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The Power of Prayer

Where do you turn when times are tough? What is your reaction to great news? What do you do when things go wrong? When you have a good day, what do you do? Many people will turn to a friend or loved one right away, but the Bible tells us what our first reaction should be:

“Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let
him sing psalms. Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of
the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of
the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will
raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Confess
your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be
healed. The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.” (James 5:13-16)

In all seasons of life, the good and the bad, we should turn to God first. Do you have problems? Pray (v.13). Are you happy? Sing to God (v.13). Are you sick? Pray, because the prayer of faith will rescue the sick and find forgiveness for sin (v.15).

We are encouraged many times to pray. Jesus endorsed it, “Then He spoke a parable to them, that men always ought to pray and not lose heart” (Luke 18:1). Paul encouraged us to pray all the time and not just for ourselves, “praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, being watchful to this end with all perseverance and supplication for all the saints” (Ephesians 6:18).

Why do we need to pray? Prayer shows that you know God is bigger than you, your problems, and blessings. Prayer shows humility and that you depend on God, “if My people who are called by My name will humble themselves, and pray…” (2 Chronicles 7:14). Prayer is part of turning away from wrong and turning to God, “if My people who are called by My name will humble themselves, and pray and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways…” (2 Chronicles 7:14). Prayer is part of communion with God that prepares us to receive blessings, “if My people who are called by My name will humble themselves, and pray and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land” (2 Chronicles 7:14). Prayer allows you to commune or share with God just as you would with someone who loves you and has your best interest at heart. If you want to get close to God, you must spend time with Him in prayer.

What should we pray about? You can talk to God about any and everything, “casting all your care upon Him, for He cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7). You share details of your life with friends, why not share them with God? Pray about your needs, “Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16). Jesus willingly brings our needs to God because He can sympathize with our human condition (Hebrews 4:15). One set of needs that is critical to pray for is spiritual needs. For example, Paul prayed,

“that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give to
you the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him, the eyes of
your understanding being enlightened; that you may know what is the hope of
His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the
saints, and what is the exceeding greatness of His power toward us who
believe, according to the working of His mighty power.” (Ephesians 1:17-19)

Now that’s a prayer! But what did he say? Paul prayed that God would give his friends 1) the spirit of wisdom so they could know God better, and 2) knowledge of the hope of God’s calling, inheritance, and power toward us. These are incredible blessings that a pastor could spend a whole sermon trying to explain individually, but for our purposes, you should realize that God is willing to grant spiritual blessings and growth and we should pray for them.

Now we know that we should pray, what to pray for, and how often to pray. But does prayer really change things? Or more importantly, can prayer change you? James gives an illustration of a righteous man’s prayer power:

“Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed earnestly that it
would not rain; and it did not rain on the land for three years and six
months. And he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain, and the earth
produced its fruit.” (James 5:17-18)

Elijah was a human, just like you—he had to eat, sleep, breath, etc. He had times of weakness and uncertainty. However, he prayed earnestly, seriously, and with conviction that it would not rain. It did not rain for three and a half years! Elijah prayed again that it would rain and it did. He prayed these things to teach the people that they should believe in and serve the one true God. The Lord heard and answered these prayers from a righteous person for a righteous cause. Read the whole story in 1 Kings 17-18. Some people will say, of course God answered Elijah’s prayer because he was a prophet. However, James informs us that this is wrong thinking. He said, “Elijah was a man,” in fact, just a regular man. James did not say, “Elijah was a prophet.” The only difference between you and Elijah is that he chose to be serious about believing God.

At a church youth camp in 2011 we put the power of prayer to the test. It had been raining off and on, but the day we were to leave there was a steady rain. The prospect of having to make a few hundred kids haul their luggage some distance through the rain to the buses and then ride home three hours soaking wet was not pleasant. So we prayed the rain would stop so we could load the buses. The rain stopped when it was time to load up and we rode home dry—God provided for our need and answered our request!

So prayer is powerful, but can anything limit its potential? Looking back at our opening passage from James, you’ll notice that sin and sickness are related two times in two verses (v.15-16). At first glance it appears to say confess your sins and be healed, so by implication, you are sick because you have sinned. Now before you go and tell someone if they had not sinned they would not be sick, remember that is not always the case. When the disciples assumed a man was born blind because he or his parents had sinned, Jesus shocked them by saying no one had sinned, but the man was blind to bring God glory (John 9:1-3).

So we must not interpret James 5:16 based on our human value system of deserving to be sick or not. Instead, go to the meaning at the spiritual level—confess your sins so God will hear your prayers! How is can we be sure this is the certain meaning? Because James’ example in the same verse is the “prayer of a righteous man avails much” or a righteous person’s prayer is powerful with God (v.16). If you are sinning, you pushed God away from you, so don’t expect Him to answer your prayers until you confess your sin and come close to Him. Jesus reminded us of this when He tells people to be reconciled with those you have wronged before bringing gifts to God (Matthew 5:23-24). Later, Peter gives a practical example saying, “Husbands, likewise, dwell with them with understanding, giving honor to the wife, as to the weaker vessel, and as being heirs together of the grace of life, that your prayers may not be hindered” (1 Peter 3:7). He states simply, if a husband does not treat his wife properly, that man should not expect God to answer his prayers. Wow! Yes, sin and sinful living will block your prayers. If we want our prayers to be heard, what can we do?

This brings us to the most important thing prayer can change - you. It will help you leave your sin and come back to God. The Lord will always hear the prayer of confession, “if we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). We are also told, “Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts...Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and He will lift you up” (James 4:8,10). Get close to God and clean up your sinful ways. Of course, this is a consistent theme in the Bible. For example, Jesus said, abide in Me, then ask as you pray in John 15:7. Abiding in Jesus is as close as you can get!

In previous eras, people knew the power of prayer and even sang about it. We would do well to remember such songs that encourage us to pray and tell of the potency of being able to talk with God. The first verse of the forgotten hymn “Sweet Hour of Prayer” by William Walford is listed here for you:

Sweet hour of prayer! Sweet hour of prayer!
That calls me from a world of care,
And bids me at my Father’s throne
Make all my wants and wishes known.
In seasons of distress and grief,
My soul has often found relief
And oft escaped the tempter’s snare
By thy return, sweet hour of prayer!

We’ve seen prayer is powerful and that we are urged to use it continually while on Earth to communicate with our Lord in Heaven. Now we know that sin can block prayers, but we can get around that by turning away from sin and asking for forgiveness. We’ve also seen that we can pray about everything, but does that mean we can ask for anything? That’s a great question to be examined in the article “Can I Ask God for Anything?” coming in May.

Just in case...

... This article talks about prayer, but what if you're not sure who to pray to? Read the articles on Jesus to research that important topic at About Jesus.

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