Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven.
—James 5:14-15, NIV
Recently some scientists did an experiment to see if prayer had any effect on the sick. They had two groups of people, one for whom people prayed, and one for whom no one prayed, and they found out that both groups recovered (or not) at the same rate. From that they concluded that prayer has no effect on illness.
I am not surprised.
For an experiment to be scientific, you have to test for one thing at a time. For example, if you are baking a cake, and you want to see what makes it moister, you have to change the amount of only one ingredient at a time. If you change the amount of two ingredients at the same time, you won’t know which one had the effect of making it moister or drier, or even if they canceled each other out.
In the prayer experiment, they didn’t test for only one thing at a time. They made no distinctions based on religion, orthodoxy, or piety. For example, they didn’t test to see if people recover faster if nuns pray for them or if Amish men in beards pray for them. They didn’t test the difference between pastors and lay people, Baptists and Unitarians. They didn’t test to see if Christians got better results than atheists. They assumed that the person who prays and that person’s purity, orthodoxy, and religion are not factors. I’m not saying they are, only that they didn’t test it.
They also assumed there is a direct relationship between prayer and the person’s recovery. In other words, they unwittingly assumed that if there is a God in the middle, He just does whatever the person prays for. They assumed it didn’t matter which god, if any, a person is praying to, and they assumed that God has no will, no discretion, no discernment, and makes no decisions. They assumed He functions like a Coke machine: money in, Coke out. Prayer in, healing out.
Now imagine that someone wanted to prove or disapprove the existence of Mommy based on how often children get cookies when they ask for them. They keep track and they find out that the children asked for cookies 20 times and got cookies only 5 times. They observe that is about what one would expect by chance, so they conclude that asking for cookies has no effect and that there is no Mommy. What they forgot is that Mommy often has reasons for saying no that the child does not understand. Sometimes she says no because it is dinnertime, or because the child is asking a half-hour before a trip to the dentist.
God may have reasons for not answering a prayer for healing right away. Maybe it is to give the person’s relatives an opportunity to care, maybe it is to give the sick person a time to rest, maybe it is to keep the person in bed because otherwise something worse would happen. Or maybe it is because, if God answered the prayer right away, the people who pray would become grandiose about what great stuff they are that God answers their prayers right away.
When your little grandchild tells you what they did all day, you are delighted—but not because you need the information. You are delighted because you have a special time with your grandchild, and your grandchild learns that you love and care. That is what our prayers are like to God. He knows all things, He does not need the information, but He delights in the special time, and you learn that God loves you and cares for you.
And that brings up another reason why God might not answer your prayers right away. If He did, you’d stop praying! So He delays His answers to give you something better: fellowship with Him through persistent prayer.
The experiment about praying for the sick only proved that we cannot cast magic spells. Since it did not take into account the person who is being prayed for, the person who is praying, the religion that is involved, and the God who stands in the middle, it proved nothing about prayer. In fact, by the standards of science, the experiment was bad science.
Does prayer actually work? Technically, no. Prayer is a request; God works.