One of the greatest gifts the Lord has blessed us with is the ability to come before Him and seek His intervention on our behalf through prayer. Through prayer, we're invited to enter into His presence, humbly admit our need for Him, and joyfully acknowledge our reliance on Him.
Even though prayer is a wonderful gift, many people admit that they don't include it as often as they would like in their daily routine. Sometimes we get busy. Sometimes we get distracted. Other times it may feel like there are more pressing needs in our lives than prayer.
But prayer is something the Lord wants us to practice. He wants us to access His power, wisdom, and guidance as we face the stresses, struggles, and surprises of our daily schedules. But when should we be praying? What is the best time to pray? Consider what James says in Chapter 5 of his letter...
I. Pray in all circumstances of life
Different seasons of life present us with all kinds of circumstances. A few days ago, I took my wife out for lunch and after enjoying a nice meal together, I noticed how beautiful the weather was as I was walking to my car. It made me wish I could just stay outside all day, even though that wasn't possible. In a moment like that, it's easy to to appreciate my circumstances. It's easy to look at God and say, "Thank you," because everything felt good. I enjoyed the time with my wife. My belly was full. The weather was beautiful. But God invites us to come to Him in prayer in the midst of all circumstances.
James speaks of seasons of suffering as this section begins. Our Lord understands seasons of suffering. When we look at the experience Jesus had on this earth, suffering was something He became well acquainted with.
Maybe you're going through a season of suffering right now. What does God's word recommend to us when those seasons come? We're invited to pray. We're invited to unload our burdens on the Lord. We're invited to trust Him with our spiritual, physical, emotional, and relational needs.
But not every season of life is consumed with suffering. In fact, there are times when we're blessed to go through long stretches when it feels like everything is going great. There is a danger that comes with long and cheerful stretches of life. The danger is that we can forget that the Lord is the giver of all good things. So James encourages us to pray when we're cheerful. To remember to express our thanks and appreciation for these seasons of cheer.
From there, the Scripture invites us to pray in another circumstance. We're encouraged to pray when we're afflicted with sickness or disease. We're even encouraged to invite the spiritual leadership of the local church to come and pray over us. This can require some humility on our part because it will force us to admit that we have a need, but that's often a necessary step in the process of us getting well, both physically and spiritually.
In this context here, James speaks of elders anointing with oil in the name of the Lord. In the context this was written, oil was used in multiple ways. At times it was used in a medicinal way. There are also biblical contexts where it was used to symbolically represent the Holy Spirit. In the context it's being used here, it's likely that it was being used in a symbolic way to visibly illustrate that the person being prayed for was being committed to the Lord's care and that His divine intervention was being sought on their behalf.
The overall point that I believe is being communicated in this section of Scripture is that we're invited to come before the Lord in prayer in every circumstance of life. In our high moments. In our low moments. On behalf of those who are suffering or ill. On behalf of our own concerns. The Lord invites us to confidently and regularly enter into His presence and seek His intervention.
II. Pray in conjunction with your confession of sin
How easy is it for you to admit when you're wrong? Generally speaking, I don't think that's an easy thing for most people to do. That's a discussion that comes up quite a bit when you're married. That's something you have to wrestle with when you attempt to lead a group. That's something that's an issue of concern in any kind of relationship. I can picture contexts where I have seen people communicate by their words and their posture that they would rather die than admit they were wrong. It isn't pretty to see and it works against the process of spiritual growth.
What are you holding onto that you struggle to admit to others? Is there something that you've allowed to creep into your life that isn't in line with God's will? Even though you've been set free from sin's grip on your life through faith in Jesus, is there something you're still allowing to dominate your life or your thinking in an unhealthy way? Why do some of these sinful things lurk in our lives for so long? Why do we struggle with them for years and sometimes even decades? Could it be because we refuse to expose them to the light?
James indicated that one potential cause of sickness could be unconfessed and unrepented sin. Certainly not every case of sickness is the result of unconfessed sin in a person's life, but biblically speaking, we're told that there are some illnesses that are the direct result of sin. Naturally speaking, I think an obvious example in our promiscuous culture would be the explosive spread of STD's as a result of sexual activity outside of the marriage covenant. Another example is given to us in 1 Cor. 11:29-30 where we're told that some people in that culture were disciplined by God with illnesses and even death after failing to honor the meaning and practice of communion.
The Lord invites us to pray in conjunction with the confession of our sin. We can confess to each other. We can confess to Him. And this shouldn't be overly scary to us or resisted by us because the alternative is spending years and years feeling like we're being bound and defeated by the very things Jesus already defeated when He rose from the grave. Jesus defeated sin. There's no reason to let it defeat us any longer. The prayer of a person who has received the righteousness of Christ as a gift has great power. Pray for Christ's strength to live in the victory He has already secured for you.
III. Pray with expectation that the Lord will answer
When we consider the power available to us in prayer, it's staggering to try to wrap our minds around. Consider the example James reminds us of. He speaks of Elijah, a man the Lord equipped to serve as a prophet during the Old Testament era. At times, Elijah struggled with depression and discouragement. He didn't think of himself as a big deal and even James reminds us that Elijah had a nature just like ours. Yet the Lord gave him the authority and ability to pray in such a way that the rainfall was impacted.
What do you think? Could you pray that way and if you did pray that way, would you actually expect the Lord to answer? The truth is, the Lord always answers the prayers of His children. Sometimes He says "yes," sometimes He says "no," and sometimes He says, "not yet," but He always answers.
The key to remember is found in the example Jesus gave us in His prayers to the Father. When Jesus gave us the example of the Lord's Prayer, He said, "Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." (Matt. 6:9-10, ESV).
When Jesus was praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, just prior to His crucifixion, the Scripture tells us, "And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, 'My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.'” (Matt. 26:39, ESV).
Jesus prayed that the will of the Father would be done. That should be our prayer as well. And as we pray for His will to be accomplished, we can be confident that the Lord will answer. In His way, in His timing, in line with the intricate details of His perfect plan, He will answer. Do you believe this?
IV. Pray for help to stay on the right path
James wraps this book up with an example that doesn't directly speak of prayer, but I think it's appropriate to include it in this discussion on prayer because we need the Lord's help to actually facilitate this.
Your life and my life is being pulled in all kind of directions. Our beliefs are always being tested as well. If we get too distracted, it's certainly possible to begin wandering from the truth of the gospel without initially realizing we've done so.
We need help to stay on the path the Lord has set before us. We need people who speak truth into our lives. We need people who care about us enough to get to know us well. We need people who live in close enough proximity to us who can point out our wanderings because that will help keep us from adopting an aimless life that's absent of Christ's leading.
There is no shortage of things to be praying about. There is no wrong time to pray. The Lord delights to welcome His children into His presence through prayer.
© John Stange, 2017