"The intense prayer of the righteous is very effective." - James 5:16
In this well-known passage, James is exhorting the people of God to believe in the power of prayer. The immediate application is praying for sick people to become well. He appeals to the example of Elijah who was a human just like us, but God heard his prayer both for the rain to stop falling (as a judgment against sinful Israel) and for the rain to resume.
Most of us struggle with the effectiveness of prayer. We wonder if it really does anything at all. Many of our requests go unanswered (so we think), and even those that are answered affirmatively seem to have been so unrelated to any praying we did. God certainly covers his tracks… “How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out.” (Rom. 11:33) Yet scripture gives so many clear commands to pray, coupled with so many examples of praying men and women and how God answered their prayers, it seems the act of direct rebellion and unbelief not to pray.
And in the passage cited above, we are told that the intense prayer of the righteous is very effective (lit. powerful in its working). But what is that effect?
I want to answer an opposite question: what does “effective” NOT mean? I was trained as a mechanical engineer. When I consider “work,” it is a physics definition connected to making a change in a system. Something is effective if it produces a change. If the work had not been applied to the device or situation, it would not have had that result; a change has occurred because of it. It worked. But we Christians cannot think of prayer in this sense: if I had not prayed, God would never have done this or that. Or this: effectiveness in prayer consists in either 1) giving God an idea he would not have had or 2) persuading God to do something he was not intending to do. Both of those ideas involve working a “change” in God. We should banish both immediately.
First of all, there is not a single idea we can ever utter in prayer that God has not conceived of first before the foundation of the world. That’s what his omniscience guarantees. God thought of everything and analyzed everything to the atomic level before he ever said, “Let there be light.” You cannot teach an omniscient God a single thing.
Second of all, you can never persuade God to do anything he doesn’t want to do. His will is infinitely stronger than ours, and his determination to do good to his people and his creation infinitely surpasses the cumulative good will of all God’s people in every generation there has been since time began.
"Heaven will reveal how much of God’s plan was done in answer to the prayers of his people."
So, that is NOT what powerfully effective prayer is all about. Rather, by prayer God’s people are asking God to do what he has already decided to do at exactly the time he thinks best and in the way he thinks best. And if you think that that means such prayer is superfluous, ineffective, James 5:16 says it’s not. Heaven will reveal how much of God’s plan was done in answer to the prayers of his people. And all of those prayers were “very effective!”