A popular Christian catch-phrase for decades has been: “Prayer changes things.” As well as being bandied about, it was used as the tagline for a relatively popular evangelical teaching radio show a few years back. Maybe it still is. Naturally I don’t believe that to be the case. Prayer changes nothing. And I don’t think that’s an opinion. I think it’s a demonstrable fact. In order to see why, let’s first lay out some basic Christian theology. This is not fringe, cult, outlier theology. This is core material – middle of the aisle evangelical stuff. Serious born-again Christians think this is how the universe works. Obviously there is plenty more where this came from, but for the conversation, I’m relating enough of the relevant theology to ensure a clear understanding of my points below.
1. The Nature of God
- God is omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent.
- God is only good, there is no evil in him.
- God is one in three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
- God hears and makes an active decision on every prayer and petition that is spoken by the Christian faithful.
- God can be convinced to enact supernatural change in a situation or event based on the sincerity, quantity, and persistence of the prayers of his faithful followers.
- God will not enact a supernatural change if the requested change is contrary to his perfect and/or directly revealed (read: biblical) will.
- God is willing to enact a supernatural change in any situation that falls under his permissive will (*note: we will be dipping a toe into the concept of the Will of God, but that is an enormous topic of its own for another time.)
2. The Nature of Humanity
- Humans are also three-part beings:
- Body: Our physical self that interfaces with the physical world.
- Soul: Our mind, will, and emotions.
- Spirit: The part of us capable of interfacing with God and the spiritual realm (This is a very important piece of the conversation.)
- Every human being is born in a “Fallen” state. This means:
- We are, by default, sinners, and therefore unqualified to enter into God’s presence and therefore Heaven.
- That the third part of us, our Spirit, is dead, also by default, due to the original sin of Adam.
- Every human being has the opportunity afforded by Christ’s death and resurrection to choose to be “Born Again.” This means:
- Each person who actively chooses to do so has his or her sins atoned for by Christ’s death.
- They are therefore qualified to enter God’s presence, and therefore Heaven.
- Their Spirit, heretofore dead is resurrected, brought to life – a theological concept called regeneration.
- This regeneration enables the believer to be connected to God, through the Holy Spirit, and therefore have access to the power of God in their everyday life.
- Every regenerated Christian has the right, and is called on, to pray to God in the name of Jesus Christ, and by that name to petition God for whatever they desire.
The key item in the above summary is that Christians believe they are regenerated. They are not human beings like all others. In their view, all non-believing human beings are only 2/3 whole – only partial humans, in a sense – incomplete. Born Again Christians, however, believe that they are whole, that they are actually changed, different, new creations (II Cor. 5:17) and that the other 1/3 of them that was dead is now alive. It isn’t that they are the same as everyone else and are just acting on their belief. They are different, and they have a new part of themselves to utilize that non-believers don’t have, and thereby have access to the unlimited supernatural power of God to impact their and others’ lives. That established, let’s look at what Christians pray for, consider what outcomes we would expect to see if God regularly answered their prayers, then look at the realities of life around us to see if there is any indication of supernatural answers to prayer.
What are a few things that Christians pray for on a consistent basis that would provide a metric to test the efficacy of prayer? I did an informal survey by simply going to the most subscribed to Facebook prayer page and poring through over 100 posts from individuals requesting prayer. This is not at all scientific, yet is reasonably indicative of the general nature of Christian prayers. I categorized the prayer requests topically. If a request for an individual covered more than one category, I counted each prayer topic as one request. I think this is reasonable as there is not a proscription against multiple prayers from or for any individual. Here are the topics and the percentages of the overall requests they represent:
- Healing/Illness/Injury – 43.3%
- Housing/Financial – 13.6%
- Travel/Safety – 5.1%
- Drug/Alcohol – 1.7%
- Personal Relationships – 9.3%
- Christian Conversion – 2.5%
- Military Safety – 0.0%
- Help/Ministries for Poor – 1.7%
- Cristiano Ronaldo’s Knee – 0.9%
- Other – 22.0%
The “Other” category was made up mostly of requests for prayer for issues kept private, plus a few outlying requests.
I think it’s no surprise to see prayer requests for healing of illness or injury to be so overwhelming. Rarely do we feel so helpless as when someone whom we care about is in danger of losing their life or suffering a severe change in their quality of life. The more helpless we feel in a situation, the more we reach for outside intervention.
Interestingly, some of the prayers for healing were multiple requests for the individual. I counted each as one because the bible indicates that a preponderance of prayers will more likely move god’s hand to action
The question isn’t whether it’s reasonable to reach for outside intervention, rather the efficacy of prayer to a god as a particular source of intervention.
So let’s take the top 3 single categories, which again aren’t all that surprising: Health, Finance, and Relationships. If all that we’ve covered is true, what would we expect to see?
- Longer life expectancy for Christians than non-Christians.
- Lower incidence of serious/life-threatening disease.
- Higher cancer survival/remission rates
- Higher survival rates from accident/injury
The fact is that Christians experience the same incidence of all of the above as non-Christians, with some small variation. These variations are generally attributable to lifestyle choices. Christians as a demographic tend to avoid activities and substances that carry disease risk, such as smoking, drugs, alcohol, and riskier sex practices.
But Christians die of cancer just like non-Christians do. Their survival rates are not any better. While anecdotal evidence isn’t evidence per se, in 26 years as a committed Christian I have not seen one case of cancer survival that was not directly attributable to proper treatment following a medically predicted outcome. I have seen the same outcomes in my non-Christian circles as well.
Interestingly, a number of studies have explored this prayer vs. illness issue and found prayer almost invariably wanting, save for one study, that found a small but measurable decrease in post-procedural complications. The latest study released by the American Heart Journal was a showed the exact opposite. It was a long-term study that was designed to overcome particular flaws in earlier studies. The most interesting point that came out of the study is that people being prayed for who were told that people were praying for their health/recovery actually experienced elevated rates of post-procedural complications. The other groups, those not prayed for and those prayed for but unaware of those prayers, experienced no measurable difference in recovery or complications.
But all of this overlooks the obvious. If Christians could clearly show that being a Christian and having direct access to god would result in reliable answers to prayer, which would then result in a measurable difference between the health/recovery rates of Christians and non-Christians, the world would never hear the end of it. It would be trumpeted as the proof that atheists and doubters everywhere have been clamoring for for ages. It would show a direct correlation.
Probably the most tragic examples of this sort of failure are the ill-informed parents whose faith in their god is so strong that they refuse to provide their children necessary life-saving treatment. Instead they sit on their knees and watch their children needlessly die. One could argue their faith in god is the strongest of all, because they very specifically practice what they preach, to no avail.
But we all know, Christians included, that such behavior is irrational. They know as well as the rest of us that those correlations we should expect to see just don’t exist. Even the writer of Ecclesiastes was aware of that, though in the end he apparently, and unfortunately, came to the exact opposite conclusions than were warranted by his observations.
This is probably more difficult to measure, because the criteria aren’t so black and white as they are with health, which is almost a simple binary equation. Enough to say that it’s not uncommon to encounter Christians and non-Christians alike who have financial issues. You certainly don’t see more wealthy Christians than poor ones, nor the other way around.
But one might question if that in itself isn’t an issue – not one of prayer, but of practical living out of the Christian ideals of the first century church as chronicled in the epistolary section of the New Testament, in which the wealthy were reviled and the poor admired. Those who had much were encouraged to give it all away to help the poor. Instead we have the cult of the Megachurch. Those who build and lead those giant, well-funded churches are looked at as the epitome of Christian leadership. Surely something there is not quite right?
What would we expect to see in Christians’ lives as a result of prayer and access to the power of god?
- Lower divorce rates
- Lower incidence of adultery
- More successful parent/child relationships
Not all of these things are easily measurable, especially the last item. However, studies have shown that Christians have the same rates of infidelity and divorce as non-Christians. Christians emphasize the sanctity of marriage, the importance of a god-centered family, the importance of faithfulness and devotion among the family. Yet their families look the same as non-Christians. They cheat on their spouses at the same rate. They divorce at the same rate.
If they had special access to the supernatural power of god, and the right as children of god to petition him for aid, there should be a marked difference in the strength of personal relationships. We don’t see that at all.
As far as children go, I’ll only go so far as to say that the PK – the Pastor’s Kid, is a well-worn stereotype that many of us have seen played out many times, sometimes to tragic ends.
If YHWH was real, if Jesus was alive, if the Holy Spirit lived within and regenerated every Christian, making them a new creation, if this triune god answered prayer, we should see a difference. We should see that this god is different than all the other gods. We should see a big difference between the Christian and the godless.
After all, in Elijah’s day, god purportedly had no problem showing the difference.
But there is no difference. There is no power. There is no magic. There is no difference.
Prayer changes nothing.