READ : James 5:16-18
When what you want most is for God to be honored and served, there are no limits to the power of your praying.
Have you ever heard people make claims for the power of prayer that seemed exaggerated to you? I have. The impression is sometimes given that any person, praying about anything, can achieve amazing results. That kind of sweeping claim can hardly be supported from Scripture or from common experience.
Prayer is not magic. It’s not a sure-fire formula that anyone can take up to immediate advantage. In fact, a great deal of prayer, so-called, may have little religious meaning and no significant effects. Our prayers may sometimes be what Jesus called “vain repetition,” empty reciting of words.
God sometimes said to his own people through the prophets that their prayers had become an abomination to him. “When you spread forth your hands,” Isaiah says, “I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood” (Isa. 1:15). That’s hardly a guarantee, is it, that prayer will always “change things”?
What the Bible does teach plainly, however, is that a certain kind of person, praying in a certain way, can affect to an astonishing degree what happens in this world. Listen to these words from James, chapter 5, beginning at verse 16:
The prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects. Elijah was a man of like nature with ourselves and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again and the heaven gave rain, and the earth brought forth its fruit.
Now look carefully with me at the person who did the praying, the way he prayed, and the effects that followed.
The Praying Man
The man singled out here as a model is Elijah the Tishbite, greatest of all the Old Testament prophets. He, for James, is an outstanding example of “a righteous man.” What can that phrase mean? When we study the Scriptures carefully, we discover that no one of us, not even Elijah, can qualify as righteous on the basis of his own character and conduct. The psalmist tells us that “God looks down from heaven upon the sons of men to see if there are any that are wise, that seek after God” (Ps. 53:2). The result of that survey is, “They have all fallen away . . . there is none that does good, no, not one” (v. 31). The apostle Paul picks up that thought and amplifies it. “All people, both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin.” If then, to pray effectively we have to be righteous in the sense that we always do right, none of us can qualify.
James obviously doesn’t mean that. He implies that a number of people can be called “righteous,” of whom Elijah is one. How can the unrighteous be called, in God’s book, “righteous”? That is the central mystery of the gospel, the marvelous provision that God has made in the gift of Christ. Jesus of Nazareth, God’s incarnate Son, was the only one who ever lived a truly righteous life in this world. He, the just one, came to die for us, the unjust. He, the sinless one, bore the weight of our sins. He, the innocent, felt the stroke which we, the guilty, deserve. When we rely on him as our Savior, God accepts us as righteous in his sight. Isn’t that wonderful?
That was true for the Old Testament believers who believed in God’s promise to send a redeemer. Remember those great words about Abraham, how he “believed God and it was accounted to him for righteousness”? (James 2:23). If we are righteous people today, our righteousness is not in ourselves but in Christ. It is, in the words of the apostle, “the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe” (Rom. 3:22). It can be yours now if you will trust the Savior and commit yourself to him. Right now you can do that in a simple prayer of acceptance.
Elijah, then, was a righteous man, not because he was perfect or sinless but because he trusted in God’s covenant promises. He relied on God’s saving mercy. And, in response to God’s grace, he sought to live an obedient and grateful life.
But surely Elijah was a special case, an extraordinary kind of believer. What towering faith this man had, to believe God for unheard-of things! What magnificent courage he showed in standing alone against the king and all his hired prophets! What dramatic encounters with God he had during his turbulent career as a prophet! All that’s true, and yet it doesn’t put Elijah in a class by himself.
James is aware of our tendency to put past heroes of the faith on a pedestal, to see them “haloed,” as it were, with supersanctity, and ourselves as hopelessly below them. He reminds us that Elijah was a man “of like passions as we are.” Great as he was, this Tishbite was thoroughly human. He could be furiously angry. He could be filled with scorn and contempt. He could mock his enemies with bitter sarcasm. He could be despondent and give way to self-pity. He could be lonely, weary, and prone to complain. Like so many of us, he could go in a matter of minutes from the mountaintop of elation to the valley of despair. He was no stained-glass saint, but a fellow struggler.
How He Prayed
Well, what was his praying like? The first thing we note is that he prayed about very practical, earthly matters. He asked for signs of God’s power in the natural order, like fire from heaven to consume a sacrifice. When the people of God had become wayward and idolatrous, he prayed for a long drought upon their land. Then, when the day of their repentance and restoration came, he prayed for rain.
Sometimes conscientious people are troubled about such requests, wondering if they are worthy or even legitimate for the people of God to ask. They have been told, perhaps, that they should limit their petitions to “spiritual” matters and not expect God to interfere at their bidding with the order of his creation. But that’s a way of thinking foreign to the Bible. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus, is the Lord of all creation. His action isn’t confined to some shadowy spiritual realm. It’s no harder for him to alter weather conditions than it is to change a human heart. In fact, the latter is much more difficult. The God who can accomplish the supreme miracle of quickening a dead soul can surely send rain as he pleases upon a barren earth. There is nothing too hard for the Lord, and those who know him do not hesitate to ask him down-to-earth, day-by-day blessings.
Needless to say, however, not all prayers for a change in the weather are answered. What a chaotic world this would be if they were! Sometimes our prayers for daily benefits never get beyond the trivial. They are simply expressions of a narrow self-seeking turned toward heaven.
But Elijah’s prayers for drought and downpour were not expressions of personal whim, nor was he out to demonstrate what a powerful man he was. Those practical prayers arose from a heart burdened for God’s cause and kingdom. Elijah saw his people forsaking the God of their fathers. He saw them about to forfeit their whole destiny as a chosen race. He looked on in anguish while idolatry did its dehumanizing work among them. His heart was broken. He yearned to see God restore Israel. And that’s why he rose from prayer one day to thunder at King Ahab, “As the Lord God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word” (1 Kings 17:1).
When we hear Elijah praying on Mount Carmel, we understand the motives that mastered him.
O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, and that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your word. Answer me, O Lord, answer me, that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.
1 Kings 18:36-37
There it is. Elijah prayed for practical things like healing, daily bread, rain from heaven, but he did it out of zeal for God. Remember how Jesus called his followers to pray first for God’s name to be hallowed, for his kingdom to come, for his will to be done, and then to offer petition for their own needs and those of others? That’s always the spirit of true prayer. Those who engage in it see everything in the context of God’s cause. All they ask is ultimately “for his name’s sake.”
But James adds something else about Elijah’s praying. He says literally: “with prayer, he prayed.” Or perhaps better: “he prayed in his prayers.” James is expressing here in a kind of Hebrew idiom the fervency, the passion with which the prophet appealed to God. Whenever we see Elijah, he’s gripped by some kind of passion, whether it’s anger at Ahab or scorn at the priests of Baal, whether it’s fury against idolatry or despondency under a juniper tree. He’s a man who lives and feels intensely, and that’s the way he prays. All the ardor of his being goes into that plea for God’s glory.
It’s a question to ask of ourselves: Do we “pray” in our prayers? We may know the proper petitions and the accepted phrases in which to couch them. We may pray with fluency or with taste and refinement. But do we pray in our prayers? Do we pour our whole souls into them? Is prayer for us the vent through which the burning eagerness of a whole life finds expression? Such were the petitions of God’s man, Elijah.
What about the results? Beyond all human expectation! One man’s prayers, followed by an almost interminable dry season! The same man prays again and the heavens become black with clouds! Rain comes to renew the earth! It seems that the prophet’s prayers can open and shut heaven. They can bring fire or flood. They can destroy or revive. “The prayer of a righteous man,” writes James, “has great power in its effects.”
But is such prayer, even from saints like Elijah, always answered? Does the prayer of faith, for example, heal the sick in every case? Are God’s praying servants always vindicated in the struggle here between faith and unbelief? Do the heavens always send rain when godly hearts unite to pray?
The answer, of course, is no. Sometimes afflicted ones die even as prayer rises on their behalf. Sometimes God’s choicest followers are humiliated and martyred. Sometimes aching needs go unmet for years and years. But the promise remains. When those who trust in Jesus Christ pray passionately for the things that concern his kingdom, the power of God is put forth.
We may not always see the fire when it falls or hear the sound of the rain. The healing we seek may tarry till resurrection morning. But when finally the scaffolding is removed and the glory of the Lord revealed, when we finally see things as they are and understand the moving forces of history, we will know that the prayers of God’s faithful people have accomplished more than we have ever dreamed. Because God is a faithful Father, because his word is utterly reliable, because he calls us to pray, the prayers of his servants will always, always have great power in their effects. Believe that, lift up your hearts, and keep on praying!