James 5:16 Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. 17 Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. 18 Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit.
Why should I have confidence that God answers my prayers? At first glance, the encouragement James gives in these verses seems useless. I’m not Elijah; I’m not righteous and it seems to rain — or not — regardless of how I pray. Many times in my life it seemed as if God turned a deaf ear to my pleas. And I’m not alone. One of the refrains in the Psalms is “how long, O Lord” (Psalm 13, Psalm 79, Psalm 80). So what is James thinking here?
We misunderstand James, because we focus on how we pray, rather than who we pray to.
I can have confidence that my prayers will be answered because of who is answering my prayer, not because my prayer is perfect, powerful or articulate. Neither does receiving an answer depend on how nicely you ask, how well you ask, or how frequently you ask. Rather the answer depends on who God is and He is generous.
I think we misunderstand James if we assume he mentions Elijah as an exemplar of particularly effective prayer. Instead, he claims Elijah was person just like us — that is Elijah was a sinner in need of grace, too. He prayed and it did not rain. Then he prayed and it rained — not because he was some kind of spiritual giant or knew the secret keys to powerful prayer, but because of the God he prayed to.
Elijah did not decide on his own independently of God that it shouldn’t rain. God called Elijah to be a prophet and to give a specific message to ancient Israel. The particular message God gave Elijah was that the skies would be closed because of the nation’s sin. When Elijah prayed for the rains to return, it wasn’t wishful thinking on his part. He knew the time was up because God had told him the time was up and God had given him the task of delivering this message.
James is reminding us that the God that we are praying to is incredibly powerful. You may look at your circumstances and be tempted to grow weak and weary. Getting through a particular trial may seem as impossible as asking for the rain to cease. But God has spoken to you, just like He spoke to Elijah. God has promised to give a mature faith to those who ask. God has promised to get you through and God is powerful to bring it about.
James is not claiming that prayer is a blank check or that I can get whatever I want from God if only I ask properly. Instead James is reminding us that God answers the prayers of normal folks like us. God has promised faith, grace and mercy to sinners like us — just like God promised Elijah to stop the rain. We have confidence that our prayers will be answered because teaching us through a hard times is something God has promised to do just as He promised Elijah there would be no rain.
Normal, ordinary people like us can pray with confidence and expect our powerful God to answer. He may not always answer as we expect or wish. But He will answer by giving us what is best.