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Elyse Sandberg

Dr. Peeler
New Testament
25 September 2015

What Does Prayer Actually Do?

Most every Christian would agree that prayer is vital to our faith, but

what does prayer actually do? Does the Lord actually hear our prayers, and if

so, what effect do those prayers have? James 5:13-18 is a passage that

provides us with a starting place to think about the power of prayer, and its

effects on our lives. The passage goes as follows:

Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone

happy? Let them sing songs of praise. 14 Is anyone among you
sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them
and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 And the
prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord
will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven.
Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each
other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous
person is powerful and effective.17 Elijah was a human being,
even as we are. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it
did not rain on the land for three and a half years. 18 Again he
prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its
crops. (James 5:13-17 NIV)

In this passage, the author of James is very clear in saying that prayer

is powerful and effective. Prayer doesnt only have effects on our spiritual

state of being, but on real life events, such as the coming of rain that Elijah

earnestly prayed for. Prayer changes circumstances. However, the author of

James does specify that it is the prayer of a righteous person that is

effective. The question that then follows is not simply, What does prayer

actually do, but instead, What type of prayer is effective, and then, What

does this effective prayer actually do? If the prayers of a righteous person
are the prayers that are effective, then there must be some requirements for

our prayer lives: our prayers must be offered earnestly in faith, from a heart

that is in alignment with the Lords will, and from a person who is in right

standing with God. When praying in this way, we can have full assurance

that God hears us and is moved to take action in the situation. This passage

in James, along with many other passages in the Bible, lead us to believe

that the Lord is heavily present amidst His creation, hearing and working on

behalf of his children who have fully put their faith in him.

In order for our prayers to be effective, they must be offered earnestly

and with faith. The Israelites in the Old Testament are a great example of the

way in which we should pray. As the Israelites petitioned to God in the Old

Testament, prayers of confidence became the dominant form of prayer. John

Goldingay, professor of Old Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary, wrote

that the Israelites were often known to wake themselves up to the fact

that, although Yahweh had not yet taken action, he had heard and listened to

them, and with this they believed, came an assurance that he would work on

their behalf. After waking themselves up, they would then pray with the

belief that God answered their prayers, although they had yet to see his

answer. They prayed in faith that Yahweh would take action on his intentions,

holding onto hope that he would do so because of his faithfulness in the past.

This then set them free to focus on worshipping Yahweh for his faithfulness,

as they waited for him to take action. They believed that Yahwehs act was
certain (although it had not yet happened), because of the character of

Yahweh being one who listens to prayer (Goldingay 255).

The New Testament emphasizes further this idea that God truly does

hear us when we pray. Along with James 5, there are many other passages in

the New Testament that support this idea of having confidence when

approaching the Lord. For example, 1 John 5:14-15 says, This is the

confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to

his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears uswhatever we ask

we know that we have what we asked of him. Similar to James, this passage

encourages us to have confidence when we pray, for we can be certain that

the Lord hears us. Hebrews 4:16 also instructs us to pray with confidence

saying, Let us then approach Gods throne of grace with confidence, so that

we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. Again,

we see an emphasis on approaching God with confidence. Then, in Mark

11:22-24, we see Jesus himself say, Have faith in God, Jesus answered.

Truly I tell you, if anyone says to this mountain, Go, throw yourself into the

sea, and does not doubt in their heart but believes that what they say will
happen, it will be done for them. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for

in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. In these

passages, it seems that faith is a condition for answered prayer, and since

we can be confident that the Lord hears us when we pray, why not have

faith? In fact, whenever the NT speaks of requests made to God, it

emphasizes the fact that these requests are heard. We can be certain of this
because of the nature of God. God is a loving father, full of compassion, who

loves to listen to his children. Therefore, we must earnestly pray to Him with

faith, being confident that he hears us and therefore, will answer our prayers.

These are true prayers; right prayers filled with the certainty of being heard.

In the New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, it is said, In

prayer we are never to forget whom we are addressing; the living God, the

almighty One with whom nothing is impossible, and from whom therefore all

things may be expected (Brown 857). The NT encourages us to have such a

large faith in God that we believe we have received our request at the very

moment of asking

However, it is important that these prayers are from the heart and

aligned with the Lords will, which are two necessary characteristics of

effectual prayers. In the Old Testament, the Israelites prayers of petition

involved going before the heavenly cabinet and persuading it to take

action (Goldingay 253). They were able to justify this because they were

praying on behalf of Gods glory and for His names sake. In other words,

their prayers were in alignment with Gods will, and therefore, they were

confident in their pleading with God. True prayer that is heard is prayer of the

heart. The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology says, It

involves the whole person and means that a man comes before God with his

whole being and in an attitude of humble submission (Brown 864). False

prayer, on the other hand, is prayer that does not involve self-surrender of

the heart, or intention of fulfilling Gods will. It is prayer that is offered simply
with the lips. Maimonides, a Jewish philosopher, summed up the Jewish

concept of prayer by saying, Prayer without devotion is not prayer. He

whose thoughts are wandering or occupied with other things ought not to

pray. Before engaging in prayer, the worshiper ought to bring himself into a

devotional frame of mind, and then he must pray quietly and with feeling,

not like one who, carrying a load, unloads it and departs (Birnbaum 656).

From taking a look at the historical context of prayer in the Old and New

Testaments, we can see that just as Maimonides suggested, we must set our

mind and heart on the living God before we pray; remembering that we are

praying to our almighty Father who hears and has compassion on us. When

we ask in accordance with Gods will, we can pray with assurance that we

have what we have asked for.

Not only must we pray with faith in accordance with Gods will, but the

conditions of our hearts and our standing before God must also be right.

James 5:16 says, Therefore, confess your sins to each other and pray for

each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is

powerful and effective. The confession of sin is a requirement for effectual

prayer. A righteous person is one who stands right with God, and the sole

way to achieve this is through the cross. Therefore, it follows that we must

confess our sins and revisit the cross before crying out to the Lord on our

own behalf or anothers behalf, for it is the righteous persons prayer that the

Lord hears. In The Scandalous Message of James, Elsa Tamez says,

Divided persons who want to pray with faith will be able to do so only
insofar as they allow themselves to stand naked before God and become

persons of simple hearts (57). She emphasizes that we must confess our

sins to God and to each other in order to be in right standing with God when

we pray. Augustine takes this a step further in focusing on the power of

praying and forgiving each other in this passage. He says, If he who neither

has, nor had, nor will have any sin prays for our sins, how much more ought

we to pray for each others sins! And if he for whom we have nothing to

forgive forgives us, how much more should we forgive one another, knowing

that we cannot live on earth without sinning! (Tractates 58.2) Do we expect

that God will forgive us of our sins and listen to our prayers if we are holding

sin over other people? And do we expect God to listen to our prayers if we

are only crying out for ourselves and ignoring his other children? Prayer must

be done in faith by a person who is in right standing with God, having

confessed their sin before Him and others. The prayer of this person is

powerful and effective. And since this persons prayer is effective, they must

not only pray for themselves, but also follow the example set by Jesus and

pray on behalf of one another. When we do this, we can expect to see the

Lord move as he did when Elijah prayed to him for rain in James 5.

We have seen that the question of What does prayer actually do?

must be broken down into two different questions: What type of prayer is

effective, and what does this effective prayer actually do? What was

discussed above answered the first question. Now the question of what this

type of prayer does can be answered. The prayer offered in faith, in

accordance with Gods will, by a person in right standing before God, actually

changes circumstances. This type of prayer calls upon God to take action.

The possibilities of this type of prayer are unlimited. This type of prayer

causes victory and causes us to prevail. The Matthew Henry Commentary

supports this by referring to the example of Elijah in James 5. This

commentary says that prayer is the very key that opens and shuts heaven.

Specifically, it says, If Elijah by prayer could do such great and wonderful

things, surely the prayers of no righteous man shall return void. Saint Bede

also had similar thoughts in his reflections on Elijah in this passage, inquiring

us to think of how much the persistent prayer of a righteous person is worth

in the sight of God (Concerning the Epistle of St. James). The prayer of faith

is not only effective, being able to change circumstances, but pleasing to our

Lord Jesus Christ.

Once again, James 5:16 says, The prayer of a righteous person is

powerful and effective. In the NT, the word effectual is most always used

in relation to action. By saying that prayer is effectual in James 5, the author

of James is communicating that the prayer of faith results in action.

Therefore, we can conclude that when we pray, we will see results, just as

Elijah saw results. This example is used to show that prayer working in this

way is possible, but not to say that this is the rule. The author is not claiming

that every time we pray, our prayers will be met with the specific actions we

asked for. However, he does claim that every time we pray, the Lord hears

us, and takes action. Whether that action is to change our circumstances, or
simply to change our hearts to align with his will, we cannot know. However,

we can have full assurance that the Lord hears us and will respond when we

call out to him in faith. This is why the author of James urges us to pray on all

occasions, for on all occasions the Lord is attentive to the prayers of his


Therefore, it can be concluded that prayer is powerful and effective,

moving our heavenly father to action. Prayer is powerful because of the

powerful One we are praying to; prayer is effective because this powerful

One is listening to us. Therefore, we see that prayer is a lot more about God

than it is about us. Prayer is not about the worthiness of man, but about the

grace of God. Prayer is not about our will, but about the Lords will. The

author of James urges us to pray fervently, pray always, and pray with all of

ourselves on all occasions. He urges us to do this because he has the

knowledge of what prayer actually does; prayer opens the key to heaven and

allows us to communicate with the Almighty, powerful creator, who hears us

with delight and is moved to take action when we call upon His name in this

way. The Lord will decide in what way he will choose to take action, but when

we choose to call on his powerful name, he answers with abundant grace.

Sometimes, in the case of Elijah, these answers come in the form of miracles

or a changed situation. Other times, these answers come in the form of a

changed heart, or a changed desire. Either way, the Lords will is done

through our prayers. In fact, prayer is the way in which we cooperate with

God in his will, which seems to generally be that people be in good health,
free from anxiety and all forms of physical, mental, and spiritual suffering.

Therefore, as Christians, we should absolutely pray on all occasions, for why

would we not want God to take action and have his will be done in all

circumstances and aspects of our lives? If we are in trouble, if we are happy,

if we are sick, if we are anything at all, let us pray. Let us invite God to act in

every area of our lives-for our prayers are powerful and effective, calling on

the very name of the almighty God himself to take action. This is the

confidence we are able to have in approaching the throne of God through


Word Count: 2695

Works Cited

Augustine, Marcus Dods, John Gibb, and J. Innes. Lectures or Tractates on the

Gospel According to St. John. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1873. Print.

Birnbaum, Philip. Encyclopedia of Jewish Concepts. New York: Hebrew Pub.,

1979. Print.

Brown, Colin. The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology.

Exeter: Paternoster, 1975. Print.

Goldingay, John. Old Testament Theology: Israel's Life. Downers Grove, IL: Ivp

Academic, 2009. Print.

Henry, Matthew, and Leslie F. Church. Commentary on the Whole Bible:

Genesis to Revelation. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Pub. House, 1961.


Saint Bede. Concerning the Epistle of St. James. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.

Tamez, Elsa. The Scandalous Message of James: Faith without Works Is Dead.

New York: Crossroad, 1990. Print.