We face two dangers whenever we talk about prayer. We can make prayer seem so difficult that only the “super-Christians” can pray effectively while the rest of us just muddle along. Sometimes the stories we tell about saints who spent hours on their knees crying out to God end up discouraging us because we’re busy and tired and the kids are wearing us out and our job is a hassle and life feels like a burden, so even if Luther prayed two hours every morning, that was a long time ago, and he’s been dead for almost 500 years.
You know what I mean.
It’s easy to get intimidated about prayer.
Or we can go to the opposite extreme and make prayer seem like texting a friend to meet you for dinner and a movie. That has the advantage of making you want to pray, but you can end up with a lightweight view of prayer. Instead of coming into God’s presence to talk to your Heavenly Father, you feel like you’re chatting with a friend who is checking his Instagram while you are talking with him.
We would do better to think of prayer as a gift from God that enables us to stay connected with the Lord of the universe. If we use the gift, we will grow deeper in our knowledge of God.
Our Father wants us to pray, he encourages us to pray, and he invites us to pray. With that in mind, let’s look at James 5:16-18 and see what it teaches us about the power of prayer. We find in this passage a pattern, a promise, and a proof. Let’s take those one at a time.
A Pattern to Follow
“Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed” (v. 16a).
You don’t hear many sermons on this verse. We don’t think about it often because we don’t know what to do with it.
On one level, it’s not difficult to understand. In this verse James gives us a three-part pattern to follow:
First, we confess to one another.
Then we pray for one another.
Then we are healed.
Let’s be frank and admit it is the first instruction that trips us up. Confession of sin is never easy, even when we know confession is good for the soul. Proverbs 28:13 tells us that when we confess and forsake our sins, we will find mercy from the Lord. That’s the dilemma of this verse. We know we need to confess our sins, we know it is good for us, but even so we do whatever we can to wiggle out of that obligation.
This is the only place in the New Testament where we are told to confess our sins to one another. In thinking about that, we can’t overlook the context (vv. 13-15), which teaches us how to pray for the sick. The whole passage emphasizes the communal nature of the Christian life. What happens to you touches me, and what happens to me touches you. We need each other more than we know, and we never need each other more than when we are sick.
James 5:15 includes the phrase, “If he has sinned, he will be forgiven,” suggesting the close interplay between the physical and the spiritual. Sometimes our bodies get sick because our souls are sick with unconfessed sin. We cannot get better physically until we get better spiritually.
Why does this matter?
Confession brings us together.
Sin destroys unity.
Confession repairs the breach.
Sin makes us sick.
Confession leads to healing.
Why are we hesitant to confess our sins? I can think of many reasons. It feels intrusive, it’s humbling, we are embarrassed, afraid, and our pride keeps us from admitting the truth.
Let me pause and ask a question of the text. Is James thinking about private confession or public confession? The answer is yes, depending on the circumstances. Most of the time our confession will be to another person against whom we have sinned. Occasionally we may need to be more public if the sin was of a public nature.
James is not telling us to confess someone else’s sin. I can’t do that, and it’s a big waste of time. We can’t force anyone to confess. After all, “a man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.” We aren’t called to bludgeon people into confession.
James wants us to think about the man in the mirror, not the man next door. If you are married, don’t keep a record of the sins of your husband or wife. What good does that do? Keep track of your own shortcomings, and then be quick to confess them to the one you love.
Suppose someone says, “Yes, I sinned, but he sinned against me.” Well, that’s probably true. It’s a rare case where the fault is 100% with one person. What do you do if the other person refuses to confess their sin? The answer is not hard to find.
Take care of your side of the street.
God can take care of the other side.
What happens when this is ignored?
- We live in guilt.
- We live in isolation.
- The fever spreads.
- Joy disappears.
- Anger increases.
- Self-loathing dominates.
- Friendships end.
- Trust erodes.
We confess together so that we might pray together.
Confession clears the way for prayer to happen.
Otherwise, there are obstacles in the road.
James pictures the church as a community of believers where we are close enough to be honest and open enough to be real. When that happens, true healing can take place.
The devil will fight you every step of the way. It’s not just lust that he uses against us. It’s the shame and guilt of what we’ve done, and the recurring thought, “What if others knew what you’ve been doing?” So we live in the shadowy realm of fear, worried someone will find out the truth about us, desperately hoping for a way out. We will not get better until we decide to do whatever it takes to be pure before the Lord. You can’t have clean hands until you decide to wash off the dirt.
I knew a Christian counselor who repeated one key phrase: “You’re only as sick as your secrets.” Then he would add: “If you’ve got a lot of secrets, you’re really sick.” He’s right, and the cure to those secrets that pile up is found in verse 16:
When we sin, everything within us screams out “Cover it up. Turn off the lights. Bury the evidence. Destroy the tapes. Make up an alibi. Leave the scene of the crime. Run! Run! Run!” John 4 tells the story of Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well. He caught her attention with the promise of “living water” that would quench the thirst deep within her soul. When she asks for that “living water,” Jesus responds by saying, “Go, call your husband and come back” (John 4:16). On one level it appears Jesus is being insensitive. Why bring up anything about her past? Is Jesus trying to embarrass her? The answer is no. But his instruction to call her husband made her very uncomfortable. She doesn’t want to go into detail, so she simply replies, “I have no husband” (v. 17). That was true, but it wasn’t the whole story. She knew she was hiding the truth, but what she doesn’t know is that Jesus knows it too. This woman has had five husbands, and the man she is living with currently is not her husband.
Does Jesus love this woman? Yes, he does. He knows the truth and still offers her eternal life. Here is the wonder of God’s grace. Only someone who loves you can look at your past without blinking. Real love means knowing the truth about someone else and reaching out to them anyway.
Don’t miss the kicker to the story. “Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, ‘He told me everything I ever did’” (v. 39). Once the woman’s secrets were out in the open, she was set free and a revival broke out.
Oh, the blessedness of having nothing to hide. If you are ready to be rid of your secrets, you can be set free.
A Promise to Believe
“The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working” (v. 16b).
The word “working” comes from a Greek word that means "energetic” or “boiling.” The boiling prayers of the righteous have great power with God. What's a boiling prayer? It has nothing to do with standing or sitting, kneeling or lying down. It has nothing to do with lifting your voice or speaking in a whisper. It has nothing to do with how loud or how long you pray or whether you open your eyes or keep them closed. When they take your daughter away for lifesaving surgery, you'll discover what a boiling prayer is. When your children are in trouble, you'll pray boiling prayers to God. When anything becomes life or death to you, you’ll pray an earnest, fervent, boiling prayer, and it won’t matter how long or how short you pray.
I heard a Bible teacher tell of a wreck in which his wife was badly hurt. When he got to the crash scene, his wife was unconscious, and her life was hanging in the balance. As he rode in the ambulance to the hospital with her, he stretched his arms over her body. “In that moment all I could do was repeat, ‘O God, O Jesus, O God, O Jesus, O God, O Jesus.’” Then he added, “I felt like it was the first time in my life I had ever really prayed.”
When I heard him say that, my mind went back to the night our first child was born. My wife was several weeks overdue, and that night there were various complications. During the long hours of waiting, the doctor warned us they might have to do a Caesarean delivery. Sometime in the late-night hours, the doctor came in and told us the baby was having fetal heart distress. He showed us on the monitor how the heartbeat was going way up and way down. “We’re going to watch this, but it doesn’t look good.” Two or three hours passed, and about 5:15 AM the doctor came striding in with a very concerned look on his face. He spoke one sentence: “We’re going to take the baby now.” That was not a question. He wasn’t asking for my permission. Suddenly the room exploded with activity: nurses coming in and out, carts being wheeled in, someone grabbed my wife, and within thirty seconds the room was completely empty except for me. It happened so fast I didn’t have a chance to kiss my wife good-bye. I didn’t have a chance to pray with her. The last thing I saw was her frightened face as they wheeled her into the delivery room. As I sat alone in that room, I tried to pray but I couldn’t. All I could do was say, “O God, have mercy. O Jesus, have mercy.” After what seemed like hours, though it was only about 20 minutes later, the doctor came in and said, “Mr. Pritchard, you’ve got a son. He’s healthy. He’s going to be okay. Your wife is doing fine.” I felt that day like it was the first time I had ever prayed in my life.
A Proof to Remember
“Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit.” (vv. 17-18).
James 5:17 adds a fascinating fact about Elijah when it calls him a man "with a nature like ours." The King James Version says he was a man of "like passions." He was like you, and he was like me. Read the story and see for yourself. Elijah had his ups and downs. He was a little rough around the edges. Not so polished. Not so refined. You're not going to have Elijah over to watch the World Series because you don't know when he's going to go off. He's that kind of man. When he gets a message from God, he's going to take action. You're not going to talk him out of it either. He was far from perfect. He's got a temper, and he is prone to depression and discouragement. James used him as an example for us to follow because, despite his human weaknesses, he was a man of prayer who walked with God during an evil generation. Though he was an imperfect mountain man, he was also a man of prayer and enormous faith in God. And that's why he's in the Bible.
It's easy to argue with James when you think of all Elijah did. He was a man of extremes, never settling for the moderate middle. When Elijah was at his best, he called down fire from heaven and defeated 850 false prophets. When Elijah was at his worst, he ran across the desert and hid in a cave on Mount Horeb. He did nothing by halves. Talk about life on the edge! He was on the edge half the time and over it the rest of the time. What about that story of Elijah laying himself on the body of a dead child and praying for God to bring him back to life (1 Kings 17:17-24)? Most of us can't imagine doing something like that. But then we're not like Elijah. Or are we?
Elijah was not some superhuman man in a category far beyond the rest of us mere mortals. He experienced all the emotions of life—joy, sorrow, victory, defeat, frustration, exultation, encouragement, discouragement, anger, forgiveness, despair, and relief. We face a twofold danger when we study a life of great accomplishment. Sometimes we tend to canonize a man, treating him as if he were exempt from the normal temptations of life. It is easy to chisel Elijah's head on some religious Mount Rushmore and say, "There never was such a man before or since." Or we may focus on a great man's failures, faults, and foibles, exposing every sin and every foolish mistake so that in the end he seems not very great at all. We pull him down into the muck and mire of ordinary life until the luster of his greatness has disappeared underneath the veneer of his frailty.
All the heroes of the Bible had their weaknesses, and Elijah was no exception. And that is one reason we are drawn to such a man. God used him in spite of his weaknesses. After his greatest victory, Elijah ran away. He ran away! God had to go and find him and talk him back into his senses. Then God used him again. That's a good story because it’s our story. We've all run away under pressure. We've given up, thrown in the towel, quit the race, caved in when the heat was on. No one is strong all the time. We're all made from the same clay. Elijah's story is our story because Elijah's God is our God too. Just as he came after Elijah, he comes after you and me again and again and again. He doesn't know when to quit. He doesn't accept our letter of resignation. He finds us, calls us, refines us, rebukes us, encourages us, and refits us. Then he commissions us all over again.
James wants us to remember that this imperfect man of God prayed, and the rain stopped. It didn’t fall in Israel for 3 ½ years. Then he prayed again, and the heavens opened up, and rain fell from heaven, ending the drought. If God would listen to Elijah’s prayers, he will certainly listen to ours.
Not long ago a friend of ours was going through a desperate battle with cancer. She wondered how she should pray about it. One day I passed along this bit of advice: “If you need a miracle, ask for one. There’s no extra charge for large requests.” That’s entirely biblical. Sometimes we shrink back from “big” requests because we think they are too much for us to ask. But such thinking reveals a man-centered theology. When we pray, we are coming to the God of the universe who holds all things together. Why not ask for what we need? It’s quite true: There is no extra charge for large requests.
What, then, is the application? Let’s confess our sins, let’s pray together, so that the Lord might heal us. Pray boiling prayers because those prayers get God’s attention. Remember Elijah and ask God for what you need.
In the end prayer is not a burden, not a duty, but a blessed privilege. We should not pray because we have to but because we want to. Let us pray with confidence, expecting God will answer our prayers. Nothing is too great to ask, and nothing is too hard for the Lord.