Friday, May 12, 2006

Intercessory Prayer

Paul and I have had a running conversation about intercessory prayer. A few days ago I posted information about our prayer ring on the AOL Journals Message Board. Paul asked:

"I'm interested, Charley. Do you believe in the power of intercessory prayer? If so, why?"

I responded to his message with this reply:

Hi Paul,
I do believe in the power of intercessory prayer. My belief comes from both first-hand experience and faith (as in the word's definition...not in a particular denomination or god(s)). In brief:

- A friend was in a terrible accident with catastrophic internal injuries, brain swelling, and a coma. This coma was not induced to limit the swelling, but rather by the trauma of the accident. External injuries, amazingly, were scarce.

The doctors did what they could (at a respectable hospital outside Philadelphia), however he did not come out of his coma or show any signs of recovery. As his heart had stopped and he had stopped breathing for an undetermined amount of time prior to resuscitation at the accident scene, his brain showed a vegetative state (lack of oxygen the believed cause, as well as the swelling).

His other internal injuries were dealt with as best as possible, but due to his fragile health, extensive surgery was not possible.

The family and his friends prayed for the intercession of Padre Pio, 24 hours a day for three days. On the morning of the fourth day he emerged from his coma, fully functioning, with no brain damage.

Upon further evaluation, the doctors also determined that his internal organs had healed and showed no damage or trauma.

There is no justifiable medical cause for this sudden turn of events. Is it possible that his body cured itself? Yes, it is possible. But next to impossible if not nearly completely improbable.

His recovery was actually submitted to the Vatican for research and study as one of Padre Pio's miracles during his canonization proceedings (it was not chosen and subsequently not investigated).

As there is a chance that nature not intercessory prayer worked in this case, this is where my faith in intercessory prayer leads me to believe. He showed no signs of improvement during his time in the hospital. Nothing could be done for him that would completely reverse his maladies.

Something happened inside him, however, and I believe that prayer had a role.

Best regards,

Paul asked me if he could turn this into a nice little journal topic - and this is a friendly conversation folks - about intercessory prayer and those who are skeptical of why it's done. I agreed. Please remember, Paul is not attacking faith or Christians. He's simply skeptic of why it's done and how or if it works.

Paul's response was:

I have always had a problem with the idea of intercessory prayer, even back when I sorta, kinda believed in God. The reasons are pretty much twofold.
   First, the way I read The Bible, it's a sin. It goes against the very first of the big rules, The Ten Commandments. God states it pretty darn clearly. He says, "I am a jealous God." He doesn't want anyone praying to any entity other than Him. So whether it's Padre Pio, St. Francis, or Holy Mary, Mother of God herself, what we are talking about is iconography, and clearly contravenes the law as given us directly by God himself.

   Silly semantic arguments aside, my other reason for doubting the efficacy of intercessory prayer goes to reliability and replicability. It plain doesn't always work. For every miraculous sounding story you tell me, I can reply with an instance where, regardless of who prayed to whom, how hard, and for how long, the person being prayed for still died.
   So, clearly, there are rules to this intercessory prayer thing. God has criteria for whose prayers he answers, and whose he flat out ignores. How do we determine that criteria?
   How do we know who to pray to? Is there a list somewhere that tells me which saint covers head trauma, and which one covers damaged internal organs, and which one covers incurable diseases? If your friend's family had accidentally prayed to St. Thomas Aquinas, would your friend have died?
   How much prayer is necessary? Is there a critical mass, above which your prayers come to somebody's attention? How large does your prayer group have to be? Does God have a calculator where he compares the virtuousness of the sick person against the volume of incoming prayer?
   Your answers to all these questions are, of course, "I haven't got a frickin' clue." We don't know why sometimes our prayers appear to be answered, and why sometimes they don't. We just pray. And the results looklike this:

   Some people who get prayed for get better.
   Some people who do not get prayed for get better.
   Some people who do not get prayed for do not get better.
   Some people who get prayed for do not get better.

   Looks like a pretty random distribution to me. But, don't take my word for it. This topic has been studied in quite some depth over the years. The results of the most recent clinical study
were released several weeks ago.

"Patients who knowingly received prayers developed more post-surgery complications than did patients who unknowingly received prayers—and patients who were prayed for did no better than patients who weren't prayed for. In fact, patients who received prayers without their knowledge ended up with more major complications than did patients who received no prayers at all."

   The study also noted that there was no difference in 30 day mortality rates between groups. That is to say that the number of patients who died within the first 30 days after surgery was approximately the same between the groups who received prayer, and the groups who did not.

   What does all this prove? Absolutely nothing. Maybe God doesn't do studies. Maybe He refuses to step in when people are "testing" Him. "The Lord works in mysterious ways." "God has a plan, though we may not know it." Yada, yada, yada. All of these things are simply excuses to account for the fact that whenever we attempt to examine the efficacy of intercessory prayer, the results always appear to be completely random.
   For every friend in a car accident recovers due to miracle you offer me, I can come back with a friend with lung cancer was prayed for by dozens of people who loved her...still died.

   I would also like to examine your anecdote a little more closely, Charley. We exchanged e-mails the other night regarding the church in Forest, Ohio that was hit by lightning during a sermon. I opined that, while news reports support the fact that the event happened, the claims of people that it happened at the exact instant that the preacher called out for a sign from God are hard to accept unquestioningly. Human beings have a well known tendency to embellish stories to make them sound better, and it is entirely plausible that such an embellishment developed around that event in order to turn a good story into a great one. Maybe it did happen exactly the way it has been reported, but I'd want to interview several people who were there and compare their stories looking for inconsistencies before I would accept it.
   Likewise, when I look at your story with a critical eye I see it thusly:

Things I accept at face value:
a) Your friend was critically injured.
b) The doctors did all they could for him, but at some point conceded that it was out of their hands.
c) Your friend recovered against the expectations of the medical profession.

Things I question:
a) His family and friends prayed "24 hours a day for three days." Did none of them sleep in 72 hours? I doubt it.
b) "Upon further evaluation, the doctors also determined that his internal organs had healed and showed no damage or trauma." [emphasis mine] This is a remarkable claim, and as such, I cannot accept it at face value. It sounds very much like the same kind of embellishment we talked about before. Were you there at the hospital, or did you hear these things third hand? The only thing that would convince me about this part of the story would be examining the before and after medical reports. I would want to see the initial reports that described the damage to the internal organs, and I would want to see reports from three days later in which a doctor stated that those same organs "showed no damage or trauma."
   This is not to say that your friend's recovery wasn't remarkable, but I am inclined to believe that those around him have somewhat exaggerated the tale in order to make it sound more miraculous than it really was.

   The technical term for what we are talking about here is confirmation bias. Skeptics tend to refer to this as "counting the hits, and ignoring the misses." For example, your friend's recovery was a solid hit. He was prayed for, and he recovered. However, you fail to account for the number of people in the same hospital who may have died over the same time period, many of whom may have received a similar amount of prayer. Did such 'misses' exist? I don't know. You don't know. You didn't ask. That is not an indictment. It's just the way our brains work.
   However, if you had to guess, would you say it was likely or unlikely that someone in that hospital, during that time, died, even though he or she was also prayed for by many friends and family members? I would tend to think it was pretty likely. Because that's just the way the world works.


And finally, my response to Paul:

Hi Paul,
Great entry and you ask many good questions. My wife and I are off for a short vacation this weekend (finally!), so my reply will be brief, but I hope it will address the pertinent points of your response.

Your first point (against the rules of the Bible) - The presumption in this portion of your response is that we are asking for the intercessor to take some action. Or that we are praying to the intercessor instead of God. This is a misconception and not simply semantics. We pray the intercessor intercede on our behalf with God IN ADDITION to the prayers we say directly to God. God is a jealous God, however, if I were a jealous God, I wouldn't mind my people coming to me from multiple avenues to ask my intercession...I'd probably like it ;). It's not worship, Paul, and therefore not iconography or idolatry.

The assumption in the rest of your post is based on reliability and replicability. Your assumption is that he ignores prayers. That God chooses which prayers to answer. This is an incorrect assumption. It is foolhardy of any human to pray for God to do something particular. Intercessory prayers are meant always in hope, but always respectful for the will of God. He's God. He has a will greater than mine and his will shall be done. I may pray that he heal and give you comfort if you were sick and dying, but I would also pray that God's will be done for you. God's will may be for you to die. I cannot understand him or his motivations. He's perfect. I am not. I cannot think like him, or understand him.

You can pray to anyone for intercession. You won't make any mistakes. Yes, there are patron saints that are traditionally associated with certain ailments (St. Blaze, for instance, is the patron saint of throat conditions). However, as you are praying for the intercession of that person with God, that saint or individual isn't really doing anything other than placing your prayers at the feet of God. Again, it's God's will, not the Saint's that determines the fate of that person who is ill.

As for critical mass, or how much prayer is too much prayer - God hears every prayer. One prayer is enough, however, we are called to pray everyday. As a Catholic, my life is actually a form of prayer. In prayer we worship God, even when asking for intercession. By living out the life of Christ on earth, to the best of my ability, I am living out my worship of God. Prayer is part of that - it is a conversation with God. He gives solace and comfort. Praying to the Lord is talking to him. And you can say whatever you'd like to God - all have that choice. The error in your questions is that you assume that there IS a required amount, format, or number of people that have to pray.

Your breakdown of:
Some people who get prayed for get better.
Some people who do not get prayed for get better.
Some people who do not get prayed for do not get better.
Some people who get prayed for do not get better.
is completely right. You fail to assume that because we pray for intercession we expect to receive it. I do not. Nor should I. I pray for it because I believe it is a right cause. God's will however, is beyond my comprehension and thereby his will should be done - not my own. Christ provides that example in the Garden of Gethsemene if you need a scriptural reference. Thus, some do die. Some do not. Some prayed for die. Some do not. What is at question is which have been helped by intercessory prayer? Only God knows for sure. Faith guides the rest of us.

As for my anecdote:
- yes, his family and friends did pray for him 24 hours a day for three days. They rotated in shifts and his parents slept in the room with him while other family and friends prayed for him. He was never without prayer during that time.
- I heard it third hand, but I've seen copies of his charts.

I say this because it is the crucial point in the benefit of prayer - in this case these things were documented.

And for what it's worth, I completely agree with the concept of counting the hits and ignoring the misses. many died in that hospital, some while my friend was being prayed for. However, it's not a matter of hit and miss. It's a matter of God's will and our asking him and others to intercede with him for us on earth. And thus, as I said in my first post, a matter of faith.