When studies in recent years purported to show that prayer “works,” quite a few Christian leaders championed the research as evidence that prayer can be scientifically and medically verified and validated. I did not join in that celebration for three reasons. First, I do not believe that Christians should look for any validation of prayer (or any other Christian doctrine or discipline, for that matter) from the world of science or empirical research. Second, I do not believe that Christians should accept a generic definition or conception of prayer in the first place. Those earlier studies made reference to prayer without stipulating to whom the prayer is addressed. Third, Christians do not believe that prayer heals, but that God heals. Prayer is often involved in the healing that God grants, but it is not the prayer that heals.
Now, a flurry of media reports follows the release of a major new study that claims to prove that prayer doesn’t work. These reports should not concern any believing Christian. The efficacy of prayer is beyond the reach of scientific investigation, and Christians offer intercessory prayers because we are commanded by God to do so, not because we believe in a mechanistic deal with the Deity. We trust our sovereign God to do what is right. We do not place our faith in prayer as an end in itself.
Many of these studies start from the premise that prayer is a form of self-therapy or meditative practice. For the Christian, prayer is a conversation with the Creator, a spiritual discipline that is a central part of the Christian life. Just remember the simple instructions of our Lord:
And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
“And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. Pray then like this:
“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day 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 evil.
[Matthew 6:5-13, English Standard Version]