Pondering Prayer

Do appeals for healing work? Two clergymen and a scientist have their say



Every day, people of faith make appeals to a divine power on behalf of themselves, friends and family.

To them, prayer has healing power.

But recently, scientists have questioned whether an appeal to a higher power works.

In Duke University's study of more than 700 people preparing to undergo a heart procedure, researchers found that prayers by religious groups had no significant effect. The results of the study were published in the July 16 edition of The Lancet.

And so the debate between scientists and theologians continues.

We asked the Rev. Lanier Twyman, pastor of St. Stephens Baptist Church in Temple Hills, Muslim minister Carlos Muhammad of Mosque Temple No. 6 in Baltimore, and Dr. Diane Becker, director of the Center for Health Promotion at the Johns Hopkins Hospital's Bloomberg School of Public Health, to discuss prayer and its impact on health.

What do you think prayer is designed to do?

Muhammad: I believe that the spiritual side of our development mirrors what we do physically. Prayer is designed to cleanse our inner souls and our inner beings.

Twyman: Certainly prayer promotes fellowship with the divinity and humanity. It is designed to get guidance, seek counsel and wisdom. It's designed to help us and provide strength in the relationship between God and man.

Becker: As a scientist, I see it as something extremely important, part of somebody's personal well-being because it is a major coping mechanism that may have physical effects just by its very nature. It is a way to put life in a framework and a way to find meaning in the universe.

Are there different types of prayer? If you believe so, please explain.

Twyman: Certainly, there's always the prayer of thanksgiving when it comes to expressing our gratitude to God. There's the prayer of supplication that's asking God to meet our needs. Also, there's the prayer of meditation that allows us to hear directly from God through prayer where we allow God to speak to us.

Becker: There's praise, submission. There's lamentation, confession, thanksgiving, intercession, petition, worship and meditative prayer. There's just a variety of ways in which prayer can occur, and each of those has different meanings and theological perspective.

How do you know when prayer works?

Muhammad: I know that prayer works because God created his creatures in need of him, and I know that I am always in need of that higher power.

Twyman: God has a way of answering our prayers. I believe there are three ways he does it. There is yes. Sometimes God says no, and sometimes God says wait. For me personally, I keep a prayer journal, and there are certain things that I pray for and certain things that I pray about. Periodically, I go back and I look at that list, and I encourage my congregants to get a prayer list, and if you are praying about some specific things, you can evaluate that.

Becker: I find people want a logical, rational outcome that could be related to what was expected of the prayer. If that outcome was related to health or whatever, it could be something that you could measure, something you could see.

Do you think prayer has an impact on the health of an individual?

Muhammad: Within the theological realm, there is science. The Scriptures teach us that "as a man thinketh, so is he," showing us the power of the mind. How we think and the environments that we are in, it affects our physical being.

Twyman: There is no question that there is a connection between prayer and healing. When I look at the master healer, Jesus Christ, he has shown us that healing is through him. He indicates if any are sick among you, let them call upon the elders of the church, have anointing with oil, and pray for them,

Becker: I can tell you without a doubt that depending on the type of prayer you are talking about, or the quality of the research that is being done, there is a benefit of prayer. There are probably 2,000 or 3,000 very well-designed studies that show a very good outcome related to prayer and religion.

Do you think that prayer can be studied scientifically, since prayer and science seem to be at opposite ends of the spectrum -- one based on concrete evidence and the other based on what is not concrete?

Muhammad: When you say scientific study, is it to reach the how and why? Or is it to prove or disprove? I think that's the problem when we talk about scientific study. All of us who study the word of God to some degree want to know more about the how and the why, because we already have faith enough that it is.

Twyman: I think one of the challenges science has with the theological aspect of prayer is it is very difficult to study an infinite God.

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