Religion Quiz: So you think you know
What Americans pray for – and why it matters

by David Briggs

November 15, 2014

There is a touching scene in the new movie "Heaven is for Real" when congregation members one by one build a prayer chain as each learns the pastor’s son is seriously ill.

Even as the minister portrayed by Greg Kinnear confronts God in anger over his son’s suffering, his flock embraces prayer as an effective means to support and comfort his family.

Similar scenes are played out every day throughout the country, in settings both personal and public from informal prayer circles to online chat rooms to prayers of the faithful in synagogues, churches and mosques.

It is difficult to quantify whether intercessory prayer can physically heal illness. But new research is lending support to the idea that act of praying for others matters.

Consider these findings associating prayer with positive outcomes for others:

  • One national study found that people who were prayed for by someone close to them were the most optimistic about their future -- even though individuals receiving prayer were more likely to be facing adversity such as mental or physical health issues or unemployment. Having friends who are not family members pray for them was especially associated with high rates of optimism, according to the study analyzing data from the 2006 Portraits of American Life Study.
  • In a separate study of older adults, two waves of a national survey in 2005 and 2007 showed that the negative effect on depressive symptoms of living in a dilapidated neighborhood was significantly reduced for older people who believed others often pray for them. "The findings indicate that this uniquely religious form of helping behavior makes it easier for older people to cope with the problems they face," researcher Neal Krause of the University of Michigan wrote in an article in the Review of Religious Research.
  • Another study analyzing data from the 2008-09 U.S. Congregational Life Survey found worshipers who spend more time in private devotions were more likely to give a loan, care for the sick and to help someone find a job. "Prayer can connect us with others, and even help us identify with their suffering," stated researcher Jennifer McClure of Pennsylvania State University.

Praying for personal needs is still at the top of the list of the content of many conversations with the divine.

The vast majority of people who pray appeal a few times a week for the well-being of themselves and their families. And there are times divine pleas venture into areas many would consider frivolous: For example, about a quarter of sports fans have prayed for God to help their teams.

Prayer is also a communal act for most people, however. In services and on their own, many Americans pray for the good of others, for world peace and an end to poverty, for the hundreds of schoolgirls kidnapped in Nigeria and for the health of a congregation member with cancer.

The deeper people allow themselves to venture into dialogue with God, the more many experience divine love, some researchers have found.

And this intimate relationship with God seems to enable many people to cope not only with their own suffering, but to be sensitized to the need to alleviate the pain of others, according to researchers Matthew Lee and Margaret Poloma of the University of Akron and Stephen Post of the Institute for Research on Unlimited Love. Their book, "The Heart of Religion," shares the findings of the 2009 Godly Love National Survey, along with related research including interviews with more than 100 people of faith they considered exemplars of service to others.

Christian author Philip Yancey puts it another way: "When I pray for another person, I am praying for God to open my eyes so that I can see that person as God does, and then enter into the stream of love that God already directs toward that person."

The takeaway for religious individuals: Praying for others, and letting them know in a sincere manner that "my prayers are with you," can be a source of comfort and hope.

For religious groups, emphasizing the value of praying for others and promoting opportunities for intercessory prayer not only builds up the congregation, but can be a powerful force for sharing divine love with the larger community.

In prayer, as in life, no woman is an island.

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