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22. Principles for Effective Prayer (James 5:16-18)

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…The prayer of a righteous person has great effectiveness. Elijah was a human being like us, and he prayed earnestly that it would not rain and there was no rain on the land for three years and six months! Then he prayed again, and the sky gave rain and the land sprouted with a harvest.

James 5:16b-18 (NET)

What are some principles for effective prayer—prayer that is powerful in accomplishing God’s will? Many of us struggle with prayer, what to say, how to say it, and even desiring to pray. Clearly, the Jewish believers James wrote to also struggled with it. In James 5:13-18, he taught the believers how to pray in various seasons of life (including seeking prayer)—when suffering, when happy, when seriously sick, and when struggling with sin. Then, James gives Elijah as an example of effective prayer. This would have stood out since Jews revered Elijah. He is one of the most well-known prophets of the Old Testament. He served during the time of Ahab when Israel was rebelling against God by worshipping Baal. He was used to bring both judgment and revival to Israel. He prayed, and it didn’t rain for three and a half years (1 Kgs 17). He prayed again, and it rained (1 Kgs 18). Elijah was one of only two people to be taken to heaven without dying (2 Kgs 2:11; Gen 5:24). In fact, he was prophesied about in the Old Testament to be connected with the coming of the messiah (Mal 4:5). He also met with Jesus in a glorified state during Christ’s transfiguration (Matt 17:3). Because of all this, Jewish Christians had an exalted view of Elijah. However, James said to them that he was a human like us (Jam 5:17), and therefore, the power in his prayer life can and should be in ours.

As we consider Elijah, we learn principles which can help us become more effective in prayer both individually and corporately. It will also help us maintain and protect our individual and corporate health as described in the context of James 5:13-16.

Big Question: What general principles can we learn about effective prayer from James’ description of Elijah’s powerful prayer ministry in James 5:16-18?

Prayer from an Individual Is Tremendously Powerful

Often, we think of our need to get as many people praying as possible to get God’s will done. In fact, there does seem to be augmented power in the prayers of agreeing people. In Matthew 18:19, Christ said, “Again, I tell you the truth, if two of you on earth agree about whatever you ask, my Father in heaven will do it for you.” Certainly, there is power when a small group, a church, or churches agree in prayer. However, there is also great power when one person prays. James 5:16 says, “The prayer of a righteous person has great effectiveness.” “Effectiveness” comes from the Greek word “energeo” from which we get the English word “energy.”1 There is great energy in the prayers of a person. Because of Elijah’s prayers, God stopped the rain for three and a half years and helped bring the nation of Israel to repentance. Consequently, much good goes unaccomplished when individuals neglect praying. In Ezekiel 22:30, God says, “I looked for a man from among them who would repair the wall and stand in the gap before me on behalf of the land, so that I would not destroy it, but I found no one.” Elijah reminds us to consistently stand in the gap for our friends, family, church, nation, and the world. God hears our prayers, even if we’re the only person praying, and he moves powerfully through them.

Prayer Is Affected by Our Righteousness or Lack of It

Again, James said, “The prayer of a righteous person has great effectiveness.” Certainly, all believers are righteous because of Christ’s righteousness being imputed to their account (2 Cor 5:21). However, James is referring to practical righteousness. Because Elijah separated from the compromise of Israel who worshipped Baal and separated himself to the true God, there was great power in his prayers to bring change. In fact, in 1 Kings 18, the priests of Baal were praying for fire from heaven for hours, including yelling and cutting themselves, and yet, it did not come. But when Elijah briefly prayed to the true God, fire came down from heaven. There is power in the life of a godly person! This is why the sick are encouraged to go to the elders for prayer, as they should be godly men (Jam 5:14-15; cf. 1 Tim 3:1-7). Other Scriptures also teach the importance of righteous living for our prayers to be effective. Psalm 66:18 says, “If I had harbored sin in my heart, the Lord would not have listened.” Also, Psalm 34:15 says, “The Lord pays attention to the godly and hears their cry for help.”

Therefore, we must ask ourselves: Are we compromising with the world through our language or entertainment? Or, are we being holy unto God—set apart from our ungodly culture unto him? Are our prayers effective or ineffective? A compromised life leads to ineffective prayer. In James 1:7-8, James said a doubled-minded man—one who professes to trust God but does not really, as evidenced by his life—should not expect to receive anything from God when praying because he is unstable (and unfaithful) in all his ways. Not walking in faith hinders the effectiveness of our prayers.

Prayer Should Be Offered in Accordance with God’s Word

When Elijah prayed for it to not rain because of Israel’s sin, most likely he was praying according to God’s Word. In Israel’s covenant with God, God repeatedly promised to withhold the rain if Israel practiced idolatry. For example, Deuteronomy 11:16-17 says,

Make sure you do not turn away to serve and worship other gods! Then the anger of the LORD will erupt against you and he will close up the sky so that it does not rain. The land will not yield its produce, and you will soon be removed from the good land that the Lord is about to give you.

Most likely, while Elijah was studying God’s Word and looking at the rebellion of Israel, God prompted Elijah to pray for drought—for God’s judgment to come. Soon after, he told King Ahab a long-term drought had begun (1 Kings 17:1). Later, after three and a half years, in 1 Kings 18:1, God provoked Elijah to pray again after Israel repented, but this time for rain and it rained.

Prayer is not about getting our will done on earth but getting God’s will done, as Christ taught in the Lord’s Prayer—“may your kingdom come, may your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt 6:10). Therefore, we should always pray according to God’s Word and his revealed will. This means if we are not in God’s Word, we will often not know his will and, therefore, how to pray. In fact, while reading God’s Word (possibly like Elijah was), we should commonly stop to pray exactly what it says—whether for our leaders to have wisdom, for healing over the sick, for unity in the church, or even for our community to practice mutual confession and prayer and, therefore, be healthy. Prayer should be according to God’s Word.

Prayer Should Be Heartfelt—Not Rote and Thoughtless

James said Elijah “prayed earnestly” (v. 17). Literally, it means “he prayed in his prayer.”2 It is Hebraism representing intensity and passion.3 Elijah was determined and truly concerned when he prayed. Warren Wiersbe said this about the church: “Many people do not pray in their prayers. They just lazily say religious words, and their hearts are not in their prayers.”4 Likewise, David Guzik said this:

Much of our prayer is not effective simply because it is not fervent. It is offered with a lukewarm attitude that virtually asks God to care about something that we care little about. Effective prayer must be fervent, not because we must emotionally persuade a reluctant God, but because we must gain God’s heart by being fervent for the things He is fervent for.5

Certainly, we see the effectiveness of passionate, heartfelt prayer throughout the Scripture: With Hannah, she prayed so passionately at the temple, Eli thought she was drunk (1 Sam 1:14-15). God heard her prayer and gave her a son named Samuel who would become a prophet and the last judge of Israel. With Christ, while in the Garden of Gethsemane, he prayed so intensely that his sweat became like great droplets of blood (Lk 22:44). And there, not only did he pray for God to remove the cup, but after reaffirming that God would not, he fervently prayed to be resurrected from his impending death. Hebrews 5:7 describes this, as it says: “During his earthly life Christ offered both requests and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death and he was heard because of his devotion.”

When we pray, do we really mean what we say? Are we really reaching out to the heart of God with our heart when we petition him, or are we simply mouthing religious words out of a sense of duty or tradition? Effective prayer is fervent prayer—prayed with our heart and mind.

Prayer Should Be Specific

James said that Elijah prayed for it to not rain and it didn’t. Then, he prayed for it to rain and it did. Elijah didn’t simply pray broad prayers for judgment and then broad prayers for blessing; he prayed specifically. We should ask specific requests of God as well when praying for someone’s marriage, job, or future. This reminds us of the importance of asking people for their prayer requests and also updates after receiving them. It is better to pray specifically than generally for people. When praying specifically is not possible, it may be wise to ask the Holy Spirit how to pray before interceding for a person, a community, or a nation. Romans 8:26 says, “the Spirit helps us in our weakness, for we do not know how we should pray.” We should pray specifically, as much as possible.

Prayer Should Be Persistent

James doesn’t describe this in detail, but in 1 Kings 18, when Elijah prayed for rain, he actually prayed seven different times until he saw a small rain cloud forming. Often, we’ll need to do the same. While praying, it will commonly seem like nothing is changing. However, we should remain consistent and pray until there is break-through. In Luke 18:1-6, Jesus taught his disciples about a widow who kept shamelessly petitioning a judge until he brought her justice. Jesus shared the story so the disciples would learn to “pray and not lose heart” (Lk 18:1). Certainly, we should pray for a person’s salvation and not lose heart when he is apathetic, or it seems like his heart has gotten more calloused. We should pray for revival in our country and not faint when there are riots and protests. God is sovereign over the storm and over the calm. We should faithfully petition in both seasons. He is seeking people who will stand in the gap, so he can heal the land (Ez 22:30). Effective prayer is persistent.

Are we faithfully praying for our families, churches, communities, cities, and nations? The prayers of the righteous are effective.

Application Question: Which general principle about prayer stood out most and why? Which one do you feel called to implement more in this season? What makes being consistent with our prayer life difficult at times? What are some tips that have helped you with your prayer life?

Conclusion

As James encourages these suffering saints to pray through considering the example of Elijah, there are many principles about effective prayer we can learn from Elijah as well.

  1. Prayer from an Individual Is Tremendously Powerful
  2. Prayer Is Affected by Our Righteousness or Lack of It
  3. Prayer Should Be Offered in Accordance with God’s Word
  4. Prayer Should Be Heartfelt—Not Rote and Thoughtless
  5. Prayer Should Be Specific
  6. Prayer Should Be Persistent

Application Question: How is God calling you to grow in your prayer life and in the discipline of seeking prayer from others in this season?

Prayer Prompts

  • Pray for grace to grow in the discipline of prayer—praying specifically, passionately, according to God’s Word, and with perseverance.
  • Pray for healing over those struggling with physical, emotional, or spiritual sickness (including sin).
  • Pray that God would use our national and global difficulties to bring repentance in the hearts of people and that he would heal our nations and our lands.

Copyright © 2021 Gregory Brown

Unless otherwise noted, the primary Scriptures used are taken from the NET Bible ® copyright © 1996-2016 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. All rights reserved.

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1 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1998). James (p. 280). Chicago: Moody Press.

2 Wiersbe, W. W. (1996). The Bible exposition commentary (Vol. 2, p. 384). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.

3 Hughes, R. K. (1991). James: faith that works (p. 268). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

4 Wiersbe, W. W. (1996). The Bible exposition commentary (Vol. 2, p. 384). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.

5 Guzik, D. (2013). James (Jas 5:15–16). Santa Barbara, CA: David Guzik.

Related Topics: Christian Life

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