"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. With that, we must say upfront that we’re not claiming to give you 100% certainty that prayer changes things.. Rather, we’re more interested in answering this question for you: is it reasonable -- even most logical -- to believe that prayer has the possibility of changing things?



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 we're getting better. 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. 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." Despite extensive research on prayer and why people do it in the first place, scientists and researchers have had trouble accounting for why certain outcomes happen when some kind of spiritual practice is involved. There's fierce disagreement in the research community about how much prayer should or can be studied, given its seemingly non-tangible properties. However, many experts do agree that prayer can, at the very least, 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 could not and did not scientifically prove the effectiveness of prayer once and for all, 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. 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 done it. 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 was involved? It follows that if there is in fact an external force, or God, impacting a situation, the results would not be able to simply be written off as products of the imagination or human resilience. Though many dismiss the results of prayer as merely anecdotal, it's worth noting that scientists and researchers are leaning into the potential effects of prayer more than ever. The National Institutes of Health, which historically have refused to accept studies with the word prayer in them, are now funding studies to assess the outcomes and effects of prayer. This wasn't always the case. In fact, there has been somewhat of a stigma surrounding the idea of studying prayer, with many decrying it as a waste of time. A 2006 New York Times article by Benedict Carey put it this way: "Skeptics have contended that studying prayer is a waste of money and that it presupposes supernatural intervention, putting it by definition beyond the reach of science." Despite the perceived limitations of science to empirically assess prayer, there's something to be said for the public hunger to not only understand prayer, but see if it works. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought heartbreak, sadness, and devastation to millions, leaving many with a series of questions. Many have turned those questions into prayers. In fact, another 2016 study by Baylor found that nearly 90% of Americans have prayed for healing, either for themselves or for others, during the pandemic. It's clear that there's a hunger and desire, whether out of desperation or excitement, to plead for change when human solutions are not enough. But can a connection to the divine be observed, measured, and shown to create a tangible difference?


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 famed 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. However, 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 show that there are things that cannot be explained simply by natural "aws 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. 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 was an inconsistency in 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 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.



When looking at examples of people changed by prayer, we should keep in mind that prayer is not magic or a light switch meant to be flipped on and off at will. As C.S. Lewis reminds us: "invariable 'success' in prayer would not prove the Christian doctrine at all. It would prove something much more like magic -- a power in certain human beings to control, or compel the course of nature." A quick glance through history would indicate that God often works through human beings to bring about change and reveal his power. One shining example of this is the story 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 what she knew how to do best: pray. "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 it happened. So much so, they are using his case as a study to try to process what happened and to determine if prayer / God was a factor.


Beyond science, historical accounts and personal stories, the other source we can look at to see if prayer changes things are spiritual texts, such as the Bible. This is essential because discovering if prayer changes things is well... a spiritual thing. We reckon this to be a worthy consideration. Yet the natural response to this might be, why should we listen to what the Bible has to say about prayer? Isn’t it a controversial text that has been corrupted and weaponized throughout time? I mean, there’s a story in there about a dude getting caught in the belly of a fish. Even at its best, isn’t it just a collection of stories intended to teach a moral lesson? The answers to these questions are too much for this blog post, yet they are essential to wrestle with. They can’t be ignored. And we invite you to join us on that journey here. In our own personal wrestling, we have come to the conclusion that the Bible is a trustworthy text - and that it is a reliable voice in matters such as we are discussing here. With that backdrop, we see hundreds of examples in the scripture where prayer changes. They make their plea to God (Yahweh), whom the Bible describes as a loving father and the creator of all things. The New Testament writer Paul says that: "For us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist." (1 Cor 8:6). Thus, here are a few of the miraculous accounts scripture details that ordinary humans had with Yahweh: Hezekiah, who reigned as the King of Judah from 715 BC to 686 BC, becomes seriously ill and winds up on his deathbed. Immediately, Hezekiah begins praying and weeping bitterly, reminding God that he has walked faithfully and served him. 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. One of the most common prayers and asks for a clear result was the desire to bear a child. 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. Hannah, a woman living around the 10th century B.C., went to the tabernacle in tears pleading for a son after she had been deemed infertile. She vowed that her son would serve God. 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.'" Fascinatingly, 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.



So where does this leave us? From science to history to the pages of scripture, we discover some fascinating takeaways. Data can show that prayer changes a person, but there is "inconclusive data" on drawing a straight line from prayer to the outcome of prayer from a purely scientific basis. However, there seems to be evidence of outcomes connected to prayer that cannot be explained by science. This brings us to a scriptural/biblical/theological vision of prayer, and the nature of God working in and through humanity. Yes, God works through common grace and natural law. It is God's grace that gives humankind rational thought and creativity and ingenuity to study and discover medical treatments. It is also God who works outside of natural law to bring about outcomes that are scientifically unexplainable (which in a Christian environment is understandable because the creator is not confined by His creation) but can be traced to prayer and divine work. In other words, prayer is not a formula. Rather, it necessitates a more complex, multifaceted understanding. God + prayer does not equal breakthrough 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. Rather, the invitation would be to consider the following: a) 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. b) 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. c) 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 we must remember that this is in fact 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 come into alignment with how we humans experience 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.


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