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Prayer didn't work? Theologians say suffering has a purpose

In study after study, the benefits of religion on a person's health are being increasingly well documented.

Findings reveal that people who pray and attend church regularly are more likely to live longer, recover from surgery more quickly and handle depression better.About 30 medical schools offer courses on religion and spirituality, and some doctors even feel comfortable praying with patients for a favorable outcome.

This may not be startling news to many Americans. In national polls, about 80 percent of respondents say they believe in the healing power of prayer.

But what happens when prayer does not work the way the petitioner intends? When the tumor is malignant, and the patient dies. Or a marriage fails.

Will the temptation grow even greater to ask, as the disciples did of Jesus in the gospel of John when they encountered a blind man: "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?"

In the fall issue of the Journal of Religion and Health, theologian Paul P. Parker addresses the mystery surrounding suffering, prayer and miracles or why bad things still happen to good people.

He finds the answer in Jesus' reply to his disciples:

"Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God's works might be revealed in him."

Parker contends that suffering has a purpose, and that purpose for bystanders is not to find fault with the person suffering.

Rather, he says that religious individuals are called by the travail of others to repent of their own sins and to take responsibility for alleviating the suffering.

"God is good. God does not cause, ordain or justify suffering," says Parker. "For the sake of human freedom, God allows suffering that is caused by others and suffering that is part of the natural world and then uses it to call humanity to repentance, beneficence and ultimate reconciliation - voluntarily."

In other words, Parker says, when a person contracts AIDS, believers should not raise judgmental questions of drug use or irresponsible sexual activity but should instead examine their own self-indulgent behavior.

When the faithful read about the Bosnian-Serbian war or the fratricide in Northern Ireland, they would be best served to "move away from the potentially murderous consequences of their own family bigotry, religious intolerance and nationalistic loyalties."

"If individuals and society embrace their solidarity with and their responsibility for those who suffer, then much suffering will come to an end," he writes. "But so long as human beings deny their fundamental unity with all others, suffering will not only continue but will grow to unimagined dimensions."

Miracles still happen, Parker says, and they are to be celebrated.

But one cannot expect God to answer every prayer.

"Who would be genuinely free to love God or not to love God if faith paid off in the everyday world?" he asks.