Studies in cognitive science have shown quite famously that effective medications are even more effective when the doctor takes the time to explain to the patient how the medicine is expected to work to make them better. Apparently, there is some considerable benefit to be had apart from the actual chemistry of the medicine at work in the body; it seems that the mind itself plays a role in healing, and that it does better when it has more information, clear expectations, and a hope that is based on knowledge.
This work of the mind becomes even more fascinating when we observe the famous “placebo effect”, whereby some appreciable percentage of patients who are given a fake medicine (called a “placebo“) get better anyway. Research shows that the placebo effect is increased when the doctor explains (which in this case is not true) to the patient how the (supposed) medicine is going to work to make the body better.
In either case—whether with the real medicine or with the placebo—many people get better. These facts are famous and are undisputed, and they show us something of the power of the human mind to help in healing the body.
So why am I writing about this on a Bible Investigation website?
I simply want to present a possibility for the reader’s consideration: Suppose that the practice of prayer had a similar effect when those prayers concern the improvement of the believer’s character. For example, suppose that Billy prays regularly for patience, while Joe never prays for patience. And let us suppose further, that Billy is also thinking about patience, and how good it is, and how it must be pleasing to God, and how he wants to be like certain patient people he knows about. Meanwhile, let us suppose that Joe doesn’t find patience to be a virtue and spends no time thinking about it.
The question is whether Billy’s high esteem for patience, along with this regular thinking about it, are likely to have any positive effect on his character. Yes, Billy is also praying about it, but even if God never did a think to answer his prayers, to strengthen his mental fortitude with more patience, shouldn’t we expect to see Billy improving simply from his own cognitive work?
I believe it’s quite natural that we would see an improvement, just as we would see an improvement in Billy’s math if he were studying every day. And this progress would be expected whether Billy were praying about math or not. The fact of the matter is that Billy is doing cognitive work on both subjects, patience and mathematics. And the natural result of cognitive work is that it reorders the way the mind thinks about things, as well as adding new information into the memory so that it can be recalled as needed.
As a result, the next time Billy encounters a math problem of the sort he has recently learned to handle, he will know how to handle it. And the next time that Billy encounters a situation in which he is tempted to be impatient, will he not be more apt to remind himself to be patient, just as he reminds himself in math to do things the right way?
I will write more about this in the future, taking the time to document the points I have made here, as well as to explore more about this. One of the ongoing questions I am researching is whether anything has changed (or was supposed to change) between life in the First Century ekklesia (“church”, in today’s vernacular) and today. Among the questions this further raises are questions about whether God now intercedes and intervenes as much as he seems to have done based upon the accounts in the New Testament.
While I have the general opinion that things have changed considerably in the last 2,000 years, I most certainly have difficulty in defining the true extent of those changes. Does God intervene less today? My answer to that question is, “It certainly seems so.” But when the question is qualitative, such as “How much less does God intervene today?” or “In what ways does God still intervene today?”, it becomes much more difficult to derive a responsible answer.
To add to this difficulty, many people are sure to proclaim that they themselves have witnessed God intervening in this way or that. Among these interventions, they will list their own experience with growth of character, claiming that it is attributed to the intervention of God. And this may well be true—or not. In fact, it is difficult to say with certainty. But if it were a regular feature of the life of all Christians that God intervenes to bolster their personal characters, then I believe it’s fairly obvious that we would see a lot more Christians of high character than are present in a typical sampling amongst the churches today. So it raises the question: “If God is intervening for character growth today, why is he not intervening more?”
This present article, therefore, simply demonstrates that there is a possibility that the growth in character of those Christians who are indeed growing could be coming from the cognitive work involved in prayer, rather than from intervention by God himself. Indeed, I would note that even the apostle Paul seems to have placed a high value on routine cognitive work when he wrote to the Philippians:
Philippians 4:8 Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things.
Isn’t it interesting that Paul did not tell them to pray about these things–but to mediate on them? What effect did Paul expect this to have? What change of character did he expect it would bring?
Even in the case of the inspired prophet Timothy, Paul also had some very practical cognitive advice:
1 Timothy 4:14 Do not neglect the gift that is in you, which was given to you by prophecy with the laying on of the hands of the eldership. 15 Meditate on these things; give yourself entirely to them, that your progress may be evident to all. 16 Take heed to yourself and to the doctrine. Continue in them, for in doing this you will save both yourself and those who hear you.
Why didn’t he instruct Timothy rather to “pray about these things”? Can we not reason that Paul believed there was edification to be gained from the deliberate cognitive work of meditation (thinking)?
Yes, yes, I know that the popular stance today is to believe that the Christian is but a low-down and helpless “worm” who is “desperately corrupt” in every way, and who could not possibly help himself in any good way. And yet here we have instances of an apostle instructing them to do cognitive work—apparently expecting them to come out the better for it. He could have instructed them to pray about it, but it doesn’t not seem that that was on his mind when he gave the directives. Rather, he seems to have considered the cognitive work to be just the ticket to meet their needs.
On that note, we see Peter (in the following passage) specifically addressing issues of character by advising the Christians as follows:
2 Peter 1:5 But also for this very reason, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue, to virtue knowledge, 6 to knowledge self-control, to self-control perseverance, to perseverance godliness, 7 to godliness brotherly kindness, and to brotherly kindness love. 8 For if these things are yours and abound, you will be neither barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.
They were instructed to “add”, with no mention of prayer being a necessary part of this “adding”. At the surface of this, it would seem that the business of increasing in character—which includes virtue, knowledge, self control, perseverance, godliness, brotherly kindness, and love—was considered the cognitive business of the Christian, whether God was also playing a role in it or not.
Here’s another example of instruction given to the Christians—this time from Hebrews:
Hebrews 13:5 Let your conduct be without covetousness; be content with such things as you have. For He Himself has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” 6 So we may boldly say:
“The Lord is my helper;
I will not fear.
What can man do to me?”
7 Remember those who rule over you, who have spoken the word of God to you, whose faith follow, considering the outcome of their conduct.
While counseling his audience about their “conduct”, the author does not instruct them to pray for better character, but instead, to do some cognitive work. They were to “be” content–and not to pray for contentment. They were to “remember” the good examples of others, and not to pray to be like those others. They were to “consider” how the lives of those others had turned out, rather than to pray that their lives would turn out similarly.
I know that these passages—and what may be observed about them—fly in the face of conventional Christian doctrine on the utter helplessness of the human species to do anything worthy, yet here we have several examples that make no apologies for instructing the believers to do certain cognitive tasks. And every one of these passages seems to assume that there will be some positive result of such cognitive work.
How is it any different today, therefore, if someone invests time in the cognitive work of focusing on such virtues and asking to be helped in achieving them? Yes, that’s not quite as strong as the more direct attitude of “adding” good things to one’s own character, but it’s a far cry from doing zero work, too! So when someone today spends time considering these virtues and desiring to attain to them, shall we opine that this has no practical value whatsoever in attaining them?
Of course it does.
Now, at the risk of being misunderstood, let me state plainly that I believe the Christians were taught to pray regularly, and about all manner of things. And while I find no passage that says “pray about the development of your character”, it is hard to imagine that they were ever instructed not to pray about such things. You can see for yourself what they were instructed to pray for in this listing of every instance of the word “pray” in the epistles (Romans through Revelation). See it here.
Could it be that the cognitive work of prayer has its own “healing” value, as with the medical healing that is done with drugs and with the cognitive therapy previously discussed? I believe this is highly likely. In fact, I believe that Christians are likely to get a lot further if they would not only pray about these things in some sort of passive way—“God, please come down here and transform me into a person of higher character”—but would actively go after doing the work of thinking, meditating, considering, emulating, and even “adding” things to their own character deliberately. Character is, after all, merely the collection of one’s habits–whether habits of action or of thought.
In fact, this all brings to mind the question of whether anyone is waiting on God to do a thing that God is waiting on the Christian to do. I note with interest that ChristianMingle.com has added to its television commercials some statement to this effect. It appears that the company has run into a lot of Christians who are passively waiting for God to supply them a mate—as if by magic. But the company does not profit from such passiveness, so they encourage people to be proactive, raising the possibility that maybe these folks are waiting on God to do something when God is actually waiting on them to do it instead.
I will resist the temptation at this juncture to get into the question of whether God arranges marriages, and will simply leave it at this: If we are intellectually honest, we can recognize the placebo effect at work in medicine and we can see that it would quite naturally carry over into matters of character. Further, we can see that several Bible authors directly called for cognitive work as part of the Christian routine. Even if Christians today have got themselves talked into the erroneous idea that the only thing a Christian can do to improve himself is to get God to do it for him, they might just be getting the benefits of the placebo effect by whatever cognitive work is involved in identifying what to pray for, and then actually praying for it.
And if it turns out that in reality, people are indeed capable of doing good things without God’s power and guidance in every jot and tittle, then it should come as no surprise to us to see that those who pray for greater character achieve it to some extent. One wonders what they would achieve if they understood that not all Christian work is the work of God, but that some of it is rightfully the work of the Christian!