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Does praying for the sick help them get better? - (5/11/2021)

By Dr. Ron Gasbarro 

Mr. Greene came into the pharmacy and said to the pharmacist, "I guess you heard about Phoebe." "Yes. When are the services?" he replied. "Tuesday," said Mr. Greene. "You know, I really thought she would make it. I prayed so hard, and so did the rest of the family. I guess it was just her time.”

While dying is part of life, we always hope life will last a bit longer. We want to leave this earth without suffering or pain. What better way to die than to go quietly in one's sleep? To that end, can we pray that the sick person has an easier time? Do our prayers make a difference as to whether one lives or dies? Has the scientific community weighed in on this question? Intercessory prayer is a meditation that is undertaken for the well-being of others. The intercessor uses thought to communicate with God, making a request to help or heal another person or group of people. 

Scientists have been studying the effects of prayer for no less than 150 years, beginning with the work of British statistician and sociologist Sir Francis Galton. In the 1870s, Galton realized that the British Royal Family received substantially more prayers on its behalf than everyone else since praying for the monarchs was a structured part of Sunday services throughout England. Galton pondered whether the family should be of better health and live longer than average the typical Brit who did not receive such prayers. But, as he researched the family, Galton concluded that they did not enjoy better health or longevity than the commoners who worshipped them. Case closed? 

Fast forward to the 21st century. Various scientific studies have been conducted that hint at the power of prayer to shorten hospital stays and to arrive at better clinical outcomes of serious illnesses. However, such studies are poorly designed and have not convinced the critics of these examinations to be conclusive. Religious and philosophical objections to the study of prayer's efficacy exist. Some interpret Deuteronomy 6:16 ("You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test") to mean that prayer cannot, or should not, be questioned. And yet, James 5:15 says, "And the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up." Which biblical passage is true? There are no data to compare them. One must summon one’s faith to decide which to follow. 

Most people who work in the realm of science maintain that human consciousness is derived from the brain. Its workings are limited, like the heart and liver, to the physical body. Consequently, conscious intentions cannot be transmitted in space and time. Research in healing is in its infancy, even though it has been practiced for millennia. Nevertheless, no clinical study exists that is so perfect in its design that it can hope to satisfy such an enormous metaphysical challenge. Not yet anyway. True, miracles can happen. The person given a zero chance of surviving has lived to walk out of their hospital room. But, for every person who leaps from her death bed and runs to the kitchen to make pasta fazool, another does not live through her Last Rites.

No one wants the dog to die. And no one has prayed harder than the pharmacist and made more promises to compensate for a miracle. But, the dog dies, nevertheless. And so does - and will - every person who has ever enjoyed this fleeting journey through life. Mr. Greene could have prayed for Phoebe until the knees in his slacks were thread-bare, but with perhaps, the same result. Praying does have some benefit. It helps the praying person cope better with the situation because it feels like something is being done to help. Also, if the person who is prayed for knows that prayers are coming, then he feels he is not entirely alone. If you believe in a benevolent God, then you must realize that God has the final word for whatever reason. So be it.
 
Ron Gasbarro, PharmD, is a recovering pharmacist and writer-in-residence at Rx-Press.

 


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