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James chapter 5 v 13 to 20 Prayer (and summation of the book)

Prayer (With a short summation of the book)

13 Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing psalms. 14 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. 15 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. 16 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. 17 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. 18 And he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain, and the earth produced its fruit.

19 Brethren, if anyone among you wanders from the truth, and someone turns him back, 20 let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save a soul from death and cover a multitude of sins.

Today brings us to the last few verses of the book of James. I trust that this series has been helpful, and has been a reminder of standards for Christian living, and most of all, brought something new to your insight and practical understanding of God’s Word.

Recently I have been meditating a lot on prayer. What is prayer? Why pray? About what do we pray? And so forth. This passage was just one of those coincidental passages appears in the passage I am scheduled to speak, yet God in His infinite wisdom, has had this lesson brought before me these past ten weeks, and I think that I have a very different view today on these passages than I did ten weeks ago[1].

To begin, I want to set some thoughts in place that gave me context with which I approached this passage. To that end, we will start with a Spurgeon/Begg quote. Spurgeon wrote the original, Begg has done some modern editing. The foundation Scripture these two wrote about in this example starts with a verse from Job (38:16): "Have you entered the springs of the sea? Or have you walked in search of the depths? The context is God speaking to Job. This verse starts one of the most amazing passages of Scripture, considering the preceding 37 chapters! Spurgeon/Begg then write: Some things in nature remain a mystery even to the most intelligent and enterprising investigators. Human knowledge has boundaries beyond which it cannot pass. Universal knowledge is for God alone. If this is true in the things that are seen and temporal, I can be certain that it is even more so in spiritual and eternal matters. Why, then, have I been torturing my brain with speculations about divine sovereignty and human responsibility? These deep and dark truths I am no more able to comprehend than to discover the source from which the ocean draws her watery supplies.

Why am I so curious to know the reason for my Lord's providences, the motive of His actions, the design of His visitations? Will I ever be able to clasp the sun in my fist or hold the universe in my palm? Yet these are as a drop in a bucket compared with the Lord my God. Do not let me strive to understand the infinite, but spend my strength in love. What I cannot gain by intellect I can possess by affection, and that should be enough for me. I cannot penetrate the heart of the sea, but I can enjoy the healthy breezes that sweep across it, and I can sail over its blue waves with propitious winds.[2]

With this in mind I therefore ask that we consider the following: What God does, how God does it, and why God does it – is it our business to know? We seem to think so. How often do we ask: Why is this happening to me? I think the second thought that we need to contemplate is this one: If God is all knowing, and He is in control, sovereign over all things, then does prayer move God to do what we are praying for? Our verses today indicate prayer does this, yet in James’ example God knew already that there was to be drought, then rain, and Elijah would be central to the process. How does this fit together?? Take for example another perplexing passage for humans to understand: Romans 8:28-30 : And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose. For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom He predestined, these He also called; whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified.

My conclusion as I look at this matter, especially in this latter context of being called and predestined along with the fact that salvation is open to all who believe in Jesus Christ as their Saviour as in John 3:16, these things are not for our argument or for our debate. We cannot enter the depths of the sea and work out how it all came to be the way it is even if our scientists try very hard. Some things are in God’s realm of knowledge and some things He allows us to have insight. Sometimes we try too hard and create a mess. I put to you that this is the reason for the state of today’s churches - rather than accepting the things that God has spoken, trusting and believing in them fully, as they are written, we make up stuff to try and explain the unexplainable, and fall in the process.

Why start here? Because, I truly believe that the way and reason we pray, and the way prayer is used today, especially the passage we have before us from James, has been abused over the centuries, and I believe, has turned many from God, through disappointment. Somehow we seem to have lost the context of this passage. We see time and again that the passage is taught wrongly, and people read it with a false hope. We need to understand today’s passage in the context of God’s sovereignty and God’s pathway for man; this determines how we respond. Most of all, we need to accept that there is a level of understanding we can reach, and not a drop more. That understanding is all to do with what the Holy Spirit teaches us, which is always the context of our relationship with God. If we are distant from God, the Holy Spirit will be unable to teach us, when we are close to God, our learning increases.

There are two other verses we need to look at before we hit these specific verses in front of us today. One of them is very short –

You need to note and be aware that neither of these two commands have caveats – that is have ‘if’ factors. If this happens – pray, if that happens rejoice! The commands are totally black and white. In fact, the verse continues in everything give thanks. Please don’t take the word ‘rejoice’ out of context – we will all have pain days, headache days, days where our happiness is sapped, laughter is drained away, yet, within our hearts we may rejoice – because God is sovereign, and is caring for us, Christ dwelling within knows our every hurt, miserable spot, anguish, therefore we can rejoice. Rejoicing is not merriment and laughter. Stedman writes: Believers can rejoice always because their joy isn’t based in circumstances, but on God. Circumstances change, but God never changes (cf Malachi 3:6 "For I, the LORD, do not change...").[3] Whilst we think about what these commands means for us as we contemplate James 5:13-20, let us look at foundational imperatives of the believer who prays, this time from David, who had a few bad moments in life that provides the final part of our base with which to tackle the subject of prayer.

You know my sitting down and my rising up; You understand my thought afar off. You comprehend my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. For there is not a word on my tongue, but behold, O Lord, You know it altogether Psalm 139:2-4. Here we see clearly that David understands God in this prayer and especially that God knows all things about us, even before we approach the throne of grace.  In parallel to this we find in the New Testament the following: "Therefore do not be like them. For your Father knows the things you have need of before you ask Him. Matthew 6:8. I want you to think of this question: If God knows our every move, understands our every thought, and knows what it is that we need before we ask Him – Why pray? The answer is simple, which is why I gave you the preceding thoughts – we pray because of 2 Thessalonians 5:17: God commands us to. Do we need more of an answer? I take your minds back to our opening Job verse: Have you entered the springs of the sea? I believe this is how we need to approach our verses today in James.

Not to press the point too strongly but to conclude this introduction, lengthy though it be. First: God’s ways are so far above and beyond our comprehension we must accept what we don’t know and understand may be stuff we will never know. Therefore we need to accept without question what the Word tells us. Second: God tells us to pray, even though He already knows what it is we want – that is His prerogative, we do not question it. Third and a hard one at that: no matter the answer God gives us to prayer, we rejoice – that is God’s command to us, and as it is His prerogative, we do not question that answer. That said, I believe that God understands our poor feeble humanness and He shows us this by recording in His Word for example, David’s cries, which include such statements as: Why do You stand afar off, O Lord? Why do You hide in times of trouble? Psalm 10:1. However, this Psalm shows David has the perspective right, for in the same Psalm he also says: Lord, You have heard the desire of the humble; you will prepare their heart; you will cause Your ear to hear, to do justice to the fatherless and the oppressed (17-18). This is balanced prayer.

Verses 13 & 14 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.

These opening verses to this section is two contrasting positions of our mood – suffering and cheerful. Both have a response. One, the latter is worship through song – it is a prayer, but a specific type of prayer, a Psalm. Does it tell us what to pray for? No! There is silence as to what we should pray for, however, this one the latter, is at times of cheerfulness, is easier. There are many examples of Psalms for the cheerful so use one of them or write one of your own!

What about when we are suffering and we are not getting a response? What do we pray for. James just says – Let him pray. For what? There is a silence there in the passage. Do we assume that God is silent so we can fill in the gap ourselves! Absolutely not! In fact Scripture tells us:

Likewise the Spirit also helps in our weaknesses. For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered. Romans 8:36.

We just need to tell God the problem – this is what this passage is telling us – if you are suffering, tell it to God. The word ‘prayer’ does not mean ‘ask’. Depending upon the Greek or Hebrew word being used it may mean petition. However, usually its root is about falling before God and searching one’s own heart in our communication with God. Romans 8:26 therefore, offers us the best advice – let the Holy Spirit do the requesting, which means we have to be willing to allow the Holy Spirit to work within us![4]

What about verse 14. This is another verse where a word miss-used causes so many commentators to come off the rails. Vines tells us that in verse 14 the word ‘sick’ is astheneo (ἀσθενέω, 770), lit., "to be weak, feeble" (a, negative, sthenos, "strength")[5] whereas verse 15 the word that is translated ‘sick’ is kamno (κάμνω, 2577), primarily, "to work" or “tire” hence, from the effect of constant work, "to be weary"2. So in verse 14 first of all, the word is more about our emotional state. And if we look at the greater context of the passage it is our spiritual state, rather than our physical state which is in mind (if physical state was in mind nosos (νόσος, 3554), the usual Greek for sickness would be used). Why have the translators in the NKJV that I am using use the word sick rather than weak and feeble. Illness can be seen in that light, therefore it is not a wrong translation, but the focus is too narrow when we think of the meaning of that word, for our modern terminology renders sick on the whole to relate to the physical body. In the context of James the primary meaning is spiritual health and the real context is about our frailty in the things of the spiritual heart – we are weak and failing.

What then, can we learn from this? As noted, I would agree that sickness of the body is certainly one place these verses can be applied. However, I would put to you that we need to be sure that our physical sickness does not have a spiritual basis. We find in 1 Corinthians 11:29-30 For he who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord's body. For this reason many are weak and sick among you, and many sleep. Sleep in this instance is death. The Eldership is no substitute for medical care, so the James passage is not pointing to that as such. The passage is a lot more about spiritual care. Oil is not a magic potion. Being anointed with oil and being prayed over by elders - none of these things promise wellness of the body in this mortal life. However, with ministering and care, the spiritual self can be brought to its full potential before God, enabling a person to cope with whatever ails them. This is why we can see anointing with oil is only done in the name of the Lord. The Lord’s name is what is important. A little like baptism. The conversion and indwelling of the Holy Spirit is what is important, being dunked in water is the symbol of this. Oil is the symbolic substance indicating the work of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit sustains, gives life. See Romans 8:7 for one example of this: But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you. Note too that the elders are called for. The elders are not to be conducting a healing meeting nor a healing service. No, they go to the weak one, to the feeble person who cannot get out, no longer assembling with the saints, no longer receiving the spiritual support that is needed from the body and praying with them. The church is called the body of Christ for a reason and there should be a real spiritual fire found when people gather together in the name of the Lord, which flows through each member as we support and exhort each other in love. We should be ensuring that the failing congregant does not reach this point of being weak and flailing.

But, I hear some say. What about verse 15: 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? I cannot see the word heal there either. It is not mentioned in the Greek and in any case the word is still based on the state of the heart. Notwithstanding, sickness is not a mistranslation but our narrow focus. There is a higher purpose. What happens in this world as to regard to physical sickness is one of three things when we pray over one who has a physical illness: (1) either healing takes place and the health of the sick one is restored, (2) death takes place in the mortal body, and the body on resurrection is made immortal, without fault, whole and perfect, or (3) the person has given to them spiritual strength to cope with the physical ailment. We know this, because we see it every day, and quite literally, the Bible shows us examples in the various people of the Bible, in various states of physical or spiritual ills.

Therefore, in the following examples, we see different focus’s, and some different views. Paul writes:

And lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure. Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me. 2 Corinthians 12:7-8.

Paul had some infirmity, many have tried to bluff their readers as to knowing what it is – God does not tell us but Paul prayed three times to have it removed. In response God gave him understanding for its purpose and he stopped praying about it. Is three times the right amount of prayer about an issue? The James’ example of Elijah has Elijah praying seven times before an answer came – Elijah knew what the answer would be, yet God had him send his servant seven times to see what was happening. Is seven prayers on the one topic enough, or is it how we pray – being a fervent prayer? Jesus healed completely the woman with the issue of blood; she had to touch his garment just once, but went through all sorts of agony for years beforehand. Daniel prayed three times every day, and ended up in the lion’s den for his prayers. Was that the answer he was praying for? John the Baptist was sitting in a cell and he was having his moments: And when John had heard in prison about the works of Christ, he sent two of his disciples and said to Him, "Are You the Coming One, or do we look for another?" Matthew 11:2-3. He also knew that he had done his work: 'I am not the Christ,' but, 'I have been sent before Him. ' He who has the bride is the bridegroom; but the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly because of the bridegroom's voice. Therefore this joy of mine is fulfilled. He must increase, but I must decrease. John3:28-30.  He had his head removed at the whim of a woman. Was this answered prayer? I am not trying to be trite here but rather pointing out the problem in today’s thinking in many parts of the church about the application and meaning of this passage.

We also need to remember that the Bible speaks time and time again of patience; be patient it says along with suffering that produces perseverance. We can look in Lamentations for the weeping prophet’s take on this:

I said, "My strength and my hope have perished from the Lord." Remember my affliction and roaming, the wormwood and the gall. My soul still remembers and sinks within me. This I recall to my mind, therefore I have hope. Through the Lord's mercies we are not consumed, because His compassions fail not. They are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness. "The Lord is my portion," says my soul, "Therefore I hope in Him!" The Lord is good to those who wait for Him, to the soul who seeks Him. It is good that one should hope and wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord. It is good for a man to bear the yoke in his youth. Let him sit alone and keep silent, because God has laid it on him; Let him put his mouth in the dust— there may yet be hope. Let him give his cheek to the one who strikes him, and be full of reproach. For the Lord will not cast off forever. Though He causes grief, yet He will show compassion according to the multitude of His mercies. For He does not afflict willingly, nor grieve the children of men. (3:18-33)

Jeremiah is pretty low – ‘my hope has perished’ he mutters, yet he remembers the Lord, and though sinking emotionally he realises hope is never lost, because God is in control. He does not cast us off forever, but we at times need to sit and wait quietlysilently for the Lord to respond. This is the key! There is no need to weep and wail and beat the ground, with a chanting litany of wasted words. Bear the yoke, wait quietly, keep silent, all parts of the prayer cycle. We think a prayer is not answered, yet we have not done these things.

In more recent times (rather than Biblical) we have seen many a martyr go to the stake to be burned, praising God, yet dying as well. Even more recently Joni Eareckson Tada writes: To me, physical healing had always been the big deal, but to God, my soul was a much bigger deal. And that’s when I began searching for a deeper healing, not just a physical healing, although I was still praying for such. I asked for a deeper healing, a Psalm 139, “Search me, O God, try my heart, test me and see if there be some wicked way in me. Cleanse me from every sin and set me free.”[6] Joni was doing a Paul – understanding that God’s ways were not her ways, yet she could still be satisfied.

When we read the next part of James we see what the paragraph really is about. Joni gets it and expresses it so well in the paragraph just read, snatched from a greater speech where she tells recently of her pathway to this endpoint over many years (see reference). James writes: 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. Our personal weaknesses lead us to sin. Lack of self-discipline, failure to lean of God and His wisdom, doing it in our strength all lead to sin; which is manifested as weakness, sickness and spiritual unwellness. Sometimes we can confess and repent and all is well but other times we are going to need help to get over ourselves and back right before God. The Church is about looking after one another, especially in matters of sin. We happily ask for prayer for our sickness, our cancer, our stroke, our perforated bowel, our wives, our kids, but what about sins? Do we ever ask “could you please pray for my tendency towards pornography?” or “Let’s get together and pray for my struggle with authority and pride.” Or ask “can we have a prayer meeting to get to the heart of my unfaithfulness to both God and my family?” This is what James is saying here. Confess your trespasses to one another. I prefer to keep mine between God and myself. Sometimes I hope that God does not know about it either! This is clearly not right.

Joni was not a quadriplegic[7] because of sin, however, she recognised that her attitude towards her condition was a sin, and her attitude had created a block between her and God. We can get like that. God fix this otherwise I won’t be attending church much. Have you noticed the sinful way we use prayer? I have read the phrase – God is not a chocolate box. But I use Him as a chocolate box. Life must be sweet. “Lord heal my illness”, “sort out my boss”, “fix my car”, “my finances”, “send me this and that” or “Lord I am having a bad day – fix it please”. Should we pray for these things - absolutely! But be careful. Balance your prayers. Are you praying only for a safe ride and smooth road? Is the prayer balanced? Are you thankful for the mercies received? Have you stopped to consider the blessings hidden in the clouds that hang around darkly? Have you repented of your sins and prayed for strength to give the habitual sin up? Have you brought those hard to get rid of sins before the congregation to get the Body of Christ to unite in prayer, with the Holy Spirit doing the legwork for us? I repeat. We tend to treat God as a chocolate box, to fix the ills, so we can have a smooth sail. James is not teaching this, we use James to justify this narrow and distorted attitude. Reading the passage carefully highlights the problem with this.

Do we remember this verse out of Isaiah (45:7): I form the light and create darkness, I make peace and create calamity; I, the Lord, do all these things.  Job 14:5 says: Since his days are determined, the number of his months is with You, and we read the same in Ecclesiastes (8:8) No one has power over the spirit to retain the spirit, and no one has power in the day of death. And for a third time: My life span is gone, taken from me like a shepherd's tent; I have cut off my life like a weaver. He cuts me off from the loom; from day until night You make an end of me Isaiah 38:12. Of course we have already met this thought in James: 4:13-15: Come now, you who say, "Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, spend a year there, buy and sell, and make a profit"; whereas you do not know what will happen tomorrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapour that appears for a little time and then vanishes away. Instead you ought to say, "If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that." Our lives are like grass, flowers, vapour, dust? All temporary things. We crave life for life’s sake, rather than life for God’s sake. We get sick and want to live, yet Scripture tells us over and over again, God’s plan for is for us to die a mortal death because our bodies are temporary – the real body, immortality comes after death (unless we are raptured to heaven). We pray and pray that we do not leave this mortal body, we pray that we hang fire, wait longer for the renewed body. We pray that heaven waits a little longer for us, we like it here. James says none of this; we make up our own interpretation as we go along to suit our earthly thinking.

James next moves to Elijah as an example:

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.

This part of the passage is a fascinating inclusion. It has words that we never hear, and commentary that makes for interesting consideration. The opening is two words – the effective. I must confess these words I skip over, for I know all about the fervent prayer. So the first question we have is what does effective prayer mean? The second point worthy of some discussion is the statement – ‘a man with a nature like ours’, especially who is ‘ours’? I suspect that it is to point us towards the humanness of Elijah that perhaps is not taught so well. Let us visit these two points a little more.

What is effective prayer? Fervent is easy, but it has to be effective. If prayer is answered, then is that effective, and if so, is this a retrospect statement? Look back at a prayer and if it was answered then it was effective? I shake my head at that notion as well. It is a little foolish to think such thoughts. So to be practical, and we have found James to be very practical to this point, it must be something else. James has mentioned a couple of points as we saw in chapter 1 - let him ask in faith, with no doubting. Two attributes here are clearly part of an effectiveness strategy. Doubt and faith are real opposing twins, without the latter the former will invade. Faith though has a caveat: I will show you my faith by my works (2:18). Faith is a more than just believing. I also remind you of what we read in 4:!5 - "If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that." So throughout this book we find James is telling us that we need faith to pray, and that faith will be found represented in our walk – our works will show the faith we have. We need to believe that God has the power to answer the prayer that we are praying, and finally, we have to be recognizant that God’s plans for us and our plans for ourselves may not match. God wins every time. Notwithstanding, at times He will give us what we ask for when that may not be the best for us, and then we find it becomes a noose around our neck, as God allows us to learn the lesson of not asking for stuff outside of His will.

What else do we know about effective prayer? Jesus Himself in explaining why a fig tree withered up, after He had spoken to it to do so said; "Have faith in God. For assuredly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, 'Be removed and be cast into the sea,' and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that those things he says will be done, he will have whatever he says. Mark 11:22-23. Faith without doubting is certainly a key ingredient to effective prayer. The state of the heart is very important. Isaiah 55:2 says: But your iniquities have separated you from your God; and your sins have hidden His face from you, so that He will not hear. So come to God with a repentant heart. This goes hand in hand with Matthew 6:14-15: For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. We have to have a forgiving heart, as well as a repentant heart, otherwise we will find Isaiah ringing true in our ears.

There are many verses around this area of communication with God, and His silence. However, Jeremiah tells us: And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart. I will be found by you, says the Lord (29:13-14) which ties in with many verses from Psalm 119, one of which says: Turn away my eyes from looking at worthless things, and revive me in Your way. Establish Your word to Your servant, who is devoted to fearing You. (37-38). Where are we coming from when we go praying? Have we been doing stuff that has no meaning or use for God, then suddenly remember we want something? Maybe God only hears from us when we want something – back to the ‘God as a chocolate box’ syndrome. What God actually wants is different. He wants us to be searching for Him with our whole heart, with God’s Word established in us. Establish is something that is firmly fixed, resident, unlikely to waft away.

As we see, prayer has to be effective, and to be effective, we have to have the lifestyle that matches that of being a Christian – Christ Like. We cannot expect prayer to be answered on our sudden whims of need. I need to state here that I am not saying that God ignores those prayers when our state is not right, nor am I saying that prayers that appear to go unanswered are because we are being ineffective. But the Bible is clear, at times where prayer appears to be hitting the ceiling and going nowhere, it may be because we are no longer effective Christians, no longer in a right, or a connected relationship with God.

The next line and our second point give us some hope, for it talks of the ordinariness of Elijah. Elijah undoubtedly was a great prophet. However, he was a flawed prophet. We have looked at Elijah previously, but to briefly point us in the direction of thought that is needed here, I remind you that when the time came for Elijah to die at the hand of Jezebel, he panicked and ran, and ran, and ran. God fed him, for whatever reason - God does not give us a reason why he enabled Elijah to do it - Elijah travelled even further, if my memory serves me right, about 800 kilometres. He had no intention of letting Jezebel kill him, nor did he show any real trust in God: that God would have saved him from death if he had hung around. Is this not like us? Yet, God heard Elijah’s prayer re the rain. So, we learn from this that God is well aware of our failings; we are not perfect. He knows that, and He does not tick the box of silence just because we are not being the most effective Christians, with the most effective prayer. The Elijah example shows us this. But still, we have no excuse for doing same. This does not give us an ‘out’ for being effective for God in our life.

Why does James use Elijah in this part of his letter? Or the better question may be, what thought does God want us to have evoked in us when we read this short passage? Why not Hannah crying out to the Lord for a child, or one of Jesus’s many miracles based on prayer? Maybe, and this could be just my thinking, God, through James, wants us to recall two other aspects of the story. First the circumstance. What was the ruler, the king of Israel doing whilst this was happening? He had just seen his wife’s priests executed by Elijah. 1 Kings 18:41 tells us: Then Elijah said to Ahab, "Go up, eat and drink; for there is the sound of abundance of rain." So Ahab did – he went off dining, Elijah went off to pray. I wonder why Ahab thought dining was more important, or somehow he did not pause to consider what Elijah was doing heading off up Mt Carmel. I would have had some measure of fear in my heart about what was to happen next. But no, only Elijah and his servant went off to pray. Do we make the right choices in life when prayer is needed?

The other point that I find in this is this: why did God take seven periods of prayer to send a cloud? Elijah already knew what the outcome was to be – he had already told Ahab. Was it for the servant’s sake, our sake, symbolic? This one of those moments of ‘His way is higher than our way’. It does not matter why, but it is worthwhile reading and taking note. This is the example God used of prayer that produced a result. God tells us that this prayer brought rain. And the man praying was just like us. Not explainable, but a comfort for every heart.

We come now to the final portion of James, and it struck me as I read it, and thought about it, is this what the Book of James is really all about?

How does one turn someone back? James opens with a statement that says in part: If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God. Then we read of endurance and self-discipline, especially in temper and in our speech – the tongue. Being doers of the Word, demonstrating faith in works, humbleness, using ones wealth wisely, helping others, perseverance and caring in a servant role. If we have all these characteristics and avoid the pitfalls that James also describes, then we will have the attributes to save a soul from death. Therefore I wonder if we collapse the instructions of James down to the purpose of such instructions we are seeing this endpoint – to save souls of both the sinner who needs Christ and our own brothers and sisters who have fallen by the wayside. It comes straight after the section on prayer and that section I propose to you has far greater purpose in teaching about praying for the weak, sick and lost soul, than the weak and sick physical body. I think that this proposal is worth considering, though we know that James of a great practical guide for ourselves and we must not forget to apply what we have learned to our lives. As Graeme told us; perseverance, patience, suffering, no grumbling – the attributes we are loath to adopt needs to be a part of our day to day lifestyle.

Prayer is the great connector between our works and God, for our works can be our own, and therefore worth nothing – wood, hay and stubble that will be burnt up, or God’s works, that are gold, silver and precious stones (1 Corinthians 3:12). Prayer is needed more than anything to save a soul. We can see this throughout Scripture. The most familiar verse may be the one regarding the demon that the disciples could not cast out, but Jesus could – His statement was about their prayer and mind-set: Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, "Why could we not cast it out?" So Jesus said to them, " Because of your unbelief; for assuredly, I say to you, if you have faith as a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you. However, this kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting." Matthew 17:19-21

So if this is what James has means, the book itself makes even greater sense to be one that you memorise, learn, apply, live, meditate on and work with day to day. For the book seems to say that working with God, and allowing the saving grace of Jesus Christ to bring us, not only in growing faith, but to works that go with that faith, then we can increase the family of God, by helping God grow the children, through turning sinners from the errors of their ways.

Interestingly, I was reading the full version of what I have abbreviated next, and what Spurgeon, as worked on by Begg says. If we can turn a person who is creating chaos amongst Christians such as an atheist an anti-Christian - think for example Dawkins - to Christ, imagine the benefit to both the Christian world and that person’s own world/spiritual state. The following passage from Spurgeon uses the phrases ‘evening wolves’ which comes from Habakkuk, and I give you the Scripture, then the commentary.

For indeed I am raising up the Chaldeans, a bitter and hasty nation which marches through the breadth of the earth, to possess dwelling places that are not theirs. They are terrible and dreadful; their judgment and their dignity proceed from themselves. Their horses also are swifter than leopards, and more fierce than evening wolves. Their chargers charge ahead; their cavalry comes from afar; they fly as the eagle that hastens to eat. "They all come for violence; their faces are set like the east wind. They gather captives like sand. Habakkuk 1:6-9. Note that the term Chaldean can be read in the context of the attacks against us by Satan, and we can note that in this context, that God raised them to punish Israel because of their sin, but also to bring them back to Him. We can also see in this passage that we too can feel under attack, and not necessarily because we are sinning. We know that Satan will attack us if he believes he can turn us from God. Spurgeon as re-phrased by Alistair Begg says of this passage, that connects these verses to our last verses of James - How our thoughts howl in our ears: "Where is your God now?" How voracious and greedy they are, swallowing up all suggestions of comfort and remaining as hungry as ever. Great Shepherd, slay these evening wolves, and bid Your sheep lie down in green pastures, undisturbed by unbelief. The fiends of hell seen just like evening wolves, for when the flock of Christ are in a cloudy and dark day, and their sun seems to be going down, they arrive to tear and to devour. They will scarcely attack the Christian in the daylight of faith, but in the gloomy night of the soul they fall upon him. O Lord who laid down Your life for the sheep, preserve them from the fangs of the wolfWhat a wonder of grace it is when fierce persecutors are converted, for then the wolf lives with the lamb, and men of cruel, ungovernable dispositions become gentle and teachable. O Lord, convert many like this: For this we will pray tonight.[8]

So in conclusion, we can see from this passage one great benefit of prayer, prayer that is prayed with the right heart, with the right attitude, with the right motives, and most of all, in the understanding that God, is the one to whom we are praying. With the understanding that His ways are perfect, His timing is perfect, and we will find that His plans, though often different to ours, is always the right plan. We cannot and must not treat God as a chocolate box. James provides the imperative for prayer – saving souls. Prayer for sickness of the body is good, but we are mortal. We need to understand that! Our mortality is in God’s hands and timing. We must be willing to give everything to God, our money, our work, our family or our wife, allowing God to be in control of every aspect of life. If God chooses to remove from us anything in our lives, including our own life, then we must be able to say – “Your Will be done”. It is a tough ask. Prayer is not the button for restoring a smooth running happy life. It is for strength, for wisdom, and most of all, for staying completely connected to God. Talk to God, tell Him what you want, but allow Him to choose what the answer should be, and do it with spiritual rejoicing of the heart.

If we mediate on these matters in the context of the whole book we can see what it takes to reach a point of effective prayer that can be done fervently. There are many aspects of life that James points out we need to work on. In particular, James has emphasised the tongue – what we say, to friends, to neighbours, to whomever. After all, the tongue is what we use to pray with, so to be effective in prayer, to bring the sinner to God, and the backslider back to the flock, what else is our tongue doing? What words is it speaking, and for that matter what else is happening with the tongue. Is gluttony as issue, excessive wine, or immorality – that is, we need to keep guard on each function that the tongue is involved in. How can we pray, when that little part of us is causing problems? The same goes for our wealth; what are we doing with it? Is it going to help the saints, or something less than godly? James brings us each of these points.

We have already mentioned patience and perseverance, but remember James 4:6 a key to effective prayer: "God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble." Verse 3 of the same chapter reminded us that: You ask and do not receive, because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures. Pride comes with the bigger boat, bigger house, louder music – the pleasures in life. Show me a proud person who is proud about something other than his own stuff (not concerned about “me”), and I will show you a godly man. If I boast writes Paul – what does he boast about? Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ's sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong. 1 Corinthians 12:9-10. So it is with us – the only pride we need to have is that our God is sovereign, God reigns supreme, and God saves. Indeed He saved even me: and the pride must be the most humble pride on earth – nothing related to self, all glory going to God who then rewards us.

So, we end James here, but hopefully a book we go back to again and again. We have seen today that James is telling us to save the lost, and to bring back to the fold the backslider. He tells us to pray, and in this context prayer is really about healing the spiritually sick rather than about physical illness. We have learned that we must never use prayer and God like choosing nice chocolates as we so often do. Life is not about that, it is about being humble, being disciplined, serving others, helping others, praying for others, bringing the infirmities of others to God, and learning from characters just like us – the Elijah’s of Scripture. Finally, I repeat to you this one thing I believe is true of God and how prayer is answered, or not answered; we have no idea, most of the time, why He is doing what He is doing in our lives. That should never matter! Let us just get on and do works in faith that He has for us to do, allowing God to do that which He does best – sovereign rule, and we do what we do not do so well – humbly serving Him in every single aspect of our lives, learning to willingly sacrifice everything for His pleasure and purpose, without a single ‘why me’ being asked. Let us use prayer to save the souls of those God places in our lives, not for our own chocolates.

[1] But without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him. Hebrews 11:6

[1] For reference, the author’s wife went for routine surgery 10 weeks prior to this message and suffered untoward complications which required a very long stint in intensive care, and at one stage a very real possibility of passing into glory, and as of today as I edit this sermon, she still is in hospital (DLS 30 September 2014).

[2] Alistair Begg (5 September 2014) http://www.truthforlife.org/resources/daily-devotionals/9/5/2014/  (Accessed 28 September 2014)

[3] Ray Stedman quoted at http://preceptaustin.org/1thessalonians_516-20.htm (Accessed 29 September 2014)

[4] Likewise the Spirit also helps in our weaknesses. For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered. Romans 8:26 NKJV

[5] W. E. Vine  (Author)  (first published 1940, 1996) Vines Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, Hendreickson, USA. (See also Strong’s)

[6] Joni Eareckson Tada (16 October 2013) A Deeper Healing (Scripture: Selected Scriptures Code: TM13-2) Strange Fire Conference http://www.gty.org/resources/sermons/TM13-2/a-deeper-healing-joni-eareckson-tada (accessed 29 September 2014)

[7] For a short biography of Joni Eareckson Tada http://www.joniandfriends.org/jonis-corner/jonis-bio/ (accessed 29 September 2014) or even better read: Joni (1976) her first book, one of many.

[8] C.H. Spurgeon as quoted by Alistair Begg (10 September 1952 The Danger of the Evening Wolf) http://www.truthforlife.org/resources/daily-devotionals/9/10/1952/ (Accessed 29 September 2014)

Stephen B Simon 21 September 2014 (CCC)
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