Although I’m not a very good joke-telling preacher, one of my favorites is about the news reporter newly assigned to Jerusalem. His editor asked him to write a story to give the readers back home a sense of what life was like in that ancient city. So, one day the reporter wandered down to the “Wailing Wall,” the last stones still standing of the Jewish temple that had been destroyed in AD 70 by Roman troops. There, every day, Jews line up at the wall to pray. The reporter noticed a very old man finishing his prayer and requested an interview. “What does it feel like, praying at this wall every day for so many years?” the reporter asked. “What does it feel like?” the old man repeated back. He sighed and answered, “It feels like I’m talking to a wall!”
I like that story because it is brutally honest about the frustration that deeply pious people often feel about prayer. Many Christians I know can identify with that old man’s sense of loneliness and futility in prayer. Identifying with the joke allows us to talk honestly about an issue that causes many Christians to doubt the sincerity of their faith or the maturity of their pilgrimage. I am often frustrated by prayer, and I suspect I am not alone. Prayer is, for many Christians, the spiritual exercise they hate to love. That is, they know they should pray. They even want to pray! But the actual act is sometimes difficult and confusing, and it may not result in any super-spiritual experience at all. For some of us, prayer has become a means of discouragement rather than a means of grace.
Prayer in Every Season of Life
In James 5:13–18, the apostle uses real-life examples to teach us about prayer:
Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit.
In this passage, James calls on us to pray in seasons of trouble and happiness, and in times of sickness and health. His point is that in every circumstance, situation, and season of life, prayer is a means of grace by which the presence of God is made manifest among us.
The first real-life situation recalls one of James’s favorite subjects: suffering. In verse 13, he asks, “Are you suffering?” That’s a very practical question. His answer, however, is the sort of impractical advice you’d expect a minister to give: pray! What do you pray for when you are suffering? I pray for relief and rescue from my suffering. If that doesn’t come quickly enough, I pray for strength to endure suffering. In moments of greater spiritual clarity, I pray that God would be glorified in my suffering.
Prayer recognizes God’s powerful presence in every situation. We pray because we expect God is there, that he cares, and that he is able to address our situation in some way. If we do not pray, we are telling ourselves and others that God is not there, or that he does not care about our suffering, or that God is not able to do anything about our suffering.
Do you struggle with those thoughts? I do. I am sometimes tempted to think of prayer as nothing more than religious platitudes. Then I am ashamed of my doubts, which drives me even deeper into prayerlessness. But God calls us to bring those doubts to him in prayer. When we do, we honor God and we also build up our faith as we cry out to God for comfort and help in understanding his purpose for our suffering.
James then moves to the opposite end of the spectrum: “Are you cheerful?” He tells us to sing praise when life is good. Our songs of praise are prayers themselves as we extol and worship God. Prayer does not always have to include petitions. Sometimes it can simply be adoration. Just as an appropriate response to suffering is prayer, so also prayer through praise is an appropriate response to a good life. This, of course, is a good argument for memorizing the songs of the church—they can become for us a template of prayerful praise!
We see James’s second real-life situation in verse 14 when he asks, “Is anyone among you sick?” This puts us on more familiar ground. We often promise to pray for those in our lives who are ill, and our prayer lists are filled with distant relatives of good friends who face various types of sickness. James tells the church’s leaders to be on call for those who are sick. But then he makes a surprising connection: sometimes sickness is a result of sin (v. 15). James is a good biblical theologian. He knows that our bodies are subject to corruption due to the Fall. Every one of us bears the rotten fruit of Adam’s rebellion against God in our physical bodies. James has a full-orbed understanding of the vulnerability of the justified life. Just because you are Christian doesn’t mean that you are free from disease. God sometimes allows us to feel the corruption of sin long after he frees us from the guilt of sin.
James insists that when the elders of the church pray for those who are sick, God will both raise the sick person up and forgive his or her sins. Here he echoes Jesus’ own words about the keys of heaven being given to the disciples to forgive or retain sins: “Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matt. 18:18). God’s ministers, upon praying for one of the sheep in the congregation, may also absolve and assure that person of the forgiveness of sins. This assurance may be even more heartening than physical recovery.
Facing such remaining weakness in our lives, James calls on the church to support one another. In verse 14, James calls on the leadership to anoint and forgive, to serve the body through their prayers. The rest of us are also called to act: we are the “one-anothers” of verse 16. James says to confess our sins and pray for one another. This kind of personal body ministry is a key characteristic of a healthy church, because it is necessary for our own spiritual growth and development.
God calls us into his presence, no matter what our situation is in life. In his commentary on James, John Calvin picks up on the implicit promise of James’s exhortation when he says: “There is no time when God does not invite us to himself: afflictions ought to stimulate us to pray; prosperity supplies us with an occasion to praise God.” God uses prayer in every circumstance of our lives to reveal himself to us and to help us know and experience his presence.
Power in Prayer
Whenever we talk about prayer, we run the risk of falling into cultural superstitions. No doubt you’ve heard people confidently declare “There’s power in prayer!” without explaining how that power expresses itself or where it comes from. Junk science is sometimes cited by other well-meaning people to prove that prayer (presumably to any god) has tangible, medical benefits. I’ve even seen an enterprising entrepreneur “borrow” a trade-marked logo to use on a t-shirt: “Just pray!”
James says it takes a specific kind of prayer for prayer to work. He calls it “the prayer of faith” (v. 15). James has already talked about faith in his letter. Recall that in 1:6 he defined faith as “not doubting” and “not being tossed like a wave of the sea.” Instead, faith is confidence in the Lord who does not change (1:17). This means that the prayer of faith can be offered only by a righteous person (5:16). James isn’t talking about a super-saint. The righteous person is one whose life is characterized by a commitment to God and a desire to do his will. That person can offer prayer grounded in right belief about God. That person can offer a prayer that presupposes, above all else, the Lord’s will. The righteous person does not presume to lecture God but instead asks and receives from God’s hands as a gift.
The result, James says, is “great power.” Prayer is powerful and does marvelous things through its powerful work. But prayer’s power is not inherent—it does not belong to the act of praying. Nor do you pray to manipulate the deity: prayer is not divine currency we spend to make God do something for us. Prayer’s power belongs to God to whom the prayer is addressed.
In verse 17, James tells the story of Elijah to prove his point. Elijah was a great figure in Jewish literature: he was a preeminent prophet and miracle-worker. But James does not appeal to him because of his great piety or miracle-working. Instead, he wants us to see how Elijah was a human like us—prone to doubting, complaining, and fear. First Kings 19 tells the story of how at one point in his life, Elijah ran away in fear from the wicked queen Jezebel and bitterly complained to God, “I’m the only faithful servant you have left in Israel!”
This man, so fragile in some ways, was also a mighty man of prayer. The story James tells comes from 1 Kings 17 and 18 when Elijah was ministering under the reign of the wicked King Ahab, who refused to recognize the power and the presence of God. God therefore told Elijah to pray that there would be no rain—and there wasn’t. Then to prove to Ahab that his idol worship was worthless, Elijah called on God to consume an altar doused with water. After proving God’s power over the false prophets, Elijah told Ahab that rain was coming—and it did!
Elijah’s prayer called on the God who was present, and that’s the lesson James is teaching us. God may not answer your prayers in all the ways you think are best for you. But he will always answer your prayers by showing his presence with you in every stage of life. How can we know that God will be with us? It’s his promise! Jesus Christ, through the ministry of the Holy Spirit, is with you just as he promised in his High Priestly Prayer in John 17:26, “I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”
Prayer is the opportunity God gives us to remind us of this new reality when all our other senses are overwhelmed by life. It is the means by which God actively communicates his grace to us. That’s why the Westminster Shorter Catechism (Question 88) calls prayer a means of grace:
What are the outward means whereby Christ communicateth to us the benefits of redemption? The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicateth to us the benefits of redemption are, his ordinances, especially the word, sacraments, and prayer; all of which are made effectual to the elect for salvation.
Along with the word and the sacraments, prayer is a way Christ pours his strength into us, equipping us for our pilgrimage.
What life situation confronts you today? James tells us to pray and ask God to show us how he is present. We’re not talking to a wall! We’re communing with the living God who loves us.
Eric Landry is executive editor of Modern Reformation magazine. He also serves as the senior pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Austin, Texas.