Learn to Pray with Power
James: A Faith That Works – Part 13
I read about a small Tennessee town that had two churches and one whiskey distillery. Members of both churches complained that the distillery gave the community a bad image. To make matters worse, the owner of the distillery was a very outspoken atheist. The church people had tried unsuccessfully for years to shut down the distillery and finally they decided to hold a joint Saturday night prayer meeting to ask God to intervene and settle the matter once and for all.
The church folks gathered on Saturday night and all through the prayer meeting a terrible electrical storm raged. Then to the delight of the church members a lightning bolt hit the distillery and burned it completely to the ground. The next morning the sermon in both churches was on the power of prayer.
Insurance adjusters promptly notified the distillery that they would not pay for the damages because the fire was caused by an “act of God” and that was an exclusion in the insurance policy.
Well, the distillery owner was furious and decided to sue both churches, claiming that they had conspired with God to destroy the building and his business. The churches denied they had anything to do with the cause of the fire. And the judge who presided over the case opened the trial with these words: “I find one thing in this case most perplexing,” he said. “We have a situation here where the plaintiff, an atheist, is professing his belief in the power of prayer and the defendants, all faithful church members, are denying the very same power!”
We’re going to talk for a little while this morning about the power of prayer. Most Christians say that they believe in prayer, but in reality, they don’t see much power in it because we don’t pray very much. If we saw more power, we would pray more frequently with a sense of anticipation and we’d give God the credit when prayer was answered. And while we hold prayer meetings and we say we believe in prayer, it is not, frankly, a very potent force in many of our lives. We all feel inadequate. We all could say with Jesus’ disciples, “Lord, teach us to pray…” (Luke 11:1).
Now I’m not an expert in prayer by any means, but James was. Tradition has it that James’ nickname was “Old Camels Knees” because he spent so much time on his knees praying that callouses had developed. And when you read James’ letter it’s obvious that prayer was a very powerful force in his life.
In the first chapter he said, “If you lack wisdom, ask God” (v. 5). In the fourth chapter he said, “Now many of you don’t have because you don’t ask God” (v. 2). And here in the final paragraph of his letter he mentions prayer seven times.
James writes about prayer that is “powerful and effective” (v. 16). The Greek word for “effective” is the word from which we get our term “energy.” It carries with it the idea of an ingredient added to something average turning it into something effective. Prayer can take the average Christian life and turn it into an effective, powerful life if we put it into practice.
So let’s try to learn from James about what makes prayer an energizing force in our lives and in our world.
I. SPECIFIC REASONS FOR PRAYER.
I want you to see first some specific reasons for prayer.
James says, “Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray” (5:13a).
So here’s the first reason we ought to pray, just deliverance from trouble.
You would think that would come naturally, that we would just automatically pray to God in times of deep distress, but it doesn’t. A Federal Aviation Inspector said when they listen to the final words of airline pilots just before they crash, they frequently hear profanity. The very last words recorded on the tape preserved in that black box are not prayers, many times, but cursing. Because when faced with severe trouble people instinctively revert to lifelong habits.
So, James is telling us, “You get into the habit of calling upon God in trouble.” Not just in deep distress, but in everyday kinds of problems.
When you walk into class and you’re unprepared and the teacher says, “Pop quiz today,” it’s time to pray, “Lord Jesus, come quickly!”
You discover a strange lump on your body. It’s time to pray, Lord, help it not to be cancer.”
When churches are in trouble churches need to pray. Churches face financial pressure, difficult decisions, external criticisms. But one of the positive byproducts of that kind of stress is that we’re motivated more than ever to pray for the church.
James said, “Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray. Is anyone happy? Let him sing songs of praise” (5:13).
Here’s another form of prayer, and that is singing. Now singing songs of prayer is a humbling experience.
When you praise God in singing it decentralizes self. Some of you are excellent singers and you can sing with haughtiness. But most people feel very inadequate singing, and singing does not enhance their sense of dignity. There are some among us who would probably be better off just doing a Milli Vanilli lip-sync imitation.
But it humbles us to sing. Have you ever noticed how many of our songs – particularly hymns – are really prayers thanking God? “Now thank we all our God.” “Joyful, joyful, we adore Thee.” “Open the eyes of my heart, Lord.” “Lord I need You, oh I need You.” Those are not songs to fill up the time while the latecomers get seated, or to warm up for the sermon, they are expressions of thanks from the heart. “Is anyone happy? Let him sing songs of praise.”
Are your children healthy? Are you glad to be alive? Are you thankful that Christ died for your sins and you have the hope of eternal life? Then pray by singing praises to God!
John Blanchard wrote, “When the world is on top of you, pray. When you’re on top of the world, pray. We have a God for all seasons,” he said.
Remember in Acts 16 when Paul and Silas were arrested for preaching about Christ? They were beaten, thrown into a dungeon, and they were tied into stocks and chains. And Acts 16:25 says, “About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them.” They were praying in trouble. And they were singing hymns of praise, thanking God that they were counted worthy of suffering in the name of Christ.
And the other prisoners heard them. That must have been an impressive testimony because they had heard cursing and moaning from that inner cell, but never had they heard singing and praying.
Verse 26 says, “Suddenly there was such a violent earthquake that the foundations of the prison were shaken. At once all the prison doors flew open, and everybody’s chains came loose.”
When they prayed in trouble and sang praise to God, there was power that flowed through that prison and they were released.
“Is any of you in trouble? He should pray. Is anyone happy? Let him sing songs of praise.” And verse 14, “Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord” (James 5:13-14).
Now the word “sick” here means “extreme illness.” We ought to pray when we’re mildly sick, but he’s talking here about somebody who is without strength to the point that they’re incapacitated. They have to call for somebody to come to them and the elders pray over them.
The elders of the church are called. They are the shepherds, the overseers of the church, the men who are to be the most spiritual among us. When the elders come, they should pray and anoint with oil in the name of the Lord.
Now James is not talking about “extreme unction” here – the anointing of somebody just as they take their final breath. He’s talking about those we can pray for to be healed.
But there is controversy over whether this anointing with oil is medicinal or symbolic. If I am called to come to somebody’s home or hospital room and pray for them, I’ll gladly go. If the person requests anointing with oil, I’ll do that. I’ll take a little olive oil and just place it on the person’s forehead as a symbol of the presence of God’s Holy Spirit and power. Baptism is a symbol of death, burial and resurrection. And perhaps oil can be a symbol of the presence of the Holy Spirit.
But the general feeling about this passage is that the oil referred to here was medicinal. Dr. Charles Swindoll wrote, “This word means ‘to apply or to rub something into the skin.’ In Biblical times oil was used on one who was sick for medicinal effects. We find that occurring in Luke 10 when the Samaritan poured oil onto the wounds of the man who was mugged by the robbers.”
“So, James is not writing about ceremonial anointing here,” Swindoll says. “What he called for was the use of the best medicinal procedure of that day – simply rubbing or massaging oil into the body and praying. Translated into today’s terms, oil represents antibiotics, various medications, surgery, therapy, and so on.”
So, James is not saying, “Forget medical practice, let’s just have faith healing.” He said, “When you’re sick, you get the best medical treatment and apply it. Then you call the most spiritual leaders of the church and have them pray.”
And verse 15 says, “And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up.”
There will be power in that prayer!
Now this is not a magic formula that guarantees automatic healing every time, or else people would never die would they. Those who suggest that if you have enough faith and you’re walking right with God you will always be healed deny both experience and scripture.
I’ve been involved in anointing with oil and intense prayer and the person died. Paul said, “I left my companion, Trophimus, sick in Miletus” (2 Timothy 4:20). Paul had the ability to heal, but not everybody was healed. On the other hand, I know people who are alive and well today just for fact that Christians prayed for them. I could tell you about individuals who have experienced dramatic answers to prayer for healing, and I can tell you about some who have prayed but have died
There’s a very important qualifier in this section that we need to hear. He said, “You pray….” How? “…in the name of the Lord” (James 5:14). That does not mean that you just pray, “In Jesus’ name. Amen.” It means that you pray that the Lord’s will be done.
Jesus taught us to pray, “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).
You see, we pray for the sick, saying, “We desire for this person to be well, Lord. They want to get better and we pray that your healing power can flow through them. But we surrender to your will and we ask that you would do what is best for them, in Jesus name.”
I know of a preacher in Lexington, Kentucky who underwent heart bypass surgery about a year ago now. Today he is completely recovered and doing very well. But during surgery the doctors discovered a hole in his pericardium, the sack which holds the heart. It was apparently a birth defect that had enlarged over the period of time and his heart was sinking through that herniation. And the doctors said if they had not discovered that defect in the course of the surgery that he would have died with six to twelve months. If they would have attempted the balloon procedure to enlarge the arteries of his heart, it would have certainly killed him.
But prior to the surgery, when he was going through the catheterization, fifty-two Christian people met in the chapel of St. Joseph’s Hospital and prayed for their pastor. And many of them prayed that he wouldn’t have to have a surgery at all, or that he could at least just get by with a balloon procedure, or just medication. And when they learned that he had to have bypass surgery many of them were disappointed. But looking back, it’s a good thing they performed the open-heart surgery and discovered that problem. And now the pastor’s prognosis is excellent.
That’s why we ought to pray, “Lord, not my will, but yours be done.”
Preacher and author, Roger Chambers, says, “You know, when I get to heaven I’m going to walk around with a flat head.” Someone once asked him, “A flat head?” And he said, “Yeah, a flat head. I’m going to ask a lot of questions. And then when the Lord answers them, I’m going to say, ‘Oh, (smacking forehead) now I understand! Now I understand!’”
And I’m sure when we get to heaven and look back, we will find out that many times it’s been a blessing that our prayers weren’t answered.
II. IMPORTANT PREREQUISITES TO PRAYER.
Now I want you to notice, also, in this passage, several important prerequisites to prayer.
There are certain conditions that we need to meet in order for prayer to be a powerful force in our life.
And the first prerequisite is faith.
James says, “And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well…” (5:15).
A tentative, skeptical prayer won’t have much power. Now he’s not saying, “When you pray you’ve got to be absolutely confident that the way you pray it’s going to be answered that way.” What he’s saying is, “When you pray, you be confident that there is a God who hears and wants to give what is best to you.” That’s the kind of faith Jesus said if you have as much as a grain of mustard seed, you’ll be able to remove mountains.
If we know that a satellite, miles into space, with sensitive microphones can monitor a conversation on a ship in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, is it really too much to believe that the God who created us can tune his ear and hear our prayers?
Hebrews 11:6 says, “Without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.”
Another prerequisite is harmony.
Now the Bible makes it clear that we can’t have a right relationship with God unless we have a right relationship with each other. So there’s the vertical relationship that has to be right by faith, and then there’s the horizontal relationship that has to be right by confession so that our prayers can have power.
Remember what Jesus said in Matthew 5? “…if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, [you] leave your gift there in front of the altar. [You] first go and be reconciled to your brother, then come and offer your gift” (vv. 23-24).
When you’re at odds with another Christian, you’re at odds with God and you’re not ready to pray.
First Peter 3:7 reads, “Husbands … be considerate of your wives, and treat them with respect … so that nothing will hinder your prayers.”
If you’re out of sync with your mate, that acts like sewage blocking up the power of God that wants to flow through. Get it right at home!
One Christian author said he was praying one day, and he said, “Lord, I have treated my wife with disrespect. I have abused her. I have been critical of her. I have been mean-spirited. I ask your forgiveness.” And he said it was like he could hear the word of the Lord saying to him, “Don’t tell me about it. I know. Go tell her!”
And James says, “[You] confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed” (5:16).
Now I want to add a word of caution here. “Confess your sins to each other” does not mean spilling your guts to everybody who will listen.
I recall several years ago in a sister congregation to the one I was serving at the time, a couple came forward at the end of a worship service that almost no one there knew. And they said, “We would like to speak to the congregation.” And then they proceeded to confess to the congregation that they had committed fornication, and they asked for the congregation’s forgiveness. The leaders of that church tried to minister to the couple, but that was a very awkward time.
Listen to what Warren Wiersbe wrote: “We must never confess sin beyond the circle of that sin’s influence. Private sin requires private confession. Public sin requires public confession. It is wrong for Christians to hang dirty was in public, for such confession might do more harm than the original sin.”
Now I disagree with that a little bit. I think that there may be times where it is healthy to confess a secret sin to a trusted friend or counselor. But biblical confession should be made to the person against whom we have sinned and from whom we need forgiveness. Sometimes there are sins that have wounded the heart of God and we just need to confess it to him. Sometimes we’ve hurt another person and we need to go to that person and confess that sin.
And then there’s public confession. Maybe a family, or a Sunday school class, or a whole church has been offended.
You may recall years ago when Jimmy Swaggart went on national television and confessed his immorality. Now I thought that was right because his transgressions had been made public and he had a national TV audience. There should have been a public confession, even as embarrassing as it was.
On the other hand, Dear Abby gets all kinds of letters from people who have cheated on their mates. And they will say, “The affair was years ago. Its over now. But I’ve never told my mate and I feel guilty. Should I tell them?” And most of the time the answer is, “No. You’ve already done enough damage. Don’t lie about it, but don’t hurt them to release your guilt. Confess the sing to God and receive his forgiveness and go on.”
Confession, you see, should be made to the person who has been knowingly wounded by our sin and who needs to forgive us. And by the way, if somebody comes to you and says, “Hey, I’m sorry. I really hurt you,” then you have a responsibility to swallow your pride and be reconciled to that brother or sister.
Jesus said, “When you pray, you pray, ‘Father, forgive me of my sins as I forgive those who have sinned against me” (Luke 11:4).
Somebody once boasted to John Wesley, “I never forgive a man!” And Wesley said, “Well then, sir, I hope you never sin.”
“…confess your sins to each other and then pray with power so that you may be healed.”
Now there’s one other prerequisite, and that is righteousness.
Verse 16 concludes, “The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.”
Now none of us is righteous. We are all sinful. We’re cleansed by the blood of Christ. But what he means here is, the closer we walk with God the more powerful, and the more potent, our prayers are going to be.
Now none of us is righteous. We are all sinful. We’re cleansed by the blood of Christ. But what he means here is, the closer we walk with God the more powerful, and the more potent, our prayers are going to be.
Psalm 84:11 reads, “…no good thing does he withhold from those whose walk is blameless.”
And if you want your prayer to be powerful then walk closely in obedience to God.
Frank Peretti wrote the bestselling novel entitled This Present Darkness. And in that novel, he pictures the angels of heaven poised, ready to come and do spiritual warfare on behalf of the Christian. But they can come only in response to the prayers of the believers.
And James says, “The prayer of a righteous person can be powerful….”
Then James cites Elijah as a positive example of prayer. The story of Elijah is found in 1 Kings 17. But he says, “Elijah was a man just like us” (v. 17).
Elijah wasn’t perfect. He knew depression and self-pity and cowardice. But he was God’s prophet in a time when Israel was reeking of immorality and idolatry. And Elijah was sent by God to urge the nation to repent. And when they didn’t repent, Elijah prayed that they would be disciplined by a drought.
And James says, “…it did not rain on the land for three and a half years” because of Elijah’s prayer.
Over the years, I’ve played golf with many different groups of individuals. And there have been times in some of those outings where it has begun to rain, and we would have to quit playing. And it never seems to fail on those occasions that someone in the group will say, “Preacher, can’t you do something about this weather?” And I always have one standard answer, “I’m not in management, I’m in sales!”
But Elijah had such powerful connections with the manager of creation that his prayer affected the weather for three and a half years. Finally, the people repented, and Elijah prayed again and there was a rainstorm that refreshed the earth.
Now how can we pray with a measure of that power?
In verse 17, it says, “[Elijah] prayed earnestly….”
The literal Greek reads, “He prayed in prayer.”
Many people don’t pray in their prayers, they just lazily say religious words and their hearts aren’t in it. But God isn’t impressed with rituals or prayers that we memorize and say by rote.
In Matthew 6:7, Jesus said to “avoid vain repetition when you pray. Don’t be like the hypocrites who continue to babble on and think they’re going to be heard for their much speaking.”
God is not concerned with verbosity; he is concerned with intensity.
When you get a greeting card in the mail, maybe a card of sympathy or a congratulatory card, what impresses you the most? What do you pay the most attention to? The poem that is printed on that card, or the two sentence, scribbled, hand written note at the bottom? I don’t know about you, but even though that prose may be carefully selected, what means the most to me is that somebody takes the time to write a note on the bottom.
And you can memorize prayers all the way from “now I lay me down to sleep,” to the Serenity Prayer, or the Lord’s Prayer for that matter, but God wants that prayer to come from your heart, as awkward and unpoetic as it may be.
III. SUGGESTIONS FOR MORE POWERFUL PRAYER.
Let me give you some suggestions about how prayer can become more powerful in your life.
First, schedule a definite time every day when you’re going to pray.
I think we ought to learn to pray sentence prayers as the day goes on, but the first key to making prayer powerful is to make a commitment of time every day. It will cost you fifteen minutes of television time, maybe; or fifteen minutes of turning off the snooze alarm again and again.
And then you find a place where you know you can be alone.
Jesus said, “When you pray, don’t do it on the street corner to be seen of men.” He said, “When you pray, go into your private room, shut your door, and pray to your Father, who sees what is done in secret” (Matthew 6:6).
You find a place where you know you’re going to be uninterrupted.
And I would suggest, if possible, that you kneel to pray.
That’s one of several postures suggested in scripture. It’s not mandatory, but kneeling creates a spirit of submission.
And then pray out loud.
Some people like to write prayers down, and that’s meaningful to them. It’s more helpful to me if I just pray out loud.
Eli saw Hannah praying in the tabernacle alone, but she was moving her lips. And he thought she was drunk. One of the reasons we’re afraid to pray out loud, I think, is that we’re afraid somebody’s going to hear us and think that we’ve lost it. But that’s why we need to pray alone. We don’t have to worry about what people think.
And then you just talk to God in normal language.
You don’t have to use “thee” and “thou.” Just tell him what’s on your heart, out loud.
Rosalind Rinker said that “prayer is just a conversation between two people who love each other.”
When you’ve said what you want to say, even if it only took a minute, then you quietly sit and listen, and read scripture, and allow God to speak to you. That simple practice, if it becomes a regular habit, will slowly empower your life and will within a short amount of time dramatically change you.
Many times, when I pray I use a formula called ACTS. It’s simple and goes like this:
A stands for confession.
Jesus said, “When you pray, say ‘hallowed by your name” (Matthew 6:9). And we say, “Father, I worship you. I acknowledge you’re my Creator. You’ve made everything around me. I’m dependent upon you.”
C is confession.
“I confess to you that I really got jealous yesterday. I confess my sins to you.”
T stands for thanksgiving.
“I thank you for my parents.” “I thank you for Christ.” “I thank you for this day.”
And S stands for supplication.
“Hear my requests to you.” “Hear my needs this day.” “And would you be with these people whom I’m concerned about today?”
Listen to what Paul wrote in Philippians 4. He said, “…The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your request to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (vv. 5-7).
That’s the power of prayer!
Rarely is prayer going to result in a lightning storm that’s going to burn down a distillery. Only on occasion does God miraculously heal somebody who is dying of cancer. Most of the time requests to bring about rain, or to stop the rain, are not answered immediately. But God promises his inner strength, his peace that passes understanding, to everyone who learns to pray effectively. And that is powerful!
Dwight Moody said, “Every great movement of God can be traced to a kneeling figure.”
What kind of movement of God in Cherokee, Iowa would be traced to a hundred or so kneeling Christian people?
Ephesians 3:20 says, “[God] is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us….”