Today’s text fills me with joy and hope! “The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.” Do you doubt your righteousness? Let’s clear that up right away — none of us are righteous! Paul tells us that we are justified as a gift of grace through Christ Jesus. “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus;” (Romans 3:23-24) To be justified is to be declared righteous. God does not do that on the basis of any merit in us, but only by grace (undeserved favor). It is His gift to forgive all your sins and clothe you with Christ’s perfect righteousness. That is the standing of everyone who has trusted in Christ. So our righteousness has nothing to do with us!. We have been justified by faith and stand before God with a righteousness that is not our own. Now that we’ve cleared that up, let’s get to today’s text:
“The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective. Elijah was a human being, even as we are. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops.” (James 5:16b-18)
So righteous refers to our standing in Christ. But it also refers to our walk. But it does not imply perfection, or no one could qualify. Elijah was not a perfect man. He feared the wicked Jezebel and fled from her. He was despondent in thinking that he was the only godly person left in Israel. Rather, to be righteous means to walk uprightly before God, judging and confessing all known sin, and seeking to obey God in every area of life. Our prayers are not heard because of our own worthiness or sinless track record. But if we are aware of unconfessed sin in our hearts, we will not feel confident in drawing near to the holy God. The psalmist says (Ps. 66:18), “If I had cherished sin in my heart, the Lord would not have listened;”
So we should always draw near to God in prayer on the basis of the worthiness and merit of Jesus Christ, not ourselves. Yet at the same time, we should examine our hearts to make sure that we are not harboring any known sin. I ask the Lord to show me any unknown or unconfessed sin. And he continues to show me. If you read my article the other day, you got a glimpse of my previously-unconfessed idolatry. We do not need to be perfect, but we do need to walk in the light, turning from all known sin.
There is no inherent power in prayer itself, but rather that prayer links us to God who is all-powerful. James begins the sentence (in Greek) with “much” to emphasize how much prayer can accomplish. When we pray, we communicate with the Almighty Creator of heaven and earth, who loves us and invites us into His presence to receive grace. And so, as E. M. Bounds puts it, “Prayer can do anything that God can do” (Purpose in Prayer).
Sometimes, God waits to answer to keep us seeking Him or for other reasons that we may not understand. Sometimes God delays the answers we seek to keep us in humble dependence on Him. That was the situation with Paul’s thorn in the flesh (2 Cor. 12:7-10). When Elijah prayed for God to send rain, even though God had promised to send rain, He did not answer instantly. It took seven attempts on Elijah’s part before the first cloud was seen in the sky. We need to stay humble in our prayers and consistent.
Sometimes God answers “no” for His own inscrutable reasons. This is where we have to trust Him and His omniscient ways. I pray many things that seem to me to be for God’s glory and in accordance with His will, but He overrules my prayers with His own sovereign purpose. This is where we need to learn to lean on Him and not our own understanding. “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, And lean not on your own understanding; In all your ways acknowledge Him, And He shall direct your paths.” (Proverbs 3:5-6)
We need to remember that prayer links us with the omnipotent God, who spoke the universe into existence. He can interrupt the normal laws of His creation if He chooses, to accomplish His will. And, He has chosen that normally He accomplishes His will through the prayers of His people. And so we should pray big prayers and expect God to accomplish much through them, according to His purpose and glory.
So James’ theme is: the prayer of the righteous is very powerful in its working. Then he illustrates the theme: “Elijah was a human being, even as we are. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops.” (vv 5:17-18) As you read the story of Elijah, you find that in spite of seeing God work in miraculous ways, he became fearful and depressed. James’ point is that while Elijah was a great man, he was after all just a man. He did not have some privileged status before God that we lack. He had his ups and downs, but he prayed and God answered. So even though you have your ups and downs, pray! The power of prayer is not with the man, but with our God.
Elijah was a man who lived in ungodly times, but his prayers affected the entire nation. We are certainly living in ungodly times. One righteous man’s prayer affected the entire nation (1 Kings 18:21-39). It can be the same today. James’ words, “prayed earnestly,” are literally, “prayed with prayer.” It is a Hebraism that signifies intensity. Elijah’s intensity in prayer was because he was one man up against a powerful godless king and queen, 400 of her idolatrous prophets, and an entire nation that had turned its back on the Lord. So Elijah, being a man with a nature like ours, recognized his own inadequacy in the face of these powerful enemies. That led him to pray earnestly.
The reason we often do not pray earnestly is that we do not properly see how weak and inadequate we are and how powerful the enemy of our souls really is, because we allow him to have a foothold. If we see that salvation is not a matter of a person “deciding for Christ,” but rather of God opening his eyes, convicting him of sin, righteousness, and judgment, and raising him from spiritual death to life, we would pray more earnestly for lost souls. If we see that apart from Christ, we can do nothing (John 15:5), we would pray more earnestly about every aspect of our lives. Earnest prayer stems from a sense of personal inadequacy, but also from the knowledge of God’s total adequacy.
Do we live in overwhelmingly ungodly times? Pray! Do we face circumstances that are far beyond our ability to change? Pray! Do we sense personal inadequacy? Pray! Our problem is not that we are inadequate to live the Christian life, but rather that we think we are at least partially adequate in ourselves. As I said in yesterday’s post, I’ve been able to experience true joy that I am not enough and never will be. I don’t have to be — my Lord God is more than sufficient! So God sends some overwhelming circumstances into our lives to teach us what Paul learned (2 Cor. 1:9), “Indeed, we had the sentence of death within ourselves so that we would not trust in ourselves, but in God who raises the dead.”