Exciting phrases, easy acronyms, and memorable lists formed from dense works of systematic theology can be helpful for the everyday Christian. While these reductions of God’s Word and His nature help us understand general frameworks, they are unable to help us understand everything the Bible teaches. It is one thing...
God’s Word provides a rich catalog of amazing promises of what prayer can do.
One such Bible verse is James 5:14-15, which says,
Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up.
Does that mean that God will always grant our prayers as long as we believe? How are we to use these great prayer promises?
Some Christians have become confused and perplexed over how to use these promises. Let me paint a picture of a heart-breaking situation I have seen many times:
A loved one is diagnosed with a serious illness, so the family and friends of this person begin to pray. Over time the sickness gets worse, and someone says, “If only we had enough faith, we could move the hand of God, and the answer would be given.”
There’s an increasing sense that life and death lay in the hands of those who pray. Faith is no longer a matter of trusting God. It’s about convincing ourselves that the outcome we’re asking for is going to happen.
And if the outcome doesn’t go our way, we blame ourselves: “If I had greater faith, he would still be alive.” That’s a crushing burden. Or we resent God: “If God really cared, if he ever listened, my loved one would still be here.” This too is a crushing burden.
Either way we have put ourselves in the place of God, and whenever we try to take the place of God, we take on a burden that not one of us are able to bear.
What Does It Mean to Pray with Faith?
I want to show you from the Bible that faith prays in two ways: Faith prays with assurance, and faith prays with submission. These two kinds of prayer are given to us for different situations. It is important that we know how to use them and that we learn to distinguish between them.
1. Faith prays with assurance when God has made the outcome known.
Elijah was a man just like us. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. (James 5:17)
James gives us an example of this from the story of Elijah. It was a time of great idolatry, as people were worshiping Baal, and Elijah prayed that it would not rain. You can read the story in 1 Kings 17-18.
He must have been sure that what he prayed would happen, because 1 Kings tells us Elijah went into the court of the tyrant, King Ahab, and said, “As the Lord, the God of Israel, lives, whom I serve, there will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years except at my word” (1 Kings 17:1). You have to be pretty sure of the answer to your prayer to speak like that to the king.
Elijah knew that what he prayed would happen. We know by observing what happened three and a half years later:
After a long time, in the third year, the word of the Lord came to Elijah: “Go and present yourself to Ahab and I will send rain on the land.” (1 Kings 18:1)
God says to Elijah, “There will be rain.” On the basis of that promise, Elijah speaks to Ahab and then begins to pray. God revealed what he was going to do, so when Elijah prayed, he had great confidence that what he prayed would happen.
That’s how it happened when the rains returned, and I think it is reasonable to assume that it happened the same way three years earlier when the rains stopped. God told Elijah what would happen, and so Elijah prayed with great assurance (1 Kings 18:42).
The story of Elijah is an illustration:
Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. (James 5:14-15)
I want you to notice four things here:
1. The initiative is with the sick person, not the elders.
2. The sick person is not required to call for the elders. He or she is permitted to do so.
3. God may use this occasion to give to one of the elders, or to the person who is sick, an assurance of the outcome, so that they are able to pray in the same way as Elijah did.
4. It seems to me that a person should consider calling for the elders if and when they sense that it may be the purpose of God to intervene in their life with a gift of healing.
Let me tell you about one occasion where I saw this kind of prayer myself. There was a lady who worshiped in the church I served for 16 years in London, with her husband, son and daughter-in-law. She was diagnosed with cancer, and she asked the elders to come and pray with her.
I went to her home with another elder. I remember it well. It was Christmas Eve. I said to her, “I will anoint you with oil and then we will pray. If you want to pray too, feel free to do so.” I anointed her with oil, and then began to pray. Then the other elder prayed.
Finally, the lady began to pray. She had attended the weekly prayer meeting with remarkable regularity. I had never heard her pray before, and I never heard her pray again. But on this occasion I did, and I can only say that God gave her a gift of faith.
As she prayed, she was given a confidence, an assurance that God would heal her, and he did. I tell you this story because I was able to hear the doctors’ reports and to observe what happened for years afterward. The lady was remarkably healed.
I have no other explanation for what happened but that the Holy Spirit gave her a special assurance of the outcome of her prayer, so that she was able to pray in the way that James describes here, a prayer of faith.
I smile when I think about this because I suspect she thought God would give the gift of faith to the elders. There is no doubt in my mind that God gave it to her. She was given a prompting of the Spirit that this was God’s purpose in her life, and it enabled her to pray with great assurance.
The “prayer of faith” in James 5:15 is not faith that is somehow worked up. It is a gift that comes down (Ephesians 2:8-9).
2. Faith prays with submission when God has kept the outcome hidden.
This is how faith prays in all the situations where you simply do not know what the outcome will be. You apply for a job, but there is no special promise of Scripture that you will get it, and you may have no special prompting of the Spirit about it. The outcome has not been made known. So, faith prays with submission.
The extraordinary thing is that this kind of prayer is equally effective. It is not that these two kinds of prayer are greater and lesser. It is certainly not that one involves faith and the other does not. These two kinds of prayer are given to us for different situations. Let me give you two examples of this second kind of praying:
Example #1: The man with leprosy
A man with leprosy came to him and begged him on his knees, “If you are willing, you can make me clean.” (Mark 1:40)
From the man’s prayer it is clear that he knows Christ can heal him: “You can make me clean.” There is no doubt there. What he does not know is if it is Christ’s purpose to make him clean: “If you are willing…”
He does not know what the outcome will be. To ask with assurance would be presumption. So, he asks with submission, and in this way he honors Christ. Then we read, “Filled with compassion, Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. ‘I am willing,’ he said. ‘Be clean!’” (Mark 1:41).
This is not an inferior kind of praying. Faith prays with assurance when God has made the outcome clear, and with submission when God has kept the outcome hidden. This is the appropriate way of praying when we do not have a promise of Scripture, or a prompting of the Spirit with regards to God’s purpose in a particular situation.
Example #2: The Apostle Paul
There was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. (2 Corinthians 12:7)
You would think the outcome is absolutely clear. Paul is doing God’s work, and he is being tormented by this particular trouble. Satan is actively involved, so surely we know God’s will here. Paul begins to pray: “Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me” (v. 8).
No one should accuse the apostle Paul of lacking faith: “Three times I pleaded with the Lord…” This is the apostle pouring himself into intercession. “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me” (v. 9).
Paul’s faith is expressed, not in assurance of the outcome, but in submission to the outcome.
The greatest example of praying with faith in all of Scripture is in the Garden of Gethsemane when our Lord says, “Abba, Father…everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will” (Mark 14:36). That’s faith: glorifying God by submitting to his purpose.
Pray with Submission in What God Has Kept Hidden
Cultivate humility in your praying. You may ask, and you may plead, as Paul did, but always remember you are asking, not commanding:
Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.
Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” (James 4:13-15)
Pray with Assurance for What God Has Revealed
Cultivate boldness in your praying. God may make his purpose known either through a promise of Scripture or through a prompting of the Spirit.
When God has spoken a clear promise that is for all people, you do not need to say, “If it be your will.” You can pray with great assurance. The Scripture is full of such promises. The Bible is like a field of buried treasure, and prayer digs up the promises of God.
When you come to ask for the strength, power, and the presence of the Holy Spirit in your life, you do not need to say, “Father, give me your Holy Spirit, if it be your will.” He has already told you what his will is.
The promises of God open the door to a faith that prays with great assurance and boldness: “Let us…come boldly unto the throne of grace that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16).