There is an audio podcast of this article available here: Load Bearing Truths
I’m always surprised by how often books that are intended to encourage people to pray actually end up doing the opposite. For example, one of the most commonly quoted passages on prayer from the New Testament is James 5:16: The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.
Have you ever read this verse and thought “sure wish I was a righteous person so my prayers could be powerful”? I think nearly everyone has the same initial response to this verse: it seems to say that only people who have attained a high level of righteousness can be confident that their prayers will be effective. Sure, super-saints have effective prayer lives, but what about the rest of us? Is there even any point in praying if our prayers aren’t going to be powerful? So what was intended to encourage people to pray actually discourages prayer.
But is James really saying that only super-saints can engage in power-prayer? No, he’s not. Let’s look at this verse in light of at least a little more of its surrounding context:
…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.
In the larger context of this chapter, James is saying several things about prayer that we ought to understand, but our purpose here is more limited. All we’re trying to do here is understand what he means by “a righteous person”. Is this a super-saint or something more attainable?
Our tendency when we hear about “a righteous person” is to think about people who do all the right things and don’t do all the wrong things. In other words, we’re thinking about righteousness in terms of works, but that’s not what James means here at all.
James’ argument is fairly straightforward:
1. God is willing to forgive our sin when we seek forgiveness.
– This is a foundational truth: God is willing to forgive when we repent, confess and seek forgiveness.
2. So, repent and seek forgiveness.
– This is the logical response to the preceding truth. if God is willing to forgive, then ask for forgiveness.
3. Once you’re forgiven, prayer for each other so that you may be healed.
– This builds on the previous foundation: now that you’re forgiven, use your renewed status before God to ask Him for what you need.
James concludes this instruction by telling us that we can be confident that our prayers for healing will not a waste of time because, “the prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.” When we see the progression of thought here, it becomes obvious that the “righteous person” James is talking about can only be the person who has just been forgiven because they followed his instruction to repent, confess and seek forgiveness.
James is not saying here that the super-saints have more powerful prayers but simply that for any prayer to be effective it needs to be coming from someone who is in right standing before God. That’s the “righteous person”; not the one who has worked their way up to an exalted spiritual state but the one who has humbly confessed their sin and been put in right standing before Him through the grace of His forgiveness.
The good news is that any believer can be in right standing before God by simply repenting, confessing and seeking forgiveness for our sins. This means that a brand new Christian and faithful fifty-year veteran of the Christian life can have equally powerful prayers. To be sure, there are other things that might enable the mature Christian to have a more effective prayer life. The mature believer will generally be seeking things more in line with God’s will. Mature believers might also be more diligent and consistent in prayer. All of those things (and more) might have an impact on the effectiveness of their prayers. But what James is saying here is simply that the biggest limiter to the power of our prayers is our unresolved sin, which pulls the plug on the power of our prayers. Fortunately, plugging the cord back in is as simple as humbly acknowledging our sin and seeking God’s forgiveness. Therefore, both the new believer and the mature believer are equally able to have pray powerfully and effectively.
Now, if you’ve read this passage paying attention to even more context than we considered above, the fact that James follows up this statement about prayer with the example of Elijah might confuse things. If James is not talking about super-saints, then why bring up Elijah, right? After all, Elijah was a super-saint if ever there was one. Well, that may be true, but I’m confident that’s not what James wanted us to focus on. James was trying to give us an example of a powerful prayer more than an example of a powerful pray-er! In other words, what James wanted us to focus on was what prayer was able to accomplish. This was an example of how powerful prayer can be. That’s the point. This was a powerful prayer that just happened to be uttered by a man named Elijah. But when fixate on Elijah, we may naturally find ourselves thinking “huh, so that’s what super-saints can do. Too bad I’m not a super-saint.” This kind of thinking quickly leads to, “since I’m not a super-saint, is there really any point of praying?” That would be exactly the opposite of what James is doing! James is encouraging all of us to pray because the simple step of seeking forgiveness for our sins allows all of our prayers to be powerful.
Now, obviously, there’s more to prayer than just this one truth. There are other things which work to make prayer more effective. There are other reasons why even powerful prayers from righteous people (read “those who are in right standing before God”) may not be answered. But those are discussion for another time. Here, we focus only on one simple but tremendously encouraging truth: anyone can have a powerful and effective prayers. All that’s needed is to be in right standing before God when we pray and this requires only that we humbly repent, confess and seek the forgiveness that Jesus purchased for us on the cross.