My drive-time to work each morning (about 35 minutes) is often time that I spend in prayer and meditation on Scripture. There was a lot to pray about on this morning’s drive. A scripture that often comes to mind when I’m praying is James 5:16b, which says “The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.” (NRSV) This insight into powerful and effective prayer is actually embedded in a longer exhortation by James to pray when suffering, pray when cheerful, pray when sick, pray when repentant for sins, and illustrations of prayers by saints like Elijah, who prayed for God’s intervention in the weather.
James 5 — 13 Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. 14 Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. 16 Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. 17 Elijah was a human being like us, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. 18 Then he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain and the earth yielded its harvest. (NRSV)
God wants us to pray, and God’s word has a lot to say about prayer, including giving us hundreds of examples of prayers and praying people. This exhortation from James about “the prayers of the righteous” fits under the rubric of both hindrances to prayer and answered prayer, and the reason for this is important to catch.
Before I share why I think there is a direct link between the “righteousness” of the pray-er, and the effectiveness of prayer, let me share what I do not think this is about.
#1 – The Point System (Self-Righteousness)
Let’s not imagine that God is keeping track of our good deeds and our bad deeds, and checking out the tally each time we come to him in prayer. No, as I hope you will see, James’ reference to the righteousness of the praying person is not centered on whether or not that person has earned the right (through their own righteousness) to get answers to prayer out of God. God is not playing favorites here, using our good behavior (or bad) as a means by which he determines whether or not he wants to act on our behalf.
#2 – Positional Theology (Forensic Justification)
Let’s also not get side-tracked by the all-too-typical references to our “position” in Christ when we’re talking about righteousness. It’s not unusual for preachers to steer away from practical righteousness as the focus of James’ words here, and to encourage praying people not to worry about how they are living — “For indeed,” (they remind us) “we are not righteous in ourselves, but Jesus imputes his righteousness to us when we are born again.” Look, this is not a lesson from James in the Reformed doctrine of forensic justification. It is not about positional theology. It’s really and truly (as I hope to convince you) about how a praying person is actually living in the world, and how that person’s behavior may be affecting their life of prayer and the effectiveness of their prayers.
Sabotaging the work of God
Let me try to make my point here by using an illustration. Let’s imagine for a moment that I attend a city council meeting, and during that meeting, I make a formal request to the Mayor of the town to deploy more police officers so that the town can be safer. In my petition, I sound like a person who really cares about safe streets, peace, and the tranquility of the city. But then let’s imagine that before the council meeting I had been involved in an armed robbery in which I pistol-whipped the owner of a jewelry store and made off with cash and stolen jewelry. Then, after the city council meeting, let’s imagine that I gathered with a group of criminals to discuss a plan to corrupt members of the police force so that we could have insiders helping us to cover our tracks when we commit our crimes. In this illustration, it is impossible to conclude that I actually care about the thing that I’m asking for from the Mayor. How so? Because in my actions I am working against the things I am requesting. My lifestyle runs contrary to my petition and works to sabotage the goal that I say I have in mind by making my requests.
Effective prayer and practical righteousness are inseparable
Prayer, in simple terms, is talking to God. Petitionary prayer is, in simple terms, asking God to do something. For instance, in the Lord’s prayer, we pray “May your kingdom come and your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” This petition asks God to get involved in the real-life stuff that people are experiencing to the degree that the reign of God comes to bear upon what happens in the world. It’s a great petition, and Jesus himself encourages us to make it “when you pray.” In other words, the Lord’s prayer should always be part of our prayer-life.
Righteousness, in simple terms, is doing what is right. It is about how one lives in the world. It is about what you do. The Greek word for righteousness here in James is dikaios. It is translated variously as righteous, just, and upright. Here is a sampling of texts where dikaios is used to refer to the behavior, actions, and lifestyle of a person (e.g., not just, or even primarily, that person’s forensic or positional status before God regardless of their actions). Hover over the reference to see the biblical text: Mat. 1:19, 9:13, 25:46, Lk. 1:6, 2:25, 5:32, 23:47, 23:50, Acts 10:22, 1 Tim. 1:9, Titus 1:8, 2 Pet. 2:7, Rev. 22:11.
The link between the righteousness (the lifestyle lived in cooperation with God) and prayer is inseparable. In the simplest terms I can possibly communicate, we have no reason to trust that our petitions to God will be effective if we are simultaneously working against God and God’s work in our actions. If we live as saboteurs of God’s good work in our own lives and in the world around us, and are, at the same time, petitioning God to work in this way or that, then we are a living illustration of another text in the Epistle of James:
James 1 — 5 If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you. 6 But ask in faith, never doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind; 7, 8 for the doubter, being double-minded and unstable in every way, must not expect to receive anything from the Lord. (NRSV – Emphasis added).
Again, God wants us to pray! Don’t stop praying. But don’t stop allowing God to transform your practical life so that your prayers and your life both say the same thing; namely, that you truly want God to do his good work in the world, and that you are not working against God, thus invalidating your own prayers.
Pray on, and live for God — for powerful and effective are the prayers of a person who lives in sync with his/her prayers, and who does not pray with his/her lips, and simultaneously tear down the work of God with his/her life!