Uniform 01.25.2015: Effective Prayer

James 5:13-18

People love stories of miraculous healings. When I log on to social media, I am often greeted with links to stories about babies who are diagnosed with serious illnesses in the womb but are born perfectly healthy; stories of people with terminal cancer diagnoses who have totally clear scans and are declared free from the disease; stories of young people who are paralyzed in devastating accidents but learn to walk again. These stories are lifted up as testaments to the power of prayer. They help us remember that God knows our pain and responds to our cries.

But for every miracle story, there is a baby who doesn’t survive a chromosomal disorder, a person who dies from cancer, a teenager who faces life in a wheelchair. What are we to make of God’s presence in our lives when such devastating circumstances continue despite our prayers?

We know from experience that the miracles we pray for do not always come. Yet James says, “the prayer of faith will save the sick” (5:15) and “the prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective” (v. 16).

For much of the last fifteen years, my family’s narrative has been dominated by my aunt’s battle with cancer. Kristen was diagnosed on her thirtieth birthday, at which time she had three small children at home. None of us could believe that this was happening to someone we loved so much, and her health was continually in our prayers. We rejoiced when she got good news from her oncologists, and we bombarded God with petitions when she faced a surgery or new chemo regimen.

At one particular family gathering, we’d just received news that the cancer had spread more than ever before. Kristen had made the trip to be with us all, despite preparing to begin an intense new round of treatments. For perhaps the first time in her journey, we all began to realize that she might not beat the cancer. Before Kristen left with my uncle and little cousins, the whole family gathered to pray for her. We all reached out and laid hands on her, creating a tight huddle of love. My grandfather spoke our collective prayer as we cried tears of fear and confusion. It was a holy moment. God entered our pain in a powerful way, making sure we knew that our distress and Kristen’s illness were seen.

Kristen passed away in 2012, just a few months before her fortieth birthday. A cynical person might say that our prayers were not effective; she died despite years of prayers from many, many people. But those of us who knew and loved Kristen know that our prayers were powerful. Throughout her illness, she knew that she was loved by the people around her. More importantly, though, she knew that she was dearly loved by God.

This is what James means when he says that our prayers “will save the sick.” Kristen’s salvation was not in the chemo or the radiation or the surgeries performed by doctors, and it was not in a miraculous healing moment. Instead, Kristen’s salvation came in the unwavering hope of God’s eternal love, spoken to her through the presence of God in the ceaseless prayers of others.

Let us offer such hope to others in dark places by praying “for one another” (v. 16) as James instructs us to do.


1. What experiences from your life or stories from the lives of others make you most confident in the power of prayer? Why?
2. What experiences or stories have caused you to question or doubt the power of prayer? Why?
3. How can we reconcile these different experiences? How can we continue to trust God when our prayers go unanswered?
4. When have you felt God’s presence in your life through the prayers of others? What was that experience like?
5. How might God use your prayers for others to help them feel loved and known in difficult times?

Reference Shelf

James 5:14-15 offers reassurance to any who are sick among the beloved community: in time of grave illness, calling on the elders of the church is not merely allowed but commanded. Sickness can be a threat to the community, just as unconfessed sin can (5:16); both can isolate affected individuals. Here, the bed-bound member is not a burden but one “prayed over” by the church elders, who represent the community; the infirm one is not an untouchable but one anointed with healing oil. Here, the afflicted one is not a voiceless sufferer but one in communication with representatives from the church who stand ready to listen and, if sins are confessed, to speak the good news of God’s pardon. “The prayer of faith” (5:15) is that of confidence that God will act through Jesus to bring about healing. Such faith is consistent with James’s portrayal of God who cares for those who suffer and lifts them up from what enslaves them.

Several healing options were open to the sick in the first-century Mediterranean world. The sick might consult a physician, spend the night at a shrine to Asclepius, or resort to magic. By including an admonition for the sick to call on the elders of the church, James counters that sickness is a Christian problem with a Christian answer; when ill, community members should not seek aid from sources that would bring them in contact with pagan religion. Rather, the church elders’ prayer, anointing with oil, calling on the name of the Lord, and assurance of pardon promote health and healing.

Sophie Laws noted the confession of sin in James 5:16a is not directed to God (as is the case in Jewish confession), rather “the response is a communal one, a mutual conversation whose content is a humble admission of fault and a generous giving of support.” Mutual confession of sins:

involves a process of self-criticism and personal and communal purification. It requires humility enough to bow our heads to let another pray for us. It means honesty and the confession of personal and collective sins, without fear, and with the freedom of love.

James ties the health of the community (iasth∑te is plural) to such mutual confession and mutual prayer. Unconfessed sin threatens the community (cf. 1 John 5:16f; Matt 18:15ff); sin leads to death (Jas 1:15; 5:20). Humble acceptance of the word of truth (1:18, 21) and return to the path of truth promises life. Restoration of wanderers to this way of truth and their reintegration to the community’s life is mutually beneficial (5:19-20), just as is mutual confession and proclamation of forgiveness is (5:15-16).


Edgar McKnight and Christopher Church, Hebrews–James, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2004) 410-12.

Bonnie Chappell is the editor of the Uniform Series Bible Study. She is a graduate of Mercer University and Vanderbilt Divinity School. She is an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.


For further resources, subscribe to the Uniform Teaching Guide and Commentary.

Additionally, the Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary series is a scholarly but accessible means for enhancing your study of each lesson. To purchase the volume quoted in today’s Reference Shelf, please click Here.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email