Rabbi Marc Gellman writes about religion for Newsday.
Q I have a job where I'm exposed to much sadness. I do everything I can to alleviate the darkness that surrounds so many of my patients and families, but often I feel helpless that I can't do more, so I pray for them. While I was at Mass recently, I started to wonder if the prayers I say each day really do any good. I know they help me because at least I feel like I did something more for my patients. Does God hear our prayers for others and do something more for them -- like grant them peace and acceptance? -- F., via email
A Your question speaks directly to why some people believe in God while others don't.
Religious people believe in the efficacy of petitionary prayer, and nonbelievers assert that this is just irrational, magical thinking. Religious folk believe that in response to prayers sent, God sends healing and help in return. Some have even tried to scientifically prove that sick people for whom prayers are offered recover at a higher rate than those who are not prayed for.
These studies have, in my opinion, been decisively refuted. I'm convinced that science simply can't confirm the religious belief that prayers have a measurable therapeutic effect.
However, this isn't to say that sick people are never healed by God. I believe they are healed at times by the miraculous intervention of God. What I don't believe, and never will, is that we can force God through prayer to do anything. That would constitute a belief in magic, not prayer. By this, I don't mean tricks and illusions, but ancient magic -- the belief that our will can control God's will.
Magic understood in this way is arrogant and profoundly false. It undermines science and makes religion a magical form of begging. No religions of any stature teach that we can change God's will through prayer. Nor can we know God's will in the first place, because none of us is a prophet.
God may have a desire to heal a person and then, in addition to the application of clinically approved medical science, the person may be healed in a way that defies rational explanation. The spontaneous remission of cancer, for example, can and does occur. Medicine is simply not able to explain such rare events. Neither can I, but I choose to attribute such sudden, unexpected hearings to the divine intervention of God, regardless of any offered prayers.
I believe this because of what Hamlet believed when he spoke to Horatio in Act I, Scene V: "There are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, Than are dreamed of in your philosophy."
What I believe about your petitionary prayers is that your request for healing has hopefully helped you accept your fragility in the face of human finitude. As a person dealing with patients, I'm sure your prayers have helped you keep your heart soft and your compassion alive in a work environment in which the forces of self-
protection could easily have turned you into a cold and distant caretaker.
Your prayers help you on a spiritually ennobling level to accept the limitations of your profession. You're obviously a good, kind person, so it's natural for you to want to fix all the brokenness you see. However, for your own good, you must realize and accept that you're not in control of everything, and that what you want may not be granted just because you petition God.
Try praying this famous acceptance prayer, attributed to an anonymous Confederate soldier. I hope it helps you, and I hope that for reasons we cannot know or control, that God sends healing to the sick among us all:
"I asked God for strength, that I might achieve; I was made weak, that I might learn to humbly obey.
"I asked for health, that I might do greater things; I was given infirmity, that I might do better things.
"I asked for riches, that I might be happy; I was give poverty, that I might be wise.
"I asked for power, that I might have the praise of men; I was given weakness, that I might feel the need for God.
"I asked for all things, that I might enjoy life; I was given life, that I might enjoy all things.
"I got nothing that I asked for, but everything I had hoped for.
"Almost despite myself, my unspoken prayers were answered.
"I am, among all, most richly blessed."