Prayer, Plain and Simple

Prayer, Plain and Simple

Distinguishing Faith from Stupidity: Parents, Pediatricians, Prayer, and Sick Kids

Joke with a point: A man falls off a 1,000 foot cliff but grabs the one tree branch available. Holding on for dear life he calls out, “God, save me!” In short order, a rope from the top of the cliff appears. The man ignores it. “God, you gotta help me!” Moments later a helicopter arrives. He turns away and again cries out, “God, come on. I can’t hold on much longer.” Finally, a Voice from the heavens comes, “Hey Dimwit: What exactly are you expecting?”

Yes, there’s a difference between “blind faith” and “blind stupidity.”

On January 24th of this year two-year-old Kent Schaible died of bacterial pneumonia after his parents, Herbert and Catherine decided to treat him with prayer for healing instead of taking him to doctor. They are now on trial for involuntary manslaughter. In her October 9th column in Salon, Kate Harding takes to task not only the Schaibles, but our religiously tolerant culture for allowing – encouraging – these kinds of “superstitious” choices that end up costing the lives of children. Kent Schaible of course is not the first child to die after parents choose prayer instead of medical intervention. Harding’s assertions hint that perhaps our society should intervene before such tragedies, that we might need to forbid ignorant actions based on ignorant belief, and that external authorizes – i.e. the government – should become our “faith/rationality police.”


I too believe that Schaible-like decisions need to be challenged, but by instruction in good Christian theology, not by government edict that would put at risk our precious religious liberty.

By way of full disclosure I am a Christian who believes that God answers prayer. I pray for the sick and have had people pray for me. I’ve seen healing result. I’ve even conducted a prayer experiments as part of my own doctoral research similar to those developed my Randolph Byrd. I am experientially and scientifically convinced that God answers prayer, that he intervenes in the world, and that healing does result. I also maintain my health insurance, visit the doctor when I’m under the weather, and take vitamins. And I don’t see the slightest contradiction between including faith and medicine together in the same worldview. In fact, I believe (and many, many studies support my claim) that the two synergize beautifully.


According to a Biblical, Christian understanding of the world, parents like the Schaibles who make an either/or distinction between faith and medical intervention hold a faulty view of how God works in his world. The ancient Greeks, influenced as they were by Eastern mysticism cleanly separated the material world from spiritual reality. The later Gnostics picked up this view. Spirit is spirit; matter is matter, and never the twain shall meet. Jews and Christians, taking their belief from the Bible beg to differ. God created the material world with its laws, and when he works his will, does so WITHIN the principles that he has called good. His actions are not exceptions to established laws, but acceleration and/or recombination of those laws. In other words, God doesn’t do magic; he does miracles, and miracle always work INSIDE the world, not in defiance of it.


This understanding explains why Christians down through history have built hospitals, delivered food to the hungry, and sought and fought for tangible justice around the world. God does answer prayer, but quite often he answers through the hands, wisdom, knowledge, efforts and pocketbooks of his people.

Yes, we should pray for sick children like Kent Schaible. We should also pray for the doctors who can treat him, and the researchers who develop antibiotics to treat his sickness. We pray understanding that God won’t do magic, but he will work within and alongside the free will of the humans who he intends to function as his agents of justice and goodness in his world. That means also praying for people like Kent’s parents, that they will rightly distinguish faith from foolishness. It also means that along with our prayers for them we also step up with enlightened instruction to help them learn that faith and reason are not at odds. That too won’t come to them and others like them by magic; it will come through the miracle of wisdom, the combination of knowledge and the miraculous insight of God.


What do you think about the balance of faith and medical treatment? Should the government intervene before parents make these choices? What would such intervention do to religious freedom? Have you ever made this kind of choice? Have you ever experienced a miraculous healing?

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  • melody

    I think God has endowed each of us with certain talents/gifts to use while we’re on this earth. Some have been given the gift to preach, some the gift heal, others the gift to write, to sing, to paint, etc. We need to start treating the ENTIRE body; physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. Jesus possessed all these but He was God in human form. It starts with the kids and education. Some doctors do have the “holier than thou” attitude and they need to be weeded out. Some are in it just for the money or title. It’s not a perfect world and arrogance and pride do exist. I don’t think the government should intervene. If we do it right from the beginning, it work out right till the end. It starts with the children.

  • Dee

    I agree ! God gave us free will to choose! That means we must always be open to how God answers our prayers. He allows us to help ourselves first then he works with us towards the next step.
    Like the proverb says….You give food to a beggar and they eat for a day…You teach the beggar to fish and they eat forever!
    God gave you a mind don’t waste it relying on him outside of you, when he gave you the common sense to know he lies with in you and together you create the miracle, mind, body and soul.

  • Francesca

    I do hope and pray that these parents weren’t into any kind of extremist belief as far as God not using anyone in the medical profession to help heal their child was concerned.If they were,they’re now living with the tragic consequences of it!

  • Your Name

    Of course, faith without work is dead.When we know our child is sick of any kind,our first step to think of is to take our child to the doctor.Whatever happens to the treatment from the doctor,we leave the rest into God’s hands,knowing we did our best to help the child and because of our faith that through the doctor,God will do His part to demonstrate His healing power.We let God do the rest to help us with our problems.

  • Marshalldoc

    To preface: I’m a retired M.D. & an atheist who’s review of the medical literature on the benefit of prayer convinces me that it has no effect (other than one study in which cardiac patients who were prayed for, without their knowledge, did worse than those without prayer).
    That said, I’m interested in the issue of where does a pluralistic society draw its lines or, more to the point, on whose ground do we build the wall between church & state?
    If we are to have complete freedom of religion as guaranteed by the 1st Amendment, I understand that to mean that, believers have the right to use ‘prayer therapy’ to ‘treat’ any ailments they believe they should (applied also to the dependent children). This would naturally imply societal acceptance of the mortality of those for whom god’s answer to their prayers was ‘no’. One evangelical with whom I attempted to discuss this with characterized such folks as ‘kooks’ but couldn’t define at which point they transitioned from “deeply religious” to “kooks”.
    The other end of the spectrum is to state that any refusal of care (by a consenting adult or for their dependent children) is in some fashion aberrational (child neglect/abuse, irrational self-destructive behavior) and the state has the right to step in & compel treatment regardless of the individual’s belief using force if needed – ‘for the good of the individual & society’.
    Between these two extremes lies a ‘moderate’ middle. Where is it and how do you decide on it? Is refusal to allow vaccination child abuse or does “abuse” only occur when there’s a proximate risk of harm (e.g.; untreated pneumonia) and who gets to decide?
    I’ll be interested in the responses posted.
    I’ll be back.

  • Mark Herringshaw

    Dr. Marshall… These are significant questions, worthy of a thoughtful discussion. This week I’ll post two new posts, one on your comment about medical studies on prayer, and the second your question about the balance between individual freedom and the civil responsibility to protect the powerless… Thank you for your thoughtful challenges. I look forward to carrying this conversation further.

  • Marshalldoc

    RE: Mark Herringshaw
    October 19, 2009 8:22 AM
    I don’t see where anything further has been posted.
    If I’ve missed it, kindly post URL.

  • Mark Herringshaw

    Dr. Marshall,
    I’ve put up a couple posts responding to your underlying assumption – prayer has no scientific validity. Here they are.
    I’ll continue with a few more in this vein as time permits.

  • Ann Soriano

    I believe in both – healing through faith and healing through medical science. I believe it is God who continously gives man the knowledge, the technology to survive our imperfect world. That’s why we have great doctors, great scientists in every field. Science is here for us to use, to enjoy. Science just simply confirms the great awesomeness of God. Man has his spiritual side and that’s where forgiveness, acceptance, and faith comes in. Jesus did both- forgave and set the people free from guilt but he also healed their physical diseases.
    I believe that whenever I or one of my children is sick, I must ind pray for healing and believe in faith and yes! yes! yes! go to the doctor. Spiritual and physical healing must be sought always both at the same time.

  • Allister Barrow

    Your article makes me sad. You want the cake and eat it. You want to believe in your Invisible magic friend and be reasonable and rational at the same time. Sorry, that’s not possible. Faith is just a form of stupidity. Praying is a laughable activity. Your argument that “God will work within and alongside the free will of the humans who he intends to function as his agents of justice and goodness in his world” is a pathetic cop out. Please grow up.

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