…Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.
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.
-James 5:16-18 (NIV)
I can tell you one thing I’ve learned about sending your child off to college: It helps your prayer life.
I wonder why we’re like that? Why do we mostly turn to prayer when we’re at the end of our ropes, or desperate, or our children are beyond our sphere of immediate influence and protection? Oh, we may offer some token prayers at other times, but we tend to double down on prayer when we’re out of our depth and over our heads. Why is prayer our last resort?
Well, there are lots of reasons, aren’t there? We’re busy people, and prayer takes time. It isn’t something to multi-task. And yet that also has something to do with our priorities, our emphasis on what is urgent vs. what is important. As busy as we are, we make the time for what is important to us.
So why isn’t prayer important enough to win a more regular place on our schedules? Maybe it’s because our world values work, doing something, rolling up our sleeves and making our lives different by the sheer force of our wills. Maybe we suspect, on some level, that the world is right. That prayer is for those who can’t actually do something to influence circumstances. That it’s for the weak, the sick, the old or very young. The incompetent. The victim. And so we imagine that prayer and work are mutually exclusive, that when we pray it’s a cop-out, a way to avoid trying to change things.
Or maybe — and I think there might be more to this than we want to admit — maybe we don't pray because we don’t believe on some level that God would listen to us. Righteous people, sure. People who don’t swear and who know their Bibles and who give to the poor and who don’t talk about their neighbors behind their backs and would never, ever click on a dodgy website. But us? Maybe we don’t pray, in the end, because we don’t think we’re entitled.
Maybe we get that idea, to some extent, from James. “The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective,” he says, and it’s easy to picture that guy who sits on the front row at church and is always ready to help out, or that woman who sings with eyes closed and head back and a beatific smile on her face, as though she’s looking right at the face of God. It’s easy to picture the elders or preachers or Sunday School teachers we’ve known. So, when we’re struggling or suffering or worrying, we seek them out and ask them to pray for us. And well we should, but not for the reasons we suspect. Not because God won’t hear our prayers.
See, James qualifies what he says. “Confess your sins to each other,” he says. Because it isn’t only sinless saints who need to come to God in prayer. The rest of us need to as well: the sinners, the people who aren’t models of faith and piety and service and worship. The selfish need to pray, too. So do the bitter and angry. The profane. The greedy. In fact, even the men and women we’d categorize as sinless saints are more sinful than we might imagine. And so James tells us to own up to that. Confess our sins to each other. Know that no one ever prayed with God owing him something. Admit it; we are sinners. And what does God ask of us sinners? That we would admit our sinfulness to each other before we come to him in prayer. There is to be no misunderstanding, no misguided belief that some of us are more qualified than others. We all have the privilege of prayer handed to us for no reason other than our trust in the sinless Savior who gave up his life for us. That’s why we pray in his name.
And when we’ve confessed, James tells us to pray for each other. Prayer isn’t just for the leaders, or the super-spiritual, or the best givers. Praying for each other is a mandate for the entire church. It’s a great responsibility, and can demand a lot of us. But we’ve all been drafted to fight for each other in prayer.
That’s when James tells us that prayer makes a difference, that it isn’t weak or insipid or the path of last resort. It’s powerful, he says, effective. When men and women made righteous by their trust in the work of Jesus come to God in prayer, things happen. Energy is released. Stuff gets done. And, by the choice of his example, James reminds us that prayer is for everyone.
Elijah. Elijah is his example. I don’t know what you know about Elijah, but I can tell you that his resume is decidedly mixed. There’s a widow whose food doesn’t run out and whose son Elijah raised from the dead. There was his smackdown of the priests of Baal. But don’t forget that Elijah was the guy who ran because a godless queen wanted him dead. He ran and hid in a cave, where he sulked for a while and accused God of leaving him alone to face all these threats. I’m not a prophet, nor the son of a prophet, but I’m pretty sure I could do that. James is nice about it: “Elijah was a human being, even as we are….”
So prayer is for human beings like us; for real people who have bad days, who worry and react badly to stress and yell at God for not doing his job properly. Elijah’s prayer wasn’t effective because he was always a towering figure of strength. It was effective because God is powerful, and because he loves to give his people what they ask for in prayer.
So, pray. Make the effort to pray for each other, to remember the needs people share with us and put aside the time to take them to God. If we pray for each other, we might be surprised at what God will do among us. Not spiritual giants who have progressed past the point of worrying about our kids, or struggling with doubt, or falling into sin. But people who struggle, and sometimes fail, and yet whom he loves and wants to bless.
Prayer is for people like us.