Does prayer work?

Maybe you’ve occasionally wondered if there’s any point to prayer. Does it work? Is God listening?

We doubters ought to go back and reread James. Here’s James 5:16 in a few different translations:

The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working (ESV).

The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much (NKJV).

The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much (NASB).

The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective (NRSV).

James apparently thought prayer worked, and you and I ought to believe him. He gives this example:

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 (James 5:17-18).

Perhaps we think that of course God answered prayer back then . . . but we live in a different time, a more hands-off age.

But that thinking doesn’t work. There’s nothing in the Bible that suggests God ever stopped hearing and answering prayers.

Do you believe that?

A “non-answer” from God might be a couple of things:

It could actually be that he’s not answering because I’m walking outside of his will (and therefore not a “righteous” pray-er). For example, Peter wrote that a man who’s not treating his wife well will have an impotent prayer life.

It could also be that what we’re asking isn’t according to his will; if so, we wouldn’t want him to answer it anyway. I’ve begged him for things he later showed me that I didn’t need.

And it could be that he’s already in the process of answering our prayers, but he’s doing it according to his own timetable. Remembering that he exists outside of time helps us work through apparent delays. He knows the end from the beginning, and some things just don’t need to happen right now.

But does he answer?

Absolutely. The prayer of a child of God who pours out her heart to him is powerful and effective.

Believe that, and then pray accordingly.

Will you take my confession?

I don’t know why we ignore this verse, but I’m pretty sure we do, or at least we skip over the plain sense of it.

Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed (James 5:16).

When’s the last time you did that? When’s the last time you got your sin laundry list out, sat down with a Christian friend, and confessed the many ways you’re struggling in your relationship with Jesus?

“Okay, well first I probably need to confess the sin of greed and covetousness, and then there’s also lust and gossip and selfishness.” Ever said something like that?

I said I don’t know why we don’t do this, but I think I know. We avoid it because it makes us feel uncomfortable. We’re embarrassed. Nobody’s got this much sin but me. If I start confessing all this stuff, I’ll be getting sideways glances at church for the rest of my life. The church’s rumor mill will be on overdrive.

The closest we get to doing anything like this is in our tradition of responding to the “invitation song.” The preacher asks those who might have prayer needs to come “down front” at the end of the sermon, and they can submit their requests.

But that’s a far cry from what James writes here. Our way of doing it is very impersonal, and it lends itself to generic, “I’ve sinned and need forgiveness” kinds of prayers. There’s nothing wrong with those in their place, but James is pointing us to something way more personal, and much more powerful.

If we started doing this like we should, I bet there’d be a huge sigh of relief in our churches.

“You mean you struggle with that too? I thought I was the only one.”

I’m guessing we’d be amazed at how liberating it would be to live and worship in a church environment where we don’t have to pretend every Sunday that we’ve got it all figured out. Too often we’ve got our church clothes on, our Sunday smiles on, and our religious airs on. We’re all pretty much perfect.

Except we’re not. We might just put a façade on to impress other people and keep them from seeing the real us.

I wish we’d start obeying James. I wish we could confess our sins to one another in small group settings and enjoy the freeing experience of recognizing that we’re all in this together, and we’ve all got sin problems.

If we did, I think we’d see the church’s becoming more of the close-knit, hand-in-hand, on-our-way-to-heaven-together kind of community of believers.

Remember to praise

Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise (James 5:13).

I suppose we’re more likely to obey the first part of that verse than we are the second. It’s easy to let all of life’s stresses cause us to forget our need to praise God for everything good. If we’re not careful, talking to God can be more like a 911 call—something when do only when we find ourselves in a difficult spot.

Talking to God, though—praising him—ought to be what we do in every situation. When we’re hurting or sad, we pour out our hearts to him.

When we’re joyful—when he’s blessed us—we praise him.

James recognizes that life has its ups and downs. We’ll have problems like everyone else; when we do, we pray about it. But we should also recognize that God gives us so many joys.

What’s right in your life today?

Can you hear the birds singing outside? Perhaps you’ve already taken a walk in the cool springtime air this morning. God’s blessings surround us, and most of us have quite a few things to smile about.

A soft bed and a comfortable house. Water to drink and food to eat. A job that supports our families, healthy kids, faithful friends, a stable, peaceful country.

And most of all, of course, we’ve got Christ. Even if we have problems—which we do—nothing can dampen the fact that we’re forgiven.

Saved from sin. Washed in the blood. Justified, sanctified, and soon to be glorified.

So today, take time to praise. List the blessings God’s poured into your life, and thank him for every single one of them.

But especially thank him for giving you hope in the crucified, buried, and risen Savior.

Just pray

We’ve got a few different options when we’re suffering. We can whine about it, something most of us have done more than we should’ve. But it doesn’t really do any good, does it? We don’t particularly enjoy it, and the people around us certainly don’t.

We can blame God and fuss at him about it, but that probably suggests a lack of trust on our part.

We can finger-point and talk about why our problems are someone else’s fault. That’s really easy to do, and the devil loves it because we’ll never get any better as long as we’re blaming the people around us.

James has a different, simpler solution:

Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray (James 5:13a).

You may not be like me, but when I’m stressed or struggling, my devotional life suffers. My prayers tend to be more shallow, more perfunctory, less intense. I find myself going through the motions spiritually—praying, but only out of habit; engaging in the kind of “vain repetitions” that Jesus warned us against in Matthew 6. I’ve occasionally prayed an entire prayer and then realized I didn’t really think about any of it.

Do you do this?

Maybe that’s why James includes this simple encouragement: when you’re suffering, when you’re worried, when you’re stressed . . . pay attention to your devotional life.

Talk to the Lord about whatever it is. Don’t offer him clichés; really pour out your heart to him.

He’s never condoned our grumbling, and blaming him or the people around us is counterproductive.

What works?

Prayer, of course. Take your problems to the one who’s in control of your life and your problems and your concerns.

Suffering, worried, or stressed?

Pray about it.

Another tragedy?

I was planning on writing about prayer this morning anyway, and the Boston tragedy seems morbidly appropriate.

These scenes are getting old, aren’t they? It seems that we’re seeing them with an all-too-frequent regularity. I first saw on Twitter that smoke was rising from buildings near the end of the Boston Marathon, then bystanders posted about explosions, injuries, chaos, confusion.

James’ context and what’s going on in Boston aren’t perfectly analogous, of course, but he points to some relevant issues:

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 (James 5:14-15).

Aside from the terrorist aspect (which we’ll address below), events like this remind us that bad things often affect these temporary bodies we live in. Several friends have cancer, another is dealing with the after-effects of a bad car wreck, and hundreds of people are hurting because of what happened yesterday.

These bodies get broken, sometimes mangled and twisted, often irreparably so. I think it ought to remind us—like it did Paul—that these are tents that aren’t suited for permanence (cf. 2 Corinthians 5).

But James’ words also remind us to pay attention to physical needs. When people are sick, pray for them. Do what you can to help them, to heal them, to ease their suffering. Maybe we can’t offer much direct help to the people in Boston this morning, but we ought to pray hard for them. Pray that God eases their pain and heals them completely. Ask him to let his mercy and compassion be seen through the response of believers.

But there’s another point in James’ message, and it’s a little more difficult to grasp (or swallow): there’s often a connection between physical suffering and sin. That doesn’t mean that people who suffer are hurting because of their own sin; suffering often happens because of the sins of others.

But we live in a world in which bad things happen, and it’s because of sin. From the time that Adam and Eve took those forbidden bites, our world started suffering.

As if we needed another reminder, yesterday asks us to think again about the fallenness of our world. Cowardice, cruelty, twisted hatred, misguided religious fervor—perhaps we’ll discover that these and other motivations played into yesterday’s cruelty.

The good news is, Jesus is in the process of fixing it all. He’s bringing his people a new heavens and a new earth—one with no bombs or explosions, no terrorism, and also no cancer, pain, loneliness or suffering.

But until that day comes, this is the world we live in. And when stuff like this happens, we pray hard, and we try to help people heal, and we also hope that they’ll embrace the only One who can take them to a better world.

I swear?

You’ve probably heard stories of the good ole days when people just shook hands over deals . . . when the attorney-written, loophole-closing, fifty-page contracts of today were unknown.

“A man’s word is his bond,” people said. “A handshake is as good as a contract.”

I’m not sure if this is a case of romanticizing and therefore exaggerating the past, or if some people really did make big deals with nothing more than a nod of the head and a shake of the hand.

Here’s what I do know: with Christians, our word really ought to be our bond. When we tell people we’ll do something, we ought to break our necks to do it. We shouldn’t need a stack of Bibles or somebody’s grave to swear on or by.

Why?

Because we serve a God of truth, so we tell the truth, unadorned by extra words meant to convince people we really mean it.

James knew well what Jesus had taught, and he includes a loose quotation of one of the Lord’s sayings (cf. Matthew 5:33-37):

But above all, my brothers, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your “yes” be yes and your “no” be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation (James 5:12).

We’ve tried to teach our kids this. If you tell somebody something, you don’t need to say “I swear it’s true” or “I swear I’ll do it” or even “I promise.”

It won’t take people too long to figure out if you’re a truth-teller or not. If you are, they won’t require some kind of verbal proof that you mean what you say.

I think that’s what James is getting at here. I don’t think he’s saying there’s anything wrong with written contracts or taking an oath in a courtroom. He’s telling us to tell the truth.

Always.

He’s telling us to do what we say we’re going to do.

Always.

That means that we parents keep our promises to our kids. If we tell them we’re going to be at their soccer game at 5:00, it ought to take an earth-shattering event to keep us from being there.

The same thing applies to our spouses, our co-workers, our neighbors, the folks at church.

Christians are truth-tellers, and we don’t need oaths to convince people of it.

If they know us, they ought to know what we mean when we say “yes” or “no.”

Always.

A promise to struggling people

I’m sitting at a coffee shop as I type these words, and I can’t help but overhear bits of the conversation coming from the table behind me. They’ve touched on different topics—divorce, job problems, their kids’ lives, etc.—but disappointment and concern seem to be lying just beneath the surface.

It’s everywhere, of course, from the coffee shop in the suburb to the mill in a small town to the boardroom in a downtown highrise. People are struggling. Job woes, health problems, marriage break-ups, rebellious kids, unfulfilled dreams. The list goes on.

Most of us put on a happy face when we’re in public, and we remove the mask only at certain times in front of certain people. Behind the forced smile is a litany of unspoken concerns:

Will my kids turn out okay?

Will this stress ever get better?

Will I ever meet life’s demands more consistently?

Will my health be okay?

We’ve come a long way in the last fifty years. We can do things our grandparents never imagined.

But we haven’t removed worry, have we? And we never will, not here, not on this planet, not in this life.

James’ world was different in many ways—different language, different culture, different customs—but the people weren’t so different from us.

I know this, at least in part, because of what he writes here:

As an example of suffering and patience, brothers, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. Behold, we consider those blessed who remained steadfast. You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful (James 5:10-11).

James’ people were struggling, and they were asking the question people in every culture and every time have asked: How will I make it through this?

He does the only thing anyone can do: he points them to the Lord.

He doesn’t tell them everything will work out the way they hoped. He doesn’t tell them the suffering will stop right now.

He simply promises them that a blessing from the Lord awaits everyone who remains steadfast.

Hang in there, he says. The Lord knows, he cares, and he’s got a purpose in all this.

Maybe James’ message hits pretty close to home with you today. If so, I hope you’ll hear him. I hope you’ll see the importance of staying close to Jesus. I hope you’ll hang in there.

We consider those blessed who remained steadfast, James wrote, and that’s the same promise the Lord gives you today.

If you stay steadfast, he’ll bless you. It’s his promise.

He’s coming back

Some disheartening things are currently happening in our country. I sometimes wonder how much longer God will put up with what we’re doing.

More people are rejecting his plan for marriage for a less offensive, more “tolerant” approach. Unborn babies are still being killed, and fewer people believe in Jesus Christ as God’s revelation of himself.

I don’t want to be overly dramatic, but I fear that it won’t be long before it will be illegal for us to teach that God intends for marriage to be between a man and a woman, that same-sex marriages are inconsistent with his will. I wonder how much longer we’ll able to preach the Bible without interference from the government.

Some of James’ readers were really struggling. They were apparently being oppressed by people in positions of authority, and they were getting tired of it. It seems they were questioning how much longer they could hold out.

So James tells them:

Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and the late rains. You also, be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand (James
5:7-8).

Notice what James tells them: Keep your eyes focused on the future return of Jesus. Twice in these verses he mentions the Lord’s second coming.

He uses a farmer’s patience as an example. Just as he plants and fertilizes and waits for the harvest, so must Christians.

“Everything will happen when it’s supposed to,” James says. “Just hang in there.”

It’s healthy for all of us to be future-focused. It’s easy to get discouraged because of what we see around us. Maybe it’s world or national events, or maybe it’s something closer to home.

Maybe you’re sick or discouraged or worried.

Maybe you’re tired or homesick.

Maybe your faith is being challenged, and you’re wondering how much longer you can hold out.

But he’s coming back.

He’s coming back soon.

And when he comes back, he’ll reward your faithfulness.

“Soon” in the Bible doesn’t always mean soon according to our timetables, though. We’re living in the final age of the world—the Christian age—and at some point Jesus will return and deliver the kingdom to the Father.

But we know for sure he’s coming back, and whatever we’re worried about right now won’t be an issue then.

We’ll no longer be tired or discouraged or worried.

We won’t be fretting over the trajectory of American morality and integrity.

Our backs won’t hurt, and we won’t be sighing, crying, or dying.

He’s coming back.

Staying focused on that will help us endure whatever we face in this temporary life.

Weeping and howling

The Bible says a lot about riches, and most of it isn’t pleasant. For some reason I find myself skipping these passages, or explaining why they don’t really mean what they say . . . or why they don’t apply to me or the people I’m teaching.

Could it have something to do with the fact that—merely because I have access to clean drinking water and plenty of food—I’m among the world’s wealthiest?

It might.

Here’s one of the Bible’s strongest warnings:

Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure in the last days. Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in self-indulgence. You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the righteous person. He does not resist you (James 5:1-6).

Here’s the caveat you’re expecting: James isn’t teaching that rich Christians are inherently living outside of God’s will. It seems clear he was addressing some specific sins in his audience. They were using their money and the position it gave them to mistreat people who were beneath them on the socio-economic scale.

With that caveat aside, however, James reflects a principle that’s consistent in every Bible warning about money: having it brings dangerous temptations.

That’s why Jesus told the rich ruler to sell what he had and give the money to the poor.

That’s why the villain of one of his stories was a rich man who wasn’t guilty of anything overtly “bad” (according to what the story said).

That’s why he condemned a man who made the seemingly wise business decision of replacing his storage buildings with bigger ones.

And that’s probably why we ought to listen carefully to what he says about our money. Having things can cause us to think we’re above other people. It can take our eyes off Jesus. It can lead us to put our trust in what we’ve got instead of in God. It can cause us to mistreat people to our advantage (as with James’ readers).

In short, it can become a god to us.

We should read James carefully and resist the temptation to apply what he says to the all-about-his-stuff guy we work with or the mega-rich entrepreneur we know.

There’s a pretty good chance we ourselves have been tempted to let our stuff take our eyes off the Savior.

If the Lord wills

Most of us like to plan. One-year, five-year, ten-year plans. What we’ll do, when we’ll do it, and how we’ll get there.

If we invest 10% of our income starting at age 25, we’ll retire at 65 with no financial worries. Next year we’re going on vacation. Next month we’ll take a couple days off from work. Next week we’ll get this report done or that chore finished.

“See you Friday night,” we say without thinking. “I’ll be there at 6:00.”

James doesn’t particularly like all that, or at least he’s got a strongly worded warning:

Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”—yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin (James 4:13-17).

I don’t think James is against retirement plans, or saving up for a vacation. What he doesn’t like—what God doesn’t like—is when we make plans as if we control the future.

As if we’re certain what’ll happen. Like the if-then connection between now and future events is inevitable.If I do this, then I get that.

It’s me-centered, isn’t it? And that’s the root problem. We don’t know what’ll happen tomorrow, but God does. We’ve got no clue what our career will do, what’ll happen to the economy, how our health will hold up.

But God knows.

And that’s where James’ “If the Lord wills” comes in. We just don’t have the ability to make plans about the future without God’s involvement, and that’s why we’ve got to submit it all to his will.

It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t plan—see the book of Proverbs, for example—but it means we ought to recognize God’s hand in overseeing everything we do.

So let’s plan what we hope to do this week, next month, or next year.

Let’s make vacation and retirement plans.

Let’s dream big and make bucket lists.

But let’s do it all . . . if the Lord wills. It’s all his future anyway.