There once was a minister who grew tired of tending to the needs and demands of his congregation. Once Sunday he decided to play hooky. Instead of showing up to church, he headed out on the hiking trail. Towards late afternoon, as the preacher was walking along an old logging road, he finally began to feel relaxed and refreshed. As he turned a corner, however, he came face to face with a bear. The bear was huge, and it as eying the pastor as if he was a tasty afternoon snack. Not knowing what to do, the preacher dropped to his knees, bowed his head and began to pray. “O Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner. I have done wrong. But if I could ask just one thing of you, Lord, please make this bear a Christian. I know that I was wrong to abandon my flock today. I thought ill of those who have put in my charge. But please, Lord, make this bear a Christian.” The preacher suddenly heard a strange thump. He lifted his eyes to see the mighty bear on its knees in the dirt. Its massive paw came together in a prayerful attitude. The great bear bowed its head, and then it began to speak. “O Lord, bless this meal we are about to receive. . .”
In today’s second scripture reading, James says that the prayers of the righteous are powerful and effective. But how many of us here today feel like our prayers make a difference? When as the last time you felt that God heard your prayers, or that your prayers had an impact on your life and the lives of those around you? Like the preacher in the woods, many of our prayers consist of occasional begging to God when we are in trouble. This is genie-in-the-lamp praying – asking God to make your wishes come true without asking you to put any effort into it.
James talks about prayer differently. Prayer is not meant to be something that helps us escape our responsibilities. It’s also not supposed to be something that bores us. Prayer is supposed to be a practical part of our lives as Christians. Today we are going to think about how we can know if our prayers really work.
One of the first things we need to learn is how to be in contact with God so that God’s life and power can flow through us to others. Sometimes we assume that we are in contact with God when we really aren’t. Think about it like this: As I speak, dozens of radio, TV and wireless signals go through this room. But we can’t pick them up because we’re not tuned in to the proper frequency. The only one you can hear is the frequency from my wireless mic. Often we pray with all the faith we can muster, but nothing happens. Perhaps we aren’t tuned in to God. We let God know what we want, but we tune in to listen to what God wants from us. We do a lot of talking, but none of the listening.
Effective prayer reminds us who God is. We know our prayers are working when God taps us on the back and reminds us what kind of God we are praying to. Earlier in his letter, James tells us what kind of God this is. He writes, “Every desirable and beneficial gift comes out of heaven. The gifts are rivers of light cascading down from the Father of Light. There is nothing deceitful in God, nothing two-faced, nothing fickle. He brought us to life using the true Word, showing us off as the crown of all his creatures (1:17-18). Effective prayer restores us to a proper posture before God. In prayer, we remember that we are not the creator. We are the creation. It’s not our job to tell God what must be done to make us happy. Rather, we pray that God’s will be done and that we have the courage to accept it. Our prayers are effective when we finally get a sense of who God is: faithful, generous, compassionate and just – a loving companion who promises never to leave us or forsake us. To this God we pray in times of trouble. To God we sings songs of praise. To God we call out for help with the knowledge that God is greater than all of our circumstances.
Here’s another characteristic of effective prayer. Effective prayer leads to confession and repentance. James says, “Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you can live together whole and healed.” Confession stirs in us an awesome sense of God’s forgiveness.
During WWII a pastor named Dietrich Bonhoeffer was killed in a Nazi concentration camp. He was arrested for running an underground church that opposed the Nazi regime. On the day of his execution, April 9, 1945, the camp doctor saw Bonhoeffer kneeling on the floor of his cell, praying fervently to God. At the place of his execution, Bonhoeffer again said a brief prayer and stepped up to the gallows brave and composed. The camp doctor later reflected that in 50 years of medicine he had rarely seen a man die so serenely. Bonhoeffer was in touch with the effectiveness of prayer. In his underground church days, he wrote a book entitled Life Together. Listen to what he wrote about confession. “In the confession, the break through to new life occurs. Where sin is hated, admitted, and forgiven, there the break with the past is made . . . In confession the Christian begins to forsake his sins. Their dominion is broken.”
Some Christian communions interpret this to mean that we need to confess our sins to a priest. This is not our protestant understanding. We believe that God gives us the certainty of forgiveness through our brothers and sisters in Christ, not a religious official. Anyone who has been horrified by the effects of sin in his or her life and knows God’s forgiveness is qualified to listen to another fellow sinner with compassion. When we are willing to listen to each other with grace and respect, mutual confession can help us bring our sins into the light of God’s forgiveness.
Effective prayer reminds us that we sinners together. Effective prayer also reminds us that we are also healers together.
Effective prayer also leads us to pray for others. James says, “Are you hurting? Pray. Do you feel great? Sing. Are you sick? Call the church leaders together to pray and anoint you with oil in the name of the Master. Believing-prayer will heal you, and Jesus will put you on your feet.” Effective prayer calls us to look beyond our own needs and leads us to pray for others who need God’s touch.
There’s actually been a lot of controversy about whether intercessory prayer works. A study published in 2006 divided heart surgery patients into three groups. Two were prayed for; the third was not. Half the patients who received the prayers were told that they were being prayed for; half were told that they might or might not receive prayers. The study insisted that prayers offered by strangers had no effect on the recovery of people who were undergoing heart surgery. Not only that, patients who knew they were being prayed for had a higher rate of post-operative complications.
A new article is about to be published arguing that prayer does indeed work. The researcher analyzed 17 major studies on the effects of prayer offered for the benefit of another person among people with psychological or medical problems, including the one I just mentioned. In all, he found a positive effect. The researcher says, “Overall, [data] indicates that prayer is effective. Is it effective enough to meet the standards of the American Psychological Association’s Division 12 for empirically validated interventions? No. Thus, we should not be treating clients suffering with depression, for example, only with prayer.” That makes sense. What if you went to the doctor complaining of chest pains and she said, “Go home. I’ll pray for you. Call me in the morning.” I bet you would find a new doctor. I would, too.
The point of praying for others is not just to aid their physical or emotional healing. Prayer reminds us that God restores wholeness to life. God forms us into new creations. I performed a funeral last week for a long time church member. I was struck by the words of the burial liturgy – words that I have said often. “God, you have designed this world, and know all things good for us. Give us such faith that, by day and night, in all times and in all place, we may without fear entrust those who are dear to us to your never-failing live in this life and the life to come.” Prayer reminds us that our friends and family do not belong to us. They belong to God.
So, effective prayer reminds us who God is. It calls us to confession and new life. It leads us to pray for others. According to James, effective prayer compels us to put our faith into action. Effective prayer doesn’t stop with our asking. It leads to our giving. As Martin Luther once said, “Pray as if everything depends on God. Work as if everything depends on you.” In his poetic prayer entitled Likrat Shabbat, Jack Reimer expresses how our actions need to accompany our prayers:
“We cannot merely pray to You, O God, to end war;
for we know that You have made the world in a way that man must find his own path to peace within himself and with his neighbor.
We cannot merely pray to You, O God, to end starvation;
for You have already given us the resources with which to feed the entire world if we would only use them wisely.
We cannot merely pray to You, O God, too root out prejudice;
for You have already given us eyes with which to see the good in all men if we would only use them rightly.
We cannot merely pray to You, O God, to end despair;
for You have already given us the power to clear away slums and to give hope if we would only use our power justly.
We cannot merely pray to You, O God, to end disease;
for You have already give us great minds with which to search out cures and healing if we would only use them constructively.
Therefore we pray to You instead, O God, for strength, determination, and
willpower to do instead of just to pray, to become instead of merely to wish.”
James says that the prayers of the righteous are powerful and effective. Prayer is not the petty invention of weak humanity. It is not a dreary performance. Prayer is God’s enabling act for humankind. It is contact of the living soul with God. It fills our emptiness with God’s fullness. It fills our poverty with god’s riches. It fortifies our weakness with God’s strength. How is your prayer life? Does it remind you of the true nature of God? Does it lead you to a greater awareness of your mistakes? Does it lead you a greater understanding of God’s total forgiveness? Does it motivate you to put your faith into action? Is your prayer powerful and effective?
Remember what James offers us. At all times, pray to God. The prayer of faith will make people whole.