In the Name of God, the Most Compassionate, the Most Merciful
This article was published today on Beliefnet.
Can prayer heal? A recent study of more than 1,800 cardiac patients undergoing coronary bypass surgery found that intercessory prayer had no effect on recovery outcomes. What does this mean for people of faith?
The study results were very interesting to me, a pulmonary and critical care physician. As such, I am consulted to help when a patient cannot breathe, has difficulty breathing, or just plain stops breathing. I have put innumerable breathing tubes down people’s throats when they could not breath on their own. I have reversed the shock caused by severe, overwhelming infection; I have revived patients’ heartbeat and rhythm after it stopped for whatever reason. I have helped many people breathe easier. It can be very stressful at times, but I feel truly blessed to be in this field.
Yet, I am also a believer in and servant of the Lord God. I believe that God – and God alone – is the Creator and Sustainer of life and thus the only one who can heal. Everything that I listed above was done only by the Loving Grace and permission of God Almighty. I do not “save lives.” God does, and I simply fill out the paperwork.
And I believe in prayer. I pray each and every day I start my work; I pray before every procedure I perform on a patient; I pray that the Lord blesses my practice of medicine; I pray fervently whenever I am sick, and even more fervently if illness – God forbid – would ever befall a member of my family. Prayer has been the secret to my success, and there is not a day that goes by during which I do not turn to my Lord in prayer.
Yet, with all my fervent belief in prayer, there is absolutely no way I would substitute sound medical judgment and practice with prayer, even though I believe it is only God who heals. Leaving aside the fact that it is malpractice to do so, to pray instead of practice medicine would be immoral and unethical, and moreover, I believe the Lord would take me to task for doing so. Even though there is nothing in this universe that comes to pass without the Lord’s express will and permission, I must do my part. That is how, I believe, the whole “prayer deal” works.
I have to give the antibiotic and then pray to the Lord that it cures the infection. I have to place the breathing tube in the patient and then pray to the Lord that his low oxygen levels return to normal. I have to administer CPR and then pray to the Lord that the patient’s heart starts to beat again. This is not to say that God’s healing and recovery will not come without prayer, but I believe prayer should be an integral part of the healing process.
Yet, given the fact that the study did not show any beneficial effect of prayer on outcomes after bypass surgery, should we pray at all? What is the purpose of prayer, anyway? If God is All Powerful – which I believe He is – and His will always is done on earth and in heaven – which it is – then why ask God for something He is going to do anyway?
First, because I believe God wants it that way. In the Qur’an, it says: “And your Lord says: ‘Call on me, I will answer your [prayer]…” (40:60). Since the very beginnings of history, human beings have looked to a greater power, something higher and more transcendent than themselves. Every Prophet (God’s peace be upon them all) has prayed to the Lord. Of all people, a prophet would know that the Lord God is All Powerful and not in need of anyone asking Him to do something. Yet, they still prayed, and thus I pray as well.
I believe the Lord God loves to hear us call unto Him. It is an acknowledgment on our part of the Omnipotence of God, and it is an opportunity for the Lord to shower more of His Unending love, mercy, and compassion on us. I already know that He loves me dearly, for He gave me the gift of life itself. Yet, when I pray to Him, even for the most mundane of things, I get to access more of His love, and that can never be a bad thing.
Moreover, my prayers are my daily conversations with the Lord. It helps me keep Him in my focus throughout my day. My prayers to the Lord remind me that He is right there with me as I take every step on my earthly sojourn. They solidify the friendship I have with God and help that friendship grow in strength and beauty. More importantly for me, my prayers to God remind me that He – and not me – gives life and takes it away. In a field where many doctors think they are God Himself, prayer keeps my ego from becoming dangerously inflated.
When it comes to medicine, many people do not realize how much of a miracle it truly is to be healed. Recently, I had a CT scan of my abdomen as well as IV antibiotics. So many things could have gone wrong: I could have had a deadly allergic reaction to the antibiotics, or my kidneys could have shut down from either the antibiotic or the contrast material used for the CT scan. Thank God, nothing happened to me, and I attribute that to my prayers. With every medical treatment comes possible complications and side effects, and the fact that such complications are rare is testimony to the Lord’s Grace and Mercy.
Yet, sometimes, complications do occur and side effects do happen, even though we have prayed to God. Sometimes, despite my best efforts as a physician and family members’ fervent prayers, a patient does not breathe again, his heart never resumes beating. What does this mean? Why does this happen? Did God not hear the prayers to Him? Did He abandon the patient at his or her time of desperate need?
This is, perhaps, one of the most difficult questions to answer: that of the unanswered prayer. In Muslim tradition, the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) told us that there are three outcomes to a prayer to God: (1) it is answered immediately, (2) it is not answered immediately, but in its stead a generous reward is given to the supplicant on Judgment Day, or (3) it blocks a calamity from befalling the individual.
The unanswered prayer is a difficult test of faith, and it is hard for me to even write about it, because, I do not want to be tested by God in such a manner. I do not think I will ever know why, despite our prayers, some people never get better. As a Muslim, I believe that every illness, physical ailment, or even prick of a thorn brings with it a cleansing of sins. Yet, it is easy to say this when it is not you who has to suffer said illness, ailment, or prick of a thorn. All I can do is pray to the Lord for His Grace and Mercy.