The book of James says, “The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working” (5:16b ESV). Other translations say, “the prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective” (NIV) or “The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much” (KJV). This verse motivates us to cry out to God because He uses our prayers to change the world.
But what exactly does this phrase from James mean? Does it mean that we will receive everything we pray for, or that holiness strengthens our prayers? Before answering these questions and pointing out the characteristics of effective prayer, let’s look at the verse in its context.
The book of James ends with a call to prayer:
Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray… Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him… And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. (James 5:13–16a)
In other words, if prayer can help a brother who is sick, battling sin, or suffering for any other reason, pray! God listens to the cries of His children. Then in verse 16b, James reiterates the power of prayer: “The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.”
Characteristics of Effective Prayer
Elsewhere in Scripture we see characteristics of effective prayer:
1) Effective prayer is done in faith.
James mentions “the prayer of faith” twice, once in James 1:5-8 and again in James 5:15. Faith is necessary for effective prayer because, as Hebrews 11:6 says, “without faith it is impossible to please God.”
Some people try to manipulate God on this point, claiming that they will receive their requests because their requests were (supposedly) made in faith. But the prayer of faith is not about the results of our prayers. Rather, it has to do with the simple belief that God exists, listens to us, and that every outcome of prayer is in His sovereign and merciful hands.
2) Effective prayer has the right motives.
James mentions another obstacle to effective prayer: false motives. James 4:3 says, “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.” Impure motives can disqualify our prayers.
3) Effective prayer comes from the lips of “the righteous.”
James does not promise that everyone’s prayer can obtain everything asked for, he specifically mentions “the prayer of the righteous person” (emphasis mine). We must be careful at this point, because no one is perfect and God ultimately listens to us because of Christ’s righteousness, not ours. However, our holy living does matter in prayer, as James asserts.
The psalmist acknowledges, “If I see iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me” (Psalm 66:18). Other passages mention that our sin against others can be a hindrance to prayer (see 1 Peter 3:7; Matthew 5:23-24; Mark 11:25; 1 Timothy 2:8).
Our motivation in living righteously should be first to please God, not to receive what we want. (Don’t forget that our motives matter!) God is the One who decides how and when to answer.
The example of King Hezekiah in Isaiah 38 is worth mentioning. After hearing that he was going to die (verse 1), Hezekiah cried out for mercy, and undergirded his plea by reminding God of his righteousness, “Please, O Lord, remember how I have walked before you in faithfulness and with a whole heart, and have done what is good in your sight” (verse 3). God answered, “I have heard your prayer; I have seen your tears. Behold, I will add fifteen years to your life” (verse 5).
4) Effective prayer has the posture of “Your will be done.”
Wrong thinking about prayer teaches that it will always result in getting what we want, sometimes with a “name it and claim it” mentality. But God’s answers are not always according to our desires or our timetable. Even our Lord Jesus Christ, the pinnacle of righteousness, prayed “not as I will, but as you will” (Matthew 26:39). Our confidence before God is that “if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us” (1 John 5:14).
There is more I could mention, but it is worth recommending what I consider to be the most helpful practice for prayer: praying the Bible. It shouldn’t surprise us that allowing God’s Word to shape our prayers is powerful, because it produces what we need to pray effectively: faith, holy lives and motives, and an understanding of God’s revealed will (see Romans 10:17; John 17:17).
Go deeper on this topic in the free Open the Bible for Leaders course Pray the Bible.
What are the results of effective prayer?
The answer is simple: the results that our almighty God wants. Consider the example James shares:
Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit. (James 5:17-18)
According to this example from 1 Kings 17–18, effective prayer can stop rain for more than three years! So, there are no limits to the way God can answer our prayers that are according to His sovereign will.
The Apostle Paul wrote, “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things” (Romans 8:32). If we are children of God and “more than conquerors” in His sight (Romans 8:37), why would He not answer us if we pray according to His will?
Effective Prayer Changes the World
I like the story that Dr. Phil Ryken tells. As a member of a church in Scotland, Ryken observed that fellow church members thanked God for answering their prayers to help Eastern European countries escape Communism and the Soviet empire. They really thought that their prayers helped in these global events.
Ryken commented that he was about to tell some the situation was more complicated than they thought. After all, there were issues of the global economy, the complex relationships between nations, the threat of nuclear weapons, and the serious faults of communism. He was going to tell them that their prayers alone were not enough to bring down the Berlin Wall. But he didn’t. He knew that such thinking was not correct and that God does use the prayers of His children to change the world.
Is it not true that “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise” (1 Corinthians 1:27)? Let’s not forget that God commands us to pray “for kings and all who are in high positions” (1 Timothy 2:2). Why would He command this if he had no plans to use our prayers for world leaders to change the world?
Effective prayer has greater results than we can imagine. God is “able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think” (Ephesians 3:20). Do you pray as if this were true? No, as I’ve mentioned God isn’t always going to answer us in the way or timing we want. But when we pray in faith, everything is possible, not because we are so wise or powerful, but because our sovereign God is.
We all face obstacles in prayer. Some are theological; we forget why prayer matters or don’t feel heard by God. Other obstacles are practical; we don’t know what to say or we simply can’t focus for prayer. Kevin Halloran believes that if we pray the Bible, we can bypass many of our struggles and go straight to fruitful prayer and deeper communion with God.
The free course Pray the Bible will introduce you to the benefits of praying the Bible as well as several tools for doing so. Watch the trailer below.
 Dr. Phil Ryken shares this story in the 9Marks article “Praying as a Church for the World and Your City.”
A version of this article originally in Spanish at Coalición por el Evangelio.