The Wickedness of Praying for the Sick

Having recently finished Professor Ehrman's "God's Problem," I was struck by his decision to never say grace over food. His logic was that if there were people in the world dying every five seconds from starvation, it was tantamount to thanking God for giving this food to him, at their expense. He felt he couldn't be thankful that he had been singled out for reasons that had only to do with his birthplace, which made quite a bit of sense to me.

Thus I began to consider analogous behaviors and the first one that I thought of was praying for the sick to recover. If Ehrman's original proposition, that praying to thank the Lord for food that you have, while others are starving is valid, is it not equally valid when it comes to praying for the sick to recover?

There are 8.2 deaths per 1000 people per year in the US. Some countries are better, some are much worse. That means that with 300 million residents, there are roughly 2.5 million deaths in the US per year, or roughly 6700 people per day dying. This is in the US alone. If you assume the death rate globally is higher, say 8.6 per 1000, and you assume 6 billion people, you can see the actual number of dying people God can potentially save per day is around 140,000 (I leave others to detect the irony of this number).

Yet the person praying for the sick to recover believes that her action can affect the transcendent creator of the universe to intervene for the person they know. Imagine if it were so.

Imagine that the only thing that were keeping the death rate up was the lack of prayers for the sick and dying. Think of a statistical analysis that showed rigorously that prayer worked, but only the prayers of members of the (imaginary) Dutch Reformed Church, and only those prayers addressed to "Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, in whom is manifest the will of the Father" that took place in a Dutch Reformed Church. And imagine that such a prayer was shown to extend the life of the dying person by 6 hours per hour of prayer spent.

Would people convert en masse to the (imaginary) Dutch Reformed Church? Would they be willing to travel to the (imaginary) Dutch Reformed Church to pray for the sick personally for one hour to extend their lives another 6 hours? For how long would this continue? Would people quit their jobs and become professional "prayers"?

I am sure some would.

But I doubt the numbers would be very large. And I doubt the number of conversions to Dutch Reformed would be very great. And I also doubt that members of other congregations would consider the analysis valid.

So is it not more reasonable, more humane, and more just to believe that the sick die from their diseases and NOT due to a lack of prayer? Many of my family have prayed for the sick, and on their recovery been thankful to the (imaginary) Lord for speeding the recovery of the patient. Are they then not condemning the person who did not recover for not having had adequate prayer support? Do they believe the (imaginary) deity is keeping a tally sheet and only responding when a given prayer threshold has been met?

I recall well when a very close childhood friend of mine was dying from a progressive neurological disorder. I was at the hospital with him waiting for his brain biopsy. He was still lucid, but aphasic. A very well-meaning woman asked what was going on, and I explained it to her. She assured me she would pray for him and he would get better. I was sure he would not, but didn't disagree openly with her.

Should I hold it against her that he died? Is it her fault that the (imaginary) deity chose not to make an exception for my friend when he contracted this universally fatal neurological disease?

I think not. It is wicked to suggest that all people who die weren't prayed for adequately, and therefore, by the same principle, it is wicked to pray for anyone who is ill, because you suggest that your prayer had efficacy in saving them, and thus condemn as inadequate the futile prayers said for those who died.

In advance I can anticipate the apologetic responses:

1. God is inscrutable.

2. All things work together for good, and God wished these peoples' deaths as part of a divine plan.

3. The suffering and death of these people leads to increased strength of character in the face of adversity of those who survive them.

To number 1, I say if God is so inscrutable, why did he write a book about him coming to earth and healing only some people? Why doesn't he just miraculously cure all suffering people and be done with it?

To number 2, I say if there is a divine plan, why does it involve such incredible suffering, and why should we make that suffering worse by making people feel responsible for it?

To number 3, I say if I could poke a hole through your arm with a sharp stick because it would make you a stronger person to deal with it, should I?

Finally, I would ask what goes through the mind of an ill person in their final minutes when they are sure they are going to die yet they know people have prayed for them? Are they grateful the prayers were sent, even though they are going to die anyway? Or do they worry that the prayers weren't effective due to some character flaw or past "sin" which is their responsibility?

Is not the second possibility unbelievably wicked? Yet it is a certainty that a percentage of believers thus prayed for will think it. And they will think this as they leave the earth for good.

Prayer for the sick should cease. It causes pain and misery in the dying and keeps the living from accepting the nature of life and reality. Is it so hard to simply wish speedy recovery for the sick from a human perspective? Is it so hard to say that you are pulling for someone to recover and leave the cosmic workings of the universe out of it? Need we have each person who has done a bad thing in her life suffering as she expires because she thinks she is being punished?