The power of prayer

Here are a few related questions I want you to think about for a moment. When I say “prayer warrior,” who comes to mind? Why? What makes them stand out as special in some way? Is it because they seem to have some special gift of prayer? Is it because they can always be counted upon to ask how you’re doing — and when they promise to pray, you know they will? Is it because they seem to be so consistent and so diligent in prayer, in ways you can’t begin to imagine for yourself?

There are, of course, no intrinsically “right” answers to such questions. And there can be no doubt that some believers pray more fluidly, more automatically, more earnestly, and quite simply, more often than others. Is this a special “gift” in its own right?

Perhaps.

But there should also be no doubt that prayer is the province of all believers, and indeed, of all believing communities.

That’s important to how we read the following passage from James, the first sentence of which is fairly well-known:

The prayer of the righteous person is powerful in what it can achieve. Elijah was a person just like us. When he earnestly prayed that it wouldn’t rain, no rain fell for three and a half years. He prayed again, God sent rain, and the earth produced its fruit. (James 5:16b-18, CEB)

When it comes to righteous people of prayer and the power of God, it’s no surprise that the prophet Elijah jumps to James’ mind. As we’ve seen in a recent post, Elijah is well remembered for his duel with the prophets of Baal atop Mount Carmel. That spectacular battle came in the context of a severe drought, which began at least two years (1 Kings 18:1) before the duel and ended soon after.

It’s interesting, however, that James here bypasses Elijah’s prayer for God to send fire roaring from heaven, and focuses instead on the prayer for rain — especially when the story as we have it in 1 Kings 18 mentions the first prayer but not the second. In that account, it sounds like God had already decided to end the drought, and simply sent Elijah to deliver the news. But none of James’ readers would have batted an eye at the idea that God answered Elijah’s prayers for anything. He was the quintessential man of God, the prophet of prophets.

No, if there was anything that would have made James’ readers sit up and take notice, I think, it would be this: “Elijah was a person just like us.”

. . .

Over the years, I’ve done a lot of DIY work: painting and refinishing; framing and cabinetry; plumbing and electrical; tile and vinyl flooring. I’ve learned time and again that you have to have the right tool for the job. You can’t do good work with too small a hammer, too dull a saw, too weak a power tool.

But is the same true of prayer? Does the right tool for the job mean that for “serious” prayer requests we need to find the “right” prayer warrior? One with a level of righteousness to match the challenge?

Biblically, it’s clear that God doesn’t listen to the prayers of the wicked (e.g., Ps 34:15-16; 1 Pet 3:12). But that doesn’t mean that the outcome of a prayer can be anticipated by the degree of righteousness of the one who offers it. James isn’t saying, “If you want your prayer to be effective, find an especially righteous person to pray.” It’s not about Elijah, it’s about God. Elijah, after all, was “a person just like us.”

Every congregation probably has its prayer warriors. And there are people who are habitually more in tune with God. If they are able to offer some much needed wisdom, that’s a rich blessing indeed. But we can’t let ourselves think for a moment that it is somehow more their “job” to take on the hard prayers.

What James wants his readers to know is that God hears the prayers of the faithful, and because of this, anything is possible.

Maybe even the healing of the most fractured of congregations.

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