I have been asked to speak on prayer at an upcoming FIEC regional day and decided to trace a theology of prayer through the book of James. If you are coming, you may consider this post a primer or a spoiler (it is entirely up to you whether you wish to keep reading or not!)
As you probably already know, James is quite Hebraic in his forms and logic, tending to start a thought and circle back to it later on. So, rather than picking up one passage it seemed sensible to pull out the various passages in which James mentions prayer.
James has four key passages related to prayer. In each, we are given compelling reasons to pray more.
God grants the prayers of those who believe he will answer (1:5-8)
James’ first point is a very simple one. The Father is ready and willing to bless his children but he will only give to those who believe he will answer them. The very act of persistent prayer is a sign that we believe there is a God who hears and answers prayer. But it is only in the asking of him and believing he will answer that God will give liberally.
The value of our prayers can be measured by what else comes out of our mouth (3:7-12)
James highlights that the words we use day to day are a measure of that which is in our heart. Jesus certainly makes this point in Luke 6:45. James speaks about blessing God and cursing our fellow man with the same mouth and says “these things ought not to be so.” If our day to day speech is full of cursing and profanity, it speaks to the state of our hearts. If our hearts are full of such things, it may be a sign that we do not really belong to Christ. If we do not belong to Christ, then we cannot expect him to hear our prayers. We can therefore judge the efficacy of our prayers by the ordinary words we use in everyday speech.
If we don’t pray, or we pray with wrong motives, we won’t receive (4:1-4)
In this section, James gives two reasons why we often do not receive from God. First, he says you do not have because you do not ask. Second, he says you ask and do not receive because you ask wrongly. There are clearly some things that we would have, that we do not have, because we failed to pray for them. Similarly, there are some things we do not have that we asked for, that we would have, had our motives been better when we asked for them.
Praying makes those things happen, that would not otherwise happen, if you did not pray. Likewise bad motives stop things happening, that would otherwise happen, had we prayed for them rightly. James very clearly ties bad motives in prayer to selfishness. That is, we pray to the end of satisfying our selfish desires and therefore do not receive. Rather, we ought to pray for the purposes of God’s glory. If our prayers are not prayed with God’s glory in view, they are prayed with our own selfish desires in view. Thus, for James, the opposite of selfish prayers are not altruistic ones but rather those geared towards the glory of God and prayed within the will of God.
Believers have the very power of God available to them in prayer (5:13-18)
Typically, we get caught up in this section with questions of whether “healing” refers to sin-sickness or physical sickness. However, important as that question may be, it is not primarily the focus of the passage. James clearly lists a series of circumstances under which we are to pray – stating, in other words, Paul’s contention to pray at all times. The passage is leading up to James’ climactic statement in 5:16b: “the active prayer of a righteous person has great power” (MOUNCE).
Having made his major point, James uses Elijah as the example that supports his case. Not that he was a godly person, or wonderful prophet, but “a man with a nature like ours” who merely prayed in earnest. Elijah was no super-believer but a man like us. It is the prayer of the righteous which has great power – that, is the prayer of all those who believe by faith in Christ and have therefore had Jesus’ perfect righteousness imputed to them. Just as Elijah could access the power of God as a righteous man, so all believers counted righteous in Christ have the same access to this power in prayer.
Taken together this adds up to four reasons to pray more:
- God wants to give us good things
- God gives us a measure of whether our prayers will be effective
- God gives to those who ask him for things
- When we ask rightly, we are given access to God’s power.