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FIRST-PERSON: The prayer study: God doesn’t jump through hoops

EVANSTON, Ill. (BP)–A recent survey of heart-bypass patients in six hospitals showed almost identical recovery rates for those prayed for and for those not receiving prayer. Though I’m sorry that a number of patients suffered setbacks, I’m glad God didn’t cooperate with this “Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer” (STEP).

God’s not a lab animal, subject to clinical trials. Neither is He an automatic secretion which can be triggered by one stimulus or another. He is a person with a sovereign will, with the highest dignity and honor, and experiments can be right undignified. I’ve been in a couple myself, and I can’t say the experience was all that gratifying.

In my college days, a fellow student enlisted me for a psychology test. The best I recall, I was supposed to do math problems with my right hand while holding some sort of weight with my left hand, maybe with music playing or the heat turned up in the room. The stress and discomfort were supposed to degrade my skill at calculation. I don’t remember the outcome. I was just one of a dozen guinea pigs he’d chosen for his class project.

Then, in graduate school, another psychology student put me to the test. While I was standing in the trade book section of the campus bookstore, a young man swooped through, took a volume from the rack, and then proceeded past the checkout line without paying. All the while, somebody with a clipboard was watching for my reaction. Would I shout in protest or chase the fellow down, or would I simply turn back to my reading, unconcerned with the theft that had taken place before my eyes?

The experiment was, at least in my judgment, inconclusive. I wasn’t sure what I’d seen, whether the man had tossed money on the counter in a scramble to class (“Keep the change!”) or had already worked out a quick exchange for a damaged copy. The counter was about 20 feet to my left, and I only glimpsed the exit in the corner of my eye. Then, not five seconds after the incident, the monitor was on me, asking why I hadn’t stopped him. I think I mumbled something about not knowing for sure what the “thief” had done and about my reluctance to make a scene under such circumstances. I do remember feeling put upon and unfairly judged.

But the big test came with a cash incentive. A doctor at the university’s medical school had been studying the low incidence of heart disease among the Masai of Africa. Reports of his cardio-vascular research had even made its way to Reader’s Digest. And now he had a new theory: Because these tribal herdsmen drank soured cow milk (among other unpleasant things), their cholesterol stayed at optimum levels. Accordingly, he devised a test wherein a group of folks would consume large amounts of yogurt over a six-week period and then give blood samples to measure the impact.

In those graduate school days of 1974, a hundred dollars for eating yogurt seemed like a lot of money, so my wife and I signed on. I’d already turned down $300 from another doctor to let him run a wire through some vein into my liver (“You’ll get a free physical checkup!”), but my interest in pay for clinical scrutiny was piqued.

It turned out to be a miserable, inconclusive experiment. We had to fix our own yogurt on the stove at home, with dollops of live cultures from a mother source. And though the assigned consumption started reasonably enough, with a half-pint a day, we were eventually eating (or drinking) a half-gallon a day. “Gag a maggot!” And to make it palpable, we were purchasing cans of pie filling for the mix. Some of the experimental subjects dropped out, with tears and angry words as we gathered for our weekly bloodletting. Most of us hung on grimly to the end, muttering as we finally drew our checks.

So what shall we make of the intercessory prayer test? Well, first, I assume that the STEP team was well-meaning, even hoping to find a strong connection between prayer and recovery. That way, they could encourage the enlistment of intercessors to speed or secure healing. But their approach was wanting. Reading through STEP’s press release, I see that the praying volunteers (both Catholic and Protestant) followed prescribed start and stop times, employed at least some formulaic wording, and worked only with first names and last initials. This seems to fall short of James 5:16, which teaches that the fervent prayers of the righteous are effective. “Fervent clinical prayer” may be an oxymoron, and who knows if those praying were sold-out Christians?

But more than this, how could God submit Himself to this trial? In a sense, the STEP team held a hoop in front of the Lord and said, “It’s showtime.” That He did not jump is not surprising.

Some believers have retreated to the position that prayer doesn’t change the world, just the praying person. It is meant only to bring the heart of the petitioner or intercessor in line with the will of God. Well, certainly that is an important component of prayer, but I think that view fails to do the biblical witness justice. Prayer is more than personal consecration; it is also, under God’s sovereignty, strategic, impactful work in the world.

If all the data for all the righteous, fervent prayers for the sick in church history were in, I am confident that intercessory prayer would be shown to “work.” (Though, of course, Christianity is more about how to die than how not to die.) I am just as confident that God is not amused at calls to perform healing feats on cue, and that He will ignore and resist the ringmasters, whether they wear lab coats or preacher garb.
Mark Coppenger is pastor of Evanston (Ill.) Baptist Church and distinguished professor of apologetics at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.

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  • Mark Coppenger