Over the last few years, God has taught me a lot about Who He is and about who I am. I have learned in the face of uncertain circumstances what it means to worship Him even when you are scared to death and the outcome of that which you are praying for is unknowable. I have learned that in the midst of our praise, God’s presence provides a peace that is beyond the comprehension of anyone who has never felt it before. It is a peace that is not about an absence of fear but about the knowledge that God is bigger than your fears. I have learned what James meant by effectual fervent prayer and what Paul meant by praying without ceasing. I have come to understand more clearly what Jesus meant when He prayed for His disciples and thanked His Father that we are all safely in His hands. I have learned that worship is truly about entering into the presence of God, to be strengthened by the Spirit of God, and encouraged by the people of God and that none of this is possible without prayer. And I believe that the only way that the church can find healing is through prayer.
Some people say that prayer changes things. Others say that prayer doesn’t change things, prayer changes people. And it’s true that one of the primary values of prayer is in its effect on God’s people, and it’s true that prayer is essential to anyone who would live a Christian life. But I want to say to the vast majority of Christians who are not availing themselves of the wonderful entrance to the very heart of God that “the effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.”
Sadly, there is quite a bit of misunderstanding about the concept of prayer today. Many people think that a long prayer with fancy language will insure a positive response from God, but Jesus taught that long prayers with fancy prose wasn’t necessarily a sign of super spirituality. But at the same time, He taught that persistent prayer was important. Many people think that by getting large numbers of people praying for a specific need will insure a positive answer, and while it almost never hurts to have lots of people praying, Jesus taught that one person with a little faith appropriately placed can move mountains. I am coming to understand more every day that when Jesus said that as Christians we could say to the mountain, “Be thou removed” and it would be cast into the sea, He wasn’t just giving His disciples a pep talk. And he certainly wasn’t speaking figuratively. Now, don’t misunderstand. I don’t think Jesus was encouraging His followers to use prayer as a tool for landscaping, but I do believe that He meant for Christians to take seriously the authority given to us by the Word of God to speak to the obstacles that Satan throws in our paths and they will have no choice but to yield. My friends, if you want a powerful weapon, you pray.
In James 5, the writer gives us an illustration of a man who understood the principles of a powerful prayer life. Elijah was the prophet of God during a time of great evil in the land of Israel. In an attempt to get the attention of the king and to draw the people back to a right relationship with God, Elijah prayed earnestly that it wouldn’t rain, and for 3 ½ years, no rain fell. At the end of that period of time, he prayed again asking God to send the rain, and He did. You find that story in I Kings 17 and 18. From this story we can glean four principles of a powerful prayer life, and just so you will know, I will be sharing these over the next several days.
First, I want you to see that one of the most important principles in this story is that Elijah was a man of profound character. James tells us in v. 16 that it is the effective fervent prayer of a righteous man that avails much. Now I understand that the word character is hard to define. Some people say, “Ben, you are a real character.” You can take that in many ways. Having a pretty solid level of self-esteem, I usually take it as a compliment. But it can be used in both positive and negative ways. It can mean that you are a person of good character or a person who is so unusual that it is the only nice way to describe you.
In our context, however, the word refers to who you are deep down inside. For Elijah, we can sum up his character in two words. First, it’s all about position. Elijah was a righteous man not because he was perfect. Do you see what it says at the beginning of v. 17? “Elijah was a man with a nature like ours.” The phrase literally means that Elijah had the same limitations as all human beings. He had a sin nature just like you and me. He made wrong choices time and time again. He was afraid for his life and asked God to let him die. There were times when Elijah wanted to give up. There were times when he felt so sorry for himself that he had his own pity party until God showed up. But the one thing that Elijah realized early on is that it didn’t matter what he wanted to do. It didn’t matter what he felt like doing. Because of his position as the prophet of God, the only thing that matters is what God wanted him to do.
Now I understand that you and I aren’t prophets of God – at least not in the sense that Elijah was a prophet of God, but we are the children of God, and because we are in Christ, we have been given His righteousness. And because we have been given His righteousness, you and I have the promise of eternal life in the future and abundant life right now. And because we are the recipients of these two great promises, then the only thing that matters is what God wants us to do, too. James is telling us that if God will answer the prayers of Elijah, he will answer our prayers, too.
You see, Elijah’s character can be summed up by his position as the prophet of God, but it can also be understood by his performance. I’m going to tell you what I believe. One of the keys to a powerful prayer life is obeying God’s will. James 1:22 says, “Be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.” And then in 4:7, “Therefore submit to God.” Obedience to God’s will is the key. The interesting thing about Elijah is that no matter how fearful he became, he did what God commanded. Now that doesn’t mean that he didn’t complain about it or feel sorry for himself, but he did what God asked him to do. And my friends, that is righteousness. Do you remember the story that Jesus told about the two sons in Matthew 21? The father went to both of his sons and asked them to go work in the field. The first one said, I won’t do it, but he did. The second one said, I will do it, but he didn’t. And using the context of what Jesus was teaching, it was the one who did the will of his father that was righteous.
I want you to understand this — it’s very important. While you and I are not saved by the performance of deeds, while we are not declared righteous because of our actions, those who are saved do what the Heavenly Father commands. And read this carefully. When a righteous man or woman prays, they pray for what God desires, and God will answer.