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Editorial: #PrayerWorks?


Can we be honest for a moment? The Seventh-day Adventist Church has a serious problem with confirmation bias—the tendency to seek out or interpret data in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions, which in turn leads to statistical errors.

Take the age of the earth. The leaders of the denomination are doubling down on the belief that our Earth is somewhere between six and ten thousand years old. Because of Adventism’s entrenchment in a short chronological framework, no matter how many contrary data points scientists provide, long chronologies will always necessarily be suspect. Consequently, many (though not all) Adventist scientists follow data that suggest a short chronology to the conscious exclusion of contradictory data. This is not unlike the few remaining climate change deniers who refuse to accept mountainous evidence that not only is anthropogenic climate change real, it is also a crisis with disastrous consequences for life as we know it on this planet.

Or consider the Adventist Health Message. Vegetarianism and abstaining from alcohol are cornerstones of Ellen White’s counsels on health. Dan Buettner’s “The Blue Zones,” noting the remarkable longevity of Adventists in Loma Linda, provided precisely the confirmation Adventists always knew would come, and the Church touted Buettner’s work with National Geographic as proof of the efficacy of the Health Message. The only problem is that Buettner’s study groups also included long-lived populations in which regular, moderate meat consumption was the norm (particularly pork), and where moderate wine consumption was correlated with longevity. Adventists rarely, if ever, mention those aberrations from Sister White’s counsels.

Ditto coffee and black pepper—substances forbidden for regular consumption (again by Ellen White) because of their purported health risks, though studies have demonstrated that both coffee and pepper have beneficial properties and are not correlated with health risks when used in moderation.

In every case, the introduction of inspired writing creates a situation that requires prioritizing some data and ignoring (or seeking to debunk) other data.

Our proclivity for seeking out data, or interpreting data in ways that confirm our communal beliefs is problematic, in part because it requires that we be disingenuous—that we ignore data that disconfirms our beliefs. That leads to unnecessary cognitive dissonance for young members of our community especially, when they find out that some of our teachings are based on only part of the story. (Sorry to say, James Standish, this probably has a lot more to do with why people leave the church than their media consumption does.)

The larger problem with confirmation-biased beliefs is the spiritual damage that happens to people who believe. Think of our teachings on prayer.

I’ve been shocked (though I suspect long-serving pastors and hospital chaplains wouldn’t be) by the frequency of tragic, often fatal incidents that have occurred in recent months. Spectrum has published articles about Kimberly Andreu, Madison Baird, Heather Boulais, and Akim Zhigankov, all college-age Adventists whose stories took unexpected, terrible turns. Then there was the devastating story of California musician and worship leader Chris Picco who lost both his wife and his prematurely-born child in the span of a few days.

In those tragedies, prayer was the immediate response from the Adventist community—prayers for healing, prayers for comfort, prayers for life.

During the SONscreen film festival this past weekend on the campus of La Sierra University, one student film caught my attention.

“A Visual Prayer for Drew Forsey,” is a beautifully shot, one minute meditation, created by Southern Adventist University student Dillan Forsey, whose brother was involved in a very serious bicycle accident and suffered a severe brain injury.

Father, we raise broken praise to you, our great God, the all-powerful Healer who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine because of love.  So we boldly approach your throne in Jesus’ name to request physical healing–that bodily brokenness be banished. But more importantly, Father, we humbly ask for spiritual healing. Help thou our unbelief. We can’t connect the dots with what little we can see. So to your eternal view, we surrender so that your glory and your holy name are lifted up in this, our fragmented condition. Unite us as a family of faith, hope, and love.”

The video, as a work of art, is gorgeous and moving. It also illustrates the challenge inherent in the idea that “prayer works.”

Like so many prayers do, it starts with a bold request for healing, then immediately walks back that boldness with the words, “But more importantly, Father, we humbly ask for spiritual healing.”

We’ve learned that praying for an occurrence that can be observed and verified is risky, and so we abandon boldness in favor of a far less audacious spiritual answer to prayer, which isn’t subject to observation or verification.

When Akim Zhigankov died unexpectedly in the Philippines, his friend Aimee Grace Tapeceria wrote in a column published by the Adventist Review,

No one thought that death would be the result of our intense prayers since the news emerged just days earlier that Akim Zhigankov had fallen seriously ill.  […] Prayers circled the globe as word spread home to Russia and to other parts of the world. Prayer appeals were posted across social media, including on the Facebook pages of Adventist Review and Adventist World. No expected that God would choose to answer our prayers differently from what we expected.

If we’re being truthful with the data (that is, the evidence of reality as it presents itself), prayer doesn’t work. At least, not in the way that Hope Channel’s “Prayer Works” online prayer request form invites us to believe it does.

Screen capture of the landing page for, a ministry of Hope Channel.

The clear expectation from Hope Channel and other Adventist leaders and laity is that when we pray, God will act on our behalf and give us what we ask for if we have faith. After all, our inspired writings say so.

Again, the introduction of inspired writing creates a situation that requires prioritizing some data and ignoring (or seeking to explain) other data. And, of course, there are times when people pray and health returns, lives are spared, prayers, seemingly, are answered. There are also the stories of Maddy Baird, Akim Zhigankov and Chris Picco (to name just a few), and we cannot construct a coherent belief about prayer while excluding their stories.

For every time people pray and healing occurs, there is another instance in which healing doesn’t occur. There are countless instances in which people don’t pray and healing does occur, as well as occasions when people do not pray, and healing does not occur. A responsible doctrine and practice of prayer must account for the totality of those lived experiences, not cherry-pick one experience out of four as justification for the hashtag, #PrayerWorks.

What would we lose if we stopped using that phrase? What would we gain?

What if we no longer selected experiences that confirm our beliefs and called that “faith,” and instead leveled with one another about reality as it presents itself to us?

It feels callous to say prayer doesn’t work, but if feels even more callous to tell grieving mothers, fathers, friends, and spouses that it does.


Dillan Forsey recently posted an update on his brother’s progress, noting that Drew has come a long way in rehabilitative therapy and is hoping to ride again. The family has launched an online fundraiser for a new recumbent cycle so that Drew can return to his love of cycling.

If prayer is an expression of the deepest longings of our hearts, directed heavenward, and if those longings, articulated together as a community lead us to acts of compassion, solidarity, comforting, and healing, then prayer accomplishes its most important work.

The fundraiser put on by Union College nursing students for Heather Boulais’ medical costs is an example.

The people who have contributed to buy Drew Forsey a new recumbent cycle provide another.

Like no act of which humans are capable, prayer should compel us to deal honestly with the facts of our lived experiences—all of them, and it should lead us to be participatory agents of grace in this world.

Jared Wright is Managing Editor of

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