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Does Praying for the Sick and Dying Make Any Difference?

unanswered prayers 2
Cartoon by David Hayward

Guest post by ObstacleChick

All the tremendous beauty that exists in the world is juxtaposed against the existence of suffering and pain. Most of us experience some degree of suffering and pain during our lifetime, whether it is illness, injustice, or the death of a loved one. But I believe most people would agree that the most horrific suffering is that endured by a child. Most of us desire to help someone whom we see as inherently innocent such as an infant or child, or an animal, or someone who suffers from mental or physical challenges. While we feel empathy for an older person who has cancer, we generally believe that an older person has had the opportunity to live a good life, to experience some of the beauty in the world, to have long relationships with loved ones. But when we hear of something terrible befalling someone quite young, most of us feel an innate desire to protect and to “fix” the situation affecting the young. Most likely this desire stems from an evolutionary construct to preserve our species by ensuring the survival of the young to reach reproductive viability. Most parents will do almost anything to save their young, even to the point of sacrificing themselves, and even those not directly connected to a child often will go out of their way to save a child in danger.

About 8 months ago, a 7-year-old girl in my town was on vacation with her family when she fell ill. After examination at a local medical facility, she was diagnosed with Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma (DIPG), which means that an aggressive, inoperable tumor was growing through her brain stem. Treatment can include radiation and chemotherapy, but surgery is generally impossible due to the invasive nature of the disease. The five-year survival rate is less than 1%, with most patients dying within months of diagnosis. Most patients diagnosed with this disease are children, and DIPG is one of the most devastating pediatric cancers.

People in our town and surrounding communities banded together to raise money for this little girl’s treatment. There were fundraisers conducted at local gyms and restaurants, and many local businesses and individuals donated money for treatment. Students at the local elementary school where she attended and at the middle school and high school where her siblings attended held their own fundraisers. Over $130,000 was raised for this family. Hardly a day would go by without someone posting on social media to pray for this family, to donate to the family, to help in some way. Even celebrities in politics, entertainment, and news media lent their names to support her cause. Yet sadly, eight months after her initial diagnosis, she passed away.

Our community is comprised primarily of people who attend the local Catholic church. Many of my kids’ friends attended CCD and went through their first communions and confirmations like good Catholic children do. Sports schedules in our community are designed around CCD times, and the local Catholic priest is often present at Memorial Day and Veterans Day ceremonies. This little girl’s family were members of the local Catholic church so presumably the priest and congregants were diligent in their prayers for her cure. Yet she still passed away within months of her diagnosis.

Christians are taught to pray to God for help. “Ask and ye shall receive, seek and ye shall find, knock and the door shall be opened unto you” (Matthew 7:7-8); “And whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If ye shall ask any thing in my name, I will do it.” John 14:13-14. These verses, in addition to others, make it patently clear that God will grant the requests of those who ask for assistance in Jesus’ name. With all the prayers for this sweet, innocent little girl to be healed of her disease, how is it that she succumbed to the ravages of this terrible illness?

As an agnostic atheist, I believe that there is no god and that prayers will do nothing beyond making the one who is praying feel as if they are acting on behalf of the sick child. From a theoretical standpoint, though, if there is a god, what does it say about him/her that, even though many in the community were praying for this child, he/she allowed this innocent child to suffer and die? Here are some of my thoughts on the matter.

God is a liar: as stated above, there are multiple verses stating that god will grant requests to those who ask in the name of Jesus. Assuming the supplicants are asking in the name of Jesus – and one would assume that at least the Catholic priest would know how to do that properly – then not healing this child shows that god does not grant requests and that his/her promises are empty at best.

God is uncaring: the vast majority of people feel a desire to ease the suffering of those in need, especially the suffering of children. “Heartbroken” is literally how most people feel when they hear of the plight of an innocent child. If even a fallible human (in Christian terms, that is) can feel heartbroken, how then can a supposedly loving, caring god not feel the same and want to take action?

God is not omnipotent: perhaps god is not a liar and is not uncaring, but perhaps he/she is not capable of healing a child from an aggressive disease. Then he/she is not the omnipotent god that Christians tout.

The Christian god is not the “correct” god: here we can postulate that perhaps Christians are praying to the wrong god and that the god does not want to answer prayers that are not directed to him/her correctly (which makes the god a real jerk if you ask me). What if the god is Zeus, and he wants to be recognized as Zeus? What if there are multiple gods and they are debating which, if any, should help the child? The Old Testament states that god is a jealous god, so perhaps whatever god exists really is a jealous god that wants to be addressed in the proper way and that Christians have not approached the real god correctly? Maybe people should pray to each individual god who has ever been recorded throughout history in order to hedge their bets. And perhaps they must pray to an additional god that is yet to be named, praying in proper supplication and repentance for not getting his/her name right and asking for insight. (Personally, this concept makes my head hurt – it would take hours of research to write down every god that has been recorded by humans and then additional hours praying to each individual god – but I suppose if one believes that someone’s life is on the line, that is a small price to pay in order to get it right).

There is sin in the hearts of those praying: some fundamentalist Christians would believe that of the hundreds of people ostensibly praying for this child that there is not even one whose prayers god can or will hear. This seems to go back to either “god is a liar” or “god is uncaring”.

God is just: we hear this a lot from evangelical Christians, but I am not sure how it applies in this situation. Perhaps because the child was born in original sin? But is a 7-year-old at the age of accountability? Perhaps the parents have not approached god correctly or asked for repentance of sins?

God wanted another “angel” in heaven with him: a few people posted this on social media in response to the girl’s death. To me, this just seems like a cop-out and sign of an uncaring god – that god is so selfish that he/she ends a promising life and causes pain and suffering to those who love her because he/she just has to have this particular person in heaven and can’t wait a few decades for nature to run its course.

God took her “home” to prevent something worse that he foresaw happening in the future: another cop-out speculation related to the one above. Bad things happen to people, and theoretically a caring, omniscient, omnipotent god could correct those situations.

God created the earth and all therein but stays hands-off thereafter: if this is the case, then all the Biblical stories of god directly intervening in the affairs of humans and of the earth just that – stories. If god is actually hands-off, then no sins of action, speech, or thought would be punished and people would be allowed to live as they wish.

Humans cannot understand the mysteries/plans/designs of god: given that we have a Bible that supposedly explains god in all his/her aspects, we should be able to understand god’s capabilities and desires most clearly. The fact that even the most learned pastors and scholars still cannot agree on these basic precepts shows that god is at best a bad communicator. The comment that humans can’t understand god always seemed like a cop-out answer.

There is no god: this seems the most plausible explanation to me. If indeed there existed a benevolent, caring, loving, omniscient, omnipotent deity, then it stands to reason that this deity would feel compelled as humans feel compelled to act on behalf of the weakest and most innocent among us. As such, the deity would step in to heal sick children, to protect children from abuse, to protect them from natural disasters. But this is not what happens. Every day we hear of children who are abused, sometimes to the point of death, children who suffer and die from terrible diseases, children who starve to death, children who are killed in disasters, and children who are murdered. Just read Bruce’s Black Collar Crime series for a myriad concrete examples.

But the majority of humans like to believe that there is a benevolent, caring, loving, omniscient, omnipotent deity who might possibly hear our prayers and act to change things in the world. They can feel like all their prayers actually may accomplish something. While I applaud those who do believe in a powerful deity and who roll up their own sleeves to help their fellow humans, it seems that most religious people would rather rely on their prayers to their deity in the hopes of solving the ills of the world. And that is sad. This girl’s family wrote in her obituary: “Our love and thoughts of you will forever light up our lives as we look forward to being joined with you again in eternity with our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, in the Kingdom of Heaven.” While I do not believe this, who am I to divest others of their hope in an afterlife? May her family find peace in their memories of this beautiful little girl.


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    This post is very good, covering so many of the deficiencies concerning God that have to be addressed if we are to believe in the power of prayer. Somehow the death of young children is, as you say, perhaps the most heart rending of all the tragedies we face in life, yet we’ve all seen it at some time.

    Underlying the whole issue surely is human psychology, and the human mind, whilst in many ways amazing, is nothing more than a product of evolution, and evolution leaves us with behaviours that no longer necessarily benefit us any longer. Specifically I think of pattern recognition. When we were a much more infant species we’d hear a noise in the woods which, nine times out of ten, would have been benign and harmless. Occasionally, however, it would have been that wild animal that could tear us apart, so the noise caused us to scatter in self preservation, much as wild animals do to this day.

    Now we are left with parts of these old instincts. Believing in the efficacy of prayer is confusing causation and correlation. Just as nine times out of ten our senses were fooled by a false alarm in the wild, so today we assume that similarly statistically likely cases of good outcome can actually be caused by our prayers, when simple reflection would clearly show this to be nonsense. Firstly, there are far too many times it doesn’t work. Secondly, if God is controlling events then praying to him logically can make no difference. Thirdly, even if he were to intervene why pray when, supposedly, he can see into your heart/read your mind?

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      Very true that the majority of people confuse causation and correlation. These concepts were drilled into us when we studied research statistics in college and I have never forgotten the distinction.

      People look for a way to feel like they are helping when they can’t really help, so calling upon a deity makes them feel better. And prayer appeals to people’s superstition and hope that magic will happen and everything will suddenly be ok. My son is a 3 sport athlete in high school, and the amount of superstition surrounding sports is astounding. In reality practice is what makes one better at skills. But they focus on how they where socks high or low, at what restaurant they eat before a game, rituals going onto the field or getting up to bat…’s amazing. Superstition….

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    The business of faith is a human concoction built on evidence of experience. There is a good reason that Jim Bakker goes directly back into media ministry after he has done his prison time for antics in previous media ministry. When Jimmy Swaggart weeps with contrition for needing hotel whores, he is merely following his dear Lord Jesus in the cycle of confession and release. He repeats his ministry cycle and I would need some unusual faith to believe that Jimmy is now not Jimmy but Jesus-Jimmy.
    I have no desire to remove the wild ideas of others regarding all-encompassing powers or spritual guides or wanting to wear a lucky cap to play golf. That is, in theory, not a problem among us…. that is, until a man like Donald Trump holds a Bible in his hand and starts talking world domination, making America great again. Or Jimmy Bakker gets back on TV and scares old people into buying tubs of goopy food for the soon to appear Tribulation. When praying becomes preying, then I feel a need to bark on the hills here, warn that there are predators afoot.
    As ObstacleChick points out, God is apparently able to create it all and to be hands-off after all the creation. It is up to you, dear reader, to take over now, to figure out why disease is allowed to torture and kill children, why people become so utterly removed from their humanity as to elect and allow a bully-tyrant to lead them into mayhem and destruction. Do not ask an invisible being for forgiveness for yourself for being merely human… give yourself a break. I hate religion because it teaches people rituals of self-harm. It allows and teaches them to prey on themselves and their loved ones and to stand on street corners and call college students whores because they don’t wear the right uniform. I hate religion because it smiles and promises: This will hurt me more than it will hurt you… (Poor Jesus! Look what YOUdid to him on the Cross.) I hate religion because it is the proverbial bully parental: You will do this because I SAY YOU WILL DO IT! I hate religion because it ultimately denies me my, “Why?” I hate it because it does not help me to be more human but to be less.

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      Brian, you make some good points, but I think religion does make many people more human. I think it can influence people to be nicer, kinder, do good works. I totally agree that it can make people more awful; but for many, it actually is a force for good in their lives.

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    It doesn’t work. Prayer just doesn’t work. I had chronic illness for many years too. I stayed alive but there was “no cures”. But here my deconversion wasn’t about me, it was noticing no matter how much I prayed for people who got deathly sick, they died anyway. It was like praying to brick wall. What good is a God when his yes’s are stingy and the answer 99.999999999 percent of the time is “NO”. I even got to a point where I got worried prayer was making things “worse” because the outcomes were worse then the roll of the dice or how statistics would make it. God sure doesn’t give many breaks that’s for damn sure. I think prayer and religion “work” because people are afraid, they are trying to hedge their bets against endless misfortunes in a very dangerous world. If you think about it Yahweh didn’t have to make us this fragile or weak if he existed. He could have shuffled the card deck so humanity didn’t have to live in so much horror, fear and pain. The false promises regarding prayer goaded me. I know too many who died of cancer, and two people died of it recently I knew in their early 50s, I prayed for them. But what good did it do? Nothing. The answer for anything was always no, and that’s why I’m not a Christian anymore. [I spoke of going to a liberal Christian church, earlier here, it didn’t work for me, I’m attending a small UU fellowship]

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      Yes, and when you think about it, why would God allow the misfortune to begin with, then one minute later, one hour later, etc. decide to undo the damage? Makes no sense. YOU were willing to step back and try to evaluate objectively–most people will not do that.

      To me, it’s like if you have a lover who treats you like shit (can I say that?), but you tell your friends, “No, he really does love me, his meanness and his lack of caring must be excused.” Reality is too painful for them, so they must pretend in their mind.

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    It’s one of the hardest things in the world to do nothing when there is nothing to be done. I think the whole ‘thoughts and prayers’ thing is more about not being helpless than anything else.

    I come from a long line of believers. All of them think with all their hearts that praying for someone is the best thing they can do. And they believe that their prayers are *always* answered… ‘Yes’, ‘Wait’, or ‘I have a better plan’.

    The more I look back and the more stuff I hear from “them” the more amazed I am that I ever believed any of it.

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      Yes, exactly, “thoughts and prayers” allow people to think they are actually doing something when in some cases there is nothing to be done. Or in other cases, people don’t actually want to roll up their sleeves and take action.

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    Great post, ObstacleChick. Needing prayer to make some kind of sense was a huge issue for me when I was leaving the faith. “humans cannot understand the mysteries/plans/designs of God”-I think that is what it usually comes down to when you try to talk with someone about prayer not making sense or being effective. Also, I’ve heard people say, “Well, God said to pray, so I pray.”

    I mean, when you think about it, prayer makes total sense-we as humans are subject to all kinds of terrors-what more natural thing than to cry out to some power to help us? We hope there IS some mystery person/force out there that will either help us now or will somehow make it all work out okay in the end; someone who sees the pitiful and has pity, someone who finds us just as important as we hope we are.

    So, no, I don’t think praying for the sick and dying makes any difference. I wish it did!! But if someone asks me to pray for the sick and dying-I will do it. Why? Because they asked me to, and it’s something they believe in or are trying to believe in. I certainly don’t know the answers. And I don’t think logic has anything at all to do with it. Humans are generally not about logic, so it’s probably a waste of time to even go down that road. Took me a long time to figure that out.

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      I still wish I could pray to an all-powerful deity to fix things sometimes.

      Recently my agnostic atheist husband offered “thoughts and prayers” to a friend who asked. I asked him, what was your rationale behind doing that when you don’t believe? He said, they believe, and it’s not up to me to tell them they’re wrong right now. And if it makes them feel better thinking that someone is wishing them well, then I can do that. I guess there’s some validity in that for certain situations when there is no action that can be efficacious.

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Bruce Gerencser