NASHVILLE – In his short Epistle, James gave the example of Elijah’s prayer for rain as an example of focused prayer. He opened the illustration of Elijah’s prayer with this declarative statement, “The urgent request of a righteous person is very powerful in its effect” (James 5:16b).
An expositional study of this passage leads me to paraphrase the verse this way: “The energetically applied, focused prayer of one who has been declared righteous by God can do much!”
The word translated “urgent” forms the basis for our English word “energy,” what one commentator calls “an inworking prayer.” As a middle voice participle, the word refers to the deep, urgent energy expended by a person who devotes more than a passing moment to his or her prayer. It is an energetically applied prayer.
When Elijah prayed for the rains to come, his prayer was very focused. Six times he prostrated himself before God in deep prayer. Following each focused prayer, he commissioned his servant to look to the western horizon for a sign of rain. Each time, the response was the same – not a cloud in sight. Undeterred, Elijah prostrated himself a seventh time, earnestly beseeching the Father for rain. Upon hearing his servant’s report of a “cloud as small as a man’s hand coming from the sea” after the seventh season of prayer, Elijah dispatched him to warn Ahab that the rains were coming!
Of the five most common words for prayer in the New Testament, the word in this text refers to a “particular” prayer – a specific request as opposed to a general request. So many of our prayers are general in nature; and there’s nothing wrong with that. But, general prayers are, in many ways, untrackable. We never know when or whether God answers.
Specific prayers, on the other hand, are clearly trackable. We know when and if God answers. We will know whether His response is a Yes, a No, or a Wait and See. Perhaps we fear that our prayers will have little impact on our circumstances, so we generalize. But, focused prayers, energetically applied, move God to action.
The presence of the word “righteous” in this text causes many of us to cringe. We feel unworthy of the term. We know we are not spiritual giants like Abraham and Elijah or Paul and James. We are just ordinary people. How refreshing to hear that Elijah was a man” with a nature like ours” (James 5:17). His righteousness, like ours, was an imputed righteousness.
Lot, too, was a righteous man (2 Peter 2:7-8). While Abraham had power with God (Genesis 18:16-33), Lot squandered his power with God. Rather than engaging God in focused prayer for his family and his city, he squandered his witness through a compromised lifestyle! Imagine the difference that could have taken place if these two men, both of whom were declared righteous by God, had shared the same passion for connecting with God in prayer. Abraham prayed to the potential sparing of the city of Sodom; Lot contributed to the destruction of the city. He failed to reach even his own family for the Lord! Though righteousness is necessary to have power with God, righteousness alone does not move God to action on behalf of His people.
How focused are we in our prayers for the salvation and well-being of our family and friends, for effectiveness in our church ministries, for revival in our nation? Do we earnestly beseech the Lord for spiritual awakening?
Let us pray as never before – more energy, more focus, more surrendered righteousness, and more expectation. Let us believe – and practice – the words of this verse: “The energetically applied, focused prayer of one who has been declared righteous by God can do much!”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Roger S. “Sing” Oldham is vice president for convention communications and relations with the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee.)