“Confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much. Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed earnestly that it would not rain; and it did not rain on the land for three years and six months. And he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain, and the earth produced its fruit.” (James 5:16-18)
“Prayer works.” As prevalent as this expression has become in our society today, discernment requires one to ask, “What do you mean by ‘prayer’? What do you mean by ‘works’?” For many, prayer is nothing more than the practice of positive thinking, with a little divine help thrown in for good measure. Some say, “Think positive thoughts, experience positive feelings, and you can expect positive results in your life.” The claim is that it doesn’t even matter what “divine power” or “higher being” one prays to, as long as it’s sincere. Many also believe that prayer works simply because of the activity itself. It’s seen merely as an activity to better one’s physical and mental health by lowering stress levels and improving mood. What does God’s Word have to say about the working of prayer?
“The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.” (vs. 16) Immediately we recognize that not all prayer works. James says that it’s the prayer of a “righteous man” that avails much. But what is a “righteous man”? James is certainly not saying that a person must be sinless for his prayers to be effective. How do we know? Because at the opening, James connects prayer to the confession of sins. What does God’s Word have to say about those who freely confess their sins? “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9) Therefore, the “righteous man” whose prayer avails much is the Christian.
At the same time, James is also careful to point out that it’s not anything special in the Christian himself that avails in prayer. Using the case of Elijah’s effective prayers, James says, “Elijah was a man with a nature like ours.” (vs. 17) What are we to take from this? Namely that it’s not in the activity of the praying one, but in the One Who acts on the prayer that makes it effective. It’s not in the one who speaks the prayer, but in the One Who hears and answers it. And prayer’s effectiveness is not in the one who confesses his sin, but in the One Who takes away those confessed sins through Jesus’ blood and righteousness. And therein lies the reason why only Christian prayer works. “For all the gods of the peoples are idols, But the Lord made the heavens.” (Psalm 96:5) “It is Christ who died, and furthermore is also risen, who is even at the right hand of God, who also makes intercession for us.” (Romans 8:34)
Some time ago a CLC pastor shared a statement from a lay member whose child was in the path of a hurricane: “I am praying for a weakening and a turning away from the coast.” The pastor then shared the following thoughts: “Pretty audacious to think that one man’s prayer can literally alter the course of a hurricane. Of course it’s true, when that prayer is offered to the Lord of heaven and earth. But we don’t think in those terms as much or as often as we should.”
What a blessing it is for the Christian to have the confidence we confess at Sunday worship: “Our help is in the name of the Lord, Who made heaven and earth.” (Psalm 124:8) And what a treasure it is for the Christian to have that effective help always available through prayer!