Being a KU basketball fan, I make sure I watch the Big 12 basketball tournament each year. The tournament’s major sponsor is Philipps 66, a local gas station company. Their commercials are usually pretty good. This year was no exception. The premise for the 4-5 commercials they ran throughout the tournament and even during March Madness was that various people were stopping at a Philipps 66 for gas on the way home from their team’s championship game. I’m going to show you my favorite from this year in just a minute. While the whole thing is pretty funny, pay special attention to the end of it. It connects with where we’re going this morning.
“Hey! Did you see that they have a carwash here? That would have really helped you. I wish I’d have seen that a lot sooner.” Do you know what a carwash is? Well, in this case it would have been a face-saving device so the poor guy didn’t have to drive home with the losing team’s colors painted so thick on his car. In general, though, a carwash is a tool. It’s a tool for getting your car clean. You knew that. In this case, it was a tool that went unused, meaning it’s attendant benefits were not enjoyed.
We are surrounded by tools in our lives. Everywhere we go there are tools aimed at making our lives easier. There are tools like these: A hammer; a screwdriver; a power drill, a chop saw. There are also tools like alarm clocks, which are tools for maintaining employment and avoiding tardy notices. A car is a tool for transportation. A phone used to be a tool just for communication, but it’s definition has expanded to include providing entertainment, preserving memories, enabling commerce, accessing the world’s information, and so on. A toothbrush is a tool for personal hygiene…and also interpersonal relationship building. A coffee cup is a tool for avoiding murder in the mornings. Tools like these and many, many others are again designed to make our lives easier. But they only make our lives easier if we use them.
This morning we are in the fourth part of our series, How to Do Life. For the last few weeks we have been talking about how to do life well as followers of Jesus. If you would count yourself a Christian, you have been called to a certain kind of lifestyle. It is a lifestyle which, if lived well, will result in a better life than you will enjoy otherwise. It’s not necessarily an easier life, but it is a better one. It is a better one because, again, if we actually live it and live it well, many things will go much better for us in both the short and the long than they will otherwise. But, you see, that’s the hard part. It’s the hard part because there are a number of different areas of life in which we genuinely struggle to live after the pattern of Christ. In the first three weeks of our series we have talked about some of these. In the first couple of weeks we talked about money and sex. Last week in between the parent-child dedication service and sharing the news about some of the changes God is bringing to our lives we talked about family. What we saw then is that faith grows best in a family. How exactly that family looks is going to vary a bit from person to person and from place to place, but the bottom line still holds: faith grows best in a family.
Well, this morning as we reach the halfway point in this journey, I want to both talk about another area of life in which getting things right will make the whole a lot better than it will be otherwise, but also a tool that can help in all the other areas of life we have talked about and will yet talk about together in the coming weeks. That tool is prayer.
Prayer is one of those spiritual practices, disciplines really, that exists in some form in pretty much every single religion. It’s actually something that comes pretty naturally to all people. I would argue the reason for that is that we are created in the image of God and naturally reach out for our Creator on occasion even if we are not otherwise willing to acknowledge His existence. The act of praying all by itself is powerful because it commits us to two very important beliefs. The first is that there are some problems that are beyond our ability to handle by ourselves. If we could handle them we wouldn’t be praying. The second is that there is some kind of force or power or person in this world that is transcendent to us. You don’t pray to someone who is below you. Again, no matter what a person might claim to believe, if they have ever prayed, these two beliefs are somewhere in their worldview hopper.
In any event, for Christians, prayer isn’t just something we do, it’s something we are called to do, invited to do, commanded to do even with the promise that if we do it well, our lives will be more blessed than if we don’t. Still, though, having a clear guide toward this end in the Scriptures would sure be a helpful thing. You will be thoroughly unsurprised, I suspect, to learn that we have just such a thing. We can find this in James 5. James was a letter written to some mostly Jewish-background believers living in and around the city of Jerusalem. Its author—James, in case that wasn’t clear from the title—was not only the leader of the church in Jerusalem and by virtue of that one of the most important leaders in the early church, he was also Jesus’ brother. Let that one just sit on you for a minute. For Jesus’ entire life and ministry James didn’t believe a word of the nonsense about Jesus being the Messiah which should make perfect sense to us. After all, he grew up with Jesus. I mean, what would your brother have to do in order to convince you that he was the Messiah? How about predict his own death and resurrection and then pull it off? That’s what ultimately worked for James. When he had lunch with his resurrected brother he was convinced.
Well, James’ letter is packed full of wisdom on how to do the Christian life well. It is sometimes referred to as the Proverbs of the New Testament. And at the tail end of the letter, we can find some pretty significant wisdom on the practice of prayer and how to do it well. Let’s take a look at this together and then we’ll talk about it for a bit.
James starts out by talking about the circumstances that might invite prayer. Start reading with me in James 5:13: “Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise.” That’s pretty easy to understand, right? If you’re suffering somehow, pray about it. If, on the other hand, everything is going great, praise God for it. And if you’re sitting there thinking, “Well, duh! I didn’t need James to tell me that,” you’re exactly right. That’s what a proverb is: It’s a statement whose wisdom should be obvious, but often goes forgotten and unpracticed until someone points it out to us. The gut response to any good proverb should be, “Well, duh!”
Let’s keep reading in v. 14 now: “Is anyone among you sick?” Pause there a second. If James was going to continue on in the same pattern, we’d expect him to simply say, “Let him pray.” But here he changes the pattern. He doesn’t tell the sick person to pray at all. Now, that doesn’t mean we should pray if we’re sick, but that’s not the focus. Instead, what does he say? “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.” See the shift? Now we have more people involved in the praying. And these aren’t just any people who are to be called to pray over the sick person. He calls for the elders of the church to come and pray. In other words, get the people who are the most mature in their faith, the closest to Jesus in their Christian walk and have them pray. Surely God hears all of our prayers, but if you’re going to have someone praying for you, you might as well get the person who is the furthest up the spiritual food chain you can manage. That makes sense, right? More to the point, when a member of the body is sick, we should be praying for them as a community. And, that’s something we do pretty well here at Central. We should be proud of that.
Look at what this praying can accomplish in v. 15: “And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.” Wow! That’s a mouthful. Let’s pick that apart a bit at a time. What is this “prayer of faith”? Well, a lot of folks have understood it to mean that if we are sick and pray for God to heal us with faith that He will answer, He will make us well. Among the heretical Prosperity Gospel crowd this kind of verse becomes the basis of a name-it-and-claim-it type of theology wherein we tell God what we want, believing that He will give it to us, and poof! it will be ours. On the practical level, folks who turn to that kind of theology often wind up sadly disappointed. The only people for whom that kind of thinking really works out are the smooth operators—many of whom have popular television preaching hours—who excel at convincing people to give them lots and lots of money to finance their spreading this (heretical) message to as many as will listen to it. Unfortunately, their message has a pretty broad and willingly gullible audience.
In case you can’t tell, I don’t think that’s what James means and a pretty convincing group of scholars agree. Rather, in context, James isn’t talking about the faith of the person who is sick, but rather the faith of the elders who are coming to pray over him. And this faith, we are told, will save the person. But, while it’s tempting to jump right straight to the conclusion that if we can get some sufficiently spiritual people around us to pray for us with the right amount of faith, we will be healed, we’ve got to be careful. While most of us can probably point to a story in which a person underwent a medically-miraculous healing after a group of faith-filled believers prayed over them, the Greek word James uses here does not necessarily imply a physical healing. It’s certainly possible, but there are also other kinds of salvation, some of which are far more significant than mere physical healing. In fact, given the context, there’s a pretty strong argument to be made that James has this more spiritual healing in mind here. He never says the sick person will get well. He says the person will be saved. What’s more, he says that “the Lord will raise him up,” and that “if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.”
Okay, well, does this mean we shouldn’t pray for sick people to get physically healed? Not at all. But neither should we hang all of our hopes on that. Sometimes God physically heals a sick person in a powerful, miraculous way. But sometimes He doesn’t for reasons that will likely remain inscrutable for us. And if we hang our faith on that one, single outcome, we’re putting ourselves in a bad spot. Rather, what we need to do is to entrust the whole situation into God’s hands, trusting Him to do what’s right, and further trusting that He knows what’s right and is absolutely committed to our good even when we don’t understand or like it. After all, in the long run, it is far more significant and important for people to be forgiven of their sins and to enter into a saving relationship with God than it is to be healed physically of some malady. Even a bad one. This body is temporary. Some of you feel that far more pressingly than do others. When we value the temporary over the eternal we may be more comfortable now, but the long-term results will be decidedly not to our liking.
And as for this idea that the sick person’s sins will be forgiven, there is much precedent in the Scriptures for God forgiving the sins of one person based on the intercession of another. Moses did it on more than one occasion for the people of Israel. Jesus Himself did it for the lame man whose four friends were so committed to his physical healing that they broke a hole in a stranger’s roof in order to get him to Jesus. Mark 2:5 says, “And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’” As a matter of fact, the whole notion of our salvation is premised on God the Son interceding before God the Father to forgive our sins and God the Father responding in the affirmative. So, yes, we should absolutely pray for another person’s sins to be forgiven. God just might do it and set them on the road to life. If you want more evidence, just look at the next verse. James continues in this same vein in v. 16: “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.” Think he’s still talking about physical healing?
In the second half of v. 16, though, James turns to answer the question of why prayer is such a big deal that he would close his whole letter by reflecting on it. Look at what he says there: “The prayer of a righteous person [that is, a person who is right with God and with people] has great power as it is working.” What kind of power? Well, the powerful kind. Verse 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. Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit.” Now, this is not to say we should pray for crippling drought. God was using Elijah to punish the evil king Ahab and the people of Israel for their incorrigible disobedience. What it is saying, is that the power of our prayers goes beyond what we can really fathom. Elijah wasn’t some demi-god or otherwise holy man with special access to divine powers. He was just a guy who was faithfully committed to God and was praying for the things God told him to pray for. And his prayers resulted in a dramatic change to the climate. For three and a half years. If his prayers could accomplish something like that, imagine what our prayers could do.
The answer? Nothing if we don’t pray them. Folks, that’s the common thread here. James jumps from praying for sick people to the forgiveness of sins to the power of prayer. It seems like a rather disparate litany of teachings—kind of like you often find in the book of Proverbs—until you look a bit closer at what he’s saying. What I think James is getting at in all of this is that prayer is a tool.
A little over a year ago I got to go and see Alton Brown of Food Network fame up in Baltimore. It was a great show. He really is every bit as funny in person as he was on Good Eats and the various competition shows he hosts now. But one of Alton’s big points of emphasis is that no good kitchen tool should be single-function in its use. In other words, if something only serves a single purpose in the kitchen, why bother having it? Why not go with a tool that can accomplish multiple different tasks instead? That way you can cut down on the amount of clutter in your kitchen and possibly have some creative fun on the side—like when he used a couple of five-gallon water jugs, a fire extinguisher, and a few other items to make slightly carbonated ice cream in about sixty seconds. Sure, the set-up took a week, but how many people can say they’ve made ice cream in under sixty seconds?
Well, prayer is a multi-function tool of the first order. Just think about what James pointed to it being able to accomplish in these few verses. Relief from suffering, celebration of blessing, physical healing, spiritual healing, emotional healing, perhaps relational healing, the forgiveness of sins, the exercising of power over the natural world. That’s quite a tool. Prayer is a powerful tool. It is in fact the most powerful tool that, as believers, we have at our disposal for doing the Christian life well. In terms of a comparison, nothing else comes close. Prayer is a powerful tool that can empower our pursuit of a life done well in all the other areas we have and will yet talk about.
But, if we are going to do life well when it comes to the practice of prayer there’s a big not-so-secret thing we have to keep in mind. Just like the guy not using the carwash in the commercial we looked at a little while ago didn’t gain any of the attendant benefits of the carwash, while prayer may be a really powerful tool, it only does us any good if we use it. Prayer is a powerful tool, but only if we use it. If you want to experience the blessings that this incredible tool can bring to your life, you have to actually use it.
Now, there are a couple of different ways to react to that challenge. One is common. One is helpful. First the common one: For most folks, when we hear a message like this one, our first reaction is to think: “Oh man! That’s right. I really should pray more.” Then we set prayer goals for ourselves for the next week. “I’m going to pray for thirty minutes every single morning without fail.” The first two days are fine. The third day we only make it fifteen minutes before life interrupts us. The fourth and fifth days we skip. The sixth day we pray guiltily for an hour. And by day seven, we’ve given up and settled back into our previous pattern. You see the problem with this, don’t you? What we do is to put prayer into the category of “religious behaviors I need to do in order to curry God’s favor and be a good Christian.” The kick here is that when prayer becomes a religious duty, we cease thinking about it in terms of furthering a relationship and instead think about it in terms of quotas. Religious duties are merely boxes to check in order to be in good stead with the “Big Guy in the Sky.” Well, we don’t like religious duties. There’s a reason I said Easter morning that part of the power of the resurrection is that it kills religion and opens the door to a relationship. Religious duties are things we do because we feel like we have to do them, not because we are trying to fall deeper into a relationship with Jesus. It’s like paying taxes. You write the check and put it in the mail because you have to not because you’re pursuing a deeper relationship with the government. Prayer is a powerful tool, but as long as we think of it in terms of being a religious duty, we are going to use it as little as we can get our consciences to approve.
The powerful truth is that for followers of Jesus, prayer isn’t a religious duty. For followers of Jesus there aren’t any religious duties. Prayer, just like everything else we’ve been talking about when it comes to doing life well, is about a relationship. It’s a conversation. Now, yes, it’s a conversation with someone who is infinitely greater than us in every respect—a fact we should always keep firmly in mind as we pray—but it’s also a conversation with someone who sacrificed everything so that He could be near us. Prayer, when it is done well, always flows out of our dependence upon God. As a religious duty, it requires the involvement of neither our hearts nor our minds. We simply go through the motions so that we can check off the appropriate box. But when we pray with our hearts and minds engaged, as I said a little while ago, it commits us to the belief that there are problems too big for us to handle and someone greater than us who can handle them. When we put ourselves in that kind of a place, and when we direct our prayers to building a relationship with the right Someone, the power of prayer begins to be unleashed in our lives. Prayer is a powerful tool, but only if we use it.
So what do we do with all of this? How do we do life well with respect to prayer? Well, you might be surprised to hear me say that the first step is not to pray. The first step is to recognize our dependence upon God for…everything. The first step is to gain an awareness of just how capable He is and how incapable we are on our own. It is to recognize how powerful He is and how powerless we are. And this is not about being down on ourselves or making us less than we are, it’s about being honest. It’s about recognizing who we are, who God is, and why we need Him so badly. When you get to that kind of a place in life, you’ll pray. There’s a reason people pray in crisis more than they do in celebration. Think for a minute about all the power you have unleashed in just your own life when you have found yourself praying hard in a moment of crisis. What if you allowed that power to flow in and through your life all the time? Prayer is a powerful tool, but only if we use it. And if we don’t really believe we need it, we aren’t going to use it. As for step two, there isn’t one. When you get step one down, you’ll pray. And when you pray, you’ll unleash the power that’s there to transform your life, your family, your church, your community, and your world. Prayer is a powerful tool, so use it well.