Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Prayer and Healing: Beyond Prayer or Be In Prayer?

“Pray for me...Pray for our troops...Our prayers are with the families of this tragedy...You are in my prayers...Our thoughts and prayers are with you...Let’s take a moment of silence…”

From our President addressing the nation in the face of crisis, to strangers circling spontaneously in prayer on the streets of a horrific tragedy, gestures of concern and a search for healing and comfort are often in the utterances of prayer around the world.  Hospital bedsides are frequented by chaplains of all faiths making petitions to various versions of a supernatural 'healer' when doctors say a patient's healing is out of their hands--families in crisis are sometimes brought to their knees recognizing they do not have the earthly strength to  remove the pain they are facing.

Is bending a knee worth the energy? 

In an age of data driven practice, this seems to be a question researchers in the fields of medicine and psychology are beginning to ask more frequently in their research efforts.

Recently, medical research has emerged within academic literature exploring the physical healing benefits of religious activities from various faith communities, including meditation and prayer, as complementary alternative therapies to traditional medical practice.  The work of Green and Turner (2010) explores the health benefits of meditation in working with brain injury patients and presents a call for further research on the healing properties of meditation.  Researchers in the field of pediatrics  have examined and call for continued research regarding the appropriate integration of spiritual and religious practices into their work with patients; including, but not limited to praying with patients.  Rekha Chaudhary M.D., presents her mother's story of 'supernatural' physical healing in a case study published in the Journal of Pacing and Clinical Electrophysiology—She proposes her mother’s story is an example supporting the possibility of physical healing resulting from intercessory and personal prayer. 

Of particular interest to this reader are the results from research studies examining the correlation between specifically Christian prayers said for patients who were unaware they were being prayed for and their improved physical health outcomes.  In San Fransisco, a study in which cardiac patients who were unknowingly prayed for by Christians showed those prayed for had less congestive heart failure, required less medical intervention, and had less medical complications than the control group of patients who were not prayed for.  A similar study was conducted on cardiac patients in Kansas City yielding analgous results.  Of final note, was a study on hospital patients suffering from a bloodstream infection.  The duration of fever and overall hospital stay of individuals for whom intercessory prayer was said for, was less than a control group of patients who were not prayed for.  Overall mortality rate was only slightly lower in those prayed for.
However, not all medical research points to an empirical correlation between physical healing and general types of prayer.  For example, in a study of the relationship between physical healing and music, imagery, and touch (MIT) therapy and masked intercessory prayer of various faith systems (the patient was unaware of the prayers), no significant relationship was found.  Additionally, an article in the British Journal of Cancer documents a replication study by Zachariae et al. (2005) in which the researchers found that contrary to the indications of a previous study, patients with cancer who were unaware of being prayed for did not experience significant improvement in their physical symptoms when compared with a control group.  The researchers propose that there may have been psychosocial and psychophysiological  benefits to the patients, but no physical healing of the cancer cells (Zachariae et al., 2005).

In regards to mental health and healing, researchers in the field of psychology have been increasingly examining the relationship between spiritual practices such as prayer and mental health.  A meta-analyses conducted by Hodge (2007) of empirical research studies on intercessory prayer showed that in alignment with the APA's Division 12 criteria, intercessory prayer can be considered an experimental intervention with a small, but significant positive effect (Hodge, 2007). The research of Laird et al. (2004) on five dimensions of personal prayer in the lives of arthritis patients showed that healthy mental adjustment to arthritic conditions was positively related to specific types of prayer (ex. prayers of Thanksgiving), level of faith, and frequency of personal prayer in patients’ lives. Of particular interest to this reader, are the writings emerging in the field of psychology presenting preliminary findings surrounding the use and efficacy of specifically Christian Inner Healing Prayer (Garzon, 2005; Tan, 2007).  During this type of prayer (Theophostic Ministry) a counselor, with the client’s permission, guides the client as he/she prayerfully walks through painful memories seeking God’s insight and healing (Tan, 2007; Garzon, 2005).  Siang-Yang Tan (2007) presents a case study presenting what he believes is a practical and ethical use of prayer and inner healing prayer in conjunction with Christian Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).

A survey of both Christian and Secular academic literature on prayer and physical and mental healing shows that researchers in the medical and mental health communities are engaging in and calling for more data regarding the potential existence and nature of the relationship between prayer and healing.  Although I am personally encouraged by the research community’s interest in prayer and the nature of its relationship to physical and mental health and healing, I am beginning to wonder as Krucoff and Crater (2009) examine, whether we can ever truly empirically capture the complexities of the relationship between prayer and healing.  Part of my personal belief system is that healing from God may not be limited to physical and mental improvement in the material realm.  Can we assume that because a person who is prayed for does not physically heal or improve in their mental functioning on earth that prayers are not heard and answered?  I must admit, I am excited and quite curious to see what the emerging research surrounding the topic of prayer will reveal in the future.  However, I am even more curious to know if the God of the Universe--who is said to typically not be a fan of being tested, will sit still long enough under the microscope for us to figure Him out.



  1. Brandy, I really enjoyed reading your blog. I also believe that prayer is an intricate part of not only our walk with the Lord, but it is also an essential part of the counseling process. I believe that we should be more aware of praying for others and the state that this world is in. I was also encouraged by the video on Theosophic prayer. I am a firm believer that when we can deal with the pain that we feel; whether the pain is emotional or physical we are then on the road to recovery from the inside out. And, no, we can not assume that a prayer has not been heard because a person's mental functioning does not improve. I am excited as well to see what the topics on prayer will reveal. Who knows, you or myself may be the ones to research the topic and give the exciting results.
    Be Blessed
    Bridget Kelly

  2. The research that you found regarding prayer was very interesting. The studies that were conducted on individuals who were being prayed for without their knowledge made me curious as to how much more impact those prayers may have had if they were aware. I believe that God answers all prayers, though perhaps not always in a way that we know or understand at the time or years later. Studies such as the ones mentioned, I think, should serve as a reminder that He should not be an afterthought or a last resort. The fact that there is so much curiosity on the part of both secular and Christian researchers today speaks volumes to the power that prayer holds. Even when someone may not believe in God or prayer, it is hard to ignore the evidence that He exists and is living and active in the world today.
    Thank you for your insight Brandy!


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