The last word on the power of prayer

A couple of weeks ago I stumbled across an article in The Guardian that was trending on Facebook. If you’re one of those people that likes to box and label a person by the newspaper they read, save yourself the stationery and storage space. The only newspaper you’ll find in our home is the weekly Berrow’s Worcester Journal which fuels our stove before it gets a chance to fuel our minds!

The article was written by a man with more labels than [your favourite stationery outlet here]. You might know him as a Professor, or a medical doctor, a surgeon, a scientist, a politician or a TV presenter (according to Wikipedia). You might know him as The Right Honourable Professor, The Lord Winston or simply as Robert Winston. One thing is for sure, with that many labels, titles and letters after his name, he doesn’t look like he’d settle for ‘Bobby’.

The article itself was entitled The ‘Christian doctor’ was lucky not to be struck off and concerned a Christian GP, Dr. Richard Scott, who was put under investigation by the General Medical Council concerning professional misconduct which involved telling a patient that he might get better if he prayed.

You can read the article here.

I’m not writing this article to defend Dr. Richard Scott’s actions. But I wonder how you responded when you read that article? What kind of comment would you leave at the foot of that article? Would you boo or cheer? And for which of the two doctors – Dr. Winston or Dr. Scott?

When I read that article it provoked a lot of knee-jerk responses within me and a lot of thought too. The thrust of Dr. Winston’s article was that Dr. Scott shouldn’t use his medical profession as a platform for his faith and spirituality. However, with so many labels and titles, conveniently it seems when it suits Dr. Winston he can put down his surgeon’s knife, pick up his pen or microphone and use his media platform to dissect and judge Dr. Scott and indoctrinate the masses in the process. Just read the comments below the article and you’ll soon hear the cries of “Amen, Lord (Robert)!” from his zealous, fundamental congregants!

Am I alone in sensing a little bit of irony behind that piece of journalism?

Perhaps, in his defence, you’d argue that he was distinctly using his platform as Robert Winston the journalist and not Robert Winston the doctor. But take away the labels and boxes and the line is blurry. Irrespective of his titles, he is simply one man after all – Mr. Robert Winston – laden with his own skills, abilities, prejudices, ideals and opinions.

But what really caught my eye was how he then went on to use his media and science platform in an attempt to dissect and diffuse the power of prayer. He writes:

“One of the most authoritative scientific studies comes from a Christian organisation. Just last year Leanne Roberts, from the Southwark diocesan office, published a scholarly assessment of the power of prayer. Together with colleagues, she evaluated a number of research trials which involved nearly 8,000 patients. There was no difference overall in recovery from illness or death, whether subjects were prayed for or not.”

Dr. Winston now seems to assume the role of theologian but this is the one label that doesn’t really stick. I am convinced that a book could easily be written unpacking the number of errors in that single paragraph.

Here were two glaringly obvious ones that came to mind as I read it.

The first problem I have is his assumption that only a scholar can interpret the power of prayer. Keen to paralyse prayer in one paragraph, Dr. Winston injects a piece of recent research as being the last word (or at least “One of the most authoritative studies…”) on the efficacy – or inefficacy – of prayer. He’s also keen to state how hot-off-the-press this research is and curiously careful to cite his ‘Christian’ sources. I wonder what the reason was for not citing anything from the last 2,000 years of the power of prayer in church history; just an oversight? Clearly this is a short piece of journalism and you might argue that he only had column space for the nearest and latest available data. I would argue that he didn’t have to take the article in that direction at all. Why didn’t he stay on point and just talk within his own profession and the place of prayer in the medical profession rather than attempt a borrowed pithy assault on the power of prayer? A single page from the prayer diary of George Muller alone would have been more authoritative than whatever came out of the Southwark diocesan office’s spreadsheets!

The second problem I have with this article is Dr. Robert’s theology of prayer. The power of prayer – according to the ‘authoritative’ research – is impotent because it didn’t result in any more recovery and healing than it did among those who were not prayed for. This assumes that the act of prayer is simply telling God to give us what we want. And consequently when you measure prayer that way, you can conclude – if you don’t get what you want – that prayer is either powerless, pointless or both. Since when does the bible teach that prayer is the act of man securing what he wants? Does the bible teach that everyone gets physical healing when they pray? Does the bible teach that everyone gets miraculous physical deliverance from difficult circumstances when they pray or are prayed for?

Perhaps you should read the Gospel according to Dr. Luke before reading the one according to Dr. Robert?

Jesus taught people to pray. And He himself prayed. During the most anguished night of His life on earth – the very night when He would be betrayed and abandoned by His friends and handed over to wicked men with more titles and labels and authority than you probably have boxes for – Jesus prayerfully asked that He might be physically delivered; but He added those words that many learned and skeptical men and women fail to acknowledge or appreciate:

“Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” – Luke 22:42

The Son of God did not preach or practice the kind of prayer life that saw prayer as a means of getting what we want or getting out of what we don’t want. In fact when He taught His disciples to pray, He taught them to pray the same way:

“Our Father…Thy will be done…” – Matthew 6:9,10

You see that? “Thy will be done!” not “My will be done”!

I have not extensively studied the 71-page research report that came out of the Southwark diocesan offices. Having spent five years as a researcher and statistician in the Public Service sector, I question how objective research like this really is. However, be that as it may this research may long remain a ‘scholarly assessment of the power of prayer’ as Dr. Winston puts it; but it is far from a biblical one!

And I just wonder, if that scholarly research did produce results that were more favourable towards the power of prayer according to the assumptions that define ‘power’ in the researchers’ minds, would Dr. Robert have taken any notice?

This is not to say that I have all the answers. Those of you who have followed this blog will know that while prayer remains a constant in our lives, it’s not always easy. Sometimes, even in the context of praying within a biblical perspective, we just don’t understand why some prayers are not answered in the way we would hope or when we would hope.

When I read that article I allowed myself to wonder for a moment. What if somebody researched our prayer journey? What if they were able to point to very rational explanations for the way things have worked out? What if the researcher monitored and compared our prayer journey with another young couple with cancer who were not believers and didn’t pray? What if their journey was even smoother? We’ve certainly met a good number of optimistic, strong cancer patients who were not Christians.

The last word always comes back to Jesus.

How do I know my prayers are heard? How do I know that praying does make a difference? How do I know that the peace that Annie and I have received is connected to prayer? The bottom line concerns the greatest event in history.  God has come to this earth, walked among sinners, died on a cross and risen on the third day. And that changes everything. That event labels the prayers of Christians uniquely authoritative and authentic.

The Apostle Paul knew much and taught much about the power of prayer and yet in one of his letters to the church in Corinth he writes about this great bottom line.

And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. – 1 Corinthians 15:17-19

As much as Paul taught and preached about the discipline and power of prayer (and many other disciplines of the Christian faith) he implied that prayer and preaching was nothing more than a waste of breath, if Jesus did not rise from the dead. In fact, what he actually wrote suggests that if he was in one of Dr. Robert Winston’s many positions he’d have cut to the chase and called Christians a bunch of pathetic losers!

But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, – 1 Corinthians 15:20

Don’t let articles like the one Dr. Robert Winston has written dupe you into believing that scholars and lofty, learned men and women have the last word on the power of prayer. And don’t let religion hijack and define prayer as something which it isn’t.

I know that my Redeemer lives;
What comfort this sweet sentence gives!
He lives, He lives, who once was dead;
He lives, my ever living Head.

He lives to bless me with His love,
He lives to plead for me above.
He lives my hungry soul to feed,
He lives to help in time of need.

He lives triumphant from the grave,
He lives eternally to save,
He lives all glorious in the sky,
He lives exalted there on high.

He lives to grant me rich supply,
He lives to guide me with His eye,
He lives to comfort me when faint,
He lives to hear my soul’s complaint.

He lives to silence all my fears,
He lives to wipe away my tears
He lives to calm my troubled heart,
He lives all blessings to impart.

He lives, my kind, wise, heavenly Friend,
He lives and loves me to the end;
He lives, and while He lives, I’ll sing;
He lives, my Prophet, Priest, and King.

He lives and grants me daily breath;
He lives, and I shall conquer death:
He lives my mansion to prepare;
He lives to bring me safely there.

He lives, all glory to His Name!
He lives, my Jesus, still the same.
Oh, the sweet joy this sentence gives,
I know that my Redeemer lives!

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