Empirical Evidence Finds Prayer Improves Intimate Relationships

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The Story: New research finds that petitionary prayer can improve intimate relationships with a spouse or friend. Should Christians consider such empirical evidence useful?

The Background: Several researchers led by Frank Fincham at Florida State University’s Family Institute wanted to learn whether petitionary prayer (i.e., a prayer where you request something) for someone’s romantic partner or close friend has “any objectively measurable effects on couples.” According to a summary of the evidence by Thomas Burnett, an assistant director of public engagement for the John Templeton Foundation, “Praying daily for one’s partner has been linked to numerous positive outcomes: increased relationship satisfaction, greater trust, cooperation, forgiveness and marital commitment. Many of these benefits apply both to the prayer as well as the one being prayed for.”

“The power of petitionary prayer applies not only to romantic partners but to close friends as well,” Burnett adds. “For instance, in experiments with undergraduates, researchers found that those who had been assigned to pray regularly with a close friend showed greater levels of trust, compared to control groups. Multiple studies suggest a causal relationship, not just correlational. Partner-focused prayer apparently causes people to become more satisfied with their marriages.”

Why It Matters: There will be many people who read only the headline of this article or a description of it and claim, “We don’t need scientific research to tell us that.” (Think I’m kidding? Look at the comments on Facebook and Twitter when this article is posted on social media.) Are they right?

Yes and no.

No, most mature Christians—especially those who have been believers for decades—will not need to be told that praying for their spouse or close friend produces positive change. They have their own experience to confirm the validity of this claim. But some people may find comfort or encouragement from hearing that there is some form of empirical proof that prayer changes a marriage or friendship.

Are such people wrong to believe such studies are beneficial, either as an apologetic tool or in shoring up their own faith? For Christians, what constitutes a valid form of reason-giving?

In his book Why? Columbia University scholar Charles Tilly attempts to illuminate why we explain the way we do, or as reviewer Malcolm Gladwell says, to “make sense of our reasons for giving reasons.” In his intriguing review for The New Yorker, Gladwell outlines Tilly’s four general categories of reasons:

1. Conventions — conventionally accepted explanations.
2. Stories — specific accounts of cause and effect that limit the number of actors and actions and elevate the personal over the institutional.
3. Codes — high-level conventions, formulas that invoke sometimes abstruse procedural rules and categories.
4. Technical accounts — stories informed by specialized knowledge and authority.

Tilly contends that we tend to make two common errors when it comes to understanding reasons. The first is the assumption that some kinds of reasons are always better than others—that there is a hierarchy of reasons, with conventions (the least sophisticated) at the bottom and technical accounts at the top. The reasons people give aren’t a function of their character—that is, there aren’t people who always favor technical accounts and people who always favor stories. Rather, reasons arise out of situations and roles.

Often, we Christians find ourselves in situations in which our reasons are mocked by secularists because they don’t conform to the standards of a technical account. But too often we take the reverse approach when it comes to matters of the faith and assume that empirical evidence or confirmation is unnecessary—or even antithetical to our faith.

We should be careful not to let our own reason-giving biases and preferences put unnecessary burdens on others. Unless we have a specific warrant from Scripture to believe one specific form of reason-giving is superior in a given context, we should be open to using whatever best suits the needs of those who are trying to make sense of a claim or evidence.

Indeed more examination of our own “situations and roles” could lead us to a broader understanding of an issue we thought we had understood.

A scriptural example is found in the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10). When confronted by a religious expert who asks what must be done to inherit eternal life, Jesus turns the question back on his interlocutor by asking, “What is written in the law?” The theologian replies with a convention (“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”). When Jesus agrees, the expert asks, “And who is my neighbor?”

At this point, Jesus could have responded by offering a code, convention, or technical account as an explanation. Each of these would have appealed to the legalistic mind of his questioner. But in an artful move, Jesus replies by way of a narrative. He tells a story of a priest, a Levite, and a Samaritan and ends it with a question rooted in his parable: “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” When the legal expert replies (“The one who had mercy on him’) he finds that the narrative explanation has illuminated and expanded his understanding of a previous convention (“‘Love your neighbor as yourself.”).

Like the Jewish theologian in this story, we often expect explanations to take a form that we find most palatable. In debates and discussions we have a tendency to elevate our particular favorite, denigrate other categorical forms, or make stereotypical assumptions about the people who use them.

Examine, for instance, the popular perception of the way in which Christians compare our understanding of Scripture: Post/liberal-evangelicals prefer stories (i.e., narratives, testimony), Reformed theologians prefer codes (e.g., creeds), Baptist laymen opt for technical accounts (e.g., doctrinal statements). All of these styles have their place and can have valid uses. But we tend to latch onto one mode and feel most comfortable with others who subscribe to our preferred explanatory style.

Examples can be found for almost every subject that humans offer reasons and take sides. Proponents of abortion, Gladwell points out, often rely on a convention (a woman’s choice) and a technical account (concerning the viability of a fetus in the first trimester) while abortion opponents turn the fate of each individual fetus into a story: a life created and then abruptly terminated. Immigration offers another pattern, with some people giving more weight to convention (Illegal aliens are breaking the law) and others relying on story (“But my nanny is a hard-working”).

Once we become aware of our preferences, though, we can make an effort to be more open to understanding what roles and situations shape the reasons of those with whom we disagree. Reason-giving, Tilly says, reflects, establishes, repairs, and negotiates relationships. By being more receptive to our neighbor’s reasons for giving reasons, we could all become better Samaritans.

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