I remember hearing this phrase from the book of James a lot as a kid: “the effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.” I never really knew what that meant, especially effectual and availeth, but I know now that I witnessed it every week. My 80-year-old great-grandmother would go into her bedroom every morning, pull the door to, kneel beside her bed, and pray out loud to the Lord. I sometimes stood at the door and watched her with wonder. I knew it was fervent prayer, and that she was talking to someone she loved dearly. And I came to know that it availed much, and that God heard her prayers, because she was praying for sinners like me to come to know Jesus. What James means in a nutshell is that prayer is a powerful weapon in the hands of the most humble, simple servant of Christ.
Then James goes off the rails when he says that Elijah was just like us, and he prayed great prayers that God heard. What? James, have you forgotten who Elijah was? He was the premier prophet in the Old Testament! When Jesus went up to the Mount of Transfiguration, who appeared with Him to represent the prophets? Elijah. When John the Baptist showed up on the scene to announce the coming of the Savior, he came in the spirit of Elijah, just as Malachi prophesied. Even when Jesus cried out to God on the cross, the crowd thought he was calling for Elijah. How could Elijah have been a man just like us? Well, read his story and you will see he had great triumphs and great failures. He really was an ordinary man whom God chose to use in extraordinary ways to accomplish His purposes.
Warren Wiersbe points out that when James says of Elijah, “he prayed fervently,” that could be translated as, “he prayed in his prayers.” Prayer wasn’t an exercise for Elijah; he really prayed. When we are just exercising prayer, we say all kinds of things. We make announcements in prayer. We correct other people’s theology in prayer. We say “just” a lot. I heard a story about a church member who was “praying around the world” in a meeting. One of the men there got tired of it and finally he said, “Ask Him something! That’s what prayer is. Ask Him something!” I know too well all of these “prayer exercises,” and it is far too easy to fall into that myself, instead of praying in my prayers.
Let’s learn to talk to God like He is really with us, because He is. There was a man in the last stages of cancer, and a good praying friend visited him often and prayed with him. The man with cancer finally asked him, “How did you learn to pray like that?” His friend said, “I know God is with me, and He loves me and hears my prayers. So, I often pull up a chair, right beside me. I pull it up close and just imagine Him sitting there, and I talk to my Father that way. Like a child who is lying in his father’s lap.” The friend heard a few days later that the man he had prayed for had died. And the nurse said, “Yeah, and one thing was kind of strange. Apparently, just before he died, he pulled the chair beside the bed up close, and we found him lying with his head on that chair.”
I want to learn to pray like that.