The Power of Prayer
St. Augustines Archive
25 June 2017
In his book A Praying Life, American Bible teacher Paul Miller recalls something that happened once while he was camping with his kids.
Paul finds his fourteen-year-old daughter Ashley in the campsite looking upset. She says ‘I lost my contact lens. It’s gone.’ He looks down and sees the ground covered with countless leaves and twigs; the lens could be anywhere. Then he says, ‘Ashley, don’t move. Let’s pray.’
But before he can pray, Ashley bursts into tears. She says, ‘What good does it do? I’ve prayed for Kim to speak, and she isn’t speaking.’
Kim is Ashley’s eight-year-old sister. She struggles with autism, and after five years of frustrating speech therapy, she still can’t talk. Ashley knows how prayer is supposed to work. She’s been asking God to let Kim speak. But nothing has happened. Kim is still silent, and so is God. Prayer doesn’t seem to work.
Paul is stunned. He had no idea that Ashley had been praying that. Doubt plays across his own mind, because she’s right; God hasn’t answered their prayers. He fears for Ashley’s fragile faith. What should he do? If he prays and they can’t find the contact lens, it will surely add to her growing unbelief.
Paul prays silently, ‘Father, you’ve got to hear this prayer for the sake of Ashley.’ And then he prays aloud, ‘Father, help us find this contact.’ Then he looks down, and there, sitting on a leaf, is the missing lens. Prayer made a difference after all.
I wonder if you’ve ever thought those words that Ashley said. ’Prayer? What good does it do?’
Perhaps you try talking to God sometimes, but you come away feeling foolish. It’s hard to escape the feeling that you’re talking to an empty room.
Or maybe you’ve prayed long and hard for someone you love who is sick or in distress, but God doesn’t seem to be doing anything. Is he even listening at all?
If these are questions you’ve ever asked, then it’s great that you’re here today, because we’re going to see what God has to say about prayer. We’re looking at the last section of this letter written by James the brother of Jesus, where James tells us that we should pray, and he tells us why we should pray. It would be great to have your Bible open at James chapter 5 so you can see what God says for yourself.
James begins by discussing when we should pray.
And he’s thinking big – he tells us to pray inevery circumstance of life.
Look with me at verse 13, Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise.
James tells those who are suffering to bring their concerns to God. You don’t need to try and fix your problems on your own. You can reach out with the empty hand of faith and call on your heavenly Father to supernaturally intervene in the affairs of the world for your welfare. If you’re in trouble, then pray.
But it’s not just the hard times; James also says, if anyone is happy, let them sing songs of praise!
Prayer is the right response in good times, too. When God gives us peace and happiness, we ought to stop and thank him for the blessings that he showers upon us.
So, whether you’re miserable or merry, delighted or in despair, you should pray!
And by telling us to pray at the extremes of life, both the terrific and the terrible, James is also telling us to pray in all the situations inbetween, in every circumstance of life.
And this is especially true in one particular circumstance of life: sickness.
Verse 14 says, Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven.
These verses are complicated, and we can’t explore all the details now.
If you have questions, feel free to jot them down and come and ask me after the service.
A few quick points to begin:
Firstly, the situation described here is not just a mild headache, it’s a serious, life-threatening illness. We can tell, because the sick person isn’t well enough to take themselves to the elders, and ‘raising them up’ probably means raising them from the sickbed.
Secondly, the elders – or leaders – of the church are called on because they have a special responsibility to pray for the people they serve. It’s not because their prayers are more valuable or more effective than other people in the church or anything like that.
Thirdly, anointing someone with oil, that is, pouring olive oil over their head, was a symbolic act used in Bible times to dedicate someone to God for a special purpose. James says the sick person should be anointed to symbolise that they are being set apart for God’s special attention and care.
Those are some of the details, but don’t miss the main point here: God answers prayers for healing! If someone is sick, we should turn to God in prayer, we can ask him to fix faulty hearts and take away tumours because he can and does heal people.
Sometimes that healing is miraculous. Sometimes God uses doctors and operations and medicine and the body’s own natural mechanisms to heal people.
God is in control of everything that happens in his world, both the spectacular and mundane.
Surgery and physiotherapy and pharmacology are not independent fields outside God’s control, they are means by which he sustains his creation, moment by moment.
When Panadol works, it’s because the Lord has made it work.
We also need to consider how sin fits into this picture. Look at verse 16, Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.
This verse puts sin and healing together; there seems to be a connection between the two.
Let’s be very clear – the Bible doesn’t tell us that every illness is a direct result of specific sin. The disciples once met a blind man and asked Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” But Jesus tells them they’ve got the wrong idea entirely; “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.” (John 9:2-3) Just because someone is sick or has a disability, it doesn’t automatically mean that God is punishing them for something they did.
However, the Bible also tells us that sometimes sickness can come because of a particular sin. The church in ancient Corinth sinned by abusing the Lord’s Supper, and Paul said that is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep, (1 Cor 11:30) meaning some of them died because of their wrong-doing. Sickness can be a wake-up call from God, a reminder that we are dependent on his mercy for life both in this world and the next. It’s an opportunity to examine our lives, confess the ways that we have rejected God, and pray for both forgiveness and healing, prayers which God delights to grant.
So, when should we pray? Particularly when someone is sick, but also in every circumstance of life. Next, James tells uswhy we should pray.
Halfway through verse 16, The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.
We should pray because prayer works!
It’s powerful and effective, it can make things happen and it does make things happen.
Prayer is productive, it’s potent, it packs a punch.
Not because it’s a magic spell where saying the right words gives you want.
Not because of the person who prays; it’s not nice people who prayer powerfully but righteous people, people who trust in Jesus and demonstrate that in how they live.
Rather, prayer is powerful because of who we pray to.
We pray to the Lord Almighty, the God who created the universe with a word, who holds galaxies together and keeps solar systems spinning.
The God who has conquered every evil power and sin and even death itself through the cross of Jesus Christ. That’s the God who hears every word we speak. That’s the God who invites us to call him Father, who gives good gifts to his children who ask him.
So every time you pray, even the faintest whisper,
the most powerful and loving person in the universe listens.
The prayer of a righteous person is powerful, because God is powerful.
James drives this point home with an example: the prophet Elijah.
Verse 17: Elijah was a human being, even as we are. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops.
When you read about Elijah’s ministry in the Old Testament, you get the sense that he was an extraordinary man.
He performed all kinds of miracles; he made food appear from nowhere, he called down fire from heaven, he raised a woman’s son from the dead!
And in the passage we read before, we saw how Elijah asked the Lord to end three years of drought, and then the rain came.
But the point that James makes about Elijah is that he wasn’t so different from us.
He wasn’t a superhero, he was a normal human like you or me!
His miracles didn’t happen because he was an extraordinary man; they happened because he prayed to an extraordinary God.
When you pray, you call on the same God as Elijah.
That’s not to say that we will all control the weather like Elijah did;
God worked through him at a particular time in Israel’s history for a particular purpose, and James isn’t promising that God will answer our prayers in exactly the same way (though there’s no reason he couldn’t).
Rather, this example shows us just how powerful prayer is.
Just as he listened to Elijah, God listens to your prayers.
And he answers our prayers in extraordinary ways too.
In every circumstance of life, we should be bold in drawing near to God, because he promises that our prayers are effective.
Now let me ask you a question. What would your life look like if you really believed what James says in this passage? What would our life together as a church look like?
I’m sure that many of us would say, ‘yes, I know that God hears and answers prayers…’ yet the slightest mention of prayer makes us feel guilty because we know that we don’t pray as often as we should.
Or maybe we think, ‘As a Christian, I know I should believe that God hears and answers prayers, and I’ve heard stories of him answering the prayers of other people, but I’m not sure I believe that God would care for me. So to save myself the risk of being let down by God, I’m not going to pray.’
There are many reasons we find it hard to pray. Sometimes it’s because life is so good.
If you live in Neutral Bay, if you have a well-paying job, if you’ve got family and friends around you who are happy and healthy, then what else could you possibly need from God?
We can fall into the trap of thinking that we have all these good things because we’ve worked hard and earned them, or maybe we just got lucky. But we need to remember that every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights (James 1:17).
Everything good in your life, every last shred of happiness, is a gift from God. So thank him!
James says ’if anyone is happy, let him sing songs of praise’, because we need to hear it.
Prayer should not be our last resort when things go pear-shaped, it should never be reduced down to breaking the glass and pushing the big red button.
We’ve always got something to thank God for – how good he is, how gracious and compassionate and loving and awe-inspiring, for the vast mercy that he showed by sending Jesus to die for us, even though we so often take his good gifts and pretend that we acquired them without him. Don’t stop praying just because life is good!
Sometimes it’s hard to pray because we’re busy.
In a world where our lives are chewed by up by work and play, we need a higher view of prayer. We need the kind of attitude that James is calling us to have. Prayer is powerful! It’s effective! If you want to make the most of your time on earth, if you want to be efficient and productive in this life, then you would be a fool not to pray!
The 16th century Reformer Martin Luther is reported to have said, ‘I have so much to do that I shall have to spend the first three hours in prayer.’ There’s a man who understood just how powerful and effective prayer is.
Saying ‘I’m busy’ is the excuse you make for things you know you should have done but didn’t really want to. If you’re convinced that prayer is essential, you won’t find time for it, you’ll make time for it.
Sometimes it’s hard to pray because it seems futile. Like Ashley praying for her sister Kim, when we call on God and he seems not to answer, it makes us question whether what James wrote here is really true at all. What do we do when prayer seems neither powerful nor effective?
There are no quick or easy answers. Unanswered prayer can be a great source of pain, that’s certainly been true for me. I became a Christian in 2003, and one of the first prayers that I started praying was that God would bring my parents to know the Lord Jesus. I’ve been praying that prayer for 14 years, but my parents are still not believers. That’s probably the thing I want more than anything else in the world, but God has not made it happen. Sometimes I’ve questioned whether God is listening at all.
But he is. When God denies his children the good gifts they ask for, it’s not because he isn’t listening, or because he doesn’t care, or because he’s unable to deliver. It can only be because he has something even better in mind. Sometimes we can’t fathom how God’s plan could be better than our own. But he is far wiser than we are, and he works everything for the good of those who love him. Trust that he will always give you what you need, if not what you want.
If your prayers go unanswered, you’re in good company. The night before he died, Jesus prayed, ‘Father, everything is possible for you. Take this cup of suffering from me.’ And then God was silent. But for our sake, thank God that he was.
So when your prayers go unanswered, don’t let that stop you praying. You don’t know what God will do; it may be that he’s not saying “no”, but “not yet”. And if he does say “no” to some of your prayers, it doesn’t mean he’ll say “no” to all of them.
One practical thing that might help is to write your prayers down. If you’re a pessimist like me, it’s easy to focus only on the few prayers that go unanswered and forget the many, many ways that God does hear us and bless us. That gives you a distorted view of the power of prayer which can tempt you to throw in the towel. But if you write things down, you can look back at what you’ve asked God over the past weeks and months and see tangible evidence of the many ways that he has exercised his fatherly care over you.
For us as a church, our current circumstance in life is one that particularly needs our prayers. As we begin the process of finding our next senior minister, let me urge you to entrust that process to God; as you pray on your own, as you pray in your connect groups. Pray that God would give our nominators wisdom for the decision they make; and keep praying for them often through the months ahead, because God hears those prayers; they actually do something.
So, James has called us to be people who pray in every circumstance of life.
If you’re troubled, pour out your grief to him, ask him to take it away.
If you’re happy, praise God for the good gifts he has given you.
If you’re sick, pray that he will heal you, because he can.
Your Father is powerful, he loves you, and he’s listening.
So call on him, because the prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.