Does Prayer Work? (James 5:13-18)
The 18th Sunday after Pentecost (September 26, 2021)
Today, via our Epistle reading, James speaks to us about prayer. No doubt, prayer is one of the most neglected disciplines in our lives as Christians. Accordingly, many of us are missing out on a great blessing in our lives. After all, prayer is not only commanded by God, He promises great blessing to those who exercise it. Jesus has said, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened” (Matt. 7:7,8).
Let me ask, therefore, what sort of role prayer plays in your life? Would you characterize prayer as your constant companion or an occasional extra? Are your prayers confined to mealtime and church or do you maintain an ongoing dialogue with God?
Prayer is, after all, in its most basic essence, nothing more than a conversation with God. That makes it, as we just sang (LSB #772), “a holy conversation.” However, it is also only half of the conversation. In prayer God is not speaking to us. He does that in His Holy, inscripturated, Word. Prayer is us speaking to God, eliciting from Him His favor, His help, His guidance, His deliverance, or simply thanking and praising Him for what He has already done for us.
By the way, contrary to a popular notion, this also means prayer is not a sacrament. By that I mean, God did not institute prayer, like He did Holy Baptism, as the means to bring us individually the fruits of His Grace and Christ’s sacrifice; that is, forgiveness of sins, life and salvation.
Unfortunately, I would have to say that for the vast majority of us, we have little conversation with God. Our prayer life seems to be of two extremes.
On the one hand, for many it is seen as a last resort. I can’t tell you how often I have asked someone if I might pray with them and they have responded, “Oh, I guess it wouldn’t hurt! I have tried everything else.” Try that with your spouse sometime: “Well, Honey, I’ve asked everyone else I know about what to do, so I guess I might as well ask you!” Your spouse might indeed tell you what you should do!
Then there is the other extreme where people seem to attach an almost magical quality to prayer as though prayer has an inherent power to make things happen all on its own. It is felt that the effectiveness of prayer is independent of who prays and, even, to whom one prays. It is believed that the words of the prayer or the very action of praying will accomplish something. It is like that bumper sticker that reads: “Try prayer. It really works!” If prayer really works in this way, why bother talking to God? Just say the words. It is nothing more than an incantation!
James helps us steer through this fog of false and fuzzy ideas about prayer. He encourages us to see clearly that prayer is not some kind of hocus pocus nor empty words nor an exercise in futility, nor, even, simply an occasional extra in the life of a Christian. Rather, James clearly teaches us that prayer is a practice of faith.
James begins by helping us all to see just how central prayer is to the life of the Christian. He says, “Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise.”
Here James zeros in on the two central divisions of our lives… times when we are suffering with its accompanying sadness and times when we are, literally, feeling good; in other words, times when we are cheerful. Rarely are we somewhere in-between, having no feelings at all. We all live bi-polar lives. We are either up with joy or down with sadness. Our lives are a big roller coaster ride.
But as Christians we know that these highs and lows we experience are lived, not only in our relationship with other people, but also in our relationship with God. Just because we are baptized children of God, does not mean that there are not times of suffering, sadness, lowness. It is not always joy and highs that we have in God. Wise old king Solomon wrote that there is “a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance”(Eccles. 3:4).
But what James wants us to focus on is what we do in these times of lows and highs. We usually will talk with people about our woes and share with them our happiness. But do we speak with God concerning our suffering and our joy?
James puts into juxtaposition praying and singing. Both are occasions to speak with God, who created one as well as the other. Faith in God is not something we rely on only at certain times in our lives, say the bad times. But faith is integral to the whole life of the Christian. So, likewise, the exercise of faith through prayer is also integral to the whole life of the Christian.
When things are going well, it is indeed a time to strike up the band and sing praises to God who has blessed us with such happiness. After all, by virtue of our sinfulness, we are not worthy of anything good from God, only His punishing wrath. But God, in His forgiving grace for Jesus’ sake, grants us many joys and times of happiness in this life. God is glorified when we thank and praise Him for these added moments of extra grace.
At the same time, however, times of suffering, or more literally, “suffering of evil,” are also great times to speak to God. God wants to hear our needs and our petitions for help. This, too, glorifies Him. In Psalm 50, the LORD God says, “Call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me."
When we pray to Him in times of trouble, therefore, we are actually acknowledging that we look to God alone to heal us, rescue us… save us. This greatly pleases Him. With God, codependency is a good thing! Just as integral to our relationship with God as singing praise to God in our happy times so is our praying to God for His help is in all those times when evil has got us by the tail.
This also, then, makes prayer central to our care for one another. Prayer is not meant to be a self-centered activity. Others can greatly benefit from our lifting them and their needs to God. We could do no better to help our neighbors than to place them in God’s gracious and powerful hands. The apostle Paul urges that “entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings, be made for all men…this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (I Tim. 2:1,3,4).
James acknowledges the importance of Christians praying for others by saying, “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.”
Why does James encourage that the elders of the church, the pastor or other spiritual leaders, be called by those who are in need?
So they can pray over them; that is, pray for them. In other words, no one has to endure their suffering alone. In the Body of Christ, we are called upon to share each others burdens. And when we are in the throes of pain, it is often difficult to find the energy and confidence to pray. But here is where our brothers in Christ can help. They can put our needs before God and in this way share our load.
But why call for the pastor or elders to come and pray over us? Are their prayers more efficacious than other people’s prayers? Not at all! Just because a person is a pastor, does not mean that he has been given a special in with God, or that his prayers possess some kind of special healing power that a layman would not have. No, the prayers of any and all Christians for the sick or suffering would be just as effective.
The reason James mentions the “elders” of the church, is that the “elders,” or pastors, by virtue of their office, represent the whole church. Just as the pastor often serves as the spokesman for the whole assembly in worship services when prayers are offered, so when the pastor comes to someone’s bedside to pray for them, he comes as the representative of the whole congregation. With him comes the whole congregation. His prayer is the prayer of all. Then, too, God has even given those who occupy the pastoral office the permission and authority to pronounce to others God’s forgiveness of their sins. Accordingly, the pastor can not only pray for the sick, but also through the Holy Absolution he speaks, God through him brings the healing of forgiveness to the troubled conscience and soul of the sufferer where he or she is truly the sickest.
Please note, however, that this praying for others is in addition to and not a substitute for caring for the person’s immediate and physical needs. Literally, James says the elders can come and “oil with oil” the sick along with praying for them. If we truly care for someone’s suffering, our praying will always be accompanied with doing for them physically whatever is within our ability to relieve their suffering.
Now, even though our English text words it as “anointing with oil.,” James does not have in mind the sacred right of anointing with oil that was done to ordain someone into the ministry or establish them in some sort of office. Such application with oil is a whole different term than what James uses here.
Sacred anointing is “Christening,” as Jesus was “anointed (Christened)” to be our “Christ.”
Here James simply uses the customary term for “oiling” or “lubricating” something with olive oil. It was the common practice in that day before all our modern medicines, to apply olive oil to a wounded body or to the sick. It was the first line of medicinal help in those days, just like the Good Samaritan did for the injured man he found along the highway. Jesus said, “he bandaged up his wounds, pouring oil and wine on them…” (Lk 10:34).
Praying, along with giving proper help and medical attention, therefore, is central to our compassionate caring for the physical and eternal welfare of others.
To further encourage us all to make prayer our constant occupation for ourselves and others, James makes these astounding statements: “The prayer of faith will save the one who is sick…The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.” Wow! Prayer does really seem to work then, doesn’t it? But is it the prayer or something or someone else that does the working?
Speaking to the effectiveness of prayer, James makes reference to the O.T. example of the prophet Elijah. It seems that at one point, in order to bring God’s wrath against the wicked King of Israel and the disobedience of the people, Elijah “fervently prayed” that it would not rain on the land. The result was that it did not rain for 3 ½ years! That’s some prayer! Then later Elijah prayed again but this time that the heavens would once again water the earth. And, again, it happened as he prayed. It rained and it rained to the extent that the once dry, dusty, and unproductive ground once again bore fruit. Who could question then the power of prayer!
But was the power really in the prayer or was the prayer so effective because it came from the lips of a mighty prophet of God, like Elijah?
As I noted earlier, prayer is not an incantation. The words of one’s prayer have no inherent power. Elijah like the pastor of the church does not possess any special power of his own nor did he have any special “in” with God.
No, James tells us what made Elijah’s prayers so effective. He says his prayers were prayers of a righteous man; that is, a man of faith. Effective prayers are prayers uttered in faith in God and His promises, especially those given us in Jesus Christ. Jesus promises: “…All things for which you pray and ask, believe that you have received them, and they shall be granted.” And again He says, “Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it” (Jn. 14:13,14).
Prayer is not the power, or the energy, to accomplish anything. God is the power and His grace toward us sinners in Jesus Christ is the precipitating agent which moves His power to work in our lives. God is the One who heals, raises to life, restores and saves.
But God, according to His grace and by virtue of His promise, admits that He cannot resist the prayer of faith. So we see when God, in pre-incarnate form, permitted Jacob of old to wrestle with Him and hold on to Him until God blessed him (Gen. 32:22-ff). So we see when Jesus did not ignore the Gentile woman, who persistently clamored after Him, as everyone encouraged Him to do but rather granted her petition, healing her daughter (Mark 7:24-ff).
The prayers of the righteous, people of faith, are effective because it is their prayers that He has promised to hear and answer. In fact, He often sends His answer and help on its way even before the words of the believer’s petition are even on their lips (Is. 65:24).
It is not prayer that works! It’s our gracious God Who works to meet the needs of His people. With such wonderful promises of God to answer the prayers offered in faith, how can we not make prayer our continual occupation?