A Return to an Old Battleground

by Francis MacNutt
Sep/Oct 2006

We have received many letters commenting on the article I wrote in The Healing Line two issues ago (May–June), in which I critiqued the study that the Templeton Foundation sponsored. This study claimed that their researchers found no evidence that distant healing prayer actually helped patients recover from heart operations. We could let it go at what I already have written, but I think we need to say more about that study (titled STEP), because it seems to have influenced some already skeptical Christian leaders and now gives them a “scientific” basis for discouraging people from expectantly praying for the sick. As one clever cynic once said: “Blessed are those who expect nothing, for they shall not be disappointed.” (Naturally, since we have given our lives to help in restoring Jesus’ healing ministry, we react when people suggest that nothing happens when we pray.)

As an example of how some pastors have been affected, one friend of mine requested that a friend who was emotionally ill and suicidal be anointed in the Sacrament of the Sick; the priest in charge of the service refused him because one requirement for the Last Rites is that the sick person be “in danger of death.” A short time later, the patient killed himself. You cannot, of course, prove that he still would be alive if he had been anointed, but I suggest that it is spiritual abuse to withhold prayer when the prayer might have helped remove his depression.

And others have told me that their desire to hold healing services has been turned down because the STEP study “proves that intercessory prayer” doesn’t help. As the Associated Press headline claimed, “Prayer has no Effect in Study.” If you are a Christian, you certainly would wonder how you reconcile that statement with what you read in Scripture: “The prayer of faith will heal the sick man” (James 5:15a).

Beyond this, my problem with the STEP study is not simply religious, it’s scientific. And it’s precisely this: “What were the qualifications of the intercessors who were chosen to pray?” In our experience, it makes a great deal of difference whether or not the ones praying for healing have expectant faith.  (“Expectant faith” does not mean that the intercessors are certain that every physically sick person they pray for will be healed.) What we do know from reading Scripture is that:

1)    God encourages us to pray for healing (e.g. Luke 10:9).

2)    Jesus tells us to expect that the prayer will be answered (Mt. 7:7-11). (Will God hand us a stone when we ask for bread?)

3)    Jesus blames his followers when they do not heal the epileptic demoniac (Mt. 17:14-20), and he tells them that they failed because “you have little faith.”

In short, the New Testament teaches that faith is a key ingredient in the success of our prayers for the sick. What has always challenged me has been to consider that although Jesus’ disciples did believe in him, and they were a chosen group, their measure of faith was still not enough. Faith-in-healing, according to the Gospels, is clearly a necessary condition for healing to take place. “Your faith has restored you to health, Jesus tells the woman with the flow of blood who touched the hem of his garment” (Mt. 9:22b).1

If an intercessor’s faith in prayer is a major factor in whether or not a sick person actually gets better, you would think that anyone doing a rigorous study on the effectiveness of intercessory prayer would check on the belief systems of the intercessors.

As far as we can judge, this was not done. What kind of faith did the three groups of intercessors have who prayed for the 1,802 cardiac patients? What did they believe?

As we mentioned in my earlier article in The Healing Line, two of the three groups chosen as intercessors were Catholic contemplative nuns. These groups pray for hours every day, and their lives center on prayer. They surely are wonderful, dedicated communities of Christian women. None of that is being called into question.

What is at question is whether or not they had expectant faith for healing — in other words, whether they believed that physical healing would commonly take place when they prayed. Unless they have been introduced to charismatic renewal, Catholic nuns brought up in traditional spirituality tend to see sickness as a God–sent trial; they may simply pray that the sick patients will endure their suffering with patience. If the sick can peacefully accept their pain, it’s proof of their love, a kind of martyrdom.

Way back in 1974, I wrote that Catholics typically seemed to have little belief that their prayers would have any extraordinary effect.2 This might still hold true for the two groups of nuns chosen as intercessors for the study. At the very least, their beliefs should have been checked out. I think it extraordinary, too, that the researchers claimed that they “were unable to locate other Christian, Jewish, or non–Christian groups that could receive the daily prayer list required for this multi–year study.”3 We here at CHM have about 550 intercessors to whom we send prayer requests for healing, and we are in touch with numerous other groups who believe in the effectiveness of distant prayer.

The third group chosen as intercessors was the Unity Church. A number of people have written to point out, rightly, that I confused this group with the Unitarian church. Half a dozen mentioned that they had benefited from the prayers they had requested from the Unity group in Lee’s Summit, MO. So, I apologize for that confusion.

The Unity Church stresses love, the basic goodness of all creation, and definitely believes in praying for healing. Their prayers are addressed to God, but they do not single out Jesus as being the Son of God and our Savior. Whether or not this makes a difference would make a prayer-study in itself, but does it make a difference here?

All these questions need to be asked in regard to choosing the intercessors in this, the most extensive study ever undertaken on this subject, which is now being used to cast doubt on the value of intercessory prayer.

Beyond that, a further, scientific question that must be asked is: How can people jump from the results of a study which examines the results of praying in a way which most of us


do not pray (namely, a double-blind study, just receiving a person’s name without ever meeting the patient),

while not examining the results of praying in the way most of us actually do pray (namely, meeting the patients, talking with them, learning to love them, saying a prayer in their presence while also laying hands on them).


We understand the need for researchers to do double-blind studies, but it means they cannot study how we actually pray; instead, they examine what we do not do. Then they conclude that intercessory prayer doesn’t work. Because this study of what–we–don’t–do indicates that not much happens, skeptics can now leap to an illogical, irrational conclusion: how we really pray is scientifically shown to be ineffective.

“Intercessory prayer doesn’t work” in the AP headline is assumed by skeptics to show that intercessory prayer is a waste of time. They don’t seem to realize that they are making a demonstrably illogical leap. In the name of science, they are being unscientific.

Just because they studied 1,802 cardiac patients, the impression given is that this STEP study is the ultimate, exhaustive, conclusive work. But you can see that there is a crack in its very foundation.

The Rheumatoid Arthritis Study

We actually did conduct a medical study investigating the results of praying for the sick in the way we ordinarily do.

To show that prayer for healing really does produce results, we collaborated with Dale Matthews, M.D., and Sally Marlowe, N.P. (who directed a pain–arthritis clinic in Florida) and prayed for about 40 patients who were suffering from rheumatoid arthritis.4 We chose this disease simply because there is no known medical cure for the condition. We thought that if the patients received demonstrable healing, it would be worthy of scientific attention. After all, if a medically incurable disease gets cured, the normal human response is to ask why. We worked with these patients in the way in which we ordinarily do: we talked with them spent time with them and prayed with them. Furthermore, we tried to discover if there were any underlying spiritual conditions that might have caused the arthritis. The results were astonishing and were published in the Southern Medical Journal, December 2000.

Of course, this was not a double-blind study. We reasoned that if the patients improved following prayer, the logical conclusion would be that prayer probably does have an effect. Most of the patients did experience measurable changes, and four seem to have been totally cured. The chances of all this happening by chance were .0001 (and anything better than .04 is statistically significant).

Furthermore, the study was financed by the Templeton Foundation, the same Foundation that financed the STEP study! And yet, as far as we know, the AP did not publicize the results to the same extent as the STEP study.

If all these studies were simply speculative, we really wouldn’t care that much. Just let it go. But here it makes a huge difference, because many sick people who might be healed through prayer may be deprived of the prayer they need because doctors, ministers, priests, counselors, nurses, and just ordinary people might be discouraged from praying for the sick. Besides, all this comes just at a time when ordinary people are discovering that Jesus really did come to our hurting world with “healing in his wings.”

That’s the reason why we take issue to what some people are assuming that the STEP study is proving. And we object not just on religious grounds. We object to its conclusions on the researchers’ own grounds —

the very grounds of science and reason.

1 In my book Power to Heal (Ave Maria Press, 1977) I wrote extensively on the faith-to-be-healed issue in Chapter 10, “What is God’s Will in Relation to Healing?” and in the two Appendices.
2 Power to Heal, p. 128.
3American Heart Journal, Vol. 151, No. 4, p. 935.
4 A touching video record of this study, showing how the arthritis sufferers responded to prayer, is entitled “Shall We Pray? and is available from our CHM bookstore.

Francis MacNutt Francis MacNutt is a Founding Director and Executive Committee member of CHM. Sep/Oct 2006 Issue