James 5:13-20 – The Prayer of Faith (part one)

This week we’re concluding our study in the letter of James, which is all about the temptation to be double-minded: trying to be friends with God and friends with the world. Over the next three days we look at James 5:13-20.

A man walks into a … milk bar (in case there are any traditional Baptists reading). With an ostrich. And he orders a ginger beer. “That’ll be $3.90” says the milk-barman. So the man reaches into his pocket and pulls out exactly $3.90.

The next day, the man and his ostrich are back. He orders a coke. “That’ll be $3.50” says the milkbarman. And the man reaches into his pocket and finds exactly $3.50.

On the third day, the man and the ostrich go into the milkbar again, and the man asks for a milkshake. “That’ll be $4.80.” And again, the man reaches into his pocket to pull out the exact change. The milkbarman is curious, and asks him why it is he’s always got the exact money with him. 

“Oh,” says the man, “it’s a long story. I found this old lamp, rubbed it, and a genie came out, offered me two wishes.”

“So what did you ask for?”

“I asked that whenever I went to pay for anything, I’d always have the exact change.”

“That’s very clever,” says the milkbarman. “If you’d wished for a million dollars, eventually you’d spend it all. Whereas this way you can buy whatever you want, forever. That’s genius.” He pauses, “but tell me, what’s with the ostrich?”

The man looks over his shoulder and sighs, “oh, with my second wish I asked for a chick with long legs.”

Sometimes we can view God a bit like a genie. If we rub the bottle – if we pray to him the ‘right’ way – then we get what we want. We make sure we use the ‘right’ words because we think that God is going to answer our words (like the chick with long legs) rather than give us what he knows we intended, and what he knows we need. As long as we follow the formula, God will give us whatever we ask for.

But God is not a genie – he gives us things, but he is the one in control of what he gives, not us.

Philip Yancey, has written a book I’ll be referring to a few times this week, called Prayer: does it make a difference? He writes about the practices of prayer he’s witnessed in different religions: In Nepal, Buddhist prayer wheels with prayers written on pieces of paper inside – one rotation sends a prayer up to heaven, and so priests spend their days incessantly spinning these wheels. In Japan, businesspeople visit Shinto shrines, and for a minimum of $50 they can pay for a priest to bang a drum to get the gods’ attention, and say a prayer for them. In Taiwan, Taoist temples sell ‘ghost money’ – money printed on cheap paper, which you can burn to keep ghosts away from you, or to send cash to a departed relative to use in the afterlife. In India, Hindus appease their gods with offerings of food, flowers and animal sacrifices.

Yancey then says:

In truth, Christians often treat prayer the same way. If I do my duty, then God ‘owes me’. Worship becomes a kind of transaction: I’ve given God something, so it’s God’s turn to reciprocate. Prayer as transaction rather than relationship can decline into a practice more duty than joy, an occasional and awkward exercise with little connection to life – not so different from the Buddhist monk spinning his prayer wheel or the Japanese businesswoman performing her temple ritual.

How do you view prayer? This week, we’re looking at what James has to say about prayer, and how it relates to faith.

Pray in all situations

The first point is so simple it doesn’t really require much explanation:

5:13  Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise.

We are to pray in all situations.

It’s easy to pray when things are going badly, (which they were for his readers who were suffering persecution by the wealthy). James points out that it’s important to pray and thank God when things are going well. I don’t know how it is with you, but I often forget to thank God when things go well – even something I had prayed about before!

The implication from this verse in James is that we shouldn’t keep God – and prayer – in reserve just for the difficult things. We need to ask God to be with us and to help us in in every aspect of life. Like this prayer someone sent me:

So far today, God, I’ve done all right. I haven’t gossiped, I haven’t lost my temper. Haven’t been grumpy, nasty or selfish. I’m really glad of that. But in a few minutes, God, I’m going to get out of bed; and from then on, I’m probably going to need a lot of help.

The fact is that we need God’s help all the time; so we should pray at all times. And we’re not just talking about formal prayer here, but whenever you are ‘alone with your thoughts’ – driving the car, taking a shower. Whenever you’re alone, realise that God is there, listening to you. Thinking about him, about your walk with him – that’s prayer, too. Just being thankful that you’re alive, that you have food and shelter – experiencing life, when you recognise that you owe all your existence to your Creator – that’s prayer.

In fact, Philip Yancey claims that the most important function of prayer is that it builds our relationship with God. Firstly, it helps us to view everything – ourselves, our problems and the world – from God’s perspective. It reminds us of how small we are before God. Yet secondly, it reminds us that despite the fact that we are small & insignificant when viewed from God’s perspective, God cares enough about us to want a relationship with us.

That’s more important than the shopping list of things we bring to God. Prayer should change us, before it even begins to think about changing the world. Yancey concludes:

Prayer that is based on relationship and not transaction may be the most freedom-enhancing way of connecting to a God whose vantage point we can never achieve and hardly imagine. Quoting a Psalm, [the apostle] Peter assures us that ‘the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous and his ears are attentive to their prayer.’ We need not bang a drum or bring animal sacrifices to get God’s attention; we already have it.

To think about

We’ll look at the ins and outs of how God answers prayer tomorrow. But for now:

When are you tempted to treat God like a genie?

When are you more likely to forget to pray – when things are going well, or going badly?

Spend some time in prayer now!

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