I’ve been blessed with a pretty easy life. I haven’t had to turn to God and plead with Him very often…but I have a few friends whose lives have been shaken by tragedies that would likely ruin me. A friend’s daughter may have a brain tumor. A coworker’s toddler is rejecting her newly transplanted kidney. A young man at my church lost a child at birth, making him a daddy without a baby. Such tragedies are common, but the commonness doesn’t diminish their grief. I often feel compelled to pray for those around me.
One problem: I don’t understand prayer. I’m not sure that anyone really does. Questions about prayer begin with “why pray?” and continue through “does God really wait for us to pray before acting?” and I will readily admit that I don’t have an answer for either. I know that some of you will say that I’m silly for praying without any discernible reason. Maybe I actually am silly. However, it’s clear that Christians are supposed to pray. The Bible is chock full of examples of men and women praying to God, with lots and lots of beseeching and interceding and the like. I don’t know why…but many people feel the need from time to time to reach out to God. That’s not really a problem. After all, we have a few phrases to ‘explain’ such things…one is “any old pickle barrel in a storm” and another is “there are no atheists in foxholes”. Feeling the need to reach out to God isn’t limited to the overly religious.
However: there’s one verse about prayer that really bugs me. In fact, it haunts me. I don’t understand it any more than I understand any other verse about prayer, but it’s a driving force in my life. It pushes me. It chases me. It follows me around like a threat. No matter how I try to avoid or evade it, it regularly comes around to slap me in the face. It’s not even an entire verse, but only half:
The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much.James 5:16
That’s the NASB version. As a child I memorized the KJV which says “the fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much”. The idea that a righteous man who prays with all of his heart will somehow get God’s attention isn’t all that troubling. It’s the reverse, actually, that troubles me…the idea that my selfish willfulness might keep my prayers from doing anything at all.
That frightens me. It overwhelms me. I’m afraid that, in my weakness and rebellion, I’m wasting my time praying and praying and not accomplishing anything. Do people with problems need prayer? Of course they do. I like asking God to interrupt their troubles with a little peace…and it shakes me to the core that God might indeed be waiting for a righteous man’s prayer to act. I know that I need to be that righteous man, and fear that I, too often, am not.