Prayer, Faith, and Healing Cure Your Body, Heal Your Mind, and Restore Your Soul
By Kenneth Winston Caine
Science Finds God
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FAITH HAS THE POWER TO HEAL
A traffic accident leaves Kim Shipley of Exeter, California, battered, in a coma, and close to death. As she is wheeled into surgery, her parents and friends pray in the hospital waiting room. Within minutes, Shipley's bleeding stops and her vital signs stabilize. Three months later, she is well enough to tour with her school choir.
Just four months old, Caedon Sawabi of Ware, Massachusetts, is diagnosed with a rare disorder that leaves him nearly blind in his right eye. His mother brings him to a priest, who lays hands on the child and prays. A warm, peaceful feeling flows through her. Later, an eye specialist's tests reveal that his sight has been restored.
While recovering from heart bypass surgery, church choir member James Earl Martin develops a respiratory problem so severe that he needs a machine to help him breathe. Weeks in the hospital turn into months. Yet at every Wednesday night church service, friends pray for the recovery of the Louisville, Kentucky, resident. Finally, one week, as Martin listens to a special tape that his beloved choir made for him, tears roll down his cheeks and he begins to heal. A few weeks later, he is released from the hospital. Seven months later, he's back singing in the choir.
Stories like these of miraculous healing from life-threatening problems are fascinating, but the skeptic within us wonders: Does God really answer prayers for our health or for the health of the ones we love? Or even the stranger in the next pew?
For years, scientists and researchers have wondered, too. The answer building quietly over the past three decades is a resounding yes Of the hundreds of studies conducted to explore the health rewards of prayer and faith, 70 to 80 percent show a benefit. That's more evidence than scientists have supporting the benefits of vitamin C as a treatment for the common cold.
In fact, studies show that religious folks who attend church regularly and practice what they believe:
Have lower blood pressure
Have lower cancer rates
Are less likely to be addicted to alcohol or drugs
Are more likely to survive major surgery
Are less likely to experience depression or commit suicide
Are better able to cope with chronic disease
Perhaps even more amazing, in certain cases, lack of religious belief has been found to be as bad for our health as smoking and drinking.
"When you sum up all of the research, you find that faith is actually a highly beneficial factor, surprisingly beneficial," says David B. Larson, M.D., president of the National Institute of Healthcare Research in Rockville, Maryland, an organization that has systematically explored and, with its fellows, published many of the studies linking faith and health.
"Like any body of research, there is some variety in the quality of the studies that are done, but there are a significant number of good studies in this area, and the evidence is growing all the time," says Dale A. Matthews, M.D., associate professor of medicine at Georgetown University School of Medicine in Washington, D.C., and author of The Faith Factor.
In fact, the question now isn't whether religion is good for us, it's which "faith factor" is helping people live healthier and longer. Is it prayer? Church attendance? Strong belief in God? A healthier lifestyle inspired by faith?
While all are good for us, the most up-to-date research seems to show that church attendance and how much strength and comfort you obtain from your religious beliefs pack the most health benefits, says Dr. Matthews. "I think that one can have substantial confidence that there is a genuine medical benefit in sincere religious commitment."
"The Old Testament encourages making your case based on a solid foundation," says Dr. Larson. "We have a rock on which to build when it comes to the research on religious commitment. We need follow-up studies on the value of using religion to cope: how it prevents illness, how' it can improve treatment outcomes, and how it helps people with serious and chronic medical illness."
The Test That Set the Standard
One of the earliest studies demonstrating the connection between faith and healingand the study that galvanized the scientific discussion of the power of prayertook place at San Francisco General Hospital between 1982 and 1983. As 393 patients entered the hospital's cardiac care unit, Randolph C. Byrd, M.D., a cardiologist there at the time and lead researcher on this study, divided them into two groups. Each patient in one group would receive intercessory prayer (offered to help others) from three to seven "born-again Christians with an active Christian life as manifested by daily devotional prayer and an active fellowship with a local church." Patients in the other group would not be prayed for.
Dr. Byrd then went a step further: He made sure that no one involved in the study knew which patients were being bathed in intercessory prayer. The only people who knew were the born-again Christians, and they conducted their prayers outside of the hospital with only the patient's first name, diagnosis, general condition, and a request to pray for their rapid recovery and freedom from complications.
After their operations, those patients who received intercessory prayer had less congestive heart failure (8 versus 20), needed less antibiotic therapy (3 versus 17), had fewer episodes of pneumonia (3 versus 13), and had fewer cardiac arrests (3 versus 14).
Additionally, when rating the patients' success in recovering from their operations, doctors observed that 163 in the prayed-for group had a good recovery, versus 147 in the other group. Two in the prayer group had an intermediate recovery versus 10 in the other group. And 27 in the prayer group did poorly while 44 of the others had a poor recovery.
The study wasn't without flaws. Dr. Byrd couldn't manage the amount of praying that the patients, their families, or others did for their recovery. Nor did the study account for such things as the fact that patients received care from many doctors, who could have prescribed different amounts of medication, tests, and procedures that could have affected the patients health. However, even with its flaws, the test results were startling enough to spawn a wealth of studies on prayer research that continues today.
"The Byrd study was groundbreaking. Not perfect, because no study ever is, but it was revolutionary," says Dr. Matthews. "It's the one that everyone attacks or defendsthe gold standard by which every other study of this kind is measured."
Healing Crippled Hands
Inspired by Dr. Byrd's heart surgery research, Dr. Matthews launched a prayer study of his ownwith a twist or twobut with equally intriguing results.
Forty people with painful rheumatoid arthritis received 12 hours of what was called intercessory prayer ministry by Christian Healing Ministries of Jacksonville, Florida, over a three-day period. The people spent 6 hours in educational lectures learning about the nature of healing and divine intervention and obstacles to healing, such as lack of forgiveness, emotional trauma, and spiritual oppression. The other 6 hours were devoted to what's called laying on of hands in soaking prayer, meaning that several intercessors placed their hands on the people and prayed for them for prolonged periods. Half of those who received intercessory prayer ministry didn't receive it right away; they served as a "waiting list" control group for the others.
Like Dr. Byrd's study, 19 of those with arthritis also received, unbeknownst to them, six months of daily intercessory prayer. The difference is that the folks who volunteered to pray for the people with arthritis were located in different cities.
The results showed that the amount of pain, impairment, and joint swelling and tenderness were all significantly decreased in those who received the 12 hours of intercessory prayer ministry, according to Dr. Matthews. However, there was no additional benefit from the distant daily prayer beyond the effects achieved by the laying on of hands.
Faith: A Cure for the Heart
It may not be as spectacular as healed hearts or hands, but there's good evidence that frequent church attendance or viewing religion as very important can cut our risk of heart disease and stroke. How? By literally lowering blood pressure.
At least that was the conclusion of a study involving 407 men in Evans County, Georgia. On average, the men who frequently attended church had blood pressure levels that were several points lower than those who didn't. The biggest and most startling difference was that smokers who didn't find religion important had 4.3 times the risk for high blood pressure as smokers who did. Those over age 55 who didn't attend church at all were also at greater risk.
What accounts for the difference? One view is that faith helps religious people avoid angerin particular, the hostility, or fits of rage that might send others' blood pressure and stress levels soaring.
"It looks like faith really does allow you to slow down your response and, in a way of speaking, count to ten," says Dr. Larson. "When it comes to stress, people of faith seem more willing to think about what they're doing before they act. They're less likely to rush to judgmentwhich may not be so good for your stress or blood pressure levels. We're talking about improved coping skills that come with the mindset of faith."
There's another bonus: Active church members lean not only on God in tough times but also on fellow members. "Let's say that I have a need tonight. If I call the people in my church and say, 'Will you do this for me?' they'll come and help," says Dr. Larson. "Most people don't have that type of resource, especially men. We don't have people willing to help us when we need the social support."
And it's not just a matter of social support. Most blood pressure studies that examine religion and blood pressure show a benefit, says Dr. Matthews. Among them, research that explored the health of members of devout religious groups like Baptist clergy, Seventh Day Adventists and Mormonspeople who shun substances that have been linked to higher blood pressure such as meat, alcohol, cigarettes, and coffee. "Some will say that's just evidence that a strict diet provides health benefits," says Dr. Matthews, "to which my answer would be yes, but it's the religious commitment that encourages that lifestyle. Some wouldn't be (that way) if their religions weren't driving the lifestyles. So I would still look at this as a religious effect, even though it's an indirect one."
The Power of "the Sunday Effect
Would dragging ourselves out of bed on Sunday morning be any easier if we knew that regular worship wasn't just good for our hearts, souls, and minds, but for our overall health as well? Studies that involved some of the 91,900 residents surveyed in Washington County, Maryland, suggests that it probably would be. The studies found that those people who go to church once or more a week have significantly fewer deaths from coronary artery disease and other health problems like cirrhosis of the liver and emphysema. Among men between the ages of 45 and 64 who go to church less frequently than once a week, the risk for heart disease was 40 percent higher. Among women of the same age who also attend church less than once a week, the risk for heart disease was about 50 percent higher.
Investigators suspect that churchgoers develop greater self-control and probably exercise more. And that, in turn, means less of the kind of acting-out behaviors, like drinking and smoking, that can wreak havoc with our health, says Dr. Larson. "In some ways, this research is quite important, and it came out at a time when people were thinking that 'organized religion' doesn't do any good."
The Bible's Impact on AIDS
While treatments for AIDS have steadily improved over the years, allowing those with the virus to live significantly longer and more active lives, getting an AIDS diagnosis can still produce feelings of fear and despair. But a Yale University study found that AIDS patients who read the Bible often or regularly attended church had reduced fear of death and were better able to cope with symptoms of their condition.
Of 90 people with AIDS who were interviewed for the study, 98 percent said that they believed in a divine being called God. Sixty-nine percent of them prayed daily, 45 percent attended church weekly or monthly, and 26 percent read the Bible daily or weekly. Eighty-two percent of those with HIV-positive illness agreed that belief in God helped when thinking about death. But it was those who read their Bibles and went to church regularly who were significantly less fearful of death. Those who believed in God's forgiveness or who had more advanced disease were also more willing to talk about crucial end-of-life decisions such as whether they should be given life support. The study did not investigate whether the more devout lived longer.
Bible reading and church attendance apparently provided a degree of emotional and social support to help reduce the fears about death that the people with HIV and AIDS may have felt, says Dr. Larson. "Now that probably comes as a surprise," he says . "All these years, we've thought that religion makes us more uptight and anxious. And yet people with a severe medical illness were less afraid of death Why? I think because the heart of the real message of the church and the Bible that they were experiencing is forgiveness through Christ."
Faith and Immunity
Since a weakened immune system can cause so many different health problemsnot just diseases associated with AIDSa slight improvement can be a very good thing. But could improved immunity be linked to Bible reading and warming a pew on Sunday? The answer, according to one study, is yes, to a small degree. Researchers at Duke University Medical Center took blood samples from 1,718 volunteers age 65 or older to look for chemicals associated with enhanced immunity. They found that the older adults who frequently attended religious services had slightly healthier immune systems, providing some support for the theory that participation in a religion makes us healthier.
The study points out that a person's immune system may function less effectively as a person ages, contributing to a variety of infections and diseases, including AIDS, cancer, heart disease, high blood pressure, and osteoporosis.
"A lot of experts have been talking about the importance of looking at chemically measurable factors in these kinds of studies," says Dr. Larson. "This one does, and we need to do more."
Secret Prayer Speeds Healing
Clearly, much good comes from a religious life, but our prayers also have power, scientists say, even when the people we pray for aren't aware of our prayers.
Prayer done in secretwithout patients' or doctors' knowledgeremarkably remarkably sped the heading of patients' wounds in a study investigating several forms of spiritual healing. The 44 participants in this study were told that they were taking part in a test of a new medical device that measured the bioelectrical conductivity of wounds. A medical doctor took a skin biopsy from the arm of each patient to create identical full-skin-thickness surgical wounds. Then daily, for five minutes, each patient placed the wounded arm through a hole in a wall, where the wounds were supposedly measured by the new medical device.
But there was no such device Instead, when 23 of the patients extended their arms through the hole, a spiritual-healing practitioner prayerfully, mentally communicated healing to the patient. When the other 21 patients poked their arms through the hole, no one was in the room.
None of the patients knew that any type of healing treatment was taking place. The doctor examining the patients did not know which patients were receiving spiritual healing treatments and which were not.
At specific intervals, over about three weeks, a doctor traced an outline of each wound, which techniciansalso unaware of which patients were being treateddigitized for computer comparisons. This is considered an extremely accurate measure of wound healing.
On day 8, the wounds of the patients treated with spiritual healing were significantly smaller than those of the untreated group. By day 16, 13 of the 23 treated patients were completely healedthey had no wounds at allwhile no one in the untreated group was healed. better physical health by the end of 12 months were patients who felt that their beliefs exerted greater influence over their lives and who consulted God to make important decisions.
Not only that, but transplant recipients who attended religious services frequently were less worried about their health and had higher self-esteem than those who attended less often or who weren't religious.
"This is similar to what we've found in studies of patients with cancer and those undergoing dialysis," says Dr. Larson. "Faith seems to become more important when someone has severe illness. It gets them through the hard times. They not only seem to cope better but they are also more satisfied with their lives and have higher self-esteem. You don't want to get depressed when you have severe illness. You don't want patients worrying. During a transplant, the doctors have already limited your immune functioning so that you don't reject your new organ. So when you are dealing with severe illness or major surgery, you can't afford additional stressit further weakens the immune system."
Coping with Cancer
It's probably no surprise that committed members of religious groups who avoid meat, alcohol, smoking, and coffee have lower cancer rates than the general U.S. population. That includes breast and prostate cancer, two of the most common.
But what if we're diagnosed with cancer? What good is our faith then? A study that investigated the emotions of 147 women, ranging in age from 40 to 70, in various stages of gynecologic cancer and benign gynecologic disease found that nearly all of them drew life-sustaining hope from their faith.
When asked how religious experiences had affected the way they dealt with their illnesses, 93 percent of the women said that religion helped them sustain hope. What's more, more than half felt that they had become more religious since being diagnosed. And these were women who already knew their way around a hymnal. Eighty-five percent said that they had some connection with organized religion, and just over three-fourths indicated that religion has a serious place in their lives.
Like the Air Force Nurses Corps heart study, "This research shows that when people have severe illnesses where their lives are at risk, there's an increase in the role that religion can play," says Dr. Larson. "The implications are that (health professionals) really need to recognize the importance of the patient's religion or spirituality when dealing with such disease."
People with more advanced cancer have an even tougher challenge: sustaining faith while death closes in. Yet one study shows that among terminally ill patients, those who attended church most frequently were more satisfied with life, happier, and better able to control their pain.
"Although this particular study didn't show that survival rates improved, it did find less pain and better well-being," says Dr. Larson. "Certainly, when you have emotional problems or when you're not doing so well, you're not getting enough sleep, you're feeling down, and you're feeling alone, guess what happens? The pain feels worse than for those who feel better about life."
Faith That Heals
Of course, folks probably shouldn't expect to see long-term health benefits by showing up at a church-sponsored potluck dinner as if it were some networking opportunity. "If you're only using your religion to obtain better health or money or status, you're actually making religion subservient to another goal, which is that of serving yourself and your own health," says Dr. Matthews. "The goal of faith is to become close to God, to seek God's face. If that is our deepest intention, there may be this wonderful by-product of an authentic searching for God: better health."
Excerpted from Prayer, Faith, and Healing by Kenneth Winston Caine Copyright © 1999 by Kenneth Winston Caine. Excerpted by permission.
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