If the “Lord’s Prayer” in Matthew 6:9-13 is the most classic biblical passage about prayer, the runner-up surely must be in the book of James. James 5:13-18 reads:
Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven. Therefore 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.
That this passage is about prayer is an understatement and yet, it is not just about prayer. This passage is about the intersection of God and faith where prayer is the vehicle of that faith…but not for the reasons some people may think.
The phrase “The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective” (v. 16) is an oft cited inspirational memo to people. That line is well-known enough that some people may even have it memorized without knowing where exactly it comes from in the Bible. This has led some people to use it a bad proof-text that turns God into some cosmic-genie in the sky who is will answer our every little prayer in our favor. That is, whatever whim we happen to want, God will grant it if we will just “name it, claim it.”
Of course, this is not what this passage is about at all. In fact, I believe it is entirely possible to pray fervently for something such as healing from an illness and for unknown reasons, never receiving physical healing. In the above passage, the prayer of faith that makes the sick “well” (v. 15) is about salvation (sōzō). So a better rendering is, “The prayer of faith will save the sick…” (NRSV).
The fact that this prayer is about salvation is further supported by two other claims in the passage. First, the prayer and anointing of oil from the elders is to be done “in the name of the Lord” which is a phrase that invokes the resurrection power of Jesus Christ. Second, James reassures the sick that “the Lord will raise them up.” This again points us to the resurrection power which is also our victory in Christ.
So the point of this exhortation from James to pray does not appear to be about the temporal outcomes of our prayers. By faith and through prayer, we may find healing from an illness, deliverance from a spiritual struggle, etc… but that is not the point. The point is that through prayer as a vehicle of faith, our faith is continually intersected with the redemptive promise of God in Christ. That is, we gain the vision to continue seeing the resurrected Christ and trust in that promise as our salvation regardless of what the temporal outcomes of our prayers are. That is what makes the prayers of the righteous “powerful and effective.”
The good news is that such praying and prayers do not require us to be super-spiritual people. It just a matter of whether we will seek God in prayer. That is why the word of James is a “Let us pray!”