The prayer of the righteous

The reading we just heard? Danielle calls it a veritable mine field of broken hopes and false expectations and (…) lost faith. “I don’t have any concrete evidence on this,” she says, “but I think this passage may be in the running to win a ‘Most Negative Spiritual Baggage’ award.” Can you hear her anger? I don’t have any spiritual baggage related to that text, but I didn’t grow up in a church where James got a lot of attention. My people were Paul-and-the-gospels people, as far as the New Testament is concerned. So I don’t have any spiritual baggage, but I wonder what kind of alarms went off in your heads as you were listening.

Danielle says, she can personally count a rather alarming number of conversations she’s had with faithful people who have felt that they’ve prayed their hearts out over people they’ve loved only to see them not be healed. So she starts getting quite nervous when she reads, “The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up.” She knows that this has been used to create some sort of guaranteed divine healing system – for people with access, that is. “The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective,” Danielle reads. Ergo, with a logic cold as hell, if your prayer isn’t as powerful and effective as you needed it to be, your righteousness must be questionable. Danielle is about to scream at this point, but she waits until James, in her words, piles on the guilt by comparing all of us to Elijah. “‘Elijah was a human being like us!’ James says, ‘And HE was able to pray so powerfully that there was no rain in the whole wide world for three and a half years!’ Never mind that Elijah was a prophet. No, says James, he’s exactly like us. He is the most average human being ever. You should absolutely compare yourself to him, especially when someone you love is sick and your prayers aren’t magically working to fix them. Then you can feel guilty not only for your prayers clearly not being [offered] correctly, but also for not being ELIJAH. If this is James’s idea of a pep talk, I frankly think he fails.”[1]

If James knew about some of the ways he’s been read, he’d be very upset. More than anything, he wants to help shape congregations that are communities of a particular wisdom, congregations whose members really fulfill what he calls the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”[2] James cares a lot about what we do with words, what we say and how we say it. Today’s passage contains the concluding lines of his letter, and each line addresses matters of speech like praying, singing songs of praise, confessing our sins to one another, praying for each other, and correcting one another.

James doesn’t explain, nor does he unfold lengthy arguments. He loves dispensing small packages of wisdom that recommend concrete actions; do this, and don’t do that. He believes that communities are shaped by concrete practices. Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise.The whole range of human experience is in view here, from any situation that diminishes a person’s life to moments when every aspect of life is imbued with joy. All of it is to be lived in the presence of God, to be brought before God in prayer and song. In prayer, life is put into words, spoken or sung, or into silence that is not the mere absence of words, but a fullness beyond them.

In prayer, all of life is lived and known in relationship with God. But another set of relationships is equally important for the communities of wisdom James envisions. Are any among you sick? he asks. And it’s not just sickness he has in mind here, but times when our strength is gone, whether it’s about our aching bodies, our tired spirits, or our anxious hearts. Suffering has a way of isolating us, be it that we just want to be alone when the shadows fall or that our daily routines of work and family responsibilities are being put on hold while for the rest of the world those routines go on. Suffering has a way of isolating us. Are any of you sick? he asks – they should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. James empowers the suffering ones – the sick, the weary, the discouraged – to summon the elders of the community. There are doctors, of course, and nurses, psychotherapists, pharmacists, life coaches and other specialists, but the whole community needs to be there with prayer and healing touch, the whole community, represented by the elders. And in this moment – you can imagine the suffering person in the middle of the room, on a chair perhaps or in bed, the entire community gathered around them in Spirit and several elders in person – in this moment James speaks of the prayer of faith that will save that person and of the Lord who will raise her up and of the forgiveness of sins.

What’s the forgiveness of sins doing here? James knows that when we suffer we can’t help but ask ourselves what we have done wrong to deserve this or to cause this. We carry guilt on our shoulders when we’re sick, wondering if it’s all because we didn’t exercise enough, or drank too much, or didn’t include enough kale in our diet. We carry guilt on our shoulders when we can’t get a job we actually might like, and we wonder if it’s all our fault because the things we enjoy doing don’t pay in what dad called the real world, or because we don’t have the right personality, or because we start sweating every time we walk into an interview. We carry guilt on our shoulders, the weight of the wrong we have done and the good we have left undone, and all of that is in the room, too. “Anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven,” writes James, anyone. “Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed.”

The shift is subtle, but crucial. Only a moment ago, all our attention was on the one person in the middle of the room, now it is on all of us and on the brokenness, the weakness and the failures that are part of who we have become, each and all of us; we recognize how far we all are from the glorious wholeness of life God intends for us;  and James encourages us to bring this moment, all of it, to speech through mutual confession and prayer for each other, so that we may be healed.

“The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective,” he writes, not to suggest that some of us are better at offering prayers that deliver the desired results, but rather that when we confess our sins to each other and pray for each other, that is when we speak to each other, in the presence of God, about our brokenness, our weakness and our failures, and lift each other up in prayer, we will be healed. We are not saved by the prayer of faith, but through the relationships with God and with each other that are restored through faith and nurtured in our prayers.

Healing is not limited to a person who is suffering or a specific condition; it applies to the whole community and its wellbeing in every dimension - spiritual, physical, emotional, and social. Healing is not the same as curing; it is a relational mystery, a name for the concrete actions and practices that keep us connected when suffering threatens to fragment, isolate, and marginalize us.

It is a happy coincidence that we are having the Commissioning of our Elders on a Sunday when the scripture reading highlights a significant dimension of the ministry of elders as men and women of prayer. The same scripture, however, also highlights the power of vulnerable speech and prayer among all members of the community who seek to embody the royal law of love.

Most of you know that our congregation is seeking to perceive and understand more fully what it means for us to live as people of God in this city, in this age. The world has changed in dramatic ways, and our ministry may need to change dramatically as well, in order to remain a faithful part of God’s mission in the world. How it may need to change, how we may need to change, we do not and cannot know until we make time to listen to God together and to each other. In just a few days, you will receive an invitation to participate in a prayer triplet or triad that will meet six times over the next two months. Each triad, every time they meet, will listen prayerfully to a passage of scripture, pray for each other, and talk about a set of questions that will allow us as a community to perceive who it is God is calling us to be and what it is God is calling us to do. We are confident that this process of prayerful discernment in groups of three will allow us to make decisions related to this building and this land that will best serve our faithful response to God’s call. Each triad will create its own meeting schedule and decide where to meet. But I don’t want to talk about the technical details now.

I want to encourage each of you to sign up for a prayer triad when you receive the invitation. The work we are about to do in those groups is crucially important for our ministry in this city, and the magnitude of the task may seem overwhelming. But don’t let that intimidate you. The work you are about to participate in is God’s, and we may trust that the prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. God will work with us, even us, to bring healing and wholeness to life.


[1] Danielle Shroyer, at

[2] James 2:8