Power in Prayer
A Sermon Preached on Sunday, October 16, 2011, by
The Rev. S. Randall Toms, Ph. D.,
At St. Paul’s Reformed Episcopal Church, Baton Rouge, Louisiana
Is any among you afflicted? let him pray. Is any merry? let him sing psalms. Is any sick among you? 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 shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him. Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much. Elias was a man subject to like passions as we are, and he prayed earnestly that it might not rain: and it rained not on the earth by the space of three years and six months. And he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain, and the earth brought forth her fruit. (James 5:13-18)
Not long after I started preaching, I began reading biographies of great preachers and missionaries of the past. I enjoyed reading about all the wonderful things they did for the Lord, but I was particularly drawn to those biographies about Christians who had the reputation for being mighty in prayer. I read of the way God answered their prayers in such remarkable ways. I read about how John Wesley and George Whitefield spent so much time in prayer. I read about the prayer-filled lives of people such as David Brainerd, Edward Payson, known as “Praying Payson of Portland.” I read of the amazing prayer lives of people such as John Hyde (“Praying Hyde”), George Mueller, and Rees Howells. Then, later in life I discovered the biographies of those before the Reformation who were known for their great prayer lives. I read of all the desert saints and how they withdrew from the world to give themselves totally to prayer. I read of those who entered very strict monasteries so that they could devote their entire lives to prayer. I read of Eastern Orthodox saints who lived either in monasteries or as hermits in the forest so that they could do nothing but pray.
If you read enough of those kinds of books, you may begin to develop an idea that the secret to success in prayer is simply time. It seemed to me that the more time you spend in prayer, the more likely it is that your prayers will be answered, and the more likely it will be that you will see the miraculous begin to happen. In the early days of my ministry, I wasn’t seeing these great and wonderful works, so I came to the conclusion that I wasn’t spending enough time in prayer. I read somewhere that John Wesley used to get up at 4:00 A. M. and spend four hours in prayer before he began to do anything else. So, I started getting up at 4:00 A. M. to pray, and the result was that it made me too sleepy to do any of my other ministerial duties during the day. Still throughout my life, and this may be true of you as well, I had these nagging doubts that my prayers were not powerful with God simply because I didn’t spend enough time in prayer. You may begin to think that the ordinary Christian, the one who has to go to work every day, the mother who has to take care of a husband and children and tend to all the other duties that she may have to do, will never really be mighty in prayer because they will never have the time that is necessary to devote to prayer.
If God has called a person to spend a great deal of time in prayer, and the circumstances of life permit them to do so, there is nothing wrong with such a life of devtion. We find instances in Scripture where our Lord continued all night in prayer, but that doesn’t seem to have been a normal occurrence. We find people like Anna, a widow, who had the time to serve God day and night with prayers. But when you go through Scripture, do you really find many instances of people who on a daily basis set aside these huge blocks of time for prayer? Most of the people in the Bible were people like you and me. They had jobs, and they had numerous other responsibilities that took up most of their days and nights. There is no command in Scripture that says you must spend at least four hours a day, withdrawn from the world, praying in your closet. There is no threat that if you do not spend that much time locked away in prayer, your supplications will not be heard.
In this epistle, James writes about prayer, and he is especially concerned about praying for the sick. In the context of talking about praying for the sick, he makes a statement about prayer in general. He says that the effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much, or as the New International Version has it, “The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.” James doesn’t say that the prayer of a person who spends at least four hours a day in prayer is powerful and effective. Such prayers may be powerful, but if they are, it is not because there is some kind of reward from God for having spent that much time in prayer. God is not saying, “Well, I see you spent your four hours in prayer. That’s pretty impressive. I guess I’ll have to give you what you want.” There is no time requirement. We simply read that the fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.
I hope to encourage you by showing that you can be mighty in prayer. As a matter of fact, if you are a Christian, whether you realize it or not, you are already mighty in prayer. You can see God answer your prayers in amazing ways even though you don’t spend a great deal of time alone in prayer. You may be looking at me and asking, “If it’s not the amount of time in prayer that is the secret of success, then what is? I don’t seem to see God answer my prayers in the same way that some of these people you mentioned did, so if it’s not time, then I must not be fulfilling some other qualification to be mighty in prayer.”
Trying to find the answer to such questions, we look at James 5:16 and we see that word “fervent.” James says that the effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much. We tend to draw the conclusion, “That’s the problem. I’m not fervent enough.” So, we start trying to work up fervency. We think the key to success is that our prayers have to show a great deal of emotion. Have you ever been in a prayer meeting where you saw people trying to work up fervency? Sometimes they try to work it up with music. They think that if they get the music going loud enough, sentimental enough, get those emotions flowing, then the prayers will be fervent. Sometimes people confuse fervency with loudness. They think that if they pray loudly, they must be praying fervently. In this attempt to get our prayers answered, we work on the fervency, maybe shed a few tears, and get up from our knees and say, “How was that Lord? Was that fervent enough?” We must think that the Lord shakes his head and says, “I don’t know. That was pretty weak. I’ve seen you more fervent at football games, so I don’t know if that amount of fervency you just showed measures up.”
There is nothing wrong with fervency in prayer. As a matter of fact, when we read many of the prayers in the Bible, we see that they were often offered with great fervency and emotion. There will be times, depending on the occasion, when your prayers may be accompanied with tears, and if you are in pain, either physically or mentally, you may pray loudly. But the fervency will not arise because you deliberately tried to pray fervently. Such fervency flows naturally from the emotions and circumstances of the moment. Just as an aside, let me say something about our Book of Common Prayer. Many people don’t think that we Anglicans pray fervently because we pray from a book. First, we don’t pray only from a book. We know how to pray extemporaneous prayers and cry out to God just like as other Christian does. We know how to offer fervent prayers without a book, but we also know how to offer fervent prayers from the Prayer Book. As a matter of fact, many Anglicans find that praying from the Prayer Book actually adds fervor to the prayers, rather than diminishing it, for we are liberated from having to search for words. Furthermore, by using the Prayer Book we are assured that we are praying prayers that are in accordance with Scripture and the will of God. As far as fervency goes, just get sick or have some crisis come into your life, and see if you can’t pray those prayers from the Prayer Book with fervency. When you are in pain, physically or mentally, praying from the Prayer Book in no way diminishes fervency. But whether we are praying from a book or praying our own words, we make a mistake when we equate fervency with strong, outward emotion. A simple prayer, sincerely offered, with no great emotion, is still a fervent prayer.
I read a moment ago from the New International Version, and it translates this verse the way most modern translations have it. The word “fervent” does not modify the word prayer. The word “fervent” is a word that simply means “working.” It is the word from which we get our word “energy.” Listen to these more modern translations: “The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective” (NIV). “The supplication of a righteous man availeth much in its working” (ASV). “The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working” (ESV). This word “fervent” does not describe you in the act of prayer. Rather, it describes the power of the prayer as it is it working. It is not you being fervent, but the result of the prayer that is fervent. Let’s say you are praying for a sick person. This verse does not say that you are fervently praying for a sick person. It is saying that after you pray, the result of the prayer in the life of the person you prayed for will be fervent—it will work powerfully, energetically in that person. Again, I am saying this to encourage you. Don’t think that you have to get all worked up emotionally for your prayers to be answered. God does not answer your prayers because you get sufficiently emotional. Sincerity in prayer is fervency enough.
Then, you may ask, “What is the requirement that I need to meet so that I can see God answer my prayers in a mighty way.” Let’s look again at what James said: “The fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.” You may think that the problem is that you are not righteous enough. Before you draw that conclusion, let us examine what the Bible means when it speaks of a righteous person. Does it mean that the person is sinless? If the requirement for getting our prayers answered is that we must be sinless, then no one would ever have a prayer answered. As we go through the Scriptures, we find God answering the prayers of his people, but were any of them perfect? Were any of them sinless? Did God answer the prayers of Jacob, Moses, Samson, David, Peter, and Paul because they were sinless? We know that they were sinners as we all are. We know that in the Biblical sense, we are made righteous only through faith in Jesus Christ. If you are a believer in Jesus Christ, then God has given you the righteousness of Christ. You are considered a righteous person because of what Christ has done for you, not because of what you have done. Of course, we need to be careful not to draw the dangerous conclusion that we can live in rebellion against God and still expect to have our prayers answered. The Christian is someone who has received the righteousness of Christ by faith, and that person is striving to live in conformity with the commands of Christ. Occasionally, he fails, but just because he fails does not mean he is not a righteous person. In the Biblical sense, a righteous person is someone who has faith in Christ and is striving to live in obedience to Christ. If you are a Christian, you are a righteous person, and your prayers are powerful.
To clinch this argument, James uses the example of Elijah. You are probably looking at me and saying, “If I had any hope of getting my prayers answered, you just destroyed it. I thought I could be mighty in prayer, and now you tell me that the example I should look to is Elijah. I’m no Elijah. I mean, if you are going to encourage me to pray, couldn’t you pick somebody I could remotely resemble and say, ‘Well, if he got his prayers answered, maybe I can, too.’ But Elijah? Forget it. I’ll never be like Elijah.” But James is making the point that that Elijah was no different than you. Notice how James puts it: “Elias was a man subject to like passions as we are, and he prayed earnestly that it might not rain : and it rained not on the earth by the space of three years and six months.” The New International Version has it, “Elijah was a man just like us.” The English Standard Version has it, “Elijah was a man with a nature like ours.” The argument is that Elijah was just like you, and he prayed and stopped the rain for three and a half years. That’s powerful praying, but it was done by a man no different than you. Elijah was a good and righteous man, but he was not a sinless man. Yes, it is true that Elijah could defeat 400 prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel, but when he hears that Jezebel is out to get him, he runs into the wilderness, sits under the juniper tree and says, “I’m the only good person left in the world. Everybody else is an idolater. Lord, just kill me.” Does that sound like a perfect man of God? It sounds like a little child full of self-pity, doesn’t it? All these instances prove that Elijah was a man who sinned and had weaknesses just as we all do, but he could still get his prayers answered in a mighty way. The same thing is true of all the other people in the Bible. They had a nature just like ours. They had failings and shortcomings, but God still answered their prayers.
The same thing is true of all those people you read about in the biographies I mentioned at the beginning of this message. You have to be careful about biographies about saints, because very often the biographers only tell you their good, godly qualities, but they don’t tell you of their failings. You get the idea that they were perfect, and you say, “No wonder God answered their prayers. They were so good.” But I guarantee you that if you could go back in time and spend a week with these people, you would find that they were people with like passions as you. If you could have spent a week with St. Francis of Assisi you would have been disillusioned, for you would have found that he too had his sins, his failings, and these great saints of the past would be the first to admit that to you.
You must get rid of this notion that maybe one day you will be good enough, one day you will be righteous enough, and then God will answer your prayers in a mighty way. There’s a word for that kind of thinking—legalism. In other words, you are thinking that God is going to answer your prayers as a reward for being so good. Get that idea out of your head. You are never going to be that good. God does not answer our prayers because of our merits. He answers our prayers out of his mercy. He answers our prayers because we come to him through his Son. Even our prayers have to be cleansed by our Mediator in order that they might be acceptable to God. In our Communion service we pray, “We beseech thee to accept this our bounden duty and service; not weighing our merits, but pardoning our offences.” The same thing is true of our prayers. When we offer our prayers to God we say the same thing. We say, “Don’t accept our prayers because of our merits. We have no merits. But pardon our offences and receive our prayers through Christ for what he has done.” God answers our prayers because his Son is righteous, and we are in his Son.
I hope that today I have destroyed every excuse you have for believing that your prayers cannot be answered. You should go away from this place believing that your prayers are a great force in this world. There are no other requirements you need to fulfill. You have been made righteous in Christ, and your prayers are powerful. You may be asking, “If what you say is true, and I can have the same power in prayer as Elijah, why can’t I stop the rain for three and a half years?” Have you ever thought that perhaps God doesn’t want you to stop the rain for three and a half years? I’m not saying that your prayers will be answered in the same way, with the same dramatic power that we find recorded in Scripture or in some of these biographies you read, but your prayers will accomplish what God wants your prayers to accomplish. Keep praying. Keep your Prayer Book handy. Pray those prayers over and over again. Pray for peace, for grace, for those in government, for clergy, for all sorts and conditions of men, for the church, for the unity of God’s people, for children, for the sick, and all the other many prayers that are in our Prayer Book. And as you pray, believe. Have faith that God will answer, for the prayer of a righteous person has great power in its working. Amen.