Is prayer really effective?

I recently received a question about God’s activity in the world and recent studies about the effectiveness of prayer.  The respondent suggested that God may not answer individual prayers according to recent studies.

My response is below:

The most obvious answer is that there is absolutely evidence that God is active in the world and in the lives of believers.  We have good historical evidence that God acted in the world by raising Jesus from the dead.  This validates Jesus’s claims, including his claim to offer forgiveness and eternal life to those who believe in him.  This is most certainly a blessing in their lives.

I suspect, however, that you mean to refer to activity in the sense of answering personal and individual prayers rather than God’s general activity in the world.  I bring up Jesus as a reminder that we should not go so far into the weeds that we neglect what is more accessible.  We have evidence that God raised Jesus from the dead, and the resurrection would be enough to conclude that Christianity is true.  Jesus also seemed to teach about the effectiveness of prayer.

I am not sure what statistics you are referring to or how those studies were conducted, and so I can’t speak authoritatively to the study that you have read.  In general, I would encourage you to be vary cautious in taking such things at face value.  It does not sound like the sort of study that would be designed to be favorable to Christianity.  We don’t know, for example, the nature of those people who are praying.  Barna Group researchers have put out studies suggesting that many professing Christians may be considered unbelievers by orthodox Christians.  If we would not even consider the people who are praying to be followers of Christ, then how could their actions reflect on the effectiveness of Christian prayer?

At any rate, there are a few assumptions in your question that we may want to rethink.  First, why should we think that the free will actions of God should yield to statistical study?  Should we expect a free agent to work in such a predictable manner?  Second, why should we think that God wants to help and heal believers more than he wants tho help and heal unbelievers?  In terms of scripture, God seems willing to let believers die just to get the opportunity for salvation to unbelievers.  Finally, why should we think that the natural order of things is in competition with God?  If God set up our immune system and it has a statistically significant success rate in battling diseases, then why should we not think that God has overcome those diseases by giving us such an immune system?  It seems to me that God has also provided humanity with the intellect to invent cures and treatments for disease, should God not be praised for that?  Was that not God’s activity in providing such an opportunity?

Remember that scripture says humanity was created in God’s image.  We are meant to be a picture of who God is in the world.  It is no surprise, then, that we should see God’s activity as often coming through human means.

I hope that helps, thanks for the question!

Sincerely,

Matt Bilyeu