Richard G. Petty, MD

Are Prayers Answered?

Most of the world’s population is in no doubt about the answer to the question, “Are prayers answered?”

In Healing, Meaning and Purpose I told the following tale:

“I review articles that have been submitted for publication to quite a number of major medical journals. I am known as something of a “hawk.” If there’s a mistake, I am usually good at finding it. Several years ago I was sent a now-famous study of the influence of distant prayer on the recovery of patients in a coronary care unit. I was certain that I would find a flaw in it, but after three days of intense work, I had to conclude that the paper was sound. And it is now one of many. Prayer works, whether or not the recipient even knows that he or she is being prayed for.”

So I was intrigued to see a new study from Arizona State University that was published in the March issue of the journal Research on Social Work Practice. David R. Hodge, a recognized authority on research in prayer, conducted a comprehensive analysis of 17 major studies on the effects of intercessory prayer – or prayer that is offered for the benefit of another person – among people with psychological or medical problems, and the researchers came up with a positive result.

David had this to say,

“There have been a number of studies on intercessory prayer, or prayer offered for the benefit of another person,” said Hodge, a leading expert on spirituality and religion. “Some have found positive results for prayer. Others have found no effect. Conducting a meta-analysis takes into account the entire body of empirical research on intercessory prayer. Using this procedure, we find that prayer offered on behalf of another yields positive results… “This is the most thorough and all-inclusive study of its kind on this controversial subject that I am aware of,” said Hodge. “It suggests that more research on the topic may be warranted, and that praying for people with psychological or medical problems may help them recover.”

“Overall, the meta-analysis indicates that prayer is effective. Is it effective enough to meet the standards of the American Psychological Association’s Division 12 for empirically validated interventions? No. Thus, we should not be treating clients suffering with depression, for example, only with prayer. To treat depression, standard treatments, such as cognitive therapy, should be used as the primary method of treatment.”

This result is different from the widely publicized study by Herbert Benson’s group that was published last year. So why the difference? First, this study, like all other meta-analyses, lives or dies on its methodology. This one used a very standard technique and the data look reliable. By contrast, the Benson study was an empirical study of the effect of prayer on cardiac disease. It appeared to produce a negative result.

There are always some difficulties with any studies on prayer:

  • If I am praying for one outcome and you are praying for another, who “wins?”
  • Can we really apply the scientific method to faith? {The answer to that one is yes. If someone tells me that the moon is made of green cheese and held up by pieces of string, they have just presented us with a testable hypothesis!}
  • Are we being too limited and too limiting if we do a study in we only consider a physical outcome? What about the impact of prayer not only on physical and psychological well being, but also on our sense of meaning and purpose?
  • By praying for a particular outcome, aren’t we trying to second guess a Higher Power? Before you can pray effectively, can you listen effectively and surrender to the Will of that Higher Power?

From personal experience and a very careful review of the literature I am in no doubt that prayer is effective. But only if we first ask for guidance and listen for the answer. Telling a Higher Power what to do is unlikely to be crowned with successs.

“When we pray to God we must be seeking nothing – nothing.”
–Saint Francis of Assisi (Italian Roman Catholic Friar, and in 1209, Founder of the Franciscan Order, c. 1182-1226)

“Most people consider the course of events as natural and inevitable. They little know what radical change is possible through prayer. Every morning I offer my body, my mind and any ability that I posses, to be used by Thee, O infinite creator, in whatever way Thou dost choose to express thyself through me. I know that all work is Thy work, and that no task is too difficult or too menial when offered to Thee in loving service.”
— Paramahansa Yogananda (Indian Spiritual Teacher and, in 1920, Founder of the Self-Realization Fellowship, 1893-1952)

“Prayer is not asking. It is a longing of the soul. It is daily admission of one’s weakness. It is better in prayer to have a heart without words than words without a heart.”
–Mahatma Gandhi (Indian Nationalist and World Teacher, 1869-1948)

“When you pray, above all ask heaven to give you light. For only light will allow you to find your direction, to avoid pitfalls and to find the strength to see your projects through to completion.”
–Omraam Mikhaël Aïvanhov (Bulgarian Spiritual Master, 1900-1986)

“Many people think that they don’t know how to pray. Just think of God as a great river that runs through the universe. The idea of prayer is not to pull God out of the stream but to put yourself into the stream with God.”
–Joni Rodgers (American Writer, Lymphoma Survivor and United Methodist Layspeaker)

About Richard G. Petty, MD
Dr. Richard G. Petty, MD is a world-renowned authority on the brain, and his revolutionary work on human energy systems has been acclaimed around the globe. He is also an accredited specialist in internal and metabolic medicine, endocrinology, psychiatry, acupuncture and homeopathy. He has been an innovator and leader of the human potential movement for over thirty years and is also an active researcher, teacher, writer, professional speaker and broadcaster. He is the author of five books, including the groundbreaking and best selling CD series Healing, Meaning and Purpose. He has taught in over 45 countries and 48 states in the last ten years, but spends as much time as possible on his horse farm in Georgia.


3 Responses to “Are Prayers Answered?”
  1. Reg Adkins says:

    I never tire of this topic. I absolutely believe God does answer prayers! But, what I’m not certain everyone realizes is that sometimes the answer is “Yes,” sometimes the answer is “Not right now,” and sometimes the answer is “No.”
    Keep up your great work!

  2. Richard Petty says:

    Dear Reg,

    Thank you VERY much for your comment.

    I think that you are quite correct, and that is what I was trying to say: we need to listen rather than telling a Higher Power what to do.

    Which strikes me as a bit presumptious!

    Kind regards,


  3. Kate Frenda says:

    If we think of God as love, and we consider that this world was made by love, for love, then our prayers offered in love will bear fruit, even if it’s not ultimately the outcome we desire. And if we see what we do as a act of prayer, whether it’s treating patients through medical procedures, or washing dishes, it’s part of the same continuium of bringing love to the world, of flowing in the river of God. How then do we separate our acts of love from our prayers in terms of outcome? Very often we are so focussed on the outcome, but the process itself is the blessing. It is good to pray, and it is natural to pray, to seek Love’s best. As Hildegarde of Bingen wrote in the 11th Century “no warmth is ever wasted.”

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