Does prayer really heal the sick or is it a waste of time?

Michael Bublé has recently asked for prayers for his cancer-stricken son, Noah, causing us to ask, what do the mass appeals really do?

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“Everybody keeps saying they are praying for us. What does that really mean?”

That was a friend of mine. His son, who recently turned 18 and is also a dear friend, has cancer. It’s aggressive. It’s cruel. It’s dodging medical treatments.

If we look at stories like that of Ava Lee, a seven-year-old girl with leukemia, we might think prayer is more powerful than chemotherapy. On November 2, her mother, Esther, recorded a video of Ava asking for prayers for a clean scan so that she could move forward with a second bone marrow transplant. That little video, less than 20 seconds long, has over 160,000 views on Facebook.

When Ava’s PET scan results came back they were clear. Assuming all of those views resulted in at least a “please God” each, it seems like the prayers worked. It was a joyful, thanks-be-to-God moment.

Does prayer heal?

On November 9, Ava’s Facebook page broadcasted unfortunate news. The scan was clear, but the cancer has not gone. At the time of this writing, her situation is painfully, terribly grim.

Does prayer not heal?

Humans are an intellectual group, on the whole. But I’d wager that even the most pragmatic among us, those who see or hear someone in prayer and think “what a waste of time,” are not above invoking God in their most desperate moments. It’s easy, for those of us who are faithful, to point to that as a kind of hypocrisy. But it’s better to see that as a moment of covenant, a sacred moment of dependence on something greater than ourselves. Sincere prayer comes from that deep place where our consciousness touches the divine. Sincere prayer needs no proofs and expects no miracles. It simply expresses need.

MORE TO READ: 5 short prayers for stressful moments

On November 4, on Michael Bublé’s Facebook page, fans learned his three-year-old son, Noah, has cancer. A quote on the Facebook page said, “At this difficult time, we ask only for your prayers and respect for our privacy.”

Does prayer heal?

When my friend asked me about the purpose of prayer, the meaning of it as an antidote to suffering, I paused before answering.

It’s not the first time I’ve been asked to answer that question. I pause every time. I pause because I want to believe prayer can accomplish anything, indeed, I do believe anything is possible through God. I want to believe that, but what I really believe is something more nuanced. Through God and prayer, anything—all things—are possible. Matthew 19:26 affirms this: “But Jesus looked at them and said, ‘For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.'” But it doesn’t tell us that all things are probable.

Does prayer not heal?

In the pause, I have a frantic moment when I search for answers that will satisfy. I reach out for God and hope that he’ll help me form the words that will promise hope and peace. Instead, I’m moved to the truth. The truth is that this world has hurts innumerable. This world is not a place of peace and perfection. It’s dangerous and unsure and full of mysteries as sinister, like cancer, as they can be wonderful, like against-the-odds recoveries.

Healing can only happen when we confront those dangers, as we do when we give our fears over in prayer. All of that is amplified when we ask other people to take up our concerns. We become part of the healing process for one another.

READ MORE: The daily prayer that can change your life

Sometimes, maybe, though I don’t claim to guess at the ways of God, God intervenes in dramatic fashion. The blind see and the lame walk and the sick are healed and the dead rise again.

But many times, it’s not the people who are ill who are healed. It’s the people who pray for them.

No matter how I pray, when I breathe that closing amen, I am less burdened, I’m less wounded.

At some point in the prayers that people will say for Noah Bublé and Ava Lee, and at some point in the prayers I say for my friend, his wife, his older son, and most of all his younger son who has cancer and whom I cherish, we are asking for our own healing. We bundle our worries into a distress call.

I have prayed thoughtfully, for my own friend: “Dear God, Remove the cancer from my friend so that his life will be long and fruitful and a testament to your grace. Amen.” I have prayed frantically, “God no, no, no, no, no.” No matter how I pray, when I breathe that closing amen, I am less burdened, I’m less wounded.

Science and medicine, those institutions which some often hold up as the antithesis of God, might better be thought of as the result of many “unanswered” prayers. In a modern world that operates with a certain faith in our own ingenuity, the definition of the miraculous is often caught up with the application of learning and technology. In no way should we understand that prayer is absent in both hospital rooms nor busy research labs. Prayer lends words to our troubles and lets in the agency of God, who inspires the best of human endeavors. When we go to God in prayer, we don’t stave off suffering, we make room for healing.

Sometimes God “answers” prayers directly. But most times, prayer helps us realize that God gave us each other, not to solve all problems or avoid pain, but to realize that dedicating our spiritual energy to prayer makes us ripe for empathy, the spiritual energy that helps us to heal each other.


Nicole Leigh Shaw
Nicole Leigh Shaw
Nicole Leigh Shaw, a former newspaper journalist, has been moving through all the metamorphic stages of the modern writer, except "tortured novelist." Soon she'll emerge as a butterfly or a vlogger. She writes for, and others, and has contributed to five anthologies, including the New York Times' bestseller "I Just Want to Pee Alone." She has four kids, two dogs and one husband.

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