As we conclude our James series, This Is the Life, I invite you to open your Bible to James 5:13-18. We’ve been in James since early September. If, over the course of this series, you’ve felt a little chastened and a lot encouraged, if you better understand the Christian life, feel more equipped to live it, and are practicing your faith in ways you didn’t when we began, then God has done what God does when we wrestle with his word. In Genesis 32, Jacob wrestled with the angel of God. “Let me go,” the angel said. “I won’t let you go till you bless me,” Jacob replied. So God blessed him with a new name and new way of living. I pray that our autumn wrestling with God’s word in James has been a blessing for you. God may not have given you a new name, but he’s showed you how to live the life he calls you to live when your name is Christian.
James covers a lot of things concerning the Christian life: trials, temptations, hypocrisy, snobbery, pride, and more. If you’ve missed some of the series and want to catch up, you can access it on our podcast or our website.
James closes with a call to pray. Sometimes we forget how critical prayer is for the Christian life. I’m pretty sure that if people hadn’t been praying for me, here in my 62nd year of life I would still harbor bitterness toward my dad, have one functioning kidney instead of two, might have followed the typical pattern of a child from divorced parents and got a divorce myself, would have given in to temptations that wrecked my life, wouldn’t have kids and grandkids who love Jesus and the church, and probably wouldn’t have entered the ministry. And if I did enter the ministry, without prayer (my prayers and the prayers of others for me) there’d be little to show for my efforts. When you needed me in your troubles, I wouldn’t find a single word to help. My sermons would stink. My capacity to show grace would be in short supply. And I would have burned out and dropped out long ago. Prayers matter. Prayer is not optional; prayer is critical. We can’t live the Christian life without out. James makes that clear today. Hear the word of the Lord … (read the text).
That’s a lot of words to say one thing: pray. James talks about anointing with oil. He mentions healing and confession and forgiveness. He even pulls the prophet Elijah out of the Old Testament and holds him up as an example of the power of prayer. But the thread that holds all of that together is prayer. And typical of the ever-practical James, his concern is not the idea of prayer but its practice. Pray!
Most of us do. A 2014 study from the Pew Research Center discovered that 77% of American adults pray with varying degrees of regularity. And of those who claim no religious affiliation of any kind, 38% of them pray. I suppose it could be argued that prayer comes naturally, that it’s something of a primal urge, a primal language. God creates us in his image. That image is marred and broken by our sin. Yet something inside of us still yearns for God—even in those who do not know him and aren’t sure he exists. So we pray.
Anne Lamott suggests that there are really only three prayers:
- The first one is help — In desperate times when we are beyond our capacities, we instinctively call out for help. This is why every soldier who’s been in combat, nods their head when someone says, “There are no atheists in a foxhole.” Help!
- The second one is thanks — Isn’t there something in most of us that looks heavenward in the wake of some unexpected blessing? We spontaneously lift our eyes to heaven and whisper, “Thank God.” You just feel an urge to say thank you to a power greater than yourself. How terrible to be grateful with no one to thank. Thanks is the second prayer.
- And the third is wow — When you drive around a corner and see towering mountains rising in the distance, something deep is stirred inside of you. As Lamott writes, “The words ‘wow’ and ‘awe’ are the same height and width, all w’s and short vowels. They could dance together.” And they do. Wow in the face of majesty is a natural reaction—much more natural and instinctive than to see those mountains and think: “Across millions of years a geological convergence of earthquake and erosion formed the majestic mountains that rise up from the crust of the earth.” Wow is better.
Help, thanks, and wow: three prayers that seem natural to us all—certainly to Christians but to unbelievers too. An unbeliever almost has to suppress the urge to pray. But believers pray because we believe God invites us to pray and hears us when we do. James tells us to pray.
And he tells us to pray about everything. A visiting evangelist offered this invitation to the congregation one Sunday: “God invites us to pray about everything. If you have something that worries you, some sickness that needs to be healed, God has given me gifts to help. Come, let me pray for you.” Jack went for prayer, waited his turn, then stepped up to the evangelist. “Sir, how can I pray for you.”
“Preacher, I need you to pray for my hearing.” The preacher put his index fingers into his mouth to moisten them, then put those fingers in Jack’s ears, and prayed down heaven. After a few minutes, the preacher pulled his fingers from Jack’s ears, stood back, and asked, “How is your hearing now?”
Jack replied, “I don’t know, Preacher, it ain’t till next Wednesday!”
Pray about everything.
Look at v. 13 – “Is anyone among you suffering? He should pray.” Take whatever ails you to the throne of God. Pray it up, pray it out, pray it through. Job suffered, and he prayed. David suffered, and he prayed. Paul suffered, and he prayed. Jesus suffered, and he prayed. In chapter 1, James told us that when we’re facing trials, pray for wisdom. Are you suffering? Just buried someone you love? Trapped in depression? Marriage falling apart? Got a kid in trouble? Want a kid and can’t have one? Burdened with the guilt of some secret sin? Chronic pain that medicine can’t touch much? Pray. “Is anyone among you suffering? He should pray.”
If you need to vent, you can vent. If you need to cry, you can cry. If you need to be speechless in the wake of your troubles, you can do that too. Biblical prayers teach us that whatever is in your heart—good, bad, or ugly—can become the stuff of your prayers when you’re in trouble. Do you ever feel you’re your prayers in suffering don’t get through? As George Buttrick put it, sometimes suffering prayer feels like “a spasm of words in a cosmic indifference.” Pray anyway. Pray about everything. God loves you. God wants you to turn to him in times like these. James doesn’t encourage people to Stoicism, to “tough it out” or “keep a stiff upper lip.” He doesn’t offer some rousing pep talk and tell us to “keep on keeping on,” or tell us that “when the going gets tough, the tough get going.” None of that. He tells us to pray. And we can pray whatever is in our hearts—even when it’s so dark it scares us a little to talk with God about it. Susan Lenzkes wrote:
It’s all right —
Questions, pain, and stabbing anger
can be poured out to
the infinite One and
He will not be damaged.
Our wounded ragings will be lost in Him
and we will be found.
For we beat on His chest,
from within the circle of His arms.
“Is anyone among you suffering? He should pray.” Pray about everything.
Look again at v. 13 – “Is anyone cheerful? He should sing praises.” Praise is part of prayer and the place where all prayers will end. But don’t wait till the end to praise. Praise now. Did your ship come in? Did she say yes? Did the biopsy come back negative? Did you make an A in Calculus? Did you get the scholarship? Did your prodigal child come home? Did the Lord save you from your sins and give you a first chance, a second chance, another chance? Then make a like a canary and sing—sing praises. Give God credit for the good stuff going on in your life. There is so much suffering and sadness in the world, if you’re cheerful, sing praise. You need to do it. The world needs to hear it. Pray about everything.
Look at v. 14 – “Is anyone among you sick? He should call for the elders of the church, and they are to pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.” Don’t miss the forest for the trees here. Elders are church leaders. Oil in James’ day had medicinal value. The Good Samaritan used it on the wounds of the man beaten and left for dead on the road to Jericho. There’s nothing magical or mystical about this oil. And it makes no difference whether it comes from the Holy Land or from a shelf at Kroger. It’s just oil—medicine. We have done this kind of prayer many times with chronically ill people who have requested it. Sometimes there’s a physical breakthrough. Sometimes the breakthrough is spiritual—God gives peace or hope or a new strength to endure. But don’t get caught up in techniques here. While James writes about elders and anointing with oil, the focus of these verses is not elders and oil, the focus is prayer. This is what James is saying here: “Pray. Take your sickness to God, do it in the context of community, and then leave it with the Lord in whose name the prayer is offered.” Pray about everything …
Because prayer’s effect is powerful. The truth is: prayer doesn’t work, God works. Prayer gets us in touch and in sync with God. It keeps communication lines open. It alerts God that we don’t want to go it alone, don’t want to depend on our own strength. We are waiting with open hands to receive whatever God deems right and best for us. Ralph Sockman describes the true intention of prayer: “We use prayer as a boatman uses a boat hook: to pull the boat to the shore and not to try to pull the shore to the boat.” Prayer is powerful because it gets us in sync and in step with God. It draws us close. Remember what James wrote in 4:8? “Draw near to God and he will draw near to you.”
John Piper suggests that prayer corresponds with two great purposes of God that Jesus came to accomplish: God’s glory and our joy. Piper writes:
Prayer is designed by God to display his fullness and our need. Prayer glorifies God because it puts us in the position of the thirsty and God in the position of the all-supplying fountain.
And God does supply because prayer is powerful in its effect!
Look at vv. 15=16 …
The prayer of faith will save the sick person, and the Lord will raise him up; if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is very powerful in its effect.
Yes, it is. The word powerful translates a word that means potency, power waiting to be released—like an untapped resource, like oil bubbling beneath the earth’s surface just waiting to be tapped into a gusher. So the prayer of people living in right relationship with God is powerful. And it’s effective too. God uses such prayers to get things done—things like honest fellowship, healing, and the forgiveness of sins come through prayer. And I know what some of you are thinking: “I’ve prayed about my sickness and I’m still sick. I’ve had church leaders pray over me, and I’m still sick. Is James making a promise God can’t keep?” No. Context helps here.
- In James’ day, the word sick covered a lot more than leprosy and cancer and the common cold. Sickness had spiritual connotations too. Sickness covered any malady one might suffer in this world. That context helps.
- And so does this: some translations use the word heal where the CSB uses the word save in v. 15—“The prayer of faith will save (heal) the sick person.” Either of those translations is legit because just as sickness has spiritual connotations, healing does too. The same word we translate heal can be translated save and often is. More is going on in healing prayer than killing some bacteria, opening up a clogged artery, or restoring vision to a blind person. Something soul-deep is going on. And just in case sin has some role to play in a person’s sickness—sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t—sins are forgiven in the healing too. This is not piecemeal healing; this is holistic healing.
James says healing happens and “the Lord will raise him up.” The Lord can do that in many ways. Because this comes through “the prayer of faith,” we have to leave how and how much God does to God. His will. His purposes. His agenda. We trust that. We trust him. We don’t put our faith in faith; we put our faith in God. We take our needs to God in prayer and in community, and we trust God to heal us however he chooses. I’ve seen God heal in many ways.
- A woman develops a serious illness from which she prays to be healed. God doesn’t heal her body, but through her illness he heals her relationship with an estranged daughter. God raised up a dead relationship.
- A crusty old pagan gets a horrible cancer. “He’s going to die,” says the doc. But some Christians who have been trying to get him to Jesus for years pray for him. And God heals that scoundrel. The man gets saved. And he goes on to lead some of his pagan friends to the Lord. God raised up those who were dead in their sins to abundant and eternal life.
- I’ll never forget an experience I had in the hospital with a lady eaten up with cancer in her gut. I was young and inexperienced. I just dropped by to see her on my way back to church from seminary classes. I stood over her bed. Her eyes were closed as she threw her head back and forth, groaning. I called her name. She opened her eyes to look at me. And without warning, she grabbed the lapels of my jacket and pulled me down to her face as she shouted, “Pray that I die. Pray that I die. Please pray that I die.” She had given up on physical healing and longed for the healing of heaven. James has that in mind in these verses too. God healed her by raising her up to heaven.
God heals in many ways. And there’s almost always more to his healing ways than meets the eye.
But healing in this text is not the subject; it’s more of an adjective, an illustration. Prayer is the subject. Prayer is what lays hold of the power of God who can do anything for anybody anyway anywhere anytime he chooses. Just ask. In chapter 4, James chided the church: “You do not have because you do not ask” (4:2). Ask already! Pray. “The prayer of a righteous person is very powerful in its effect.”
And it’s something every Christian can do. In vv. 17-18, James invites Elijah to the party. “Look at Elijah,” James says. “The man prayed earnestly that it wouldn’t rain, and God turned off the spigots for three years. Then, Elijah prayed for rain and it came in drought-busting buckets.”
Every Christian in sync with God can pray with that kind of power. I can see you raise your eyebrows at that statement. And I’ll be the first to admit that when James holds up Elijah as an example, it doesn’t sound like much help. Isn’t Elijah a Bible rock star? He’s a Bible hero, maybe the greatest prophet that ever walked the earth. The dude didn’t even die—God swept him up in a fiery chariot. “Consider Elijah,” James says. Come on, James, can you find someone with a sketchier resume? Why not Gideon or Jephthah or even David? How about Peter or Thomas? But Elijah. Come on, man! Who could ever live with the faith and righteousness of Elijah?
“You can,” writes James. Elijah was a big deal, but Elijah, says James, “was a human being as we are.” He wasn’t perfect either. He had his bad days. He wasn’t Superman dressed in an Elijah suit. He was like us. When Jezebel threatened to put the axe to his neck, Elijah ran like a coward as far away as he could and ended up in the dark bowels of a cave in the dark depths of depression. Threw a little pity party for himself. Had the arrogance to think he was the only righteous person left in Israel. Asked God to kill him right there in that cave. “Elijah was a human being as we are.”
But God answered his prayer. He was righteous—which means he lived in right relationship with God. You and I can do that. Jesus made that possible for us through his death on the cross for our sins and his resurrection from the dead. When we put faith in Jesus, when our lives are hidden with Christ in God, then when God sees us, he sees us through the righteousness of Jesus. It’s gift. It’s grace. We can’t make this happen. Jesus made it happen. We receive this grace when we put our trust in Jesus. He makes us righteous. Paul said it this way: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21). Elijah was righteous. So are we … in Christ.
And Elijah “prayed earnestly.” So can we. Earnest prayer doesn’t mean Elijah got all worked up into a lather, started speaking in unknown tongues, or even cried a bucket full of tears. The key is that he prayed. As James Adamson put it, “Not that Elijah put up a particularly fervent prayer, but that praying was precisely what he did.” The general truth is spelled out clearly—human prayer leads to God results. And God answered Elijah’s prayer—first with a drought and then with the relief of rain. But the answer to Elijah’s prayers were not really about Elijah; the answer was about God. Remember: prayer doesn’t work; God works. Prayer gets us in touch and in sync with God. And when you love God, even in your imperfections, God will answer your prayers in ways that are consistent with his will. Ultimately, effective prayer is not about us or our will or our power; it’s about God and his will and his power.
Earnest prayer is a wonderful thing. But I’ll say it again: the key is not so much the mechanics of prayer or the enthusiasms of prayer, but the God to whom one prays. Earnest pray-ers do little more than take the issues of life and put them in the hands of God. Can there be any better way to pray? The key is to pray.
The last church I served adopted Forest Avenue Baptist Church, an inner Kansas City church that also served as a homeless shelter for women and children. Talk about living on a shoestring—check that—talk about living on a prayer. That was the shelter. The few members of the church couldn’t give near enough to support the church. The church and the shelter relied on the generosity of those not part of it. There were times when the only money they had was whatever happened to be in the pocket of their poorly paid pastor.
There was one occasion when they had a toilet paper crisis: 20 or 30 in the shelter and no toilet paper anywhere in the building. They used paper towels and tried to get creative using anything they could think of to substitute. It wasn’t working. So as they were preparing lunch for the women and children in the shelter, they circled up to pray for toilet paper. In the circle was a Muslim woman, a physics professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. She volunteered now and then to help at the shelter. They prayed for the provision of the toilet paper, then they went on about their business: cooking up lunch and cleaning up afterward. As they were cleaning up, a lady who had never been to the shelter and had no idea of their particular needs showed up. She had a huge box in her arms. And you know what was in the box, don’t you? Toilet paper. All the volunteers except the Muslim professor smiled big smiles and whispered, “Thank you, Lord.” They didn’t seem surprised really; they had seen these little miracles before. But the Muslim professor hadn’t. Overcome with shock, she blurted out, “Oh! The God! He answers prayer! The God. He answers prayer!”
Yes, he does. So follow James’ counsel: pray about everything from suffering to praise to sickness to toilet paper—because the prayer of people in right relationship with God is powerful in its effect … and the God—the one true God—he answers prayer.
Preached: November 19, 2017
First Baptist Church, Hot Springs, AR
John Scott McCallum II