“This Is Your Brain on Prayer” James 5:13-20 9/30/2018
Years ago, the Partnership for a Drug-Free America launched an anti-drug campaign with a simple, but compelling, television ad. A man holds up an egg and says, “This is your brain.” Then he motions to a frying pan and says, “This is drugs.” He cracks open the egg, fries the contents, and says, “This is your brain on drugs.” Finally, he looks at the camera and asks, “Any questions?”
Scientific studies of all sorts have shown throughout years that what we smoke, eat and drink can clearly have an effect on our brain. No surprise there. But how about what we pray? What happens to a brain on prayer?
In his letter to a group of Christians outside of Palestine, James calls for prayer when people are suffering, cheerful and sick, promising that “the prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective” (v. 16). James is convinced that prayer can have a significant effect on our brain, body, heart and soul — in bad times and in good times. And today, medical researchers are finally catching up with him.
Dr. Andrew Newberg has been studying the effect of prayer on the brain for more than 20 years.
- He injects radioactive dye into people, and then looks for changes in their heads when they pray.
- He does not claim that prayer is a cure-all, but he believes that it can be every bit as important as science in helping patients to heal.
Dr. Newberg will point to a computer screen that shows brain activity & say, “You can see it’s all red here when the person is just at rest, but you see it turns into these yellow colors when she’s actually doing prayer.” Without prayer, your brain is red — a hot and inflammatory color — and with prayer, your brain is yellow.
Such changes cause Dr. Newberg to believe that prayer has the power to heal.
He suggests that “by doing these practices, you can cause a lot of different changes all the way throughout the body, which could have a healing effect.”
Back in the first century, James had the same belief. James asks “Are any among you sick?” They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven” (vv. 14-15).
Prayer is powerful, says James. Powerful and effective (v. 16).
Of course, not everyone believes this.
Dr. Richard Sloan, the author of a book called Blind Faith: The Unholy Alliance of Religion and Medicine, agrees that the brain is going to change during prayer, but he sees no proof that these changes lead to healing. “Your brain changes when you eat chocolate,” he says. “There’s nothing special about showing brain changes when people pray.”
Sure, says Dr. Sloan, religion can provide comfort to believers during times of stress. But he warns that we shouldn’t treat religion “like some sort of cosmic vending machine in which you can deposit a coin to get a health benefit.”
Dr. Sloan has a point, but here’s the funny thing: Almost nobody treats religion like a cosmic vending machine. The vast majority of Christians agree with Dr. Newberg, the one who injected radioactive dye into people and studied their brains as they prayed. He believes that medicine and prayer can & should work hand in hand.
Prayer is “not a cure for cancer,” Dr. Newberg writes. “It is not going to cure somebody of heart disease. We can’t tell people to pray in order to get better — that doesn’t really make sense. The reason that prayer works is because it is part of the person’s belief system.”
So how does prayer actually work? What makes it powerful and effective? The power of prayer is not that it changes disease but that it changes us — the people who pray. As C.S. Lewis said, Prayer doesn’t change God; it changes me!
When Dr. Newberg studied a group of Franciscan nuns who joined together in meditative prayer, he discovered that the area of the brain associated with the sense of self began to “shut down.” He saw that in this type of prayer “you become connected to God. You become connected to the world. Your self sort of goes away.”
Connection to God. Connection to the world around you. Loss of self.
That’s real change and true healing. As James writes to his fellow Christians, “The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up” (v. 15).
Prayer does not always lead to a cure, but it saves the sick by raising them into the presence of God.
According to an article published in the British Journal of Health Psychology, praying can reduce a person’s risk of developing depression and anxiety. The study also found that a person can have a higher probability of being positive and less depressed if they prayed at a place of worship.
Others studies have shown that the practice of praying has revealed many benefits to the functioning of a person’s heart.
- Praying is known to speed up the recovery of the heart after a heart attack and surgery.
- In addition, praying also helps regulate a person’s heartbeat, making it stronger and less stressed.
Prayer changes the people who pray, making them more peaceful, accepting and aligned with their Christian convictions. Your brain on prayer may not kill cancer cells, or convince God to cure you of your heart disease, but it might make you better able to face and to overcome your health challenges.
One of the most well-known modern prayers is the Serenity Prayer, central to the recovery from addiction being achieved in thousands of 12-step groups: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”
This prayer was written by theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr as part of a longer prayer.
Notice that God is not asked in this prayer to heal anyone miraculously. Instead, God is being asked to give serenity (calmness, peacefulness), courage and wisdom to people so that they can become well and live life more fully.
And since part of the healing process for many of us is going to include forgiveness, there needs to be an opportunity for honest confession and pardon. This is why the letter of James says, “Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed” (v. 16).
Confession. Forgiveness. Prayer for others. Healing.
Each has a role to play in the prayer of faith which saves the sick.
The Serenity Prayer is recited in 12-step groups across our country and throughout the world, and the result has been sobriety for millions of people. In each of these groups, the Serenity Prayer is said in order to change the hearts and minds of people, not God. People who pray for serenity, courage and wisdom will find their prayers answered, and will be given the help and courage they need.
Eileen Flanagan, who has written a book on the Serenity Prayer called The Wisdom to Know the Difference, quotes a study which found that wise people “are able to step outside themselves and assess a troubling situation with calm reflection. They recast a crisis as a problem to be addressed, a puzzle to be solved. They take action in situations they can control, and accept the inability to do so when matters are outside their control.”
Prayer helps us to step outside ourselves, assess troubling situations, and take action when we can. Prayer can also help us to accept the inability to act when situations are outside our control. Prayer aligns us with the will of God for healing and wholeness in human life, even when we are facing a terminal illness.
Remember, as James writes, “The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven” (v. 15).
Each of us will die of something, eventually. It could be cancer or heart disease, a bad accident or a tired old body. Good health and physical fitness only delays the inevitable. But this does not mean that we should not pray for God to save us, to raise us up and to forgive our sins.
Prayer can heal us, even when it doesn’t cure us of our illness.
Prayer changes our brains and it changes the rest of us as well, turning us into people who get outside of ourselves to form deeper connections with God and with the people around us.
Prayer is powerful and effective because it gives us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, courage to change the things we can and wisdom to know the difference.
Prayer also gives us the opportunity to confess our sins and receive forgiveness, freeing us from the guilt and regret that can eat us up like a cancer.
So let’s re-imagine the old anti-drug commercial. “This is your brain,” says the man. “This is prayer.” Put the two together, and the result is not a fried egg.
Instead, it’s a person who is healed and made whole. Saved, raised and forgiven.
Any questions? Amen
@Rev. Tim Wolbrecht, September, 2018
Here’s the audio recording of the sermon. TO LISTEN, in the SoundCloud window below, CLICK (or double-Click) the red button with the white arrow pointing to the right. If that does not work, then click on the “Sermon 9-30-18” name of the sermon.