James reminds us that, “the prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective”, but I have to confess that I much prefer the way the translators of the King James Bible put it, “The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.” I have recently had cause to consider what effectual, or to use the more modern term, effective prayer really is, and therefore to ask if there is some prayer that is not effective?
Jesus’ teaching would suggest that there is. In Luke 18 he compares the prayers of two men, a Pharisee and a Tax Collector, and teaches that it is only the prayer of the latter that is heard. The problem here is one of righteousness, or rather of self-righteousness on the part of the Pharisee. It was his heart that was defective, and therefore his motivation for praying was wrong. On another occasion, related in Matthew 6, he points out that prayer need not be long-winded, and that pagans think that they will be heard because of their many words, with the implication being that they will not be heard at all. This time ignorance is the issue, both in terms of who they are praying to and how they pray – it is not the words themselves that make prayer effective. Their hearts may well have been genuine.
When we think about our own prayer life, these basic issues should not be a problem to us. We know that we stand before God only because of the righteousness of Jesus, which He credited to us because of our faith in Him, made possible by His death on the cross. If we deny these things then we can no longer come boldly into the throne room of Heaven. And we have not only the example and teaching of Jesus but that of all the saints to help us in our prayers, both those found within our Bible and throughout the centuries ever since its pages were completed.
So is it possible for our prayers to be ineffective? Rather than write off these warnings as no longer applying to us, we should examine ourselves and our praying to see if there are more subtle traps that we might fall into. Are we proud of where we are, of our church or our ministries? A fine line must be drawn between rightly recognising something which is of value, and exalting it to a place in our hearts that is harmful to us and to others. Are we praying simply out of duty, or because the person next to us is praying, or out of fear? How often have we prayed the prayer that Jesus taught only to get to the end and think, “what was that I just said?”
The safeguard for us is always to check whether our heart is right when we pray. If we come to God with a genuine desire to connect with Him, then He sees that and loves it. It is sometimes when I am fed up with a situation and my emotions are running high that I pray the prayers that ‘get through’, because they are made ‘fervently’, with all my heart. But that is the exception rather than the rule, and it is God’s desire that we are effectual and fervent all the time.
James goes on to speak of Elijah, “a man just like us”, who learned the secret of effective prayer. His life was completely dedicated to God, and therein perhaps lies the secret. There is no short cut to prayer, and no gimmicks, just simple surrender and living life under the lordship of Jesus. This is precisely the message of the New Testament; what God expects of every single Christian. If we really lived like this, perhaps we wouldn’t be so concerned if our prayers were effective or not, because they naturally would be.