It’s tragic how easily we can miss the main ingredient in effective prayer.
In our sin, we’ve been rewired to focus on us—on the steps we should take for our prayers to be heard. We have this bent toward believing that every result is born from method. If something works for somebody, we want to know what that somebody is doing.
We’ve developed the assumption that if we can just strip it all down to a reproducible process to put into action, then the results will multiply. While this applies to certain things, it doesn’t apply to prayer—or at least that’s not the vision the apostle James gives us. The main ingredient in effective prayer is emphatically not us.
Many of us find James 5:16 to be a familiar verse: “The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working”—which is also translated, as an ESV footnote spells out, “The effective prayer of a righteous person has great power.”
This is one of those coffee-mug verses. It’s commonly understood like this: Be righteous and your prayers will work. It’s what I used to think. But that’s the skim-milk meaning. It’s what happens when we fly by the text without questions. Our broken bent is to make the burden of this passage something to do with us. We simply settle to think that if we want our prayers to be effective then we need to be righteous.
But this reading doesn’t hold up.
Reading in Context
First, look at the context surrounding verse 16. James’ whole point is that prayer is effective. He asks in verse 13, “Is anyone among you suffering?” Then he replies, “Let him pray.” What about cheerfulness? Or sickness? Or sin? In each case, James encourages his readers to pray. Why? Because prayer is effective, which means God hears his people and acts on their behalf.
Then in the beginning of verse 16, because prayer is effective (verses 13–15), he says, “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed” (James 5:16). To make it even clearer, he follows this with, “The effective prayer of a righteous person has great power.” That line is the second portion in a double dose of support for our praying. James’ point is to repeat his theme to pray because prayer is effective. His concern is not how prayer is made effective, but that prayer is effective. And then verse 17 comes to ground that point.
What About Elijah?
Verse 17 then brings in Elijah. “Elijah was a man with a nature like ours and he prayed fervently” (James 5:17).
What does Elijah have to do with our praying? Does it mean that Elijah was righteous and his prayers worked, so we should be like Elijah for our prayers to work too? Is that what he is saying?