Orientation to Pediatrics today; very boring: sat down in a room from 8 to 3, with no time for standing up, and were lectured on such subjects as, not to drop crumbs in the library, or listened to a domineering female secretary who addressed us as “my children.” Grrr. . .

But the hospital has a much more fun, cheerful feel to it; as long as most of my patients are recovering, it should be a good month. The staff teams that we’ll be with don’t take care of patients with cancer or in the ICU, except on call. We were left with vague directions about who and where to meet tomorrow, and how to get pagers; I’m feeling a little bit fierce about the possibility of undefined expectations again. But the chief resident spoke to us briefly, and seemed very friendly, and reminiscent of his own time as a student, so hopefully everything will be ok. The only disappointment so far is that there are no oupatient assignments in my home town, as I had hoped for.

And now: what some will no doubt regard as a thunderous, landmark study: Published today in the American Heart Journal, this study’s conclusion is that prayer does not promote healing. In fact, patients who were being prayed for by strangers had a higher rate of complications (59% vs. 50%), usually atrial fibrillation, compared to patients not being prayed for. This study is so riddled with problems that it’s more a matter for laughing than for any serious discussion. First, as a groundrule, let me say that I believe the Bible’s teaching, that God is able to heal miraculously, and that he answers prayer, completely regardless of what “scientific” study on the point may show. Science has often been mistaken for a couple hundred years, and is always mistaken whenever it absolutely contradicts a clear teaching of scripture.

Now, to poke holes in the study: This recent study does improve over a Duke University study from last year in that this time prayers were requested only from Protestants and Catholics, rather than from Jews, Muslims, and Buddhists as well. However: Jesus admonished Satan, “Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.” Trying to measure God’s invisible and mysterious providence may come under this heading. In the Bible, when God chooses to give his people proof of his power, it is always in circumstances that he chooses, rarely at the bidding of man, and then only at the request of holy, faithful men (Abraham, Gideon, Elisha, Peter and John). This would be my final explanation for the failure of the study, if all these other reasons were not adequte in themselves. Next: How on earth can you randomize prayer? For one thing, many of the patients in this trial were informed that they were being prayed for. If we were truly going to do a “randomized controlled trial,” it ought to be double-blinded: neither the immediate caregivers nor the patients should know their status relative to prayer. However, there is a far bigger problem: The prayers that were controlled in the study were by distant strangers; the researchers could not have done anything about friends and family members independently choosing to pray for patients. So there is an a priori lack of control vs. study group; for all the researchers know, both groups could have been receiving the same net amount of prayer. Next: As Amy Carmichael’s story so famously shows, God can answer prayers very completely by saying no. So just the absence of a short-term, measurable, clinical benefit means nothing at all for God’s working in that person’s life. Again, who knows what each person’s relationship to God was? What if some of them were very rebellious, and under God’s judgment? Apart from repentance on their part, prayer by strangers, which was carefully limited to being only for healing, could do little to remedy the real problem. Lastly, one could question whether the Catholic prayers were directed to Jesus, or to Mary or some other saint associated with healing; in which case I would expect no more benefit from them than from the idolatrous prayers of Jews, Muslims, and Buddhists. Bottom line: This study is scientifically and spiritually laughable, although it does seem to have been well-intentioned.

(And let me explain that “Judaism as idolatry” remark, for anyone who was horrified by it: The true God is triune; Jesus, who is God, died on Calvary and rose from the dead, and sent his Spirit to instruct his people. Any religion which does not worship the Trinity is therefore necessarily worshipping a god of their own invention, even if that invention is simply a departure from the Old Testament. The Old Testament was written by the Holy Spirit, and points throughout to the coming of Jesus the Messiah; any religious group which takes those books to indicate a still-future Messiah, and hopes to please God by keeping laws which were only a signpost to Christ, is worshipping an idol just as surely as those who believe in a prophet coming after Christ, or those who believe in nirvana. As Paul says in Romans 10: “I bear [the Jews] record that they have a zeal of God, but not according to knowledge. . . For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” Sincere attempts to walk off cliffs in the genuine belief that gravity has been repealed will always be disastrous.)