The following is an adaptation of the sermon ‘Prayer that Works’ preached by Pastor Michael White on Sunday, 7/8/2018, at CityLight Church. To listen to the full podcast please click the play arrow above.
Prayer that Works
Have you ever been through a period in your life where it felt like every prayer you prayed worked right away? When I first gave my life to Jesus, I experienced this. I prayed for a promotion at work, and I got it. When a family member was going through health complications, I prayed for healing and she received it. I met the woman of my dreams, and I prayed the relationship would work (she is now my wife)! It was like every prayer I prayed was immediately effective.
I’ve also been through times in my life when it felt like prayers went unanswered. So, what is the difference between effective and ineffective prayer? What was the difference-maker in times when I saw one answer to prayer after another?
The Bible tells us there is such a thing as “effective” prayer. The implication is there also is such a thing as ineffective prayer. So wouldn’t it be a good use of our time to discover the difference?
What Makes Prayer Effective?
Here is how James encouraged the early church to pray:
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. 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. – Jas 5:13-18
There are several important points in this passage. First, prayer works. Prayer is the remedy to suffering, sickness, and sin. Second, prayer produces. Prayer produces joy, healing, and forgiveness. Third, there are different types of prayer. You can pray for yourself, or you can “confess your trespasses to one another” (v 16) so other people can pray for you!
But let’s hone in on verse 16: “The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.” To “avail much” means to get stuff done. In other words, the effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man (or woman!) works! We all want prayer that works, don’t we? So what does it mean for our prayers to be 1) effective, 2) fervent, and 3) righteous?
1) Effective. The dictionary defines “effective” as “successful in producing a desired or intended result.” Our prayers should be results-driven. We should pray specific prayers that have a measurable (i.e. objective and quantifiable) impact. When you prayed for a raise, what dollar-amount did you ask for? Did you get it? What was your salary (or hourly wage) before you started praying, and how did it change as a result of your prayer? If you can’t measure the impact your prayer actually has, how will you know if it really works?
2) Righteous. Scripture tells us that in order for our prayers to work, we have to be righteous. So what does it mean to be righteous?
For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. – 2 Cor 5:21
To be righteous means to believe in Jesus: not just that He was a prophet or an important historical figure, but that He is King of kings and Lord of lords! When you make Jesus Lord of your life, you become the righteousness of God. You don’t just have His righteousness, leaving you in a state where you can lose it; you are His righteousness, which leaves you in a state where your position to pray effective prayer is guaranteed!
3) Fervent. We saved this characteristic of “prayer that works” for last because I believe it’s the most difficult to truly understand. In English, we define “fervent” as “having or displaying a passionate intensity.” This is where we sometimes get lost as the church. We think fervent prayers have to be emotional. The more passionate intensity we display, the better! When we see someone who is crying and weeping as they pray, we think, Wow, God must really be moving in that prayer.
But emotional intensity does not always translate into prayerful efficacy. Showing more emotion doesn’t necessarily make your prayer more effective. In the original Greek translation of James 5:16, the word we translate as “fervent” is actually the Greek word energeo. which means “to be operative, to be at work, or to put forth power.” This is where we get the English word energy. So “fervent prayer” gets things moving. Energeo prayer creates power that is derived from the effective utilization of resources.
Let me illustrate this with an example. When I was in college, my parents took me out for dinner to celebrate my birthday. We went to a restaurant called the Grist Mill. The restaurant was situated right on a river; and at the back of the restaurant, there was a giant wooden wheel. As the water from the river flowed over the wheel, the wheel started turning. Back when the restaurant was a mill, the turning wheel would power a mechanism that would grind grain (i.e. grist).
In other words, the mill was powered by harnessing the energy of the water. This is how fervent prayer works. It’s not that you’re using more energy than necessary. That would be a waste! You are not a generator, trying to produce powerful prayer on your own. Fervent prayer means channeling something powerful that God has already given you, and maximizing the impact it has on the work that needs to get done!
You see, God has already given you His word. That is the wheel; when you put it to work as He intended you to use it, things will start to get done in your life. The Holy Spirit is moving like those waters at the mill. He is ready and willing to put motion to your prayers! But you have to use the word to harness what the Holy Spirit is doing!
Do you see it? Fervent prayer doesn’t necessarily mean praying with passionate emotional intensity; it means harnessing the move of God’s Holy Spirit by praying what God wants you to pray, instead of what you want to pray for yourself. It means using the word of God to harness the move of the Holy Spirit!
Whenever I see someone pray powerful prayers in Scripture, I take note. Scripture says, “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” (Jas 5:17). What made Elijah’s prayers so special?
Elijah was a human being, just like you and me. In other words, what made his prayers so special was not something inherent about his physical makeup or character composition. It was not some extremely rare character trait or part of his nature. He was just like us! But how many times have you ever held back the rain? He was a human being just like us; but there was something Elijah was doing that made his prayers powerful and effective.
Scripture tells us how Elijah declared the drought James describes:
And Elijah the Tishbite, of the inhabitants of Gilead, said to Ahab, “As the Lord God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall not be dew nor rain these years, except at my word.”
Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “Get away from here and turn eastward, and hide by the Brook Cherith, which flows into the Jordan. And it will be that you shall drink from the brook, and I have commanded the ravens to feed you there.”
So he went and did according to the word of the Lord, – 1 Kings 17:1-5
The pattern we see in verses 2-5 allows us to interpret the boldness we see in verse 1. Here was the pattern in Elijah’s life: Elijah received the word, and then he did what God told him to do! He didn’t declare a drought because he thought it would be cool if it didn’t rain! He didn’t have plans to go to the beach! He had the word of God: Elijah, I want you to go to King Ahab and declare a drought. So then he went out and declared what God told him to say.
This is fervent prayer. Elijah got a word from the Lord, and went out and declared it by faith. He didn’t flinch. He didn’t stop to wonder what would happen if the result to his prayers didn’t come. He simply made a decision to partner with the Holy Spirit by using the word of the Lord he had been given. He was harnessing the power of something moving that was bigger than him, and declaring effective prayer based on the strength of that movement!
Last week we talked about “praying what you see.” God will show us something in His word (the written word, or logos). He will show us something in prayer (the spoken word, or rhema). Our responsibility is to take that word, and declare it by faith. We participate in what the Holy Spirit is doing by using his word to get God’s work done in prayer.
Once Elijah had God’s word, he knew his prayers were as good as answered. Here is why:
For You have magnified Your word above all Your name. – Psalm 138:2
God exalts (i.e. holds) His word above His name. The Jewish people would not even utter or record the name of God because they had such a reverence and an awe for God’s power. Yet here is God saying, if you want real power, use my word!
When God declares something, it is as good as done! And fervent prayer means taking what God has said, and declaring it by faith!
The Question You Have to Ask Yourself
Here is the question you have to ask yourself as you read this: are your prayers based on the word of God? Or are they emotional appeals based on your feelings?
If your prayers are based on emotional appeals, there is no guarantee they will be answered. But when your prayers are based on the word of God, you can declare them with complete confidence, just as Elijah did!
Now this is the confidence that we have in Him, that if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us. And if we know that He hears us, whatever we ask, we know that we have the petitions that we have asked of Him. – 1 Jn 5:14-15
© Michael D. White, 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Michael D. White with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
 Strong’s G1754