Updated: Oct 14, 2018
James 5: 12-20 – Prayer, 30 Sep 18
It seems that prayer is not very fashionable these days! Whereas prayer was once accepted as being something that a community daily engaged in, very few people these days make it part of their daily routine. Certainly, prayer does not seem to be such an integral part of daily life that it was in the lives of the people that we read about in the Old Testament, or the early church. And maybe, in our own private lives, there has been a decrease in our tendency to pray. How many of us pray less now than we did when we were in our youth?
In the final message from the letter of James the message is very clear: The Christian is expected to pray. And James gives us four points of practical instruction on how to make prayer part of our daily life.
I. Pray in all things
In verses 13 to 18 we are told that we should pray when in trouble; we should pray for each other when sick; we should pray when we are in sin so that we may be spiritually healed; and we should bring praise to God when we are happy.
But how many of us actually live this way? I think that there is an increasing tendency for people to look to the world to solve our problems, or to each other, or to our own resources. Many fail to turn to God at all, or if we do, we do not pray with confidence or we pray only as a last resort.
There is a tendency to negate answers to prayer.
Like the fellow who was lost in the bush and later when describing his experience said that he had been so frightened that he had prayed. “Did God answer your prayer?” someone asked. “Oh no!” he said, “Before God had a chance, a park ranger came along and showed me the path.”
I think that sometimes we think that answers to prayer always have to be something miraculous. We must be careful that we do not over-value the marvellous and the miraculous at the expense of the mundane and the providential. The advance of medical knowledge, the discovery of medicines and the perfecting of surgical techniques are surely examples of God’s providence, and why should God not choose to work through everyday things?
There is also a tendency to stop praying when our prayer request is not granted by God immediately. Sometimes we seem to think of prayer as a supernatural button to press to get what we want.
However, I suggest that the main reason why people don’t pray is possibly because we feel that God may not really be there – that he has abandoned us, and so there is no point in praying. The reality is, however, not that God has abandoned us; but that we, as a community, have turned away from God. We have a whole generation that do not know Jesus Christ.
The problem with this is that it is repeating the original sin of rejection of God. We would rather rely on our own resources than seek God’s help in prayer. We want to do it our own way and think that we can do it better. We turn to God only as a last resort. In doing this we are rejecting God and placing ourselves on the throne.
Nevertheless, the Christian is expected to pray. For us, praying should be like breathing. Just as breathing is the response of physical life to the presence of air, so prayer should be the response of spiritual life to the presence of God. We should pray in all things. And secondly, we should …
II. Pray in the knowledge of its power
James tells us that, ‘The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective’ (v.16) and he gives us the example of Elijah’s prayers as an example. Elijah prayed and for three and a half years there was drought; then he prayed for rain, and rain for a good harvest fell. There is no doubt Elijah was a great man of prayer.
But, some of us might become daunted by the term ‘righteous’ and want to say something like, “There’s no use me praying, I am not a great man of righteousness like Elijah.” However, the point that James is making is that whilst there were amazing outcomes from the prayers, Elijah was just an ordinary person like you and me.
Sure, he could rise to the heights of faith and commitment, be brave and selfless in his concern for others. But he also fell into the depths of despair and depression, fled for his life at the slightest suggestion of danger and was filled with self-pity.
Nevertheless, he was right with God because he put his faith in God. And as we learnt earlier in our study of James, faith that is active in works, as Elijah’s was, results in us being seen as righteous. By grace, through faith, we are given the status of righteousness in God’s sight and given the right to exercise a ministry of prayer – and this applies to you and me as much as Elijah.
The point is that the power lies not in the person praying, but in the prayer. It seems that prayer has an inherent strength – a power waiting to be released. Whilst prayer may look unimpressive and easy to despise, it has great power waiting to be activated by God. So, we are encouraged to pray confidently in the knowledge of the power of prayer, or more correctly, the power that God may unleash through our prayer.
A tale is told about a small town that had historically been ‘dry’, but then a local businessman decided to build a tavern. A group of Christians from a local church were concerned and planned an all-night prayer meeting to ask God to intervene. It just so happened that shortly after lightning struck the bar and it burned to the ground.
The owner of the bar sued the church, claiming that the prayers of the congregation were responsible, but the church hired a lawyer to argue in court that they were certainly not responsible. The presiding judge, a man wiser than most, after his initial review of the case, stated that “no matter how this case comes out, one thing is obvious - it is evident that the tavern owner believes in prayer and the Christians do not!”
So, we are to pray in all things and pray in the knowledge of the power of prayer. And whilst a mere human like you and me prays, God acts. God the creator orders the life of the world in the light of the prayers of his people. Now, this inter-relationship between our praying and God acting brings us to the third point of James’ instruction on how to pray, and that is …
III. Pray so that the Lord will act
In all the examples that James has given us, people pray, and then God acts. God seems to want us to pray before he chooses to act.
Maybe, like me, you have sometimes been tempted to wonder why I need to be praying if God is omniscient, i.e. knows all things. Doesn’t he know what our needs are? And will he really listen to someone as insignificant in the universe as me?
Well I do not really have an answer to why God would want to include me in his processes, other than to marvel that an all powerful, all knowing, sovereign God would choose to involve me in the affairs of the world. Job asked this very question: ‘Who is the Almighty, that we should serve him? What would we gain by praying to him?’ (Job 21:15). The answer that Job received to this question was that this is how God chooses to act and who are we to question his sovereignty!
Of course, there is also the aspect of obedience. Why should I pray? Because the Bible says that I should. The fact is that we are exhorted to pray and to pray constantly. Jesus taught this in the parable of the persistent widow who through persistent asking finally got justice from the judge (Luke 18:3-8). The Psalms speak about praying daily. And 1Thes 5:17, exhorts us to ‘…pray without ceasing …’
Jesus also gave us his example of praying daily and in all things. Some of Jesus’ prayer times were rather intense and long as well. When the opposition from the Pharisees was intensifying, Jesus went out into a mountain to pray, and continued all night in prayer to God (Luke 6:12). We might ask, “If Jesus, who had the authority of God, felt the need to pray constantly to his Father in Heaven, then how much more should we be praying to God?”
So, we are exhorted to pray, and God, for whatever reason, wants us to pray before he acts. Of course he does not always act in accordance with our prayer!
Dr Howard Hendricks tells of the time when he was a young man before he was married. He was aware that certain mothers had intentions for him on behalf of their daughters. One mother even said to him one day, “Howard, I just want you to know that I’m praying that you’ll be my son-in-law.” Dr Hendricks always stops at this point in the story and says, very solemnly, “Have you ever thanked God for unanswered prayer?”
Alternatively, sometimes God answers our prayer in a different way to what we envisaged. Paul asked that the ‘thorn in his flesh’ be removed; the answer was a promise of grace to endure it.
We mustn’t forget that unanswered prayer is still heard by God, and so his silence has a purpose. Perhaps he wishes to draw us closer to him, test the maturity of our faith, or force us to re-evaluate our request. Regardless, we are to pray and God acts. And the final point of James’ instruction on how to pray is that we are to …
IV. Pray in faith
Certainly, in Heb 4:16 we are told to pray with boldness; to ‘… come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need’. And James says that, ‘The prayer of faith’ will result in God acting (v.15).
Now I think that there has been some misunderstanding about this concept of the ‘prayer of faith’. There are some churches who teach their people that they must “claim it!” and if they do not receive the answer that they are claiming, then they must be lacking in faith!
I would ask, “If I am not healed, is it because I lack faith; or is it because God is Sovereign and he will choose how to answer my prayer?” After all, if all of our prayers for healing were always answered with a physical healing, then we could become immortal. You see, sickness is just a degree of death. Clearly, this would not be God’s desire. When mankind chose to sin by rejecting God, sickness and death entered the world and we must all, in due course, endure that first physical death, for the Bible says, ‘the wages of sin is death’!
So what does James mean when he speaks about the prayer of faith? He means that we are to pray with faith in God. We are to have an unwavering confidence that God will know what is best for us and will answer our prayer in the way that he knows is best for us. We are to commit our petition into his hands, trusting in his love, compassion and mercy, and accepting his wisdom and sovereignty.
So, we are called to become people of prayer; to pray in all things, pray in the knowledge of the power of prayer, pray so that the Lord will act and pray in faith. If we should be a praying church, then I have confidence that God will do great things through Holy Trinity. And this is something that we can all do, privately, in small groups, during our 8.30 am Morning Prayer, in our larger Sunday gatherings and at every moment of our waking lives.
A chaplain mentor of mine used to talk about daily ‘walking with the Lord’, by which he meant to acknowledge at all times that we are in the presence of God and of our Lord Jesus Christ, and that we can commit all of our thoughts and petitions to him. Another man who also daily walked with the Lord was Brother Lawrence, a 17th Century French Monk. He truly knew what it means to make prayer the response of spiritual life to the presence of God. I commend to you the book about the life of Brother Lawrence, called The Practice of the Presence of God.
[i] Balaam, Job, the prayer of the Israelites, when attacked by the Amorites.
[ii] Jeremiah who had to wait for ten days (Jer 42:7); Habakkuk who cried out in despair, “How long, Lord must I call out without receiving your help?” (Hab 1:2). Jesus inferred that sometimes we would need to continue to cry out to God day and night before God answers (Luke 18:7).