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Seminary profs reflect on study on healthful benefits of prayer

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (BP)–With a heart institute study showing that prayer helps patients improve, two Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary professors warn against depending upon scientific verification of a spiritual exercise.

The study, led by MidAmerica Heart Institute at St. Luke’s Hospital of Kansas City, Mo., involved 990 randomly assigned heart patients in the coronary care unit. Patients were prayed for daily for 28 days by groups of five people.

Heart disease researcher William Harris noted in The Archives of Internal Medicine last fall, “The patients who were prayed for just did better.” With assessment based on 35 medical measurements, the 466 patients did 11 percent better than the 524 in the control group, Harris reported.

“I don’t think we should be surprised when living the way God intends — by much prayer — is healthful for us,” commented Don Whitney, assistant professor of spiritual formation at Midwestern Seminary in Kansas City. “On the other hand, we shouldn’t lean too much on scientific verification of spiritual truths and realities.”

Paul Carlisle, Midwestern’s professor of pastoral care, added, “Western culture is addicted to empiricism — believing only what can be seen, touched, smelt, tasted or heard. The kingdom of God is so much bigger than this. I am glad for the research, but God works despite it.”

Whitney warned against “a tendency to believe that something is not true until science proves it true” or, equally disconcerting, “to believe something because science has proven it true, rather than because God has revealed it in Scripture.” He asked, “Would we stop praying if science ‘proved’ that prayer did nothing for hospital patients?”

“The Bible says that the effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much,” Whitney said, quoting James 5:16. “If a scientific study documents that as being true, we shouldn’t act as though we expected otherwise. On the other hand, our faith should not be shaken if another study comes to the conclusion that prayer makes no difference in the subjects of the study.”

Carlisle acknowledged that the research on the topic is “amazing,” but was quick to add, “As a believer, I have no doubt that prayer works because of the faithfulness of God.”

Whitney further noted that researchers in the study were only concerned with whether the temporal health of the patients changed after people prayed. “God often answers prayers for healing in a permanent way, that is, by taking a child of God home to haven. Yet those trying to measure the effectiveness of prayer in a coldly clinical way would declare the prayers for that person to have failed,” he said.

Although the study did not address the spiritual condition of the participants, Whitney asked, “Who were the people who prayed? Were they true believers? How and what did they pray?”

Believers can use prayer as an outreach to others, Whitney said, by asking if prayer could be offered on the person’s behalf. The phrase, “How can I pray for you?” can convey a powerful message to unchurched people, he said. “I think it’s entirely appropriate to pray for those unknown to us when we hear of tragedy or great need.”

Carlisle also suggested praying while traveling through different areas as another way of remote intercessory prayer. He said he prays in that manner every day as he drives past his children’s schools on his way to the seminary.

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  • Rebecca Megli