Editorial: #PrayerWorks?

(Spectrumbot) #1
Can we be honest for a moment? The Seventh-day Adventist Church has a serious problem with confirmation bias—the tendency to seek out or interpret data in a way that confirms one's preconceptions, which in turn leads to statistical errors.

Take the age of the earth. The leaders of the denomination are doubling down on the belief that our Earth is somewhere between six and ten thousand years old. Because of Adventism’s entrenchment in a short chronological framework, no matter how many contrary data points scientists provide, long chronologies will always necessarily be suspect. Consequently, many (though not all) Adventist scientists follow data that suggest a short chronology to the conscious exclusion of contradictory data. This is not unlike the few remaining climate change deniers who refuse to accept mountainous evidence that not only is anthropogenic climate change real, it is also a crisis with disastrous consequences for life as we know it on this planet.

Or consider the Adventist Health Message. Vegetarianism and abstaining from alcohol are cornerstones of Ellen White’s counsels on health. Dan Buettner’s “The Blue Zones” noting the remarkable longevity of Adventists in Loma Linda provided precisely the confirmation Adventists always knew would come, and the Church touted Buettner’s work with National Geographic as proof of the efficacy of the Health Message. The only problem is that Buettner’s study groups also included long-lived populations in which regular, moderate meat consumption was the norm (particularly pork), and where moderate wine consumption was correlated with longevity. Adventists rarely, if ever, mention those aberrations from Sister White’s counsels.

Ditto coffee and black pepper—substances forbidden for regular consumption (again by Ellen White) because of their purported health risks, though studies have demonstrated that both coffee and pepper have beneficial properties and are not correlated with health risks when used in moderation.

In every case, the introduction of inspired writing creates a situation that requires prioritizing some data and ignoring (or seeking to debunk) other data.

Our proclivity for seeking out data, or interpreting data in ways that confirm our communal beliefs is problematic, in part because it requires that we be disingenuous—that we ignore data that disconfirms our beliefs. That leads to unnecessary cognitive dissonance for young members of our community especially, when they find out that some of our teachings are based on only part of the story. (Sorry to say, James Standish, this probably has a lot more to do with why people leave the church than their media consumption does.)

The larger problem with confirmation-biased beliefs is the spiritual damage that happens to people who believe. Think of our teachings on prayer.

I’ve been shocked (though I suspect long-serving pastors and hospital chaplains wouldn’t be) by the frequency of tragic, often fatal accidents that have occurred in recent months. I have written articles about Kimberly Andreu, Madison Baird, Heather Boulais, and Akim Zhigankov, all college-age Adventists whose stories took unexpected, terrible turns. Then there was the devastating story of California musician and worship leader Chris Picco who lost both his wife and his prematurely-born child in the span of a few days.

In those tragedies, prayer was the immediate response from the Adventist community—prayers for healing, prayers for comfort, prayers for life.
During the SONscreen film festival this past weekend on the campus of La Sierra University, one student film caught my attention. “A Visual Prayer for Drew Forsey,” is a beautifully shot, one minute meditation, created by Southern Adventist University student Dillan Forsey, whose brother was involved in a very serious bicycle accident and suffered a severe brain injury.

“Father, we raise broken praise to you, our great God, the all-powerful Healer who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine because of love.  So we boldly approach your throne in Jesus’ name to request physical healing–that bodily brokenness be banished. But more importantly, Father, we humbly ask for spiritual healing. Help thou our unbelief. We can’t connect the dots with what little we can see. So to your eternal view, we surrender so that your glory and your holy name are lifted up in this, our fragmented condition. Unite us as a family of faith, hope, and love.”

The video, as a work of art, is gorgeous and moving. It also illustrates the challenge inherent in the idea that “prayer works.”

Like so many prayers do, it starts with a bold request for healing, then immediately walks back that boldness with the words, “But more importantly, Father, we humbly ask for spiritual healing.”

We’ve learned that praying for an occurrence that can be observed and verified is risky, and so we abandon boldness in favor of a far less audacious spiritual answer to prayer, which isn’t subject to observation or verification.

When Akim Zhigankov died unexpectedly in the Philippines, his friend Aimee Grace Tapeceria wrote in a column published by the Adventist Review,
No one thought that death would be the result of our intense prayers since the news emerged just days earlier that Akim Zhigankov had fallen seriously ill.  [...] Prayers circled the globe as word spread home to Russia and to other parts of the world. Prayer appeals were posted across social media, including on the Facebook pages of Adventist Review and Adventist World. No expected that God would choose to answer our prayers differently from what we expected.
If we’re being truthful with the data (that is, the evidence of reality as it presents itself), prayer doesn’t work. At least, not in the way that Hope Channel’s “Prayer Works” online prayer request form invites us to believe it does.
Screen capture of the landing page for OnlinePrayerWorks.com, a ministry of Hope Channel.

The clear expectation from Hope Channel and other Adventist leaders and laity is that when we pray, God will act on our behalf and give us what we ask for if we have faith. After all, our inspired writings say so.

Again, the introduction of inspired writing creates a situation that requires prioritizing some data and ignoring (or seeking to explain) other data. And, of course, there are times when people pray and health returns, lives are spared, prayers, seemingly, are answered. There are also the stories of Maddy Baird, Akim Zhigankov and Chris Picco (to name just a few), and we cannot construct a coherent belief about prayer while excluding their stories.

For every time people pray and healing occurs, there is another instance in which healing doesn’t occur. There are countless instances in which people don’t pray and healing does occur, as well as occasions when people do not pray, and healing does not occur. A responsible doctrine and practice of prayer must account for the totality of those lived experiences, not cherry-pick one experience out of four as justification for the hashtag, #PrayerWorks.

What would we lose if we stopped using that phrase? What would we gain?

What if we no longer selected experiences that confirm our beliefs and called that “faith,” and instead leveled with one another about reality as it presents itself to us?
It feels callous to say prayer doesn’t work, but if feels even more callous to say tell grieving mothers, fathers, friends, and spouses that it does.


Dillan Forsey recently posted an update on his brother’s progress, noting that Drew has come a long way in rehabilitative therapy and is hoping to ride again. The family has launched an online fundraiser for a new recumbent cycle so that Drew can return to his love of cycling.

If prayer is an expression of the deepest longings of our hearts, directed heavenward, and if those longings, articulated together as a community lead us to acts of compassion, solidarity, comforting, and healing, then prayer accomplishes its most important work.

The fundraiser put on by Union College nursing students for Heather Boulais’ medical costs is an example.

The people who have contributed to buy Drew Forsey a new recumbent cycle provide another.

Like no act of which humans are capable, prayer should compel us to deal honestly with the facts of our lived experiences—all of them, and it should lead us to be participatory agents of grace in this world.

Jared Wright is Managing Editor of SpectrumMagazine.org.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/6739

(Carrol Grady`) #2

Thank you, Jared, for articulating one of my greatest struggles. I have learned to pray, “Lord, you know what is best. Please (bring about what we long for, if it is your will.” Which seems like a cowardly way to pray. But when you’ve lived as long as I have, your know that our requests are not always answered as we wish and hope. And how do we communicate this to our children, while building their faith? It is a real struggle.

The other experience similar to this is regarding Jesus’ second coming. I wish our church, our pastors, our members, would not keep saying, “We know the end is very near, because of such and such,” when we know that for over 2000 years people have been expecting Jesus’ return. Our parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and on back, all expected Jesus to come in their lifetime. We set ourselves up for disappointment and loss of faith, unless we face reality and realize that Jesus may NOT come in our lifetimes (I’m nearly 79) Isn’t it better to say, we don’t know when Jesus will return, but we need to be ready and work to tell others the good news that Jesus’ love has saved us!

(Kim Green) #3

Carrol, I agree with you and we also do God a disservice when we decide to praise Him for the “positive” that comes into our lives but not for the “negative”. It is most honest (and humble) to tell the truth- that we don’t understand the ways of the Lord, but we accept His will as we understand it. I don’t know when it started that we had to have the answers to all of life’s issues, but I believe that just simply believing that He is in control should put everything into its proper perspective.

(Jared Wright) #4


Since I’m calling for a responsible articulation of prayer (and with it, of God’s will), what are the implications of saying that God is in control in so many instances of tragedy like the ones this article references? What is the best way to attribute that to God’s will and control?

(Carrol Grady`) #5

That’s hard, Jared. I believe that most of the time God doesn’t interfere with the natural consequences of living in a sinful world. But otoh, I can’t help wondering how long we have to experience the pain and sorrow of living here before everyone is convinced that God’s way is the best way.

It sometimes seems to me that “some small part” of our world is gradually coming closer to understanding God’s perfect plan for mankind, and that is what God is waiting for.


[Deleted - Off Topic] Please keep your comments germane to this article or they will be removed. Thank you. -Moderator.


To be fair, it should be noted that, even though my comment wasn’t speaking to the main point of the article; I did actually quote from it. It was not that I went off on some totally unrelated tangent.

However, seeing that that section of the article has been removed also, the only right thing to do would have been to remove my comment too. People would get confused as to why I even wrote what I did.

(Kim Green) #8

Many more brilliant minds than mine have tackled these issues with different opinions…however, I am saying it in a most personal way. I don’t believe that everything that has happened or will happen is what God would ideally like to see occur- I know this from my own life. But eventually, one needs to come to grips with whether they believe that the power of God is greater…or not. I chose to believe that He is greater- despite sufferings and death. We simply do not always see events through Divine eyes nor would we want to in every situation.

Yes, “prayer works” but only if we are willing to accept that God’s answer may be “no”. It really is as simple as that…and as difficult. We can’t see the “Big Picture” and we don’t know the mind of God and we should stop trying to. It is natural for us humans to try to “make sense” of tragedy but many times there is no definitive answer and it should be okay to say, “I/we don’t know”- because we simply don’t. It is then that true faith begins and perhaps that is where He has wanted us all along.

(le vieux) #9

There have never been any guarantees that God would answer our prayers in the way we want Him to. Who are we to question His ways. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts. Isa. 55:8, 9. He is omniscient; He sees the big picture. We’re like the blind men examining the elephant. If we have faith that He will overrule everything for good (Rom. 8:28) according to His will, then we can accept whatever come. Even Jesus didn’t get His prayer answered the way He would have liked. But He was willing to submit to the will of His Father. Can we do any less?

I’ve never liked the expression, “prayer works,” as if it were a tool of some kind that, when used, always functions in a predictable manner. We pray; God works; just not the way we necessarily expect Him to.

(Andrew) #10

This question of prayer is interesting. If its God’s will for healing, then does our praying make any difference in the healing outcome? Is it an answer to prayer?

What if it’s God’s will that healing shouldn’t take place? Can prayer change God’s will? I doubt it. I’m not sure his omniscience is contingent on our prayers.

With all this in mind, prayer cannot alter the outcome.

So prayer must have other purposes.

(Sirje) #11

Yes, that is all we can truly say. I have come to the point when I think of needing God’s special help, I pull back, knowing there are way more pressing needs than mine; but that isn’t the point of prayer, is it. It’s not about God having to pay attention to every prayer as we would have to. Nor is it about more prayers, = better attention from God, and a positive outcome. It’s about our realization of our need. We’re not telling God anything He doesn’t know.

I do worry about setting our kids up for disappointment. How do you explain to them that bad things happen, even to people who pray…

(Darrell C) #12

Yes, I have asked your question many, many times.

This has been my view the last few years as I’ve seen (and still see) my faith taking a nose dive. Seeing my saintly mother so full of faith die a death she didn’t deserve, despite the amount of prayers that were lifted on her behalf, and despite that she was a soldier for the Lord and a glaring example of Christian love and kindness who had so many more years to serve Him. It made me take a cynical view on the ‘power of prayer’.

God’s will is God’s will. It was God’s will that mom suffer and die. The only good I can see coming out of it is that mom was such an example to all of our family to the end and that her light shone brightly for all to see. It is something to hang on to, but doesn’t change the fact that it was NOT God’s will that mom be healed. So why pray for healing at all? It will not change anything if it is His will that she suffer. Clearly it was and all our prayers didn’t amount to much in terms of having our desired outcome.

(Andrew) #13

Hi Darrell

A similar experience with my father also. Also knew a lady who’s son died in the back of her car in a rear end collision.

The challenge comes from those who believe in answers to prayer. Often people purport answers to prayer for fairly insignificant things, like praying the sun will shine today. I find such views quite offensive when I consider all the suffering coupled with unanswered, earnest prayers for relief.

The problem of suffering, especially innocent suffering, is the greatest challenge to the idea of a loving God.

And yet I hold on to my revulsion as it keeps me linked to the possibility there actually is a loving God.

Without a loving God there is no problem with suffering from an existential point of view. It is what it is ,and there is no rational basis to be upset by it.

To those who hold that God permits suffering to justify to a universe populated by ignorant beings, trying to decipher whether this loving God is right or not; I hold only intellectual and emotional contempt.

(George Tichy) #14

Unfortunately people often pray for their own will to be done, instead of declaring their faith that whatever God is doing is fine with them.

(George Tichy) #15

When people say that God is in control the first image that comes to my mind is the tsunami in Japan (and others as well). And the question as always, who was in control of Nature at that moment? No answer can satisfy our curiosity.

(Thomas J Zwemer) #16

there are three things about prayer that I cherish.

  1. Christ’s prayer in the garden.
  2. the thief’s prayer on the cross.
  3. Ellen White’s chapter on Prayer in the little book Steps to Christ. To me it is the only chapter worth the book.

Betty And I now live in a senior center. we have an apartment. there are three other levels of care. We have asked The Lord to spare us those additional steps to eternity. It seems men drop off easily. I share a Bible story with the seniors in the advanced levels of care. It is almost like back at the sand box stage.

Yes, I believe in prayer, not to change God but to understand me. Tom Z

(George Tichy) #17

That makes sense. People would think your are "coocoo."
But you are not, right? :wink:

(George Tichy) #18

Write down the date:… I agree with you! (hope you don’t faint…)

But this is right. God governs this immense Universe, and some humans still believe that He will actually change course just because they have some thoughts going through their little brain at a certain moment, which they call prayer. Nonsense.

(Rohan Charlton) #19

Awesome post Birder. I’m going through a situation like this at the moment. To be frank i’m hating my job…I’ve sent out applications, searched but nothing is presenting…I’ve prayed…

In my case it seems like God is telling me He’ll give me the strength to get through it.

Just gotta keep trusting that my Father in Heaven knows what’s best for me…

(Thomas J Zwemer) #20

I wasn’t even praying, just standing leaning over the railing of the ship watching the flying fish, when a Jap plane dropped a 500 lb bomb. It missed our ship by 100 feet or more. I got a little wet. I did pray then, as I watched that plane dive into the ship three miles beyond us. 70 sailors were killed and the ship towed back for repairs. Tom Z