Sunday, November 09, 2008

Answered prayer.

Most people get better from most things most of the time. You break a leg? Mostly it heals up after a while and you can walk again. You get the 'flu? Generally you're better again after a few days in bed. Measles? Mumps? Chicken pox? Even before vaccines, most people caught them as children and most survived. Even with heart attacks and strokes, although more likely to be lethal, many people make an uneventful recovery.

Do doctors help? Well, they might make sure your leg sets straight, and relieve your suffering with some aspirin, but for most things doctors do as they have done for centuries - comforting words and placebos; a good bedside manner.

That is not the end of it, of course. Over the past 50 years we have got pretty good at treating bacterial infection. Pneumonia was the most important of these. Viral respiratory infection (for which we can do nothing) opens a gate for the common bacteria to get in, and as in most situations where the drainage of fluid is impaired an serious infection ensues. Penicillin and its many successors have saved many lives. Safe surgery has been another boon. Anesthetics that allow it and antiseptic techniques that prevent the germs getting into open wounds have ensured enormous advances that have made fatal cancers curable, and many otherwise dangerous condition like appendicitis trivial.

Many of the other medical advances have been to do with public health. Sir Richard Doll's epidemiological observation that demonstrated that smokers got lung cancer mush more commonly than non-smokers was the beginning of a realization that the way we live inflicts upon us various ailments. There are all sorts of drugs like anti hypertensives and statins that don't make us feel any better, yet they prevent us being struck down by a potentially fatal illness (we hope). Even with some cancers, we detect them when they cause us no problems and apply treatments in the hope that they never will.

It comes as no surprise therefore that people who take precautions about their health - eating well, not smoking, taking plenty of exercise, drinking little alcohol - live longer than those who live a life of riotous hedonism. Not should surprise us that such people are found more commonly in churches than outside of them. We could also say that the sense of community provided by church membership settles the mind and spirit, making mental and psychosomatic illness less likely.

It was Francis Galton, I think, who believed that he had a proof that prayer did not work. 'God save the King' was, he said, the most commonly prayed prayer, yet on average kings lived shorter lives than the rest of the population, and therefore prayer did not work. It is, of course, a facile argument with so many flaws that it is not worth contradicting. However, of recent years a number of other studies have been published suggesting that when Christians pray for, say, patients in coronary care units, those prayed for survive better. In one famous study volunteers prayed for half of the 393 heart attack patients in a San Francisco hospital. Among the group prayed for significantly fewer died, most had a faster recovery, requiring the use of fewer potent drugs and none had to be put on life support. The study was blinded; the patients did not know they were being prayed for. There are some similar studies that show contradictory results. and some observers find methodological flaws in such approaches. I make no comment.

Most Christian doctors I know have never seen an unequivocal authentic miracle. Dr Paul Brand, the famous leprosy surgeon/missionary, spent many decades in practice and never saw one. When people mentioned the success of tele-evangelists, he commented that he must have spent his life in the wrong profession. Why had he spent so much time doing painstaking surgery, when he could have achieved the same or better results in the twinkling of an eye? I remember a patient of mine with chronic myeloid leukemia who had a blastic transformation. In the days before imatanib that was a lethal development. He was a keen Christian and the elders of his church prayed over him and laid hands on him. He went into remission. I was shocked. All I had given him was prednisolone. When I shared this with a CML expert he referred me to a few similar cases that had responded to prednisolone. I remember also a mix up where an old lady with acute lymphoblastic leukemia was inadvertently given chlorambucil. She went into remission, even though that drug is supposed to have no effect. There was no suggestion of any supernatural intervention in this case.

The body has remarkable natural healing powers and although we presume to understand the pathology of leukemia, what we don't know is greater than what we do. Do miracles occur? Of course they do - our whole faith is based on the fact that a dead man came back to life. As Paul said - 'if Christ be not risen we are of all men most miserable'. But at least in Western Civilization where these things can be subjected to scientific scrutiny, I am pretty sure that the sort of miracle that happened in Jesus's time no longer happens now. We don't see blind men made to see when mud is placed on their eyes, or the paralyzed take up their beds and walk, or water turned into wine or 5000 fed with five loaves and two fish or men who have been dead and rotting in the grave for four days brought back to life. Perhaps these things still happen in non-scientific communities where the only proof is what a witness says and there is still scope for disbelief, but it seems to me that God is concerned to ensure to us that the laws of physics and chemistry are a constant and reliable circumstance. Perhaps He also wants to ensure that we don't lapse into a 'benefits' culture. If everything were available by miracle service, why would we ever work for a living.

Imagine a particular faith healer who had a reliable record of curing people. The scientists would be swarming all over him to investigate exactly how he worked the 'trick'. It would be Simon Magus all over again.

There will always be stories of miracles, but they will never be truly testable. A God who could be proved would require no faith. Sceptics will always be able to say 'there was insufficient evidence'. New Testament miracles were signs authenticating Jesus, just as Moses was given a shape-changing staff to prove his representative authority before Pharaoh. We have the Scripture; we have the Holy Spirit; we don't have authenticating miracles.

In the eighteenth century millions died from smallpox. Christians prayed to be free of this terrible scourge. God answered that prayer. He sent them Edward Jenner. He has also sent them thousands of scientists, physicians, nurses, radiographers, physiotherapists and pharmacists. The rate of cot-death has reduced remarkably by the simple expedient of lying the child on its back. Thousands of parents cried out in bafflement, "Why did God take my child?" It wasn't God to blame. We simply did not know better. At the time of the black death in London long-haired prophets saw it as a sign of the coming Apocalypse; yet the remedy was rat poison. Pious Dutch Calvinists saw smoking as a sign of a spiritual Christian; only the rebellious refused to smoke. They accepted their lung cancer and emphysema as God's will for them. God sent them Sir Richard Doll.

Even though I have never seen a healing miracle, I continue to pray for them. I never presume on one. I believe God is sovereign and He will have His way. Even in the years after Jesus' death Paul was well aware that prayer could not command relief from illness; Epaphroditus, Trophemus, Timothy and Paul himself were not miraculously healed despite their proximity to the resurrection. Paul's prayers were for the salvation of souls and their growth in grace. As for illness he was content with, "My grace is sufficient for you."


Anonymous said...

Thank you, Dr. Hamblin. It is so comforting to know that you continue to pray for healing.. At present time, being so well educated about our conditions, having all those tests and prognostic markers at out fingertips we are sometimes hesitant to pray for healing.. well, we know it is not going to happen according to our tests and statistics. But then.. that is what faith is about.. When my friends learned about my CLL a lot of them prayed with me, for me, my family.. asked God to give me strength and faith and comfort.. and it is good. I am so thankful to them. Only few prayed to God and asked for healing. And those prayers were the most comforting and brought peace and hope. I ask God to heal me every day.. sometimes I feel like I am selfish or even stupid.. but then I remember that He encouraged us to ask.. and to knock.. and to trust and have no fear. A great inspiration and encouragement to me is A. Solzhenitsyn, who had stage IV cancer in Gulag when he was young (his book "Cancer Ward"). He lived to be 90 and died peacefully at home on a summer Sunday, as he always wanted. When you have no hope of this material world and science and medicine and education.. all work against you.. that is when your faith is tested. That is when the spiritual and the material has to be separated. This is when we become like children who believe in miracles.. Isn't that what God wants us to be?

Anonymous said...

I am thankful our faith is based on a God who is capable of performing miracles. Our family has witnessed and experienced several miracles that medical science could not explain away. Most recently, our oldest daughter was diagnosed with pulmonary hypertension. She was given the prognosis of 3 years to live. This was documented by tests performed by two different doctors. All the while, we were praying and believing for a touch from our Father. She went to a third doctor who repeated testing. At the time, I was very ill in ICU. I prayed from my bed all day as I waited to talk to our daughter. The phone rang and there was sobbing on the other end of the line. The tests had been repeated and there was NO SIGN of pulmonary hyptertension. She and her husband said the doctor shrugged his shoulders and told them he could not explain the tests being normal except to attribute it to a modern day miracle. I wept so hard that day in ICU that my monitors went haywire. The nurses came running to my room to see what was wrong with me. And I replied, "Our family just received a miracle!"

God bless you and keep you, Dr. Hamblin.


Anonymous said...

I, too, believe in miracles. I have witnessed them. I was driving one day and a child on a bike darted in front of a truck. A collision was certain. I closed my eyes because I didn't want to see this child die. When I opened them a second later (I was driving at the time), this child was clear across the road, unharmed.

This was impossible. The child was on the right side of the road, and a second away from a crash. How did he get across the two-lane road in a second? I don't know, but I believe this was a miracle. I cannot prove it, but I experienced it and I know it happened.

I do not doubt now.