Sometimes we pray for a loved one who is ill and the person gets better. Other times we pray and things get worse. It seems that God grants some prayer requests and ignores others. Why? James has already mentioned one reason: “when you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives” (4:3). Our requests are sometimes denied because our intentions are selfish. God does not simply hear our pleas; he considers our motives. James revisits the subject at the end of his letter and gives us the dual key to an effective prayer life: righteousness and persistence.
Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will make the sick well, and the Lord will raise them up. And anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective. Elijah was a human being just like us, and yet when he prayed earnestly that it might not rain, no rain fell for three years and six months. Then he prayed again, and the sky sent down rain and the earth produced its crops.
The specific application here is to prayers for healing, but the principles of persistence and righteousness are relevant to all prayers. James uses Elijah, one of the most powerful prophets of the Old Testament, as his example. The Book of Kings recounts how Elijah defeated the king of Israel with one weapon–prayer. He told King Ahab, “there will be no dew or rain during the next few years until I give the word,” and there was drought for three and a half years. The prophet’s attitude toward prayer is revealed after the Lord instructed him to tell the king the drought would soon end. Ahab went out to celebrate, but Elijah got on his knees and continued to pray. Time and again he sent his servant to check the sky for clouds, and when none were reported, Elijah went right back to praying. After seven prayer sessions, the prophet’s perseverance was rewarded and God sent the rain.
James points to Elijah and encourages us to be persistent. Then he mentions the second component of effective prayer–righteousness. Verse 16 says it is the prayer of a “righteous person” that is “powerful and effective.” James uses the same prophet as his example, and Elijah helps us understand what it means to be “righteous.” On the one hand, Elijah did some amazing things. 1 Kings 17–19 gives us the backstory: the prophet prays over a dead child and the child revives; he rebukes the king to his face; he prays for drought, and it stops raining for more than three years; he defeats 450 prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel and calls down fire from heaven; he prays again and ends the drought; and last but not least, he never dies–a fiery chariot drops from heaven and whisks him away to eternity.
It is easy to read stories like those and come away thinking people like Elijah are superhuman. But James, knowing our tendency to put our heroes on pedestals, reminds us in verse 17, “Elijah was a human being just like us.” The Book of 1 Kings not only recounts the heroic deeds of Elijah; it also narrates his failures. After the prophet destroyed the Baal worshippers on Mount Carmel, he ran away in fear of Queen Jezebel. Why? Because he was human, just like us. Elijah fled into the wilderness, became discouraged, and pleaded with God to kill him. Why? Because he was human, just like us. But God didn’t kill Elijah; he fed and encouraged him. And did Elijah did go forward with renewed dedication? No, he bragged to God about his faithfulness and had a pity party. “I’m the only faithful prophet left,” he whined. “And now they’re trying to kill me, too!” Why was he complaining and fearful? Because Elijah, despite all his heroic deeds, was human, just like us. He was susceptible to the same fears, shortcomings, and lapses of faith. Yet James uses this far-from-perfect prophet as his example of a righteous person whose prayers were powerful and effective.
The lesson for apprentices of Jesus is both obvious and encouraging–we don’t have to be perfect in order to be righteous and pray effectively. God does not demand perfection; he looks for faithfulness and a willingness to turn away from sin. “Righteousness” is relying on God in any and all circumstances. It is to “trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding” (Proverbs 3:5). It basically comes down to having a godly attitude. In Psalm 66:18, David confesses, “If I had cherished sin in my heart, the Lord would not have listened to my prayer.” It’s one thing to sin (we all do that), but it’s an entirely different thing to “cherish” sin. What closes God’s ears is not the depth of our sin, but our secret desire to repeat it again and again.
Spend some time this week reflecting on your prayer life. How effective is it? David said he had not cherished sin in his heart. What about you? Is there a cherished sin that is getting in the way of your relationship with Jesus?
Next: when a believer wanders away from God