The Power of Prayer
by Tom McLemore
It was James who wrote, “The prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects” (James 5:16b). From this statement, we already become aware that prayer’s power is not unconditional. The epistle of James is filled with inspired teaching regarding the conditions under which this principle proves true.
In order that we might understand its power and learn to pray with power, study with me, if you will, what James has to say in his epistle concerning prayer. Open your New Testament and read all of James’s words on this vital matter. We will proceed by asking James some fundamental questions regarding prayer.
What Is Prayer?
For one thing, prayer is asking (James 1:5, 6; 4:2, 3). Prayer is also blessing God, i.e., giving thanks or praising God for his blessings (James 3:9; cf. Nehemiah 9:5b, 6; 1 Peter 1:3; Ephesians 1:3).
To pray, says James, is to draw near to God, while humbling one’s self before the Lord (James 4:8, 10; cf. Hebrews 4:16; 10:22). Sometimes, prayer involves cries that we utter to the Lord (James 5:4b; cf. Luke 18:1-8).
Why Should We Pray?
James teaches that one reason why we should pray is God’s merciful and generous nature (James 1:5b, 17; 5:11). God listens and hears. Our cries reach his ears (James 5:4).
Another reason why we should pray is that prayer is said to possess great power in its effects (James 5:16b). When we understand the nature of God, the one to whom we pray, we can see wherein the great power of prayer resides. He is merciful and generous, and he is also the Almighty, the Lord of hosts!
What Are Some Causes of Unanswered Prayer?
Sometimes we are not heard because of lack of faith (James 1:6-8. cf. 5:15–it is the prayer of faith that saves the sick). It may be worldliness that hinders our prayers (James. 4:1ff.). The solution is to cleanse ourselves in heart and life from the worldly (James 4:6-10).
What Are Some Things for Which to Pray?
James tells us that we should pray for wisdom (James 1:5; cf. 3:13-18 for a description of the wisdom that comes from above). We should pray for grace (James 4:6). In this context, grace is God’s generous, active, effective help to man, beyond what he deserves or can rightly expect. It is a conquering grace, manifested in victory over worldliness, evil, and the evil one. It was by means of this grace that Paul accomplished what he did (e.g., 1 Corinthians 15:10; Ephesians 4:7).
What Are Some Occasions on Which to Pray?
From James 5:13-18 we learn when we ought to pray. James urges us to pray when we are suffering. We may and ought to pray when people are sick. Of course, the specific procedure James describes applied to the time when elders were miraculously endowed by the laying on of the apostles’ hands. The prayer of faith heals the sick today, but God uses means rather than miracle. We may and ought to pray when sin is confessed. And, we must pray when blessed by God (James 3:9; cf. 1:17). When God has blessed us, it is always appropriate to bless God!
Whose Prayer Has Great Power in Its Effects?
James writes that it is the prayer of the righteous person that has great power in its effects (James 5:16b). Does James refer to some elite type of person or some superhuman individual? NO! Elijah was an ordinary man in this respect. He possessed the same natural limitations and the same human weaknesses that we possess.
Who then is the righteous one according to James? The righteous is the child of God, begotten again by means of the word of truth (James 1:18), the one whom God has chosen, rich in faith, heir of the kingdom (James 2:5), the one who controls one’s self, who works God’s righteousness (James 1:19, 20), the one who stands the test and loves God (James 1:12), and the one who does the word of God, rather than just hearing it (James 1:25).
The righteous one is the one who practices pure religion, which includes bridling the tongue (James 1:26, 27), the one who lives by the law of the kingdom (love one’s neighbor as one’s self) rather than showing partiality (James 2:8, 9), the one whose faith works (James 2:14_17), and the one who is peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, a peacemaker (James 3:17, 18).
The righteous one is the friend of God (as Abraham) rather than of the world (James 4:4; cf. 2:23), the one who is humble (James 4:6, 10), and the one who is innocent. (James 5:6; cf. 1 John 2:2, 29). If our praying lacks power, we would do well to examine ourselves to see how well we fit James’s description of the righteous one.
Must Prayer Be Consistent with
Speech and Life (and Vice Versa)?
James laments that the same mouth sometimes utters prayer to God and curses a human being, i.e., one that is in the similitude of God (James 3:8_12). He emphasizes that it ought not to be this way! It is unnatural. This is the point of James’ illustrations, viz., inconsistency. There must be consistency between prayer and life (James 4:15). Too often, we do not pray “thy will be done” because in our lives we are not proceeding on the basis of “thy will be done.”
Let us pray and live the will of God, i.e., live the prayer we ought to pray. Jesus taught his disciples to pray thus (Matthew 6:10). Jesus prayed thus in the garden (Matthew 26:39, 42 and parallels). All prayer must be uttered with recognition of the will of God (1 John 5:14). Let us pray as we are taught, and then plan to live consistent with our prayer.
Prayer indeed possesses power, and James provides much insight into the matter of praying with power. It is hoped that through applying what he teaches us to our own praying, we may experience more fully the power of prayer.
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