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.