Tag Archives: Prayer

Scratching Your Way Out of a Room

Benjamin Verdery is not only a fantastic classical guitarist, but a fabulous teacher. I once heard him use this memorable analogy to encourage a student to work on technique.

When you try to play the guitar without proper technique, you might learn to play faster or more expressively, but it will be as if you were trying to get out of this room by scratching your way through the wall, when there’s a door right over there.

Benjamin Verdery was saying, in essence, “Your body’s biomechanics work a certain way. Until you align with that reality, results will be hard to come by.”

Many people are trying to scratch their way out of rooms. When they don’t make progress, they try scratching harder rather than looking for a door. They might even berate themselves for having inadequate fingernails. Some people hope there is no door, because then all that scratching would have been for nothing.

I’m not here to criticize anyone’s favorite techniques for living — although regular readers will know what has not worked for me. Let me just encourage you: if your technique has not worked for a year, a decade or more, maybe the problem is not with your application of the technique. Maybe it’s not that you haven’t tried hard enough. Maybe you are not inadequate. Maybe you just need a new technique — one that is more aligned with the reality of your situation.

Are you having power struggles with your children? If clamping down on them has not worked, maybe clamping down harder will not work either. Instead, you could learn what it would take to earn their respect, and do that.

Has prayer not worked? Maybe it’s not your lack of faith or devotion. Maybe praying harder will not change anything. Perhaps it’s time to take action on your own.

Has talk therapy not cured your depression? Maybe you don’t need to talk more. Perhaps you are serotonin-deprived and need medication.

Do you continue to have anger issues? Maybe trying harder to stifle yourself will not to help. Perhaps you just need to look at life differently so you don’t get angry in the first place.

I’m suggesting that you give yourself a break. Don’t make life harder than it has to be. If you haven’t been able to scratch your way through the wall, maybe there’s a door.

Why I Left Evangelical Christianity, Part 3: Prayer Studies

Just this week, a Christian I trust related a story of miraculous healing that was told to her by a Christian she trusts. It seems that a man had been in a coma for 30 days. In a scene reminiscent of Acts 19, a garment was conveyed from a man of prayer and laid over the invalid. A few more prayers and 5 minutes later — the man arises!

How can stories like that fail to restore my faith? By the end of this post, you’ll understand why I’ve become a little jaded.

Parts 1 and 2 of this little series brought us to the point where I was still an evangelical but my faith needed to be strengthened. I had heard that scientific studies proved prayer to be effective in healing the sick, and decided that would be a good place to start.

I did a lot of rooting around on the Internet. To the extent that I could trace the claims (most of them were unsourced), the majority originated with a study led by Randolph Byrd, M.D.. This report was typical:

One of the most quoted scientific studies of prayer was done between August of 1982 and May of 1983. 393 patients in the San Francisco General Hospital’s Coronary Care Unit participated in a double blind study to assess the therapeutic effects of intercessory prayer. … The patients who had received prayer as a part of the study were healthier than those who had not. The prayed for group had less need of having CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) performed and less need for the use of mechanical ventilators. They had a diminished necessity for diuretics and antibiotics, less occurrences of pulmonary edema, and fewer deaths. Taking all factors into consideration, these results can only be attributed to the power of prayer. [emphasis mine]

My experience with creationists had taught me to check the facts, and then the facts behind the facts.

Lo and behold, it turned out to be true!! The prayed-for group did have better outcomes in 6 categories! (The seventh, “fewer deaths,” was not at a statistically significant level, even though it was specifically prayed for.) However, what the evangelical Websites and even the abstract of the study itself failed to mention is that no significant difference was found in the other 20 outcomes that were measured.

Are we to believe that God cares about whether someone needs diuretics but is indifferent to whether they have gastrointestinal bleeding?

The outcomes that did improve only did so to the tune of 5 to 7 percent compared to the control group. Are we supposed to attribute that barely noticeable result to the mighty creator of the universe?

There were also plenty of methodological problems, documented in this critique by Gary Posner, M.D.. But it gets worse. Following standard procedure in science, another group tried to replicate Dr. Byrd’s result. 

Christianity Today — more or less the official journal of mainstream evangelicalism — was good enough to report the result of the follow-up study.

The Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer (STEP), conducted under the auspices of Harvard Medical School, was by far the most comprehensive of its kind. The study required 10 years and $2.4 million…

The result: The group whose members knew they were being prayed for did worse in terms of post-operative complications than those whose members were unsure if they were receiving prayer. The knowledge that they were being prayed for by a special group of intercessors seemed to have a negative effect on their health.

The two groups that were unsure of whether they were receiving prayer were also compared. One group actually received prayer (the same group mentioned above), while the other did not. This time, the group that had received prayer experienced more major complications than the group without additional prayer. In other words, the study seemed to show that prayer—at least prayer from strangers—might be bad for one’s health.  [emphasis mine]

But in a manner with which I was becoming increasingly familiar, they find a way to spin the evidence 180 degrees. Christianity Today continues:

Ironically, STEP actually supports the Christian worldview. Our prayers are nothing at all like magical incantations. Our God bears no resemblance to a vending machine. The real scandal of the study is not that the prayed-for group did worse, but that the not-prayed-for group received just as much, if not more, of God’s blessings. In other words, God seems to have granted favor without regard to either the quantity or even the quality of the prayers. By instinct, we might selfishly prefer that God give preferential treatment to those who are especially, deliberately, and correctly prayed for, but he seems to act otherwise.

True to his character, God appears inclined to heal and bless as many as possible.

Folks, you just can’t make this stuff up. But it is so very typical of what I heard in the evangelical church.

Although I had hoped that checking out the studies on intercessory prayer would strengthen my faith, the studies and the untruthful or contorted reporting of them by evangelicals only made my doubts grow. Even where I had been assured there was hard evidence, there was none.

The image that kept occurring to me was that I was standing on a floor made of a thin sheet of balsa wood. It was cracking under me and I kept trying new places to stand, only to find that those cracked as well.

But what of the man who came out of the coma? There was a time when that one third-hand report would have been enough to keep my faith-batteries well-charged for months. Now I look at it differently. Just as Dr. Byrd cherry-picked a few barely positive outcomes to report in his abstract and ignored the other 20, so incidents like this must be taken in the context of the thousands of people who awake from comas with no prayer, or fail to awake after much prayer. Heck, people were probably praying for this man for the entire 30 days, and would have continued to pray for 300 more. If he had awakened after any of the other prayers, that would have been cited as equally miraculous. And if he had never awakened, we never would have heard about it.

People awake from comas all the time. Cancers go into remission, backaches are healed, and the lame walk. Healing any of those things through prayer doesn’t mean a thing unless done as part of a controlled scientific study. And all the studies have shown little if any effect. If God really wants to show his power and mercy, let him regrow the limb of even a single amputee.

There is actually an entire Website devoted to that suggestion: WhyWontGodHealAmputees.com. Read it and see if you can offer a reason why God would be in the miracle-working business … but only if the miracle is not too hard.

While you’re doing that, I’ll prepare the next installment in this series. You’ll hear why I came to believe that my fellow evangelicals and I embodied one of the strongest refutations of the evangelical faith.

P.S. -  If you think you have a killer miracle story, please be sure it’s not a magic trick or a fraud.

The Changing Evangelical Position on Abortion

Four decades ago, I was immersed in baptism at a Southern Baptist church. At about the same time, the Southern Baptist Convention was passing a resolution that will shock you just as it shocks me.

Today, the red line that religious conservatives have drawn most firmly is the line against abortion rights. Many evangelicals, including myself at one point, would not even consider voting for a candidate who was pro-choice. Abortion is murder. What could be more obvious? And for what does government exist if not to prevent the murder of its most vulnerable subjects?

So imagine my surprise when I recently learned that the evangelical consensus just one generation ago was pro-choice, not pro-life! The most surprising piece of history for me was the 1971 Resolution of my own Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). Keep in mind that this was a resolution adopted after much prayer, listening for God’s Spirit, etc., as such resolutions always are. This is what the Southern Baptists felt God was leading them to proclaim.

RESOLUTION ON ABORTION
June 1971

WHEREAS, Christians in the American society today are faced with difficult decisions about abortion; and

WHEREAS, Some advocate that there be no abortion legislation, thus making the decision a purely private matter between a woman and her doctor; and

WHEREAS, Others advocate no legal abortion, or would permit abortion only if the life of the mother is threatened;

Therefore, be it RESOLVED, that this Convention express the belief that society has a responsibility to affirm through the laws of the state a high view of the sanctity of human life, including fetal life, in order to protect those who cannot protect themselves; and

Be it further RESOLVED, That we call upon Southern Baptists to work for legislation that will allow the possibility of abortion under such conditions as rape, incest, clear evidence of severe fetal deformity, and carefully ascertained evidence of the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother.  [emphasis mine]

Did you catch that? The Southern Baptists just 41 years ago urged their members to work for pro-choice legislation, even allowing for abortion in the case of likely “emotional damage” to the mother (i.e., if having the baby would be just too stressful). That’s pretty darn close to abortion on demand.

They have since repudiated that position. You can trace the evolution of their position in the series of resolutions that are assembled here or on the SBC’s own Website here.

I’m not here to argue about abortion, or even about religion. I just want to share my emotional reaction when I learned that my own conservative denomination once proclaimed that God had led them to say the opposite of what he supposedly leads them to say today. It’s a lead-in to the post I promised on why I left evangelical Christianity.

First, I felt, “That’s it. These people no longer have any moral authority whatsoever with me. None. What they’re now urging on me as The Truth From God’s Unchanging Word is the opposite of what it was just within my own lifetime. They obviously have no clue. For better or worse, I’m going to have to figure stuff out on my own.”

[Edited to add:] Second, I felt surprise that I evidently had still been getting moral guidance from evangelical Christianity. I thought I had let go of that after my study of slavery in the Bible and evangelicals’ excuses for it. I felt a little sad as the last thread broke. Or at least I think it’s the last thread.

The third feeling was a little indignation that evangelical pastors have not been forthcoming about the profound shift in the evangelical position on this issue. If they had been, then their congregations (a.k.a. voters) would be more humble and maybe the country would be less polarized.

Fourth, it became more clear than ever that we cannot count on God to grant prayers for wisdom, even when we think he has. How could God lead one Bible-believing, God-honoring, prayer-filled group of Southern Baptists in 1971 to call on their members to “work for legislation that will allow the possibility of abortion” in the case of “emotional damage” to the mother, and then lead another prayerful group in 2003 to “lament and renounce statements and actions by previous Conventions and previous denominational leadership that offered support to the abortion culture”?

And what prayer would God answer if not a prayer for a wisdom about protecting innocent, human life? In fact, the Bible promises that God will answer such prayers generously.

This is a special case of the inefficacy of prayer, which is one of the reasons I left evangelical Christianity. More on that in my next post.