The Effective Prayer Of A Righteous Man


At the end of the book of James, there are a few verses that deal with prayer. The context is specifically prayer for someone who is sick, which seems like a lot of prayer from Christians in 21 century America. I used to take prayer requests from my students, sometimes publicly, so we could pray together, and some times privately, for my eyes only. And for God’s. The vast majority of the requests were for health issues.

But that’s beside the point, because, though that was James’s starting point, it’s not where he ended up. Instead he went to a general statement, then to a specific example. First the statement: “The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much.”

What kind of “much” can prayer accomplish, James?

He answers this question with his example:

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 earth for three years and six months. Then he prayed again, and the sky poured rain and the earth produced its fruit. (5:17-18)

I love the explanation of who Elijah was—a guy just like the rest of us. No super saint. He didn’t have angelic blood. He wasn’t special in any way. But he did have two things going for him. 1) His prayer was earnest. 2) He was righteous.

Whenever I read these verses, I think, I should be praying more. I mean—rain! We could use rain in Southern California.

But the point is not to pray for stuff just because I want to see stuff happen. Like the Dodgers winning the World Series or even something more practical like safety for a friend who is on a trip.

The key, I think, is in the “righteous” part. It reminds me of a verse in Psalm 37, one people love to quote: “Delight yourself in the LORD / And He will give you the desires of your heart.” (v 4)

Health-and-wealthers use that verse as a limitless credit card that God has to honor. Atheists use that verse as evidence that prayer “doesn’t work.”

But both groups are ignoring the first phrase: “delight yourself in the LORD.” That’s like being righteous. It’s essentially saying, enjoy God so much you would not want to be doing anything He doesn’t want you to do. So why would we ever pray for something we aren’t absolutely sure God wants?

In Elijah’s case, he prayed for no rain, then three plus years later, for rain, because God told him what to ask for. So he was sure. He knew what God wanted.

But why does God even bother? I mean, He can send the rain whether we ask or not, and usually does.

Again in Elijah’s situation, God accomplished several things. Elijah didn’t ask for these things in secret. People, particularly the king of Israel, knew why there was no rain. God was showing His power, His sovereignty to a disobedient and godless man. At the same time, Elijah’s prayer was serving as an example down through the ages to all who knew his story but who later read James’s commentary on it. And finally, God delights in involving His people in His work.

That’s believers today, just as much as it was believers in the first century.

My tendency, when I do get an idea of what God’s heart might be, is to pray too generally. When I was a kid it was, “Bless Grandpa and Grandma and all the aunts and uncles and cousins.” Today is more apt to be, “Work in the hearts of this people group or that one.”

So general. How would I ever know if that prayer is accomplishing much?

I’ve said before that the secret to prayer isn’t that it “works” at all, yet this verse in James and the one in the Psalms makes me think I’m only partly right there. I do think the biggest part of prayer is sharing God’s heart, pouring out my concerns to Him, and recommitting myself to trust Him in those circumstances. But praying for a judgment on a disobedient land? I would most certainly have to be convinced that’s what God wanted, just as Elijah was.

But that’s the point. Prayer moves me closer to God so that I actually do know what He wants. I know, for example, I am to love my neighbors. Any time I am not loving my neighbor, I can know for sure that I am not delighting in God, I am not praying as a righteous person who can expect to accomplish much.

In short, I don’t really need to worry whether or not my prayers are too general or too selfish or whatever. I simply need to pray so that I draw closer to God, so that I can be used by Him when He shows me what He wants me to pray for.

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Published in: on October 5, 2018 at 5:54 pm  Comments (6)  
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Pollen—A Reprise


I was a hay fever kid. Every spring, especially during recess or P.E. class, newly mowed grass gave me fits. I was also allergic to ragweed, but apart from those two plants, I managed.

Unlike others, I neither out-grew the condition nor became worse, though I discovered one more thing I’m allergic to—more than anything else I’ve ever encountered. And it so happens I am living right next to it.

Just beyond the fence is a beautiful tall, full tree that offers wonderful shade in the summer. In the fall, which is usually in December here in SoCal, the tree begins to lose its leaves. Sometime after the first winter rain, it starts growing little blossoms which eventually produce new leaves. In the process those tiny yellow flowers release a fine yellow pollen, visible on our car windshields, porch, stairs.

It is that pollen I am allergic to.

Mind you, I’m not complaining, though some times I fall into a bit of a grumble. Except, I don’t want that tree gone. How many people live in the Los Angeles basin and can look out a window without seeing another apartment building or house? Plus there’s that extra shade which makes a ten to fifteen degree difference in the summer temperatures. I like this tree. I just don’t like its pollen.

Except, of course, the tree would have no leaves if there were no pollen. And Science 101 says pollen is important for bees and such—the whole Eco-system. I’ll have to take the word of the experts on that one. I just know, I have to take the bad if I want the good. And I do want the good.

This whole pollen thing seems a bit like an illustration of all of life. Things happen—a broken wrist, a rejection notice from an agent, a promotion that goes to someone else, a fender bender on the way home from work, a minor stroke. All such things are much like the pollen—those are not things anyone wants. Except without them, we don’t have the growth needed that can get us through the days when the temperature rises. The tough things train us spiritually.

“Consider it all joy,” James says, “when you encounter various trials knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance” (James 1:2-3).

Peter says positive things about hard times too:

In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials, so that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 1:6-7)

For a little while things might be hard, but rejoicing is still possible because there will be a reveal.

Writers like reveals. It’s something we need to put into our novels to create those A-ha moments for readers. And of course the biggest and the best reveal is saved for last. So too in real life.

Now the days of pollen will serve as more than a reminder that new leaves are coming on the wonderful shade tree that will cool my place in the summer. Now I have one more reminder that God makes joy and rejoicing out of the various trials He allows because the great A-ha is coming!

This post is an edited version of one that appeared here at A Christian Worldview of Fiction in February 2012 and again in February 2015.

Friends with the World – A Reprise


Sower_oilSome years ago I did a little blog surfing starting with an article published in Church Salt: “Emerging from Emergents.” The trail led me to a conclusion I hadn’t expected: those identifying with the emerging church are on the decline. Unfortunately, a group self-identifying as Progressives have seemed to take their place.

Whether emergents are a growing or shrinking number, or whether Progressives are the new emergents, isn’t the issue, however. The thinking of both or either group—contrary to the facade they portray to those “outside”— is little more than warmed over liberalism; they borrow generously from Orthodox Christianity, Gnostic thought, Eastern mysticism, even from a heretical ascetic such as Pelagius. Sadly, this thinking has seeped into the Church.

One blog post claimed youth groups have espoused emerging church views for years. I wouldn’t doubt it.

But here’s the critical point. We American Christians must re-examine our hearts to see if we have left our First Love.

James, in his letter to Jewish believers scattered from Jerusalem because of persecution, gives a sobering warning:

You adulteresses, do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. (James 4:4)

“Friendship with the world,” I would suggest, has a lot more to do with how we think than with what we do. In the previous verse, James addresses wrong motives, two verses down he speaks about pride.

Verse 5 he says something translators apparently have wrestled with but have not come to a consensus about. The New King James says it this way:

Or do you think that the Scripture says in vain, “The Spirit who dwells in us yearns jealously”?

The ESV is a little different, but I think the intent is the same:

Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, “He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us”?

In the context of “adultresses” in the previous verse, these translations seems to me to make James’s intent clearer. As a husband would be jealous for his wife, so God is jealous for His Bride. And of course He wants our lives to be pure, but He also wants our hearts to be pure—free of wrong motives, without prideful self-will.

I have to believe that “friendship with the world,” then, includes the way we think.

Pastor Ray Stedman, in his commentary, “James: The Activity of Faith” says this:

And if you stop believing what the Scriptures say, you will find yourself being drawn to the lies and the alluring illusion of the world around.

Drawn to the lies and illusion of the world seems to define the beliefs the emerging church/Progressives have introduced. Here are a few: God is not a God of judgment. He is one with his creation. Hell isn’t real and Man does not sin by nature. The Bible is mostly a myth. Salvation is universal. Jesus came not as an atoning sacrifice but to show us a better way—the road of love and peace and unity.

It doesn’t take much to find article after article after article by people professing to be Christians who espouse these “progressive” views.

Of course many claim that thinking in a fresh way about their spirituality or about God or about their religion has revitalized their spiritual life.

So … can thinking that helps people see God in a new way be bad? I mean, shouldn’t we want to know God in a fresh, exciting way?

Our thoughts about God can be new every morning, but I don’t believe we need to borrow from the world’s way of looking at Him to experience Him afresh. Just the opposite. Listening to the lies of the world will kill off true faith.

Yes, lies. The world says humans are good, not sinners in need of a Savior. The world sees Jesus as just a man, not God in the flesh. The world looks at the Bible as a bunch of man-contrived rules, not the very word of God. Whenever the views of someone professing to be a Christian align more closely with what the world says than what God says, there’s reason to believe that the thinking of the world may be killing off true faith.

In the parable of the sower, that’s what happened to the seed that fell on stony ground. The soil was too shallow for roots to take hold. So, too, with pretend Christians who deny that God is a righteous Judge, the Sovereign who does what is right.

An older version of this post first appeared here in February 2010.

Mercy Triumphs Over Judgment


Louis_Zamperini_at_announcement_of_2015_Tournament_of_Roses_Grand_MarshalI like the idea that mercy triumphs over judgment. It seems like something most people in western society embrace. We admire people who forgive, especially in the face of unjust hatred or abuse or mistreatment.

Take the story of Louie Zamperini depicted in the movie Unbroken. Why would that man’s life have such an impact on people today? I think in part because of the mercy and forgiveness he extended to his torturers. Yes, his strength and will to survive were admirable, but if his story had ended with the post traumatic stress he experienced and the drug and alcohol abuse he resorted to as a way to cope, I don’t think Unbroken would have been made.

Mercy triumphs over judgment. That phrase is actually a portion of a verse from the book of James. It’s the first part that gives it context:

For judgment will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment. (2:13)

The discussion has been partiality—favoring the rich over the poor. James then builds the case that those engaged in favoritism are sinners. In contrast to that practice, Christians are to speak and act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. Then verse 13.

So what is this law of liberty? I think it is the first part of verse 13: “Judgment will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy.”

Liberty? Well, yes. We liberate others from our judgment and we are liberated from bearing the responsibility of judging. The point James is making in this section is that we’re not to judge others based on things like how they dress or the gold they flash around for others to see. We’re not to judge the rich as more worthy of our time and attention, of our best service and favored place.

On the flip side, we are not to consider a poor person as unimportant, not worth our time, someone to be dismissed or kicked to the curb.

Verse 13 basically spells out the consequences for treating others that way: we will be judged without mercy if we show no mercy. If we show no mercy to the poor, we’ll receive no mercy in return. This thinking echoes what Jesus said as part of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew:

“Do not judge so that you will not be judged. For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you.” (Matt. 7:1-2)

In other words, the one judging others by what they wear and the gold they possess, will himself be judged by what he wears and what he owns.

If on the other hand, he refrains from judging others and accepts the poor as well as the rich, he himself well be judged by the standard of mercy he’s shown the poor.

This is a practical matter, I think. Too often in our pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps individualistic, entrepreneurial society we are quick to look at someone who is struggling and reach the conclusion they are drug addicts or lazy or shiftless or takers. I know people who don’t want to give to the homeless because “they’ll spend it on booze.”

I’m not saying we should start giving money to every beggar who asks for “bus fare to get home” or whatever the pitch might be. I am suggesting we should extend mercy instead of judgment—which to me means I should not assume the worst in people, especially in people less fortunate than me. It means I should consider taking Peter’s tact when he was faced with the beggar at the temple gate:

And a man who had been lame from his mother’s womb was being carried along, whom they used to set down every day at the gate of the temple which is called Beautiful, in order to beg alms of those who were entering the temple.

When he saw Peter and John about to go into the temple, he began asking to receive alms. But Peter, along with John, fixed his gaze on him and said, “Look at us!”

And he began to give them his attention, expecting to receive something from them.

But Peter said, “I do not possess silver and gold, but what I do have I give to you: In the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene—walk!” (Acts 3:2-6)

OK, I’m not suggesting we can fix all the external problems of those with whom we come into contact—not our friends or co-workers or family, let alone strangers we encounter on the street. But we can give them what we do have—the love of Jesus.

How to demonstrate that love is something God needs to show us, but He never will if we’re mentally filing through our list of judgments against the person.

Mercy triumphs over judgment. If we wish mercy to be extended to us, why would we hold onto judgment of others?