How to pray powerfully

Three guidelines for effective prayer

Prayer does not come very naturally to me. I confess that the cause of most of my prayer is not a sense that I want to pray, but that I should pray. My petitions often lack conviction.

Part of the problem is cynical scepticism. Does prayer make sense? Does prayer make a difference? These were our questions last week and we saw how Scripture teaches that God genuinely responds to our requests with action. Exactly how he does that is a mystery that extends far beyond prayer.

We turn now from theory to practice. Prayer is, after all, a practice. “Unanswered” prayer is a practical problem – a deeply personal one.

Lately, this problem has weighed on me particularly heavily. For several years my wife has endured serious health issues. Every uncertain scan, complication in surgery and unpredictable worsening of symptoms feels like an unanswered prayer.

Is every “unanswered” prayer the result of unfaithful praying?

Perhaps the impotence of my prayer is cyclical. I pray without conviction, without watching for answers, and conclude that prayer is unreliable. So I pray with less conviction next time, and the downward spiral continues. But is every “unanswered” prayer the result of unfaithful praying?

Last week we determined that prayer really can make a difference. This week we ask whether some prayers are more likely to make a difference than others.

James 5:13-20

The apostle James provides a profound instruction concerning prayer. Although it is a tricky passage, we do not need to agree on the details to see the point.

“Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.

Elijah was a human being, even as we are. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops.”

To the one enduring trouble of any kind, James says, “Pray.”

Immediately, it is worth noticing and imitating James’ first words. To the one enduring trouble of any kind, James says, “Pray.” The NIV translators opt for inclusive language, slightly obscuring the fact that the instruction is to the individual who is suffering. The ESV translates it more literally, “Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray.”

James does not specify what this person should pray. That is a question worth pondering: for what should we pray when we suffer?

What is clear is that we should, as James does, not only pray for those who are suffering but also encourage them to pray!

Going beyond this, I think James’ instructions offer three guidelines for us to pray effectively for others.

1.    Effective prayer is full of faith

James envisions a member of the church who is sick, possibly too sick to join the congregation. Thinking of a sickbed explains why the elders are called, why they pray “over” the person and why James says the Lord will “raise up” the sick person.

For now, let’s focus on the description of the elders’ prayer: it is a prayer of faith. Exactly what this means is not obvious. But it turns out that both healing and prayer are often linked to faith in the New Testament.

James says elsewhere that apart from faith we should not expect to receive anything from the Lord (1:6-8). Jesus encountered a woman who had been subject to bleeding for 12 years (Mark 5) and later, a blind man (Mark 10). After he had healed them, he told them both, “Your faith has healed you.”

In fact, our passage in James seems to indicate that it is not only the faith of the sick person which brings about healing through prayer but also the faith of the elders. In the same way, when some men brought to Jesus a paralysed man, he saw their faith and not only healed the man’s legs but forgave his sins. James echoes these words of Jesus when he says that a sick person brought before the Lord in faith will be made well.

The elephant in the room

Here we must return to an uncomfortable question: if the prayer of faith will heal the sick person, then is continuing sickness evidence of insufficient faith?

The question is complex, but it seems the answer is often no.

Jesus actively spoke against the conflation of sickness with insufficiency on the part of the sick person (e.g. John 9:2-3). The book of Job also provides a powerful answer to this question.

There are many potential reasons why this passage does not promise healing in quite the way it initially seems, a couple of which are worth considering now.

What is clear is that effective prayer is prayer offered in faith.

First, the word translated “make well” means both “heal” and “save”. It is possible James has a combination of physical and spiritual wellbeing in mind. In the same way, Jesus first saved the paralytic man from his sins, then healed him.

Second, it is not exactly clear what James means by “the prayer of faith will make the sick person well.” It is a matter of debate exactly how much certainty the future tense conveys. Does James mean that there is a kind of prayer that will always make the sick person well? Or does he mean that prayer offered in faith really can and will make the sick person well … sometimes. I don’t know. What is clear is that effective prayer is prayer offered in faith.

2.    Effective prayer is persistent

James concludes his instructions by stating the principle that the prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective. To illustrate effective prayer, he refers to Elijah. “He prayed earnestly and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops.”

By the time James wrote, Elijah had a reputation among Jews for powerful prayer. At his prayer, the Lord literally raised the dead (1 Kings 17:22).

Here, James condenses a longer story. After Elijah hears that the Lord will soon send rain, he challenges the prophets of Baal to a showdown that sees him pour out 12 jars of water amidst a years-long drought in an act of overflowing faith. Once the God of Israel is victorious, Elijah heads up a mountain.

There, Elijah repeatedly sends his servant to look out over the sea. Each time the servant returns, saying, “I see nothing.” Finally, the seventh time, the servant sees a tiny cloud.

Persistence in prayer does not need to be spontaneous. Jesus himself likely prayed several regular times each day, along with his Jewish community, although certainly not only at these times, and at least once his prayer began at night and ended in the morning!

What would it look like for you, in your community, to set up patterns of persistent prayer?

Whatever the method, James exhorts God’s people to pray like Elijah did: to “pray earnestly”, believing that God will be faithful, even when we cannot yet see his provision.

3.    Effective prayer is the prayer of a righteous person

But I am no Elijah! How can James compare each of us to one of the greatest prophets in Israel’s history, celebrated for the power of his prayer? It is all well and good that “the prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.” But what about me?

James is careful to point out that Elijah was a human being with a nature just like ours. The point of this reference is not to bring the potential for powerful prayer up to Elijah, but down to us.

The power for healing is not in the elders, nor even in prayer, but in God.

Whether it is the prayer of the church elders, of Elijah, or of you and me, it is the same Lord who raises the sick and sends the rain. When Jesus says, “Your faith has healed you,” what he means is that faith in him brings healing. Faith heals because it brings us to the great physician (Mark 2:17). The power for healing is not in the elders, nor even in prayer, but in God.

So when James says that the prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective, he means not the sinless (in that case Elijah would not qualify), but all who are in Christ and who seek to do the will of God. In his commentary on the passage, Dan McCartney writes, “Those who do God’s will are exhorted to pray as Elijah did, with fervency, and they too can bring healing, both physical and spiritual, to the community.”

According to James, when is prayer effective? When God’s people genuinely entrust their issues to God, wait expectantly for him to be faithful and persist even when they cannot yet see his provision. The faithful, persistent prayer of God’s people has power to heal because it brings us to the one who has all power to heal.