Sermon 10-03-2021: “Four Principles of Powerful Prayer”

October 19, 2021

Scripture: James 4:13-17; 5:13-18

I’ve told you before that two of the greatest experiences in my life happened back in 2012 and 2013—when I went, on two occasions, to teach theology, doctrine, and church history to a group of indigenous United Methodist pastors in Kenya. These pastors usually don’t have access to a Western-style seminary education, so they’re stuck learning from people like me!

Taking part in worship was a highlight of my two trips. Each worship service featured a time for testimonies, during which people in the congregation could stand up and talk about something powerful that God was doing in their lives. So a student in my class—a Kenyan pastor—talked about an incident that happened in his life that had happened just a few days earlier: His wife, he said, had cooked a batch of mandazi, which is a pastry that Kenyans often serve with tea… it’s fried bread. And it’s delicious! 

Anyway, he described how his wife had made a batch of this bread and set it aside to cool, while they went to church one Sunday morning. When they returned from church—bad news! Thieves had broken into their house. The lock on the door was broken when they got home. And he and his wife looked all over the house in a panic to see what these thieves had stolen.

To this pastor’s great relief, literally the only thing they took was the mandazi that his wife had made before they left for church! 

And he said, “I just want to praise God! Because God is taking care of us pastors in Kenya! Praise God!” And everyone in the congregation applauded and praised God.

A wonderful testimony! 

But later that evening, over dinner, a fellow American who was on the trip—a layperson—told me that she had a problem with that testimony. She said she didn’t believe that God had intervened to protect this pastor or his belongings. She didn’t believe that God had done anything to prevent those thieves from stealing this pastor’s more valuable possessions—or even doing much worse harm. After all, she said, think of all the evil that God allows to happen every day. Why should God intervene in one instance and not the other?

It’s a fair question… I remember listening to a Christian radio station back in 1989, the morning after an earthquake struck San Francisco—during the World Series between the San Francisco Giants and the Oakland A’s. The disc jockey, when discussing the earthquake, said that he had some friends in the Bay area, and he had talked to them this morning, and he was relieved that they were unharmed by the quake. He said, “I just thank God that they’re all right!”

I was a 19 year old Christian at the time. I was a sophomore in college… so I knew everything.  And I had the same theological problem with this disc jockey that my friend in Kenya had with this pastor’s testimony: If you thank God for doing something good in your life, then it follows logically that you blame God—or at least hold God responsible—when something goes wrong… you at least hold God responsible for not intervening to prevent something bad from happening.

This really bothered me at the time. What I didn’t understand as a 19-year-old listening to the radio that morning, and what this layperson in Kenya didn’t understand listening to this pastor’s testimony, and what I need y’all to understand, is the doctrine of God’s sovereignty… which means God is ultimately in control… of everything that happens to us. The apostle James thinks so… Listen to what he says in chapter 4, verses 13 to 15:

Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”— yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring… Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.”

If the Lord wills we will live and do these things… In other words, James is saying you can’t say for certain what you’ll do in the near future—yes, you’re planning on doing this; but God may have a different plan for you. Whatever happens to you, whether you succeed or fail—even whether you live or die—will happen according to God’s plan for your life. In Psalm 139, David writes, 

in your book were written, every one of them,

    the days that were formed for me,

    when as yet there was none of them.1

Every one of the days in which we live—past, present, and future—is already written in God’s book. Nothing that happens to us will take God by surprise or catch God off guard. He’s already planned each day. And I don’t share this to scare you. On the contrary, it’s because God is in control that Paul can write so confidently in Romans 8:28, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” Not just some things work together for good; all things! It’s why James himself can say something so astonishing in chapter 1, verse 2, of this letter: “Count it all joy, my brothers [and sisters], when you meet trials of various kinds”—because God is using these trials, and transforming these trials, for our good!

So getting back to my friend’s objection at dinner that evening in Kenya, by all means, something far worse might have happened to that pastor than having his fried pastries stolen… and suppose it did. Then he could pray something like this: “God, I don’t know why you allowed this bad thing to happen. You may have ten thousand reasons for allowing it. And maybe I can perceive two or three; or maybe I can’t see any good reason at all that this happened. But I trust your Word when it tells me that whatever the reasons, they will be both for my good and for your glory.” Either way—whether it was stolen pastries or something worse—this pastor would be able to praise God!

Besides… suppose this Kenyan pastor had prayed, that morning, that God would protect his house and belongings and keep them safe? Or suppose the disc jockey at that radio station had prayed for the safety of his friends on the West Coast before the earthquake struck? As James says in verse 16 of chapter 5, in the New Living Translation, “The earnest prayer of a righteous person has great power and produces wonderful results.”

We Christians are a people who believe that prayer accomplishes powerful things! We believe that God will do things for us, in response to prayer, that God won’t otherwise do if we don’t pray. James himself made this point in last week’s scripture, “You do not have because you do not ask.”2

To say the least, only a God who is sovereign over everything has the power to intervene and do powerful things when his children ask!

And that’s what this sermon is about: powerful prayer. And in this sermon I want to talk about four principles of powerful prayer that emerge from today’s scripture. And I’ve already talked about the first principle: “Powerful prayer believes in a sovereign God—that God is in control, and that God changes things in response to our prayers.”

Principle Number Two: “Powerful prayer submits to God’s will.”  

The Bible makes many promises about the power and efficacy of prayer. Jesus, for example, in John 14:14, says, “If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.” And today’s scripture, in chapter 5, verse 15, says the the “prayer of faith” will save the one who is sick. 

So… many preachers… usually of the “prosperity gospel” or “word of faith” school of prayer… have abused these words and misinterpreted these words to mean something like this: “God will certainly give you what you ask for… it’s guaranteed… but only if you ask in perfect faith… only if your faith is really, really strong… only if you believe without doubting at all.” And then—gosh—it can have tragic results: Suppose you’re praying that God will heal you of cancer, and the physical healing doesn’t come… you can easily blame yourself!

No, that is not at all what James is saying. How could it be? For example, in 1 Timothy 5:23, Paul tells Timothy, “Don’t drink only water. You ought to drink a little wine for the sake of your stomach because you are sick so often.” So Timothy had stomach problems and was often sick. But notice Paul doesn’t say, “Tim, what is wrong with your faith? If you believed hard enough, if your faith was pure enough, if you didn’t doubt at all, then you wouldn’t have these stomach problems. You wouldn’t be sick so often!”

Besides, there’s a great episode in the gospels in which a man asks Jesus to heal his son. But the man’s not sure Jesus can do it—plenty of other people have apparently tried in the past without success. And Jesus tells him, “All things are possible for one who believes.” And the man said, “I believe… help my unbelief!”3 And Jesus doesn’t say, “I’m sorry. As long as you have any unbelief, I can’t help you. I’ll have to wait until you have perfect faith, with no doubting at all.” Is that what Jesus says? Of course not! Even though the man’s faith is mixed with some doubt, Jesus still gives him what he asks for… And that’s true for us, too!

If that were the case, we’d no longer be placing our faith in Jesus, the One who has all the power to heal us; no, we’d placing our faith in… our own faith! 

Let me say that again: When it comes to powerful prayer, our faith in not in the power of our own faith, our faith in Jesus Christ, who has all the power. 

We don’t say, “If our faith is strong enough.” We say, “If Jesus is strong enough… and of course he is!”

That’s the point James makes in verses 17 and 18 about Elijah the prophet: By all means, he accomplished powerful and miraculous things through his prayers. But he did so as a badly flawed, sinful human being—just like you and me! As he says, he “was a man with a nature like ours.” 

This means that imperfect people like you and me have everything we need to pray powerful prayers!

But getting back to what I said earlier, when Jesus tells us to pray “in his name” in John 14:14, to pray in “his name” means, among other things, that we pray the way Jesus prayed: and Jesus always prayed… according to the will of his heavenly Father. When we pray in Jesus’ name, we want our Father’s will to be done more than we want anything else. 

Here are two examples from Jesus’ life: Remember when he was tempted in the wilderness by the devil, Satan said, “Turn these stones into bread.” And Jesus said, “Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” In other words, if his Father told Jesus that he could turn stone to bread he would he would do so—he was very hungry at this point, on the brink of starvation. But Jesus lived according to the words that his Father spoke to him. 

So Jesus wants to do his Father’s will more than he wants to avoid starving.

Or how about in the Garden of Gethsemane, the night of his arrest, before he was handed over to the Romans and crucified the next day: “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me”—he’s referring to symbolically to his suffering on the cross. “Nevertheless,” Jesus says, “not as I will, but as you will.”4

“Powerful prayer submits to God’s will.” 

So if we pray and don’t get what we pray for, it’s often not because of any problem with our faith; it’s often because what we pray for is not in accordance with our Father’s will!

But I don’t want to let us off the hook. I would unfaithful to God’s Word if I said that our faith is never the problem when it comes to unanswered prayer. 5Sometimes we don’t get what we ask for because we don’t really believe that God is going to give it to us.

And this brings us to Principle Number Three: “Powerful prayer is not doubt in disguise.” Let me show you what I mean with the following example:

Christian writer Richard Foster, who’s written extensively about prayer, tells the story of young woman named Maria who was a student at the college where Foster was teaching. She fell out of the back of a pickup truck on campus and suffered severe head trauma. Foster, acting as her pastor, rode with her in the ambulance to the hospital, holding her hand and praying for her on the way, while the paramedics worked to save her life. At the hospital, Foster gave a group of students who gathered there a crash course on intercessory prayer: “The brain is bleeding and swelling from the impact of the injury,” he said. “So our initial prayer efforts must focus on seeing the injured capillaries in the brain begin to heal and for the swelling of the brain to slow down.”6 And that’s exactly what they prayed. And guess what? Maria got better! She was healed.

By contrast, Foster described an earlier prayer meeting for Maria with some of his fellow professors at the college. They prayed things like, “It’s in your hands now, Lord; there’s nothing else we can do.” Or, worse, “Lord, help Maria to get well, if it be thy will.” Foster said that while he knew his colleagues meant well, their prayers betrayed the fact that they didn’t really believe that Maria would get better.7

It sounds pious to say “if it be thy will,” but these words may be disguising a lack of faith.

Don’t misunderstand: As I said, we want our prayers to conform to God’s will. But when dealing with his fellow professors, Richard Foster sensed that they were using “if it be thy will” as a way of “hedging their bets,” as a way of insulating themselves—protecting themselves—from the pain of unanswered prayer. “I don’t really think that God is going to answer this prayer. It’s seems pretty unlikely, after all, given the severity of the injury. So I’m just going to add this little qualifier, ‘if it be thy will,’ so that I won’t be disappointed when my prayer makes no difference at all… because I don’t really believe that it will.”

That is not how we pray powerful prayers. If we discern that God wants us to pray for even a miraculous healing, then we pray as if God is going to give it to us! We pray for a miracle… because “all things are possible with God.” 

And if God doesn’t give us what we pray for, and that upsets us, well… I’d rather you pray bold and powerful prayer and be disappointed with God than to avoid praying powerful prayers! I want you to pray in such a way that risks being disappointed with God. He can take it! There are plenty of psalms, after all, that deal with anger at and disappointment with God because he didn’t give the psalmist what he prayed for!

In fact, here’s a rule of thumb: if our prayers never risk disappointment with God, we’re probably not praying the kinds of powerful prayers that James says we should be praying!

So that’s Principle Number Three: “Powerful prayer is bold prayer. It is never doubt in disguise.”

And that brings us to Principle Number Four: “Powerful prayer praises.” Powerful prayer praises.

I mentioned this to the class on Wednesday night… Look at the first two sentences of verse 13: “Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray.” 

Well, naturally. We know that we should pray when we’re suffering. That just makes sense. James hardly even needs to write that it’s so obvious! Now skip to verse 14: “Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.” 

What he’s saying is that if you are really sick… bed-ridden… then you should have the pastor and other leaders in the church come and pray “over you.”

Well, this just makes sense, doesn’t it? I know from experience, as do you, that when you’re really sick, you often don’t even feel like praying; you can hardly pray for yourself; you need people praying for you. So James is describing the ministry of intercessory prayer. Again, this seems natural. Pastors and churches do this all the time.

So wouldn’t you agree that James is commanding us to pray for ourselves when we suffer and to  pray for others when they suffer. That’s not a stretch, right?

But if that’s the case, what about those two sentences in between these two commands? “Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise.”

Here’s my question: Is that any less of a command than the other two?

No. Absolutely not! Now, I don’t interpret this legalistically to mean that the “command” part means that we have to sing—although singing comes very naturally when we’re feeling happy. But I think the most important principle is praise.

And if that’s true, then that can only mean one thing: praise is as much a part of prayer as asking God to do things for us! Praise is as much a part of prayer as asking God to do things for us! 

And that, I’m afraid, is far from obvious… That is not common sense… And it’s probably not easy to remember, which is why James reminds us!

Is your prayer life characterized as much by praise… as asking God to do things for you? I bet I know the answer in most cases!

I read a book on prayer years ago in which the author talked about all these different techniques of prayers—different kinds of prayers, different styles of praying. For example, we should have a daily discipline of prayer—in which we set aside time each day for prayer. Many of us call this a “quiet time,” and we include scripture reading. Because prayer is mostly talking to God, and scripture reading is mostly listening to God speak to us!

But then the author contrasted this discipline of daily prayer with what he called “arrow prayers.” These are quick, two- or three-sentence prayers we “shoot up like an arrow” to God throughout the day. For example, “Dear Lord, please give me the wisdom to know what to say right now to this stressed-out colleague at work.” Something like that. Arrow prayers. They’re emergency prayers… We need something right away. We ask God to give it to us. And there’s nothing wrong with that at all… except…

When this author talked about emergency “arrow prayers,” he didn’t say a word about emergency “arrow praises”… For example, “This unexpectedly good thing just happened to me at work just now… I better stop what I’m doing for a moment and shoot up an arrow praise!”

But why not? Would the idea of “arrow praises” logically follow from James’s words? If we have “arrow prayers,” in which we ask God to do things for us, why wouldn’t we have “arrow praises,” too? But the sad fact is that most of the time we find it much more urgent to ask God for things than to praise God for things.

Now I promise I’m not picking on y’all. I’m including myself in what I’m about to say. But I printed out this email [hold it up], dated September 28. The email is literally called “Prayer Requests and Praises.” Notice: praises is in the title! 

I did a little tally. Twenty-six prayer requests… How many praises? Exactly one.

I don’t know for sure whether this twenty-six-to-one ratio reflects what happens in our personal prayer lives, but it’s probably close enough!

Brothers and sisters, this is a problem… that must change! We should be as quick to praise God as we are to ask him to do things for us! After all, James has already told us, in chapter 1, verse 17, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.”

If it’s good, and it happens to us… it’s from God. He deserves the praise! And we’re supposed to speak these praises and sing these praises!

Do we believe it? Do we live that way? 

Dear Lord, give us the grace to change! Amen.

  1.  Psalm 139:16b ESV
  2. James 4:2c
  3. See Mark 9:22-24.
  4. Matthew 26:39 ESV
  5. Clearly sometimes it is: See, for instance, James 1:6-8, or 5:15: the “prayer of faith,” assumes that we believe properly.
  6. Richard J. Foster, Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992), 213.
  7. Ibid., 213-4.

2 Responses to “Sermon 10-03-2021: “Four Principles of Powerful Prayer””

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    Excellent sermon, Brent! It definitely reminded me to praise more.


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