Prayer is a tricky thing. You know that God is sovereign, that He has predestined all things, and knows the words that you will speak even before you speak them. In light of this truth, you may develop an attitude that thinks prayer is irrelevant. Then, when a trial arises and you begin to fear, and prayer will become an exercise in worrying before God. Both of these attitudes are disobedient and result in disobedience because they flow from doubt and unbelief. The reality is that believing, fervent prayer is potent and necessary for obedience. It is a wonderful privilege.
Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much. Elias was a man subject to like passions as we are, and he prayed earnestly that it might not rain: and it rained not on the earth by the space of three years and six months. And he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain, and the earth brought forth her fruit. (James 5:16-18 KJV).
SUMMARY OF THE TEXT
A wooden translation of the beginning of verse 16 would be, “confess to one another the trespasses.” Which trespasses? The sense here is to confess to your brother the specific trespasses which you committed against him. The second thing we are to do, is pray for each other, so that we might be healed or cured. Prayer can do that? Yes, a righteous man’s effective prayer makes great things happen (v. 16). For example, Elijah, who had fingers, toes, and a human nature just like you, prayed earnestly, and his prayer changed the weather: it stopped the rain for three and a half years (v. 17). Then he prayed again, and rain and crops returned (v. 18).
A NATURE LIKE OURS
James knows that it is difficult to believe that prayer can accomplish things like healing, so he uses Elijah as example to increase your faith. Elijah was special. He did a variety of miracles which you have only ever seen repeated on a flannel board. He was taken up to heaven in a chariot of fire. And yet, James cites Elijah as an example you can and must imitate when it comes to prayer. Elijah was righteous in Christ, you are righteous in Christ. Elijah was human, and you are just as human. Elijah’s prayers caused things to happen that are impossible for us to do on our own, and James’ says you have that same privilege with God. If you have God’s ear just as Elijah did—and he changed the weather—is God able and willing to answer your prayers?
This is all very exciting, except that what James says may not match your experience. Perhaps you have tried the whole Elijah thing, and you have decided that it was just one of those interesting Bible times phenomena. If this is the case, consider a more modern example. Many know George Müller as the orphanage guy, but actually, one of the chief reasons Müller started the orphanage was to encourage men to trust in God. So often, believers would hesitate to be obedient because they were afraid of the consequences, and they didn’t believe their prayers availed much. In an effort, strengthen their faith and trust in God, Müller started an orphanage which grew to an immense size and neither he nor his staff ever asked for even so much as a penny from anyone except God. God faithfully provided for the orphanage year after year, decade after decade. He heard the effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man.
In the upper room discourse on the night before Jesus died, Jesus says that prayer is the means by which we will bring glory to the Father, bear lasting fruit, and have our joy made full (John 14:13, 15:16, 16:24). Jesus doesn’t just give instruction on the blessing and privilege of prayer, Jesus commands His disciples to ask. You are commanded to pray and to trust; this privilege is God’s gift to you.
What does an effective, earnest, fervent prayer look like? Effective means it really changes things, earnest means serious, and fervent means burning. Prayers that would not fit into this category are prayers forgotten the moment the words leave your lips, or spoken without your mind engaged; prayers made with a doubting heart; and prayers offered up along with unrepentant sin.
No, an effective and burning prayer seeks God’s glory and as such it is directly connected to obedience. Elijah’s prayer for a drought showed that YHWH’s power was greater than that of Baal, the storm god. When Elijah told Ahab the rain was going to come, he was showing that YHWH is the God who brings rain and fruitfulness.
Ernest prayer is persistent, and overflows from a lifestyle of prayer. Elijah prayed three times to raise the widow’s son, and he prayed seven times for the rain to start and each time, he checked for the answer with expectation. (1 Kings 17:21, 18:43). This isn’t vain repetition—this is fervency—this is waiting for God like the watchman waits for the morning. Elijah prayed one short simple prayer when God answered with fire from heaven on the sacrifice (1 Kings 18:36).
Effective and fervent prayer also includes risk and moves to action. Elijah’s prayers were specific and put both his and God’s reputation on the line. Elijah’s obedience was tied directly to his prayers. He poured water on the sacrifice and predicted the rain before he prayed. He had skin in the game.
You have been given the gift of prayer. You have a general understanding of what it should look like. But how do you get started? What if you mess it up? What if God still says no? Imagine for a moment that God just gives you what you ask like the wishes given by a genie. This by itself could be a really scary thing. Thankfully, God knows that you might ask for bad things, and He loves you enough not to give it to you. So, don’t worry if you pray badly. God will say no. Then you learn something! At least what not to ask for, and what to ask for next time.
Practically, start by praying specifically, do what is in your power to further your request, check your motives, ask God to show you any sin that needs to be confessed and forsaken, and then look with expectant hope for the answer. For example, we are commanded to love our enemies and pray for them (Matt 5:44). It is wildly easier to love someone you are bitter toward if you have been praying for him.
Ask for things you have been promised in the Scriptures. Look for what God would have in a specific situation and pray that. If there is a Scriptural promise (like the prayer for wisdom in James 1) pray it with confidence. Pray the Psalms. Pray the Lord’s Prayer. Once you start looking, you will find that there are so many wonderful things that you are given to pray. Know that you will have what you asked for. Praying the Scriptures is so helpful as you get started because they include the most important things to pray for. But what about things that are not in the Scriptures? Like recovery from a grievous illness? In this case, pray for things that are both consistent with God’s character and which He has put on your heart—for things He has given you the faith to ask for. Here it is especially important to pray specifically so that you can actually tell if they were answered. This is part of learning to pray.
Prayer is like any other spiritual discipline in that it takes practice to do it well. Babies are limited in their abilities to give thanks well. Grow up in the discipline of prayer that you may thank and praise your God better each day. Don’t be discouraged or give up. James used the example of Elijah to inspire you. God does not tell us when or how He will answer, but trust that you have His ear. Trust that He has commanded you to ask, and that He is faithful. If you ever tempted to doubt God’s power to be able to perform your prayer, remember that He raised Jesus from the dead. If you are ever tempted to doubt His willingness, remember that He sent Jesus to die for your sins. “…they that seek the Lord shall not want any good thing.” (Ps 34:10).