James 5:16 says:
“The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.” NIV
“The prayer of a righteous person is very powerful in its effect.” CSB
“The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.” ESV
“The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much.” NASB
What makes prayer effective? Is it how long we pray? No. In Numbers 12:13, Moses used four words to ask God to heal Miriam. He did. In Nehemiah 2:4, Nehemiah prays quickly for God’s favor. He gives it. In Matthew 6, Jesus warns of praying like the Gentiles who heap up empty phrases thinking they will be heard for their many words. Jesus tells his disciples to not be like that, for God knows what we need before we ask him. Quantity of words does not guarantee quality of response.
What about the kinds of words we use? Is there any magic in the kind of words we pray? No.
All throughout Scripture we see many kinds of prayer. In the psalms there are prayers of praise and thanksgiving, prayers of repentance and prayers of judgment. The psalmists use different kinds of words to address God in their need. Quality of words does not guarantee quality of response.
Going back to Matthew 6, Jesus says to go into our closets and shut the door and pray to our Father who is in heaven. He gives us the Lord’s prayer, but this isn’t some magic formula. Later in the New Testament, we see Paul praying all kinds of things, not one rote prayer: prayer for open doors for the gospel, prayers for people to grow in their faith, prayers for people in authority, prayers for times of suffering, prayers for healing.
The word effective means adequate to accomplish a purpose. Other translations use the word active or earnest. It’s obvious from James 5:16 that James wants us to believe that prayer is powerful and accomplishes much. He wants us to be diligent in prayer. In fact, in the next verse, James uses Elijah as an example to encourage us. Elijah was a man just like us and one time he prayed that it wouldn’t rain and it didn’t rain for three and a half years!
This is staggering to me. Does it mean I should pray for it to stop raining? No. Elijah was a man with a specific mission for a specific time. But that is the only thing different between Elijah and us. James’ point is that Elijah didn’t have some superpower. He was just like us: flesh and blood. He got tired. He got depressed. He doubted God.
So what is the key to effective prayer? Is there a key? Yes and no. No, in that the Bible doesn’t work in the way we want it to. It’s not like those click bait articles you see all over the Internet encouraging you to just do these 10 steps or use this one technique. But the answer is also yes, because when you look a little more at James 5:16, there’s something else to notice.
Each translation has the word righteous. The prayer of the righteous person is effective. God doesn’t hear everyone’s prayer. It’s not because he has a hearing problem. He is omniscient, he knows all things. But the Bible is clear that access to God is limited to those who fear him, who are in right relationship to him.
“The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination to the LORD, but the prayer of the upright is acceptable to him.” Proverbs 15:8
“The LORD is far from the wicked, but he hears the prayer of the righteous.” Proverbs 15:29
So putting it all together, we get this picture of prayer: Those who are in right relationship with God, who have been declared righteous in God’s sight solely on the basis of the shed blood of Christ, should be encouraged to be active and earnest in prayer because their prayers effect real and powerful change. James is not as specific as we would like about what kinds of change our prayers produce. The reality is that we don’t always see the results of our prayers. But, we should take courage and be spurred on to pray boldly and continually because prayer changes things. God didn’t have to set up his universe this way, but he did, and it is a great privilege. Let’s not waste it.