The Bible speaks of effective, powerful prayer. What can make your prayers effective? What does the Bible reveal?
James 5:16 records an important statement about prayer: “The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.” What did the apostle James mean?
Interlinears and other translations show that the word fervent is not actually supported by the Greek of this passage, but the words righteous and effective definitely are. As the New International Version puts it, “The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.”
A righteous man
From this passage we see that the main key to the effectiveness of prayer is the spiritual condition of the one offering the prayer. Effective prayer is prayer that we know God hears.
David wrote in one of his psalms, “The eyes of the LORD are on the righteous, and His ears are open to their cry. … The righteous cry out, and the LORD hears, and delivers them out of all their troubles. The LORD is near to those who have a broken heart, and saves such as have a contrite spirit” (Psalm 34:15, 17-18).
The Bible shows we all start out unrighteous—as sinners (Romans 3:23). But if we come to repentance—to a broken heart and contrite spirit—God will forgive us and put us on the path of righteousness.
In Proverbs 10:24 we read that God will respond positively to the requests of the righteous: “The fear of the wicked will come upon him, and the desire of the righteous will be granted.”
What does God’s Word reveal about righteousness―how to be considered by God as being righteous? A simple definition of godly righteousness is doing what God says is right.
The psalmist wrote in Psalm 119:172, “My tongue shall speak of Your word, for all Your commandments are righteousness.”
All of God’s commandments and laws are a product of God’s mind. The commandments and laws of God (in the letter of the law and the spirit of the law) reflect God’s very nature of love and reveal what God says is right―the right way to live.
God deeply desires for human beings to grow to love Him with all of their heart, mind, life (soul) and strength, and to show their love by obeying Him (Deuteronomy 6:5-6; 30:6; Joshua 22:5; Nehemiah 1:5; Matthew 22:37).
Why? Deuteronomy 10:12-13 records, “And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all His ways and to love Him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments of the LORD and His statutes which I command you today for your good?” (emphasis added). God wants this for our benefit—for our good!
The apostle John said, “For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments. And His commandments are not burdensome” (1 John 5:3).
One of the important keys in praying is to come to God with an attitude of humble obedience. John also wrote, “And whatever we ask we receive from Him, because we keep His commandments and do those things that are pleasing in His sight” (1 John 3:22).
For a more complete study of the keys to answered prayer, please read the article “Five Keys to Answered Prayer.”
Please understand that God’s ears are open not only to the cries of the righteous, but also to those who want to be right in God’s sight―those who see that they are not living as they should and deeply desire to change. Those who are searching for answers and searching for God will come to repentance. They will want to live to please God.
So God clearly says the prayers of a righteous person are effective and powerful.
Practical principles (or pitfalls in prayer to avoid)
For our prayers to be effective, we must avoid having our prayers simply become habitual. What do I mean by this? Being in the habit of praying daily is good. Being in the habit of coming to our Father on our knees in prayer on a daily basis is what a righteous person will want to do.
But a habit of daily prayer can simply become habitual—mindless. Prayer can become so much of a habit that our minds are no longer “in gear.” We start praying and our minds go to “automatic pilot.” We begin to say and think the same things over and over by rote―routine―instead of actually realizing we are conversing with our Father, the Creator of the universe!
Praying the same words over and over can easily become vain repetition. This is something Jesus warned against in what is called His Sermon on the Mount. “And when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. For they think that they will be heard for their many words” (Matthew 6:7). Rote, memorized prayers are not what God wants.
Of course, there are circumstances and trials we pray about every day, and as we focus on them and rephrase them, these can be meaningful repetitions―like those of the persistent widow whom Jesus praised in Luke 18:1-8.
For prayer to be effective, we need to speak to our Father as we would speak to anyone whose help we are seeking. We are speaking to Him about many things He and we are concerned about.
A righteous person has truly begun to build a relationship with God (through obeying Him from the heart) and thus knows God listens to his or her prayers.Another related principle for effectiveness in prayer is that we must not let our thoughts wander while we are praying. While praying (especially if we are not verbally praying, but praying mentally), it is easy to begin thinking about other things (perhaps what we need to do later or about other matters unrelated to what we are talking to God about). If we talked to people the way we too often talk to God, they might think we are losing our mental faculties because our minds wander from one subject to another.
Effective, powerful prayer and obedience
There is no magical formula or words that make prayer effective and thus powerful. But effective prayer does require that we understand and believe that we are indeed talking to our God and Father who loves us (John 16:26-27) and is concerned for us and our needs, whether we are offering up intercessory prayer for others or requests for our own needs.
Like every part of the Christian life, prayer is a growth process. If you are just beginning to build a relationship with God, realize that He is loving and patient. He wants to hear from you, and He will help you grow in righteousness and effectiveness.
A righteous person has truly begun to build a relationship with God (through obeying Him from the heart) and thus knows God listens to his or her prayers. To say it plainly, a righteous person truly knows God. He or she has come to know God by living a life of obedience to Him in the letter and spirit of His laws (1 John 2:3-4).
The letter of God’s commandments and laws describes what we are to do or not do. For example, “You shall not steal” (Deuteronomy 5:19).
The spirit of God’s commandments and laws describes how God wants us to be. The spirit of the law describes the qualities of God’s nature of love that God wants us to have. For example, we should be totally honest, trustworthy and dependable so that we will not only not take what is our neighbor’s (that is, we will not steal), we will also (out of love for our neighbor) seek to protect what is his or hers (as much as is in our power).
God’s commands came from His mind and thus reveal His mind and nature. As we seek to understand the spirit of His laws (the qualities of His love that are behind and revealed by His laws) and seek to live that way ourselves, we will grow in righteousness and come to know God better.
Remember, God hears the prayers of those trying to live a righteous life.
We can come to know God. We can become righteous by humbly using the power of God’s Spirit to live in obedience to God―learning to love as God loves. If we come to know God, we can begin having the confidence that God hears our prayers.
Remember what Jesus said when He prayed to His Father (who is also our Father) when He resurrected Lazarus. “Father, I thank you that You have heard Me. And I know that You always hear Me” (John 11:41-42).
God’s ears are open to the prayers of the righteous who are humbly seeking His help, guidance and blessing. The prayer of the righteous, being effective, is very powerful.