I had a real “a-ha” moment a month or so ago while a friend and I were studying the Bible together. We were looking at a familiar verse, James 5:16, which says: “The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.” She was quiet a moment, then mused aloud, “I wonder what it would be like if I really believed that?”
We had been talking about what it means to believe God—what faith really looks like in our everyday lives and in our everyday prayers. I suppose that ordinarily when I think of faith and believing God, at least in the context of prayer, I think about whether I believe God will do “big things.” You know, healings, miracles, returned prodigals, salvations, revival, and the like. But when my friend made her comment, it struck me that God intends for every prayer I pray to be powerful and effective. He says so in that verse.
I thought about the things that I most often talk to God about. I imagined this verse superimposed over every request. Do I really believe that every prayer I pray is powerful and effective? Honestly? I’m sorry to say that usually I don’t. And why not?
I was taught—and I believe—that when we pray God’s promises, we need to pay attention to any conditions that go along with them. God is not bound to keep a promise if there is a qualification to it that we do not meet. So in this case, the condition is that the pray-er must be a “righteous person.” But how daunting is that? I mean, who is truly righteous, after all? The Bible says no one is! So how can anyone really “claim” that promise? For most of my life I have basically dismissed this incredible promise; I felt I never could meet the condition. I’m no Elijah, after all (see the next verse).
But as I pondered this, God reminded me that it’s not my righteousness that allows me to come before His throne of grace. Although I take my spiritual transformation seriously, I know that my personal efforts at righteousness don’t amount to more than a bunch of filthy rags. That’s why Jesus offers to clothe me in His.
So, what does this mean in terms of James 5:16? I think it means that the promise can apply to my prayers, if I will just believe and receive God’s provision for my righteousness. God does not disqualify me from powerful and effective prayer because I can’t (and never could) meet the condition on my own. He makes it possible for me to meet the condition by accepting Jesus’ righteousness as my own! And, if I understand James 5:16 correctly, that means my prayers can be powerful and effective, too.
When I started praying with these ideas in mind, it has made a noticeable difference. For instance, I have a bunch of long-term concerns that I talk to God about often. These are not things that I expect an instant answer to. Typically, when I have prayed about these things before, I haven’t felt much power and effectiveness. Sometimes it has felt more like, “Well, I want to persevere in this and hope that someday, somehow, maybe God will work it out.” But now when I pray with James 5:16 in mind, I am bit-by-bit learning to say something like this: Abba, I have no idea what You need to do in this situation in order to answer this prayer, but I believe that my prayer matters. Somehow, simply because I, your forgiven and redeemed child, am asking, You are able to work in ways that You might not otherwise work if I weren’t talking to You about this. You tell me that my prayer—which includes this very prayer about this very thing—is powerful and effective. So I choose to believe You about that!
I still have a lot to learn about this, I think, and I have a way to go before praying like this becomes a solid habit. But I really appreciate the benefits this new approach to James 5:16 has brought so far. Thinking about the importance God places on righteousness prompts me to regularly receive His cleansing and forgiveness and to intentionally claim Jesus’ righteousness as my own. And realizing that God really does mean that my everyday prayers can be powerful and effective motivates me to talk—and keep talking—to Him about everything. And I don’t even have to be Elijah!