Is Praying "Doing" Anything?

Introduction to the reading

This morning we’re ending our series on the Book of James. It’s a short book – just five chapters – but it’s full of wisdom for those of us who want to be faithful. The questions James is asking are things like, “What does it mean to be Christian? How is that different from how the world works? What are some of the pitfalls we can fall into, and how do we avoid them, and stay the course?”  

One thing he’s clear on – it’s not enough to talk about being Christian. If we’re going to talk the talk, we’ve got to walk the walk. Be “doers of the Word” is how he puts it. And that’s what James spells out for us. Treat everybody with respect. Take care of the poor and vulnerable. Don’t be so full of yourself or your own ambition. Love your neighbor as yourself.

Our last reading continues that same theme of ‘doing’ – though the ‘doing’ he talks about here may surprise you.  Listen for the Word of God to you this morning:

James 5:13-16

If any of you are suffering, they should pray. If any of you are happy, they should sing. If any of you are sick, they should call for the elders of the church, and the elders should pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. Prayer that comes from faith will heal the sick, for the Lord will restore them to health. And if they have sinned, they will be forgiven. For this reason, confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous person is powerful in what it can achieve.

 * * * * *

There’s a poem I shared on our e-newsletter this week – I can’t remember where I first heard it; I think it was The Writer’s Almanac. All I know is it stuck with me.

The Prayer Chain, by Tim Nolan:

My mother called to tell me

about an old classmate of mine who

was dying on the parish prayer chain –

or was very sick – or destitute –  

or it had not worked out – the marriage –

or the kids were all on drugs – and

all the old mothers were praying intensely

for all the pain of their children

and for life – they were praying for life –

in their quiet rooms – sipping decaf coffee –

I bet they’ve been praying for me at times –

so I’ll find my way – so I won’t rob a bank –

I’ll take them – the mystical prayers of old mothers –

it matters – all this patient and purposeful love. [i]

When I heard that, it touched me. I’ve been on prayer chains, too. I’m grateful for all that patient and purposeful love. It matters. Those prayers matter.

I think James would agree. Prayer matters. Or, more accurately, prayer has the potential to matter.  

Whenever a tragedy happens – a natural disaster like the tsunami in Indonesia, or the deadly shooting at the Las Vegas concert a year ago – whenever tragedy strikes, there’s a wave of people offering up their ‘thoughts and prayers’. And immediately there’s a counter-wave of protests that ‘thoughts and prayers’ aren’t enough; we need to do something.

Anyone who reads the Book of James knows he’s in the ‘You need to do something’ camp. “Faith without actions has no value at all” is the way James puts it. [2:20] He’s not exactly subtle, is he? Words without works are empty phrases, just pious platitudes that change nothing. He’s relentless on this point.

But then you get to this part of this letter about prayer… and James makes it sound as if prayer is doing something. “The prayer of the righteous person is powerful in what it can achieve,” he says. Prayer is powerful in what it can do.

So is prayer just empty platitudes, or does it actually do something?

Here’s where we usually get into the brambles of the question, “Does prayer work?” And what people usually mean by that is, “Does God answer prayers?” And by that they mean, “Will God give me what I ask for?” Like, does God heal people we pray for? Will God help the people dying on the parish prayer chain – or the very sick – or the destitute – or the ones whose marriages had not worked out? And if God doesn’t, is that God’s fault, or ours? You can see what a theological thicket this gets us into.

But you know, maybe we’re asking the wrong questions. At least I think James is asking us to think about a different question. We’re asking what God does when we pray. James wants us to think about what we’re doing.

Presbyterian pastor Blair Monie has been battling pancreatic cancer for over a year now, and blogs regularly on Caring-Bridge. His entries are like devotionals, and I’ve been inspired by many of them. Last fall, when he reported that his tumor had shrunk, many of their friends wrote that it was an answer to prayer. Blair wrote about his gratitude, and how he understands prayer differently. He’s loathe to say some prayer ‘works’ to heal and others don’t; instead, he does a lot of prayers of gratitude.

He writes,

I've been thinking a lot about prayer these days…. I've been grateful to know that so many friends and family are including us in your prayers each day. As many of you have experienced, that knowledge has deep meaning for the ones being prayed for. Prayer creates an unseen community of love and concern; it's like an invisible blanket that warms the human spirit.[ii]

In that respect alone, prayer does something very powerful: it can knit together a community of love and concern. After I read his words I wrote to tell him that I had experienced the very same thing. Being held in prayer is so powerful.

But I’ll also add that if the only care I received was prayers, it would have felt kind of empty. Instead, I had prayers – and someone mowing my lawn. I had prayers – and people bringing meals for my family. I had prayers – and rides to the doctor. Not that each person praying for me had to do something – that would have been impossible! But the community cared in so many ways.

Of course, people could have very well helped without praying for me. I’m sure some did. And yet, I think the Book of James is right: true prayer and right action are often deeply, deeply connected.

Because prayer brings us back into the presence of God, where we are re-oriented to what God wants for us - and from us.

As Luke Timothy Johnson describes it, in the Book of James there is a sharp contrast between two kinds of reality; they come from different sources and lead to different actions. There is “wisdom from above which leads to goodness and peace,” (3:17) which comes from the spirit of God that dwells within us. (4:5)

In contrast there is a wisdom from below, which leads to things that are much uglier; things like envy and anger and selfish ambition. James is telling us to shift allegiance from one power to another and from one reality to another. We do this by “turning,”… and “drawing near to God (4:7-8)… submitting to the power of God (4:7,10). [iii]

James would argue that even our prayers can come from one ‘place’ or another. It’s perfectly possible, he argues, for us to pray as something convenient, or expedient, or for our own gratification, as if God is a sugar-daddy, or a convenience store, or someone to give lip-service to so he’ll get off our back. Guess what? James says – that’s not prayer. If it’s all about us, and our own satisfaction in this world, then that’s not really prayer.

Prayer, he says, draws us near to God. It brings us into the reality that God is creating, this mysterious place of grace. It is powerful, because we are setting ourselves down – setting the world’s opinions and fights and self-absorbed values down – and entering into the world of God. We are being drawn into a reality not of our own making, but of God’s design.

In prayer, the powers of this world turn upside down. The sick and vulnerable have the right to summon the elders of the church – the leaders– to pray for them. People in the community – rich and poor, strong and weak - confess their sins to each other, and pray for each other’s forgiveness. Sin and sickness are both forms of brokenness and both bring pain, and no one is immune from either. When we pray, we enter the sacred mystery of God. And it is in that mystery that healing begins. Healing of ourselves, and of this world, because it changes us.

What James knows is this: the challenge even to communities of faith is whether the church will act as a ‘friend of God’ or as a reflection of the world’s values. “How does the church work with and for the care of children, the poor, the ill, the elderly, the dying?... (Is) the strength of each one… gathered from the shared strength of all?” [iv]

That’s the measure of our prayer. How we live – as those who share our strength. As those who have been touched by God, and who carry that sacred, powerful, mysterious touch out into the world. 

God’s patient and purposeful love.




[i] Tim Nolan, “The Prayer Chain,” The Sound of It (New Rivers Press, 2008).

[ii] Blair Monie, “Praying,” CaringBridge journal entry, September 12, 2017.

[iii] Luke Timothy Johnson, Brother of Jesus, Friend of God: Studies in the Letter of James (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2004),     (207; later, 208)

[iv] Johnson, 257