and the Efficacy of Prayer
By George Desnoyers
Below I will distinguish between Biblical miracles and theological miracles. But, first, let’s look at some dictionary definitions of “miracle.” The word normally means a marvelous event, or an event that causes wonder. Zondervan's "Bible Dictionary" goes on to say, "The use of ‘miracle’ in Christian theology includes, but goes beyond, the meanings of the ancient words. A miracle is (1) an extraordinary event, inexplicable in terms of ordinary natural forces, (2) an event that causes the observers to postulate a superhuman personal cause, or (3) an event that constitutes evidence (a ‘sign’) of implications much wider than the event itself."
The Catholic "Dictionary of the Bible" edited by John L. McKenzie, S.J., has an excellent article on miracles. In it, one learns that Biblical Hebrew had no word for miracle, so words for "sign," "wonder," or "portent" were employed. The word "ot" (see, e.g., Is. 7:14), thought of as "sign," or "something which attracts attention," was used for some things we would consider miraculous, but also for other things not even close to what we would call miracles, e.g. the strange conduct of Isaiah when he went around naked and barefoot (Is. 20:3).
Out of curiosity, I also looked the word up in an ordinary household dictionary, and the cutest and simplest definition was, "a wonderful thing."
Biblical miracles versus theological miracles
Not all miracles are the same. It is important to distinguish between Biblical miracles and theological miracles. Biblical miracles are stories told to inspire wonder and belief. The words most often used in the Bible mean “sign,” or “wonder.” They could be called “wonder stories.” And because they are intended to convey truths related to what we have come to know as theology, the Biblical miracles are sometimes called “theological wonder stories.” Few trained theologians understand the Biblical miracles to be literal accounts of events as they really happened. This is the case in most theological schools and seminaries. However, most Christian churches discourage the laity from questioning the literalness of Biblical miracles. This is because questioning the literalness of Biblical miracles is perceived as more dangerous to the faith of the laity than is taking the Biblical miracles literally.
The other kind of miracle, the theological miracle, has been defined by the Church using some of the thinking of Thomas Aquinas. This is a miracle in which at least one known “law” of nature is contravened. This is the kind of miracle the Church likes to see (but definitely does not always insist on) when it is considering a person for sainthood.1
The Bible’s authors did not conceptually know of the type of miracle I have called a “theological miracle.” This is because our understanding of the “laws of nature” is far more sophisticated and scientific than that which any Biblical authors would have had. An interesting piece of evidence that Paul, at least, did not distinguish miracles contravening a law of nature from those that don’t can be seen in Acts 26 where Paul speaks of his conversion. While there are some things in Paul’s conversion story that you could reasonably argue did contravene a law of nature, many people feel verse eight shows that Paul thought that his conversion, itself, was a miracle. Paul says, "Why should it be thought a thing incredible with you, that God should raise the dead?" Then he tells the story of his conversion, implying that his conversion is something like, or at least can be compared with, a resurrection of the dead. So, he is comparing a miracle (raising the dead) which virtually no-one would dispute violates a law of nature with an event (Paul’s conversion) that certainly cannot be demonstrated to do so. But, as I said, Paul could not possibly have had the same understanding of the laws of nature that we have today.
Today many people believe that a conversion to Christianity, especially one producing such a dramatic turn in a life as Paul's did, is a miracle. For conversion the criterion is not whether a law of nature can be shown to have been contravened, but rather whether the event cannot be explained by human causes and therefore is presumed to have occurred through a special act of God’s grace.
Miracles and Measuring the Efficacy of Prayer
The Traditional Double-blind Study
Traditionally, Christians have been encouraged to believe in the efficacy of prayer. This has led to attempts to measure prayer’s efficacy by the use of double-blind studies. Typically, such studies are conducted in the following way. A statistically sufficient number of sick people are divided into two matched groups. Prayers are said for the healing of the members of one of the two groups, but not offered for the members of the second group. The members of the two groups do not know whether prayers were offered on their behalf. Without knowing which group was prayed for, an external authority conducts an independent examination into the frequencies and speeds of healings among members of the two groups. Only after the independent determination of the numbers and speeds of healings of the members of the two groups, all experimental data is gathered together and analyzed. A judgment is then made regarding the efficacy of prayer.
An Improved Double-blind Study
As some people have pointed out, it would be possible to design an improved test to measure the efficacy of prayer. The above-described double-blind study could be a good test, but it includes a variable that would be easy to eliminate. After all, sick people either do or don’t recover, and recover at various rates, for a large variety of reasons having nothing to do with supernatural intervention in response to prayers. Instead of dividing sick people randomly into two groups, and having one group prayed for, and the other not prayed for, without either group knowing, and independently measuring the numbers and speeds of recoveries in the two groups, it has been suggested that one could do the following. Divide dead people into two groups. Because people sometimes only appear to be dead, use only people who have already been embalmed, or maybe who have been embalmed and buried. Have the dead in one group prayed for, that they would come back to life. But do not have the dead in the other group prayed for. Compare the percentages of dead who come back to life in the two groups. When an embalmed dead person comes back to life, supernatural intervention can pretty safely be presumed. Because such revitalizations are theological miracles, absolutely contrary to the known laws of nature, factors other than supernatural intervention in response to prayers could be nearly totally discounted.
If the experiment is done as suggested, you might come to the same conclusion an acquaintance of mine says he came to several years ago. For many years he has had a standing offer to tithe to the church of anyone who can light a match by saying a prayer. (So far, this acquaintance of mine has never had to tithe to a church because the match was lighted.)
Objections to the Improved Experiment
Let’s look at a couple of likely objections to this suggested experiment.
First, one might say that the suggested experiment asks too much of God. To that is replied that it should not be one whit more difficult for God to raise an embalmed dead person to life than it is for God to more speedily heal a sick person. After all, are not we talking about the God who holds the entire universe in his/her hand, and does that with great ease? Could such a God find anything too difficult?
A second objection that might be given is that such a test tempts God to perform a miracle in order to prove himself. It is sometimes said that God will never do that. Reference may be made to Satan’s temptations of Jesus in the wilderness. The answers to this objection would be the following.
First, the temptations in the wilderness were a special case in which Satan, not a human, was suggesting that Jesus specifically perform miracles that would undermine God’s plan and accomplish Satan’s desire. Jesus would have lost stature had he fallen for Satan’s treachery. But the prayers in the suggested experiment would be said by humans who are not in competition with God, and the prayers would be intended to bring God glory rather than to harm God’s reputation.
Second, Jesus did perform signs and wonders to vindicate, or prove, himself before humans. Look, for example, at Matthew 9:2-8, esp. v. 6 (“But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins…” Then he said to the paralytic, ‘Get up, take up your mat and go home.’” – NIV)
Third, we do have those NT verses in which Jesus promises, “If you ask anything in my name, My Father will do it for you” and “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed . . . ,” and so on, implying that all sincere prayers can and will be granted.”
The Real Reason for Objections to the Improved Experiment
Anyone who has spent much time in Christian churches should realize the real reason for objections to the improved experiment. It is because theological miracles, the kind of miracles in which a law of nature is contravened, are just not taken seriously today. When it comes to theological miracles, Christians very rarely take prayerful action on such promises as, “If you ask anything in my name, My Father will do it for you.” And theological miracles are almost never prayed for with much hope or expectation that the prayer will be answered affirmatively. On those occasions when such prayers are said, it is usually in desperation, because in the matters most important to us – like the health of a loved one - the smallest hope is better than none. Only a person either extremely religious or very desperate could fail to recognize the presumption in requesting God to suspend a law of nature on behalf of a sinner confessedly unworthy.
Somewhat paradoxically, ministers in fundamentalist churches are often the least likely to pray for supernatural intervention in matters where it would seem they would have great interest in doing so. Why don’t they, for example, ask God in prayer to miraculously and unmistakably let all of us humans know which one of more than two hundred thousand versions of “his inerrant word” is the right one? Some versions even have several whole books that other versions don’t have. If the Bible were truly all God’s word, we should naturally expect God to have an interest in preserving and promoting an accurate version, and to desire to make men/women reluctant to alter it. At the very least, following the production of all these versions of “his word,” you’d think he would unmistakably make clear to all of us which one is correct. This is a prayer that fundamentalist ministers should quite eagerly pray, since praying for God’s revelation to mankind to actually be recognized by mankind would certainly be praying for something within God’s will.
Escape Clauses to Promises of Answers to Prayers
Aside from the presumption in praying for theological miracles that contravene a law of nature, there is another reason for Christians not to take the texts about moving mountains, and faith as small as a mustard seed, too seriously. It is because the Bible’s authors, knowing of the shortage of true miracles which could be reported literally, quite liberally peppered the Bible with escape clauses - reasons why prayers would not be answered. Any religious leader worth his salt can offer multiple Biblical explanations why someone’s prayers have not been answered affirmatively, or in some cases even heard.
Below are some of the Biblical escape clauses to which religious leaders can point. Long-time church goers will be quite familiar with them, having heard the escape clauses dozens of times. Some of the texts are often used to humble people who trouble a minister about why their prayers went unanswered. This way the minister is usually able to rest assured that the person will not soon raise the embarrassing question again.
Biblical Escape Clauses – Why Prayers Might Have Gone Unanswered
Sin - Matthew 7:21-23; John 9:30-33, esp. v. 31; James 5:14-16; Isaiah 59:1-8, esp. v. 2; Isaiah 1:10-15; Proverbs 15:8.
Disobedience – 1 John 3:21-24, esp. v. 22; Proverbs 28:9; John 9:30-33, esp. v. 31.
Failure to do things pleasing to God – 1 John 3:20-24, esp. v. 22.
Failure to abide in Christ – John 15:1-10, esp. v. 7 (See 1 John 3:24).
Not receptive to God’s word – Zechariah 7:11-13; John 15:7; Proverbs 1:24-31.
Not praying in truth – Psalms 145:18; John 4:22-24; Proverbs 1:24-30, esp. vv. 28-30; Matthew 23:14.
Not in faith – Matthew 21:18-22; Mark 11:19-24; James 1:5-7; James 5:15.
Selfishness – James 4:3.
Not in accord with God’s will – James 5:14; Matthew 6:10.
Not fervent, earnest, sincere – James 5:16-17; Matthew 23:14.
Pride, absence of humility – Job 35:9-13, esp. vv. 12-13; Ecclesiastes 5:1-3; 2 Chronicles 7:14.
Lack of forgiveness – Mark 11:25-26; Matthew 6:12.
Lack of repentance – 2 Chronicles 7:14.
One praying not a worshipper of God – John 9:30-33, esp. v. 31.
Prayer rash, foolish, not thoughtful – Ecclesiastes 5:1-3.
Lack of mercy and compassion – Proverbs 21:13; Zechariah 7:8-14, esp. vv. 9, 11, 13.
Idolatry – Ezekiel 8:7-18; Jeremiah 11:9-11; Ezekiel 20:1-31, esp. vv. 1-8 and 30-31; Jeremiah 14:10-12.
Contemptuous toward God – Ezekiel 8:17-18.
Bad attitude toward wife – 1 Peter 3:7 (see also Matthew 5:21-26).
Profane life, mixing holy and unholy – Malachi 2:11-13.
Cruel, exploitive, corrupt leaders – Micah 3:1-4.
Prayer too late – Luke 16:19-31; Matthew 7:21-23.
No attitude of thankfulness – Philippians 4:6 (see 1 John 3:22).
1Through the years candidates for sainthood have been required to produce a particular number of miracles (via their intercession with God). The number has depended somewhat on the category of saint the person is suggested to be. For instance, those who are to be saints because of martyrdom (the highest category) are required to produce a smaller number than those who become saints because they were confessors (lived exemplary lives). The theory is that martyrdom is especially powerful in its ability to purge all the sins in even a life that has been far from exemplary. Martyrdom is also sometimes easy to prove, at least the death-at-the-hand-of-others aspect. The numbers of required miracles for various categories of saints change from time to time.
Sometimes the criterion of a contravention of a law of nature has been relaxed, so that what I have called a “theological miracle” is not required. When Edith Stein was proposed for sainthood, the committee investigating the claims that she had interceded to produce miracles made a controversial decision. They decided that Edith had interceded to miraculously cure a child from a Tylenol overdose even though the child's own doctor and the world's leading authority on Tylenol overdose in children both said the cure was no miracle.
Some have claimed there was an over-eagerness to make Edith Stein a saint for a political reason. When a person is proposed for sainthood, persons or committees are generally appointed to investigate the person's life, and all relevant facts. Sometimes one person is appointed to be an advocate on behalf of the proposed sainthood, and another person is appointed to make the strongest possible case against sainthood. It seems to be an interesting process, but one argument against it is that it too often produces the result that the pope wants. And sometimes the pope's desire is based on the need for a saint in a geographical region, the need for a saint to serve as a patron for a particular group, or the need for a saint to bring attention to an important class of sufferers. Edith Stein was allegedly made a saint because one was deemed necessary to represent Christian victims of the Holocaust. [She was a Christian, but it is thought her death was because of her Jewish descent.]