The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective. (Jam. 5:16)
What makes this verse such a favorite among Christians? The wording. Notice the reference to power: that always perks the ears of our little egos. And then notice who is wielding that power: a human being, not God. And here is where we should be slamming on the brakes and saying, “Wait a minute—something’s wrong. Humans don’t have power.” But this is not what we say, is it?
Humans don’t have power. Humans aren’t potent little sorcerers who can go around zapping God into action with their universe altering utterances. So whenever someone starts trying to pump you up about YOUR power, you need to look to the Holy Spirit for help. Whether that person is a dead apostle like James or a living leader in the Church today, anyone who tries to make you view YOURSELF as a powerful entity is leading you astray. GOD has power, and He doesn’t take orders from you.
What is prayer, anyway? It is your soul’s communication with God. We’re used to thinking of prayer as something we do with our brains and our tongues, but it’s really something we do with our souls. God says something to your soul and your soul says something back. Your soul speaks to God in a non-verbal, spiritual language. Your brain translates parts and pieces of that non-verbal language into the verbal language that you’re used to speaking with your tongue. That’s what you call praying: those verbal thoughts that you form with your brain. Well, this is a rather poor definition of prayer, for in reality your soul is constantly responding to God. Just because you don’t translate most of its communications into verbal thoughts doesn’t make those communications less real.
In every area of your relationship with God, He initiates and you respond. You didn’t even know He existed until He introduced Himself to you. You didn’t know what He wanted from you until He informed you. We humans are responsive creatures: we’re always reacting to other parties who are interacting with us, whether it’s God, demons, or other people. We also react to changes in our environment and sensual experiences. When we receive bad news on the phone, we react to it by getting upset. When demons plant fear into our minds, we react. When God convicts us of something, we react. We’re always responding, never leading. But this sounds pretty weak, so we deny this reality and view ourselves as leaders instead. When a crisis arises, we take the glory for saving the day instead of recognizing that it was God who whispered the solution into our brains. When He supernaturally shields us from stress, we praise ourselves for having unwavering faith. While He shields us from infectious diseases, we give the glory to our excellent diet and exercise regime. It is because we refuse to see ourselves as dependent, powerless responders that we are constantly boasting of our ability to lead God about. Did our sister miraculously recover from her cancerous tumor? Of course she did, the prayer warriors were petitioning Heaven for 48 hours straight. Has some evil stronghold in our neighborhood collapsed? Of course it did: the intercessory team has been beating that stronghold down with their mighty prayers. When the sick recover, we praise ourselves. When miracles happen, we praise ourselves. Oh, sure, we praise God, too, but we make sure to mention how many of us were standing in the hospital corridors lifting up our brother who was in distress. We make sure to mention who laid hands on who and who got dabbed with the holy oil. If some famous name in the Church was involved, he gets special recognition. Why mention these things at all unless we believe they played a critical part in bringing about the outcome we wanted? Clearly we view ourselves as potent little things, and we don’t see anything wrong with trying to turn the spotlight off of God and onto us so that we can soak up some of the glory for the things that He’s done. As long as we still mention Him in passing, it’s not irreverent, right?
The apostle James puts out a lot of useless teaching in his five chapter letter to his fellow believers. Today we’re still promoting James’ foolish thinking as brilliant because we’re not sincerely seeking the wisdom of the Holy Spirit. James says what our egos want to hear, so we just run with it. We want a truth that tickles our ears, even if that truth is a lie which grossly offends our jealous Creators.
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. (Jam. 5:13-16)
When we put this verse back in context, James’ carnal focus becomes clear. People don’t want to be sick. We don’t want to have troubles. We want a life that is full of comfort and convenience. No problem. James says all we have to do is pray, and God will produce. Just as you drop a coin into a vending machine to make the thing give you a candy bar, James has worked out a handy system for how we can drop a coin into God to make Him do what we want. First, get the elders. You know, because God is so impressed with these manmade titles we use. James is saying that when a real crisis arises, it’s time to bring in the big boys—the spiritual elite. It’s not good enough for the regular parishioners to pray for themselves because God doesn’t pay as much mind to nobodies. Social rank matters on earth, and James wants us to believe it matters with God, too. So step one is bring in the elders.
Step two is get the oil. What, do you want God to work in a dry environment? You have to lubricate your target before the Divine power can slip on through him. Apparently we’re supposed to view anointing oil like some kind of Divine kryptonite: God is rendered powerless to refuse us once we start slicking someone up.
Step three is to make sure that those elders are praying in faith. Oh, and they have to be righteous. Because it’s only the prayer of a RIGHTEOUS person that is powerful and effective. So…who can we find who is so out of touch with their own depravity that they’re actually going to claim to be righteous in the eyes of a holy God? If you want to talk about the righteousness of Christ, go ahead. But to talk about your own righteousness? Yikes. How can any of us actually say the words “my righteousness” without our souls gagging in repulsion? If we’re comfortable with claiming righteousness before God, we need to reread Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and remember just how unattainable God’s definition of righteousness is. NO ONE is righteous, that’s why we say we’re “saved by grace.” Grace is when God gives us favor that we DON’T DESERVE. We don’t deserve it because we’re NOT RIGHTEOUS. So unless you’re trying to say that you no longer need grace because you’ve become morally perfect at some point in the journey, you shouldn’t be using the R-word in reference to yourself.
Now of course Old Covenant Jews were not at all shy about claiming righteousness in the sight of God. The Pharisees and Sadducees boldly declared themselves to be without sin—and if they did sin, they found quick and easy ways to correct the situation. But these religious leaders weren’t the only examples of arrogance run amuck—plenty of regular Jews had extremely lofty opinions of themselves. This is why Jesus spends so much time pointing out people’s moral failings—because those same people were in denial about their failings.
So then, James is teaching us to not only apply the pompous label of “righteous” to ourselves, he is also encouraging us to view that righteousness like some kind of powerful wand which we can wave over God to make Him do what we want. Well, James’ actual formula is righteousness plus elders plus sacred oil. After all, health problems can be tough problems. If we want big miracles, we need to break out the big guns and come at God from several different angles. Wow Him with rank, lubricate Him with oil, and stun Him with our awesome faith. Then He’ll simply have to give us what we want, be it physical healing or the forgiveness of sin.
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. (Jam. 5:15)
See? It’s a twofer: one potent prayer gets us physical healing AND the forgiveness of sin. But wait…this letter is speaking to Christians, and Christians have already received forgiveness for ALL of their sins through Christ. So why do we need more forgiveness? Is James saying that Christ missed a few when He died on the cross? Apparently so.
So what if God doesn’t want to heal us for some reason? What if He wants us to stay sick? Doesn’t sickness come from God in the first place? God says it does, but apparently James disagrees. How pompous of James.
Sickness DOES come from God, and it’s high time we recognized this. God is the Source of every trial we go through, and God says that He brings trials into our lives for POSITIVE spiritual reasons. Trials are tools which God uses to draw us closer to Him. Are we leaning into the lesson when we instantly start praying against God’s will for us?
Now there’s nothing wrong with asking for healing. God wants us to be honest with Him, and the honest truth is that we see no value in being sick. But God DOES see value in it, and when we come to Him expressing what our preferences are, we also need to be receptive to learning what He wants to teach us.
“Lord, I hate being sick and I wish You would heal me, but I know You have a reason for bringing this trial into my life. Help me to learn everything that You want to teach me through this. Make growing closer to You become more important to me than always having my own way on this earth.”
If we pray like this, we’re going to end up in some awesome places. Physical healing is all fine and well, but what eternal value does it have? It is our souls that are eternal, while our flesh is only temporary. The well-being of our souls needs to become more important to us than the well-being of our bodies. But this is not at all natural—it is something God must help us with. We are born with a major focus on physical comfort. It’s not a flaw, it’s part of our design. But where we start is not where we’re meant to stay. God wants us to continue to evolve—to undergo a radical change in perspective and priorities. He doesn’t expect us to do this on our own—He wants to do it in us. But before He does, He wants us to voluntarily invite Him to change us. God doesn’t force maturity upon us—He gives us the option to remain in carnal stagnation. James teaches us to view prayer as a guaranteed way to get God to give us physical comfort. What a crummy way to view this amazing opportunity we have to commune with our King. God has arranged things so that little dots like us can have intimate soul communion with the Creator of all things anytime, anywhere. Do we really want to squander such a glorious privilege by only coming to God when we want some earthly blessing from Him? If we follow the example of James, Paul, and many leaders in the Church today, our prayer time will be reduced to a long recitation of “Gimme, gimme, gimme, in Jesus’ Name, amen.” Where is the cherishing of our Maker? Where is the invitation for God to change and mature us in ways that He finds pleasing because we are longing to bless His heart? The purpose of prayer was never supposed be blasting God with a long stream of criticism and correction. “Stop doing that. Fix that. Heal her. Intervene there.” The more we ponder the sovereignty of God, the more we realize how inappropriate it is for us to be constantly talking like this world is running amuck. God says that everything that happens down here is something He is CAUSING to happen ON PURPOSE. Instead of completely ignoring this and acting like our wisdom is higher than God’s, we need to spend more time coming to Him with an attitude of reverential submission, saying, “Make me everything that You want me to be.” This is the attitude that pleases God, and this is the kind of prayer He will respond to by drawing us closer to Him. Intimacy with God is the greatest treasure there is. So forget about the elders and the oil and trying to wow God with your righteousness. God wants our hearts, not our manipulation.