Did you know that there was a disciple named James and that Jesus had a little brother named James? For years, I thought the disciple had written the book of James, but it turns out that Jesus’ little brother wrote it. When reading the book of James, you discover that he is cutthroat. Notice the repeated word that James uses in chapter 5.
James 5:13-16 (NIV)
Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise. 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. 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.
Want to know if your prayers are working?
Ask yourself these three questions.
1. To whom are you praying?
James says some prayer is more effective. It isn’t what you say that makes it effective. It’s to whom you are praying that makes your prayers effective. I have friends that pray to the universe. But my question for them is, do you think the universe cares about you? One day my friend said, “Well, yeah, I kind of feel like the universe cares about me, and that’s why I’m praying to Him.” I was like, “You’re not praying to the universe. You’re praying to the God of the universe. You just don’t want to admit it.” We believe that we pray to a God who cares about us and hears our prayers.
Have you ever felt like you’ve been just sinning all week, and then you want to pray to God, and you’re like, I really shouldn’t be talking to him right now? I really shouldn’t be saying anything. I used to think that if I weren’t sinning too much during the week, then maybe God would answer my prayers more. Or perhaps you believe God hears your prayers more when you are in a church rather than when you’re up to no good. These are the questions that are on all of our minds.
Matthew 6:5-8 (NIV)
“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
Jesus is saying that God knows what you’re going to ask before you even ask. He still wants you to pray to him, but you don’t need to worry about your words because God knows your heart. That’s the point. So many of us think our prayers will be answered if we say the right things. No, because prayers are not magic spells or incantations. It’s not about what you say. It’s about who you are praying to. There is no need to pray for a long time because God knows your heart before you even say it. God knew what you were going to pray. So keep it short. Jesus talks more about how not to pray than how to pray. Because he knew 2000 years later, we’d wonder if God hears our prayers, and we’d think maybe we’re doing something wrong. God is telling you through James and through Jesus that it’s not what you pray; it’s who you pray to.
2. Who is doing the praying?
Matthew 6:9 (NIV)
“‘This, then, is how you should pray:
‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,'”
Our Father in heaven? That’s a little familiar, don’t you think? That’s kind of personal. People were comfortable calling Abraham their Father. But when you want to call the God of the universe, the Creator, the Holy God our father, that just feels like that’s a little too personal. If you’re praying to our God, you pray like he’s your father. Now, what you say, how you say it when you say it, doesn’t matter because we know that our father is listening to us.
God is always a father, but we are not always his kids. We all have the opportunity to be adopted into the family of God through the person and the work of Jesus Christ. But God does not shove fatherhood on any of us. We are invited into the family of God. So now, if you take on the posture of a son, or a daughter, through Jesus, that’s a different type of relationship. Jesus says, “Our Father who art in heaven,” James says, “the prayers of the righteous are powerful and effective.”
3. Are you worthy of being heard?
God is holy, and we’re sinners. I’ve been a sinner my whole life. I’ve been a sinner since the day I was born. I had probably had like one or two good days. And then I just went off the rails. When I was 18 months old, my brother had a kid, and my brother’s kid was living with us. My nephew started getting all the attention that once belonged to me. At 18 months old, I crawled into my nephew’s room, got into his bed, and bit him on the head. Who teaches an 18-month-old kid to be jealous? Nobody. It’s a sinful nature that I was born with. And God, my whole life has been holy. There’s a vast chasm between a sinful being and a holy creator. So to think that God would hear my prayers is pretty audacious. Because why would a holy God pay attention to a sinful being like me? And yet Jesus comes along, and three times he says, “When you pray . . .” James also comes in six different times within five verses and says, “pray when you’re in trouble, pray if someone needs healing, pray if you’re anxious, pray if someone’s sick, pray.” He’s all about it. Where does this confidence come from? If you’re praying to your father, that will change your confidence level.
James tells us that the prayers of a righteous person are powerful and effective. So, are you righteous? Righteousness is justification, right standing, and to be made worthy. How do you feel when you’re a sinner praying to a holy God? What is your posture if you have the courage to pray to a holy God? Most likely, you are bowing your head and keeping your eyes down because you know you are not worthy. Righteousness is the confidence that gives you the right posture to speak to God.
Righteousness is a gift.
Romans 3:23-24 (NIV)
For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.
Where do you get the righteousness from? Everybody has a level of righteousness. The question is, whose righteousness do you have? If you think you can walk up to a holy God and say anything to him, you have some righteousness. But where did you get that righteousness from? If you did not get that righteousness from Jesus sharing his righteousness with you, it’s called self-righteousness. You say I have earned the right to speak to a holy God. No, no, no, no. The Bible says no one righteous has ever lived. Not even one. Nobody. Everybody has been a sinner. And yet God expects us to pray to Him. So we need something to fill that gap. We need something to give us confidence.
Righteousness is a gift from Jesus. Jesus imputes his righteousness that he rightly carries to you so you can have the confidence you need to be in the right standing before God. When you were born again, you became a new creation. It’s Christ in you and you in him. When God sees you, he sees you differently. He sees you as a son or as a daughter.
Righteousness is a position.
We’re in a process. We’re not perfect. God’s working in us in three stages. Number one is the justification stage, when you receive Christ as your Savior, and you’re born again. You are put in the right standing as a son or daughter of Jesus. The second phase begins after you’ve been born again, you’re a new creation, and that’s called sanctification. That means you’re a work in progress. That means you are in the position of Jesus’s righteousness but only sometimes act like Jesus. So God is sanctifying you is set you apart. He’s called you to something greater. The Holy Spirit lives in you, changing you and helping you look more like Jesus. The third stage is glorification—justified, sanctified, glorified. Jesus has gone through all three stages. He was justified, sanctified, and then when he rose again, glorified, sitting at the right hand of the Father. The righteousness of Jesus has been given to you not because you deserve it, not because I deserve it. But because God loves us and He paid a great price for us is a gift.
Righteousness is imputed.
Imputed, meaning Jesus takes on the cross, takes his righteousness, and imputes it onto you. So it’s not just your sin that he takes from you; you’re receiving sonship. So you are now a new person in Christ.
Romans 8:15-17 (NLT)
So you have not received a spirit that makes you fearful slaves. Instead, you received God’s Spirit when he adopted you as his own children. Now we call him, “Abba, Father.” For his Spirit joins with our spirit to affirm that we are God’s children. And since we are his children, we are his heirs.
Righteousness is a gift, a position, and also imputed. Years ago, I saw an illustration that changed how I see my relationship with God. If you have seen the Toy Story movie, you know Woody’s character. He’s a good guy. He’s a leader. He doesn’t swear too often and loves Andy. Woody is also insecure, manipulative, and kind of a glory hog with the rest of the toys. We love his journey because even though he has a good heart, we see he has a long way to go. For this illustration, Woody will represent us.
The question is, who are you praying to? Who’s doing the prayer? And are you worthy of your prayers to be heard? No, you’re not. You need something to be done for you. You need the righteousness of Christ. Picture a clear container with the name Jesus on the outside. If the container is placed over Woody, you can see both Woody and Jesus’ name. When God looks at you, he sees you through, Jesus. When you’re born again, you’re a new creation. You have the imputed righteousness of Jesus on you, meaning that God will never look at you the same way again when you are in Jesus, and he is in you.
Are there any lies you tell yourself that hinder you from seeing yourself the way God sees you? When it comes time for communion, sometimes people accept the lie that they aren’t worthy enough to partake. You may come from a faith tradition where a priest was on the other side of the sacraments. The priest told you if you were allowed or not allowed to partake. You won’t see any priest standing up front at Freedom Church doing that. No human mediator is standing between you and God except for Jesus Christ. There is nobody who stands between you and your father. Jesus determines if you’re worthy by what he did for you. The imputed righteousness of God is the righteousness that belongs to Jesus he shares with you. He puts it on you so that when God sees you, he never sees you. He sees Jesus.
As somebody who’s been born again into the family of God, who’s been chosen by Jesus to be in the family of God, it should be the kind of posture and confidence that demands an explanation to the world. God’s not too busy for you. He’s not ignoring your prayers. Pray boldly and confidently because when God sees you, he doesn’t see a dirty sinner. He sees you as his son or daughter through the perfect blood of Jesus.