The Power of Prayer

One of the more prevalent phrases used among Christians is the power of prayer. James 5:16 does say, “The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective,” (NIV) but what is this really saying? I think we all know the power is God’s, but the way it’s most often used seems to mean the person who is praying has the power. At least that’s the impression I get when I read devotionals or books about prayer and I’m afraid that’s the impression a lot of people, including non- or new believers get too.

Believing our prayers are powerful leads us to think we are somehow responsible for the results, when it is God who answers those prayers. I like the way The Amplified Bible puts it: “The heartfelt and persistent prayer of a righteous man (believer) can accomplish much [when put into action and made effective by God—it is dynamic and can have tremendous power].” Our prayers can be dynamic, fervent and effective, and can produce great results—but only as God puts them into action and makes them powerful by his great power.

The other problem is the word “righteous.” Unless we believe our righteousness comes from Jesus and is in fact, his righteousness, we could become self-righteous about our prayers and look down on those whose prayers don’t seem to be effective and powerful. I have often wondered if my prayers were effective when someone I had been praying for didn’t get better and then died. At those times, I was at a loss when it came to understanding the verse in James. His words have been used as yardsticks to measure and compare prayers.

It’s probably best to quote this verse sparingly. And when we read it, it might be a good idea to pray that God will take our prayers, no matter how humble and bumbling, and make them effective and powerful by the power of the Holy Spirit—and leave it at that.

The Man Upstairs

Ever since Adam and Eve hid in the garden, we humans have been coming up with ways to make sure God doesn’t get too close. As we’re still discussing words and phrases that may misrepresent God, I thought we should look at those we use to keep him at a distance. Those of us who are a little older remember hearing God spoken of as the man upstairs. People don’t say this much anymore but they still think of God as being “in heaven,” somewhere out there and far away. Even though it’s used in the Lord’s prayer, thinking of him as only residing in heaven also works to do this. Sometimes using reverential language meant to exalt him can make us feel he keeps his distance from us.

While God is holy and “other” from us, he is not out in space somewhere. He’s right here, as close to us as our own heartbeats. We make a mistake when we relegate him to someplace other than beside us, before us, above us, below us, in us (to paraphrase the meditation of St. Patrick). Or, perhaps as has been portrayed in some of my favorite Star Trek episodes, he occupies the same space in another dimension. Well, not quite I suppose, but it might help to think of him in a similar way.

We who understand how close God is, can, through the way we speak of him, help others understand that he’s not the man upstairs or the God who is far off and observing us from afar. Rather, he’s closer than we realize and desires to be even closer, as close as we’ll let him.

Pleasing God

Last week I talked about how we don’t have to worry about offending God. The flip side is wondering if we are pleasing him and how to please him more. When you’re always concerned about how to please God you are also concerned that you may displease him, which can create tension and anxiety. Many Christians waste time and energy on this. But God isn’t like us, who are quick to take offense, get our feelings hurt and feel put out when someone either mistreats us or doesn’t meet our expectations. And he’s not constantly concerned about whether we please him or not, as if that’s all that matters. He’s much more mature than us!

God is pleased with us in the same way those of us who are parents are pleased with our children. Sure, they do things we don’t like; they are sometimes naughty and disobedient and even defiant. But do we love them less? We might be displeased for a little while, but as I recall, it was hard to stay upset with my kids for very long, no matter what they had done. In no time at all, it was hugs all around and many expressions of love going back and forth. I was not a better parent than God. His patience and kindness toward us go far beyond ours.

It’s possible for God to be displeased with our actions, and of course, grace is not a license to sin, but we need to remember he’s not like us. We don’t have to walk on eggshells with God because pleasing him isn’t something we need to be concerned about. As my favorite verse tells us: “The Lord your God is with you, the Mighty Warrior who saves. He will take great delight in you; in his love he will no longer rebuke you, but will rejoice over you with singing” (Zephaniah 3:17, NIV).

Along this line are thoughts from David Seamands, a missionary to India:

“The servant is accepted and appreciated on the basis of what he does, the child on the basis of who he is. The servant starts the day anxious and worried, wondering if his work will really please his master. The child rests in the secure love of his family. The servant is accepted because of his productivity and performance. The child belongs because of his position as a person. At the end of the day, the servant has peace of mind only if he is sure he has proven his worth by his work. The next morning his anxiety begins again. The child can be secure all day, and know that tomorrow won’t change his status. When a servant fails, his whole position is at stake; he might lose his job. When a child fails, he will be grieved because he has hurt his parents, and he will be corrected and disciplined. But he is not afraid of being thrown out. His basic confidence is in belonging and being loved, and his performance does not change the stability of his position” (David Seamands, quoted in Neil T. Anderson, Mike Quarles and Julia Quarles, One Day at a Time: The Devotional for Overcomers [Ventura, CA: Regal, 2000], 231).

Offending God

Everyone seems to be offended at someone or something these days. Some even define themselves by what offends them or the degree to which they are offended. Some think God is often offended too, by what we humans do or say. But is that the case?

It’s true God hates sin. He sent his son to become a human and die to rescue us from our sins. Jesus took all our sin upon himself, and through his death, he conquered it and reconciled all humanity to God once and for all. He loved us while we were enemies, while we hated and cursed him. Was he offended? No, he loved us. Is he offended now, as humanity continues to hate and curse him? No, he loves us.

God isn’t like us, but for some reason, we continually try to make him over in our image. We can’t understand him so we assume he must be like us, and since we are so easily offended, he must be too. God still hates sin, but he’s not easily offended. We don’t need to always be on our guard, afraid of upsetting or offending him. In Christ, we can be sure he loves us even when we mess up, because his love will never let us go.