On many occasions throughout his sermon, James addresses Christians who are going through suffering. James has taught Christians to embrace suffering as a way to let God produce endurance within us so that we can become spiritually mature. He has taught Christians to be patient as they wait for the coming of the Lord. Embrace the wait for the wait will be worth it. As James ends his sermon he wants to bring in one more important element for our lives during times of difficulty: prayer. James wants us to believe in prayer. One of the reasons I think we can fail to pray is because we do not believe in prayer. What good does it do to pray? What is the point? I think it is a natural question that sometimes rises up within us.
God In The Center (5:13-16a)
James begins by describing some life circumstances. If you are suffering, then you should pray to God. If you are cheerful, then you should sing praise to God. If you are sick, call for the elders to pray. The prayer of faith will save the one who is sick and the Lord will raise him up. If he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Notice the point of these verses is that the Lord will be central in our lives, no matter the circumstances. Whatever is happening in your life, God is to be in the middle of that, whether good or bad. I do not want to go into explaining each of the elements being described in these three verses because if I do, we will not have time to dig into what I think the key point of this passage is. What I want us to see is that whatever is happening in your life, God is supposed to be central. God is supposed to be the hub for everything that is happening in your life. If you are suffering, you need God. If you are happy, you need God. If you are sick, you need God. If you have sinned, you need God. You always need God.
But you will notice how God is accessed. God is accessed through prayer. If you are suffering, James tells us to pray. If you are cheerful, proclaim that too as you praise him. If you are sick, you need prayer. Prayer is the focal point of how we are accessing God. God is the center of the our lives and that happens through prayer. There is no circumstance in which we are not have God in the center as seen by being on our spiritual knees in prayer. In fact, we need prayer so badly in our lives that James encourages us to pray for each other. James says to confess our sins to each other and pray for each other so that we may be healed. Prayer is not only for ourselves alone. Prayer is also praying for others. Prayer is not just personal. Prayer is also corporate. We tell each other what is going on in our lives so that we can pray for each other.
We live in a very private, individualized culture, a culture that is quite different from ancient Near Eastern culture. We are about putting up walls and putting up a show about our lives. We live in a time where you are judged by your digital footprint. So we are encouraged to not be real but to show a false front to the world. We cannot be real about the pain and suffering in our lives. We must show everyone that we have the perfect marriage, the perfect family, the perfect job, the perfect house, the perfect vacation, the perfect meal, all while enjoying the perfect day. False fronts are put up to get everyone else to believe that we are doing well. All the while we may be hurt and wrecked on the inside. James does not want false fronts. James wants prayer. Confess your sins to each other. Why? So that we can pray for each other.
There is something so amazing about the family of Christ. This is to be the one safe space that you can have in life. This is the place where you can be open and honest. This is the place where you will find people who love and care about you. This is the place where you will find people that do not care about the walls, but care about your soul. This is the place where people can actually care about you, the real you. They do not care about the false you. They care about the real you. This is what James is talking about. There should be no fear in telling each other what we are going through so that we can receive prayer. Prayer is the best thing we can do for each other. There is not much we can do for each other when it comes to our suffering, our joy, our sickness, or our sins. But there is one thing we can do and it is the most important thing we can do: pray.
The Power of Prayer (5:16b)
This brings us to the key statement for this paragraph. James wants us to understand the power of prayer. Listen to what James says and let this statement be the key to the lesson to you today and let these words be permanently etched on to your heart.
The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. (James 5:16 ESV)
There are a number of different readings for this in the translations showing the difficulty of the translation. But I think the ESV represents the idea well. Our prayers have great power because those prayers are working something. Prayer has great power because it can work a change. This seems to be the idea that James is getting at for us to understand and fits the illustration that we will look at in the next verse in just a moment. The CSB reads similarly, “The prayer of the righteous person is very powerful in its effect.” The point to hear James say is that prayer is powerful because it can accomplish much. This should make perfect sense to us because prayer is the way we access the Almighty God with our requests. Prayer is powerful because God is the one you are accessing. You are not speaking to another human. You are speaking to the Creator God. Of course prayer is powerful!
Proving the Power of Prayer (5:17-18)
But James wants us to see this and truly ingrain this amazing truth into our hearts. So James gives us an example of the power of prayer. James wants us to think about Elijah. Elijah was a human like us and used the power of prayer. He prayed and it did not rain for three and a half years. One can only imagine how terrible that made life for Israel during that time. I looked back into our country’s history and remembered the time of the dust bowl where from 1931-1939 it basically did not rain. It was a terrible time in that region during that drought. Elijah prayed to God and God answered his prayer by it not raining for three and half years. Then Elijah prayed again and it did rain once again.
The point that James wants us to observe is what God can do through prayer. The prayer of the righteous person really is powerful in what it can do. Elijah clearly believed this. Prayer has great power as it asks the Almighty God to act. Now return to where we started in our lesson. If you are suffering, you should pray. Why? Because we need to consider all that God can do for us in our suffering. If you are sick, you should pray. Why? Because we need to see all that God can do for us in our sickness. If you are spiritually sick and weak, you should pray. Why? Because we need to see all that God can do for us in our weaknesses. How can we not pray when we see that we have this God who is with us and who answers prayers? The prayer of the righteous person has great power as it is working.
Why Don’t We Pray?
So why do we not pray? Why do not have a lively, vibrant prayer life? What keeps us from praying? What are the obstacles we face that prevents the prayer life God wants us to have? There are a lot of possibilities but I would like for us to consider three things that keep us from the prayer life that God wants us to have. These are three things that keep us from experiencing the great power at work in prayer.
First, we do not pray because we think we are independent. One reason we do not enjoy this kind of powerful prayer life is because we deem ourselves independent. We can do it ourselves. We are doing just fine. We do not need God. Now, in our words we would never say that we do not need God. But when we are not praying we are showing by our actions that we do not need God. We are telling God that we can do this ourselves. We are telling God that we have power and control and we do not need him. I do not need God. I am fine. Life is fine. Things are going well. I am smart and I have made good decisions and so I am good. I do not need God. What can keep us from experiencing the power of God through prayer is that we do not see our complete dependence on God. We just do not see it. We do not understand it. We do not comprehend what James said in chapter 1 that every good and perfect gift comes from God, not us. We are not independent. Our lives depend on God. Remember what we learned in James 4:15.
“Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.’” (James 4:15 ESV)
Does this sound like we are independent? It is only if the Lord wills that we will live and it is only if the Lord wills that we are able to do anything today. We are not independent. The more we see our dependence on God, the more we will pray and experience the power of God in prayer.
Second, we do not pray because of knowledge and science. What I mean by this is that because we can scientifically explain something causes us to think that God is not sovereign over it. Just because I can explain my illness does not mean that God does not have power over it. Just because I can explain my suffering does not mean that God does not have power over it. Just because I can explain disasters does not mean that God does not have power over it. Just because we can explain this virus and this pandemic does not mean that God does not have power over it. Just because we can understand something and explain something does not mean that God is not behind or that God cannot change it. The people in Elijah’s day could have been meteorologists and explained the reason why it did not rain for three and a half years. They could have talked about high pressure systems, heat, winds, and the like. But the fact of the matter was that whether it rained or not was completely in God’s hands. Just because we can explain something does not mean that God is not behind it. God should not be relegated to only the unexplainable. We can fail to pray because of our own scientific knowledge. But it is God who allowed the globe to rotate to bring about another day. Just because you know how it happens does not mean God did not do it.
Third, we do not pray because we are faithless. Here is what this usually looks like: “I have prayed and it does not do anything.” We see prayer as a waste of time. We see prayer as words spoken into the air. We think prayer will not change anything. We think prayer will not do anything. Or we have tried prayer and did not get the answer we wanted or get the answer we wanted fast enough. I have heard people say, “I am praying but nothing is happening.” It is as if God is a microwave or instant coffee that God should give us what we want when we push the button. Or we have become too modern or too enlightened to do something as silly as prayer. Again, the attitude reflects faithlessness. We do not think there is a God or that prayer does anything.
In all three of these instances we see that prayer requires faith. We need faith to believe that we cannot do things ourselves but everything we have and do depends on God. We need faith to believe that even though we can explain something that God is ultimately behind it. We need faith to believe that prayer is not just words in the air but enter the very throne of God who listens and responds. But this is also what James said at the beginning of his sermon.
But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord. (James 1:6–7 ESV)
In short, faith is required. James wants us to believe in prayer. He wants us to see that we need God through prayer in our suffering, in our joy, in our sickness, and in our sinfulness. He wants us to see the power of prayer and believe in the power of prayer. What is keeping you from believing in the power that God has placed in our prayer life? Is it independence, knowledge, or faithlessness that has kept us from enjoying the blessings of a prayer life? Ask yourself honestly, “Do you believe in the power of prayer?” Do you believe that God listens to your prayers? Do you believe that we can exceedingly abundantly beyond all we ask or think (Ephesians 3:20)? Do you believe that God is for you and acts in your best spiritual interests? If not, why not?