible to the human eye. One thing is for sure: there’s nothing quite like it when the breakthrough comes on the heels of our most fervent prayers. Like Harriet Tubman after nineteen trips through the underground railroad, we stand in awe as the impossible unfolds before our eyes. For more, click here to visit our Prayer Hub.

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