Prayer, Plain and Simple

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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