40 Problems: Can the Effectiveness of Prayer be Determined?

This week, the challenger argues that prayer is ineffective because scientific studies have concluded as much. But is science even the right place to start with this topic?

Objective studies have revealed that prayers are not effective beyond any statistical measure of coincidence. Most notably, they do not work for amputees or paralyzed individuals. Prayers for terminally ill people almost always fail. Prayers for rain, to allay storms, and for fixing damaged property, among others are rarely attempted because the supplicants know they won’t be effective. But what do the scriptures say?

He replied, “Because you have so little faith. Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” Matthew 17:20

An objective person must realize that the promise described in this scripture is not true. The fact that there is no discernible efficacy for prayers is a valid clue that there is no God listening and responding to them.

The first thing the challenger says is that studies are cited that show prayer is not really effective. But is that even the right place to start?

prayer-manWhile many people do this, it’s a mistake to approach prayer in a mechanistic fashion. Prayer is not like a machine where you say this phrase, assume this particular posture, finish with five “Hail Mary’s,” and boom! You got what you were praying for!

We have to remember that we are not working a machine, but rather talking to a Person. And persons have their own minds and wills.

Even atheist Dr. Gordon Stein says that it’s ineffective to do a scientific study on prayer because they “make the assumption that God is a sort of Pavlovian dog.” He’s right. If God is real, He has a mind and will of His own. He’s not a machine awaiting activation by our prayers. As Greg Kokul once put it:

We can’t use science to answer questions about the nature of prayer because prayer is not a natural process that is determined by certain prior events. Prayer is the act of one willing agent making a request of another willing Agent and that second willing Agent may choose to answer, or He may choose not to…willing agents are not machines and because they are not machines…they are not going to necessarily respond in particular ways. And that of course is the problem of prayer. It’s the problem of relationships. You are dealing with wills.

One thing about prayer is that it is not always a means to an end but rather an end itself. The act of praying to God demonstrates a reliance on God from the person praying. Even if many prayers don’t get answered (at least in the way people expect), many people with healthy prayer lives would say they have a close relationship with God which is bolstered by communicating regularly with Him through prayer.

Prayer is a mysterious thing, but the lack of scientific proof that prayer works does not in any way disprove Christianity or the existence of God because science is the wrong tool to test prayer’s effectiveness in the first place.

It’s like trying to determine a person’s height with only a weight scale.

Also, as a quick comment on Matthew 17:20, it’s obvious the challenger is taking the verse literally and then dismissing it as crazy. But is this meant literally? No, Jesus is using hyperbolic language to make the point that a little faith in God can go a long way in overcoming life’s obstacles.


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