Effective prayer has greater results than we can imagine. God is “able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think” (Ephesians 3:20). Do you pray as if this were true? No, as I’ve mentioned God isn’t always going to answer us in the way or timing we want. But when we pray in faith, everything is possible, not because we are so wise or powerful, but because our sovereign God is.
The book of James says, “The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working” (5:16b ESV). Other translations say, “the prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective” (NIV) or “The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much” (KJV). This verse motivates us to cry out to God because He uses our prayers to change the world.
But what exactly does this phrase from James mean? Does it mean that we will receive everything we pray for, or that holiness strengthens our prayers? Before answering these questions and pointing out the characteristics of effective prayer, let’s look at the verse in its context.
The book of James ends with a call to prayer:
Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray… Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him… 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. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. (James 5:13–16a)
In other words, if prayer can help a brother who is sick, battling sin, or suffering for any other reason, pray! God listens to the cries of His children. Then in verse 16b, James reiterates the power of prayer: “The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.”
Characteristics of Effective Prayer
Elsewhere in Scripture we see characteristics of effective prayer:
1) Effective prayer is done in faith.
James mentions “the prayer of faith” twice, once in James 1:5-8 and again in James 5:15. Faith is necessary for effective prayer because, as Hebrews 11:6 says, “without faith it is impossible to please God.”
Some people try to manipulate God on this point, claiming that they will receive their requests because their requests were (supposedly) made in faith. But the prayer of faith is not about the results of our prayers. Rather, it has to do with the simple belief that God exists, listens to us, and that every outcome of prayer is in His sovereign and merciful hands.
2) Effective prayer has the right motives.
James mentions another obstacle to effective prayer: false motives. James 4:3 says, “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.” Impure motives can disqualify our prayers.
3) Effective prayer comes from the lips of “the righteous.”
James does not promise that everyone’s prayer can obtain everything asked for, he specifically mentions “the prayer of the righteous person” (emphasis mine). We must be careful at this point, because no one is perfect and God ultimately listens to us because of Christ’s righteousness, not ours. However, our holy living does matter in prayer, as James asserts.