“Underestimating the Power of Prayer”

Pentecost 18

September 27, 2015


Text: James 5:13-20


          Today’s Scripture from James talks a great deal about the power of prayer. Indeed, the claims are strong: “Prayer that comes from faith will heal the sick, for the Lord will restore them to health. And if they have sinned, they will be forgiven. For this reason, confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous person is powerful in what it can achieve. Elijah was a person just like us. When he earnestly prayed that it wouldn’t rain, no rain fell for three and a half years. He prayed again, God sent rain, and the earth produced its fruit.”

          Now I must confess that this is in many ways a hard passage for me. It seems so confident that healing and other good things will happen when people pray. And indeed, there are times that I have seen some of these things happen. Sometimes people do experience healing of their bodies, minds, and/or spirits because of earnest prayer by them and/or on their behalf. But I have also seen too many cases where, in spite of all the prayers poured out, healing did not appear to happen. One person’s cancer continued to spread, and the person died. Another was injured in an accident and did not make a full and complete recovery, instead having to live with the debilitating effects of their injuries. Someone else’s depression only continued to worsen, and the person eventually took their own life.

          I like the part about being forgiven of sins because of prayer. But James also tells us to confess our sins to each other and pray for each other. James is not talking only about our practice in worship of praying a general prayer of confession together. He is not talking only about the practice of some churches of privately confessing one’s sins to the pastor and receiving absolution. He is saying that we all need to be acting as confessors for one another, making our sins known to each other, and praying for each other’s forgiveness and repentance. There are very few people anywhere in the universal church with whom I trust that kind of information. The idea of openly confessing my sins to another human being, especially when it comes to the specifics, is downright frightening to me. Just think how much damage could be done with that kind of information.

          And then there is the bit about Elijah being a human just like us, yet when he prayed that the rain would stop, it didn’t rain for 3½ years. Then he prayed it would start to rain again, and it did. I have never found my prayers about rain to be that effective. I certainly have had the opportunity. Having spent my entire pastoral ministry in farming communities, I have been asked many times to pray about rain. Whether the current conditions happen to be drought or deluge, people frequently ask me if I can put in a good word with the Lord for more favorable weather conditions. My stock answer to this request has become, “I’m in sales, not management.”

          And yet in spite of all these questions and reservations and puzzlements, Holy Scripture and our faith both assert that there is power in prayer. Our Bishop, Julius Trimble, reminds us of this often, using this saying: “No prayer, no power. Little prayer, little power. Much prayer, much power.” I find that I sometimes underestimate the power of prayer. It’s a bit like the story of a pastor who went to the hospital to call on a dying woman. As they were visiting, she asked the pastor to pray for her. The pastor asked, “What would you like me to pray for?” “My healing, of course,” the woman replied. The pastor thought, “Oh my God.” So the pastor prayed for the woman and asked God to heal her if it was his will to do so, but privately did not believe anything was going to happen. As soon as the prayer was over, the woman said, “I feel wonderful! I think I’m well!” And with that, she got out of her bed, started walking around, and then walked out into the hall and started shouting, “I think I’m well! I think I’m well!” Pastor leaves the hospital, gets in the car, and immediately says to God, “Don’t you ever do that to me again!”

          I confess that sometimes I am like that. I pray, but I don’t really expect God to do anything. Sometimes God shows up anyway. About 25 years ago I stood in a hospital room praying for the healing of an older woman who was in very serious condition and was not expected to live—and even after praying I left figuring she probably wasn’t going to make it. But she did recover, came home, and lived several more years before passing on to her final reward.

          I don’t understand how prayer works. I don’t understand why God’s answer is sometimes yes, sometimes no, and sometimes not now. Yes, I am just as human as the prophet Elijah, but it seems to me Elijah was given much greater knowledge of God’s purposes than I am usually given. I believe in the power of prayer, but I also confess that I often underestimate it. I sometimes pray with doubt in my heart that God will really do what I am asking. The good news in all this is that God shows up anyway, often in ways I don’t expect. I am thankful that God’s action is not dependent on my puny faith or my incomplete knowledge. I am thankful that God does what God thinks is best, not what I think is best, for what I think is best is not necessarily so.

          Sometimes it is suggested that what we call answered prayer is merely a matter of coincidence. When someone said that to early 20th century Anglican Bishop (and at one point Archbishop of Canterbury) William Temple, his reply was, “When I pray, coincidences happen, and when I don’t, they don’t.” What looks like coincidence to our limited human perspective may well be God at work in subtle and unexpected ways.

          So I will continue to pray. I will continue to pray for the healing of the sick, the forgiveness of sin, the empowerment of the church to carry out God’s mission, and the well-being of all God’s people. I will continue to pray trusting that God knows and does what is best, even though I don’t understand the whys and wherefores of all that. I hope you will do likewise.


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