“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).
Here are many prayers in our day that are rote and offered up without a great deal of thought or care. We thank God before our meals with words we have used hundreds of times before. That is not what the Bible is talking about when it talks about “effectual fervent prayer.” This expression uses the same Greek word “energeo” for work. The reason that we often fail to see God work in a mighty way in answer to prayer is that we are not offering energized, effective prayers of the kind that move Him to action and produce answers.
Webster’s Dictionary defines effectual as “producing the desired impact or effect.” Simply put, effective prayer is energized prayer—prayer that accomplishes its purpose. Praying has many aspects and many motivations, but certainly we must agree that prayer should reach the ear and touch the heart of God to move Him to action to meet the needs that we present to Him. This kind of prayer has a powerful impact on our lives even before the answer comes, but it also has a powerful impact on others.
James further describes effective prayer as being “fervent.” This is actually a word for boiling water. If you place a pan of cold water on the stove and turn up the heat, the hydrogen and oxygen molecules that make up the water undergo a chemical reaction. As the temperature changes from cold to warm to hot, the water begins to bubble until it is moving fervently. That is what God intends for our prayers to do in our hearts and lives. If we want to be heard, we must be serious about our praying.
In the beginning of this passage, James addresses the problem of economic injustice. In those days there were few legal rights, and it was common for the rich to defraud their workers because they knew nothing would be done about it. James issues a stern warning to those who are rich to be careful how they treat their workers, because they will be judged accordingly.
Then James addresses himself to those who are suffering because of that injustice and tells them to be patient. Our tendency is to want God to fix things right now and deliver us immediately from all of our problems so that we can have it easy. Often God places us in difficult circumstances so that we will be energized and motivated in our praying. When we face problems and even injustice, we have a choice. Will we be defeated and depressed and sit down and sulk because “it just isn’t fair” or will we go to our knees and cry out to God in effective, fervent prayer? In the same way that a person who is hungry is driven and motivated to find food, God allows us to experience need, and pain, and injustice so that we will seek His face.
The primary, immediate context of this instruction on effective prayer is the topic of sickness. It is true that the spiritual dimension of our lives is more important than the physical, but that does not mean that the physical does not matter. We should take care of our bodies to the best of our ability, but we also recognize that living in a fallen world with sickness and disease means that we are going to face problems.
Sometimes it takes a crisis for us to begin praying seriously. Rote prayers off a list that we memorized do not move the hand of God. It is said that the reformer John Knox prayed, “Give me Scotland or I die!” When Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, His prayer was so intense that His sweat fell like great drops of blood. When we face great crisis and pray with great fervency and energy, the power of God is released. Sometimes that means that we receive the miraculous answer to our prayer. In other cases, as Paul found when he prayed about his thorn in the flesh, God does not give us what we ask for but instead gives us His grace that is sufficient for our circumstances.
The example that James uses of passionate, fervent, effective prayer is Elijah. Elijah came on the scene at a low point in Israel’s history. The kingdom was divided after the death of Solomon. The southern kingdom was called Judah and the northern kingdom continued to be known as Israel. While Judah had a few good kings, Israel did not. Of those evil kings, Ahab was certainly one of the very worst. With his wicked wife Jezebel, Ahab actively worked to turn the hearts of the people away from the worship of God to the worship of Baal.
Ahab was very unjust in his treatment of the people. When Ahab wanted the vineyard of a godly man named Naboth who would not sell it to him, Jezebel arranged for false witnesses to accuse Naboth of blasphemy and had him murdered. Ahab had no fear of God or concern for His Word, and he ruled as a wicked king—so much so that he became the standard by which evil in a ruler was measured. When God wanted to point out the evil of Ahaziah He said, “He also walked in the ways of the house of Ahab” (2 Chronicles 22:3).
The worship of Baal was a nature-centered worship. So to demonstrate the power of the true God over Baal, Elijah announced that there would be a great drought. First Kings 17:1 says, “And Elijah the Tishbite, who was of the inhabitants of Gilead, said unto Ahab, As the LORD God of Israel liveth, before whom I stand, there shall not be dew nor rain these years, but according to my word.” This was a dire economic judgment on an agricultural economy. The people depended on rain both for food for their families and for their livelihood. God was going to take all that away in response to Elijah’s prayer.
The crisis of the worship of false gods drove Elijah to his knees in prayer that Israel would repent. There are plenty of Christians who gripe and complain about the way things are in America today. And it does not take great spiritual insight to see that our nation is turning its back on God. Yet how many of us pray with fervent energy for a revival? How many of us are willing to undergo the judgment of God on our land to see our people turn back to Him? Are we really serious about the grave spiritual state of our nation, or are we content to complain rather than pray?
Through crisis situations, God wants to bring us to our knees. Elijah was just one man, but he prayed fervently, and it shook an entire nation. After more than three years without rain, Elijah confronted the prophets of Baal on the top of Mount Carmel. They had a contest to see whose god was real—Baal or Jehovah. The prophets of Baal screamed out their prayers all day long but nothing happened. Then, at the time of the evening sacrifice, Elijah prayed a simple prayer and the fire of God fell from Heaven. The people acknowledged that Jehovah was God, and Elijah killed all the false prophets.
That’s a pretty amazing revival, and it happened in response to the energized prayers of one man. When God allows a crisis in the life of an individual, a family, a church, or a nation, He wants to see us cry out to Him in fervent and effective prayer. God wants to pry us out of our contented, lukewarm state and bring us to a boil for Him and His work. He wants us to battle discouragement and be patient as we continue to pray until He sends the answer we need.