James 5:12-20

4 Lessons on Prayer

The passage begins with James telling us how not to approach God — do not swear, either by heaven or earth or by any other oath (v.12).  With the rest of the letter he shows us how to approach God — that is in prayer. I want to consider 4 lessons James has for us on the topic of prayer.

#1 It’s always a good time to pray.

Is anyone among you suffering?  Let him pray (v.13). There is something about suffering that drives us to our knees in prayer. When we are stripped of our earthly comforts, we turn to God for heavenly comfort.  But this isn’t the only occasion to pray of course. We need God just as much in the storms of life as in the sunshine. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise (v.13). John Calvin wisely explains that “there is no time in which God does not invite us to himself (James Commentary).” Regardless of what is going on around us, God desires that we come to him.  And yet we know our hearts.  Prosperity tends to distract us from spiritual things.  Affliction, on the other hand, tends to drive us to such despair that the result is the same: we forget God.

Here’s the big idea.  In whatever state we find ourselves, in a storm or in sunshine, on vacation or in the office, tired or distracted, God invites us to come to him in prayer.  This is the idea of “come as you are.”  Sometimes we think we need to first address our issues before coming to God in prayer.  But why not begin your prayer acknowledging to God where you are.  Lord, I am distracted today.  Father, I am caught in a sin pattern that is giving pleasure it shouldn’t.  God, I don’t feel like praying today.  Wherever you are, that’s where you should pray!

#2 We need the prayer of others.

Not only should we be active to pray ourselves, James tells us that we need the prayer of others as well.  Now it’s not that there is something magical about the prayer of others.  As a matter of fact, one of the pillars of the Reformation was the re-discovery of the Biblical teaching of the priesthood of all believers.  “There is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus (c.f. 1 Timothy 2:5).”  Believers have no need of an earthly priest to intercede for them.  All those who have received the Holy Spirit, which is everyone who has truly placed their faith in Christ, are able to be heard by God.

And yet God in his providence has seen fit to knit the body of Christ together in such a way that we benefit greatly from the ministry of others.  This is why James tells us that if anyone is sick he should call for the elders of the church who will anoint himwith oil in the name of the Lord (v.14).  Likewise we are to confess our sins to one another and pray for one another (v.16). There is power to be found in the prayer of others.  We are members of one body and so we should freely ask for the prayer of others.

#3 Prayer actually changes things.

God is completely sovereign, firmly seated on the throne of heaven from which he directs all the affairs of heaven and earth.  The power and sovereignty of God should bring us great comfort and drive us to be prayer warriors because we know that one of God’s chosen means for accomplishing his purposes in the world is our prayers.  But when we misunderstand the relationship between God’s sovereignty and our prayers, we can become apathetic in prayer.  We think our prayers won’t make a difference.  Prayer becomes just a way to check in with God.

James shows us the power of prayer to effect real change in our lives, the lives of others, and in the world.  The prayer of faith will save the one who is sick (v.15). We pray for one another that we may be healed (v.16).  Elijah prayed that it would not rain and for three years and six months it did not rain on earth (v.17).  There is power in prayer!!!  Yes God is sovereign and he exercises that sovereignty in our prayers as well. Far from making us lazy, God’s sovereignty should get us excited to pray because we know our prayers can effect real change.

#4 Faith, not performance, is what animates our prayer.

James writes The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working (v.16).  This is meant to encourage us but if we misunderstand it, we will perhaps be discouraged.  One of the reasons we aren’t more eager in prayer, is because we don’t believe we are righteous.  The woman who works hard at her job, always going above and beyond what is expected of her, will have a measure of boldness when she goes into the boss’s office and asks for a raise. On the other hand, the man who is lazy and incompetent in his work, will not share her boldness.

We often feel so beat up by the world, the flesh, or the devil, and rather than go to God in prayer, we stay away.  Here’s the good news: in Christ we are righteous.  The prayer of righteous person has great power as it is working.  Who is he talking about?  He is talking us — believers –those who have been washed clean and made righteous.  This should drive us to prayer.

James says consider the example of Elijah.  He was a man with a nature like ours (v.17). There was nothing super-human about Elijah.  He had a nature like ours — and God worked powerfully through him.  What animates our prayers, is not our performance, but our faith.  Elijah prayed fervently (v.17). This why James earlier said the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick (v.15).  Faith is what brings our prayers before a sovereign and loving God.

Discussion Questions
  1. What warning does James give about swearing in verse 12?  How do you think this relates to the rest of the passage?
  2. On what occasions does James tell us to pray (v.13-14)?  Do you find it easier to pray when you are suffering or when you are cheerful?
  3. If Jesus is the only mediator between God and men (c.f. 1 Tim 2:5), why do you think we are told to pray for one another?
  4. What hinders Christians from confessing sins and praying for one another?
  5. How can we as a Home Group do a better job of praying for one another?
  6. What does James mean by “the prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working” (v.16)?
  7. In what way is Elijah an example of prayer for us?
  8. How should the sovereignty of God motivate us to pray?
  9. Share a time when you saw God work through your prayers or the prayers of others.
  10. What is one thing you will do as a result of studying this passage?