He wants us to ask him anything. He knows we need to.
James understood suffering. In Jerusalem, persecution of the early Christians was rampant. Many of Jesus’ followers were martyred, causing others to flee across the region. What did James say to encourage the church? He wrote, “Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray” (James 5:13, ESV).
As a minister, I sometimes find it hard to tell people in pain to pray about their sufferings. In the last church I pastored, a godly woman lost her husband to an illness. About a year later, she lost a son to suicide. Soon after that, she lost her other son to suicide. Folks from our congregation reached out to connect with her because she wanted desperately to be in church but couldn’t bring herself to come. She explained, “I can’t walk inside the doors. Whenever I try, I picture my husband and sons sitting with me, and I just start weeping.”
None of us is a stranger to suffering. Maybe the worst trial of my life came on a ministry trip with my father. I was in a hotel room preparing to preach to thousands when my wife called with terrible news. She said our 18-year-old son had been arrested for possession of heroin.
I was stunned. You may know that my dad started a massively successful, Christ-centered rehab ministry called Teen Challenge for people with substance addictions. My wife and I knew that our son was struggling, but we hadn’t known fully what he was going through. My mind raced. “I’m about to preach to thousands who know all about Teen Challenge, yet I can’t keep my own son off drugs. What did I do wrong? How did I fail my son? Why wasn’t I a better father?”
I’d suffered through other difficulties in life, but nothing compared with this. Here I was on another continent while my son—the child I’d held in my arms, the boy I’d played catch with, the teenager I’d taken long walks with—was in jail, going through dangerous withdrawals, thousands of miles away.
As soon as I finished preaching, I reached my son by phone. He pleaded in a panic, “Dad, you’ve got to get me out of here. Please, help me!”
I was in tears, feeling helpless and confused. I didn’t know whether it was best to bail him out of jail and risk that he would return to his habit and maybe overdose or if I should let him spend time there to face his addiction head on. I’d never known such agony.
Sometimes I find it hard to genuinely cast my burdens on the Lord.
Taking my burden to Jesus was all I could do. Yet I felt unworthy, all my imperfections bearing down on me as I prayed for my son. I recalled James’s words, “The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working” (James 5:16, my emphasis). I wondered, “What hope is there for the prayers of the unrighteous like me?”
James wrote in the previous verse,
“The prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up” (James 5:15, my emphasis). What if your faith has failed? Does that make you unworthy of healing or asking on behalf of another?
Regardless of whether we have sinned, we are burdened by suffering, including suffering over our children, and James urges all of us to pray. “Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray” (James 5:13, my emphasis). Hebrews adds to this a powerful verse. “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16, my emphasis). Merciful grace comes when we ask for help with our needs.
This does not mean we can presume upon God’s grace if we continue to harbor sin. The Psalmist wrote, “If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened” (Psalm 66:18). By God’s grace, however, we are made righteous; and as James says, the prayer of a righteous person has great power.
It amazes me how many other hindrances to prayer are mentioned in the Bible.
“Whoever closes his ear to the cry of the poor will himself call out and not be answered” (Proverbs 21:13). How can we expect God to answer our need if we refuse to acknowledge the needs of others?
Jesus mentioned hindrances to prayer. “And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them” (Matthew 6:7-8). If we recite empty words without meaning behind them, why should we expect an answer?
The issue of unforgiveness is just as hindering. Jesus added, “But if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:15). There is also the hindering issue of disobedience. “If one turns away his ear from hearing the law, even his prayer is an abomination” (Proverbs 28:9). If my life is not aligned with God’s commands, my prayer to him won’t be acceptable.
We are also warned not to be wishy-washy about our prayers. “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways” (James 1:5-8). If we aren’t even sure what we’re praying for, how can we expect to receive an answer?
Finally, James wrote that our prayers must be consistent with our lives. He said this in the most sobering terms. “You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions” (James 4:2-3). As I consider this passage, I wonder how it may be possible to pray without some mixture of personal desire involved.
In fact, this long biblical checklist makes me wonder how I’ll ever get a prayer answered. In my times of need, I tell myself, “I’m not angry at anyone. I’m not double-minded. I’m not holding onto any sin. I know what I want, and I ask God for it. Still, am I obeying his Word sufficiently? Do I give to the poor often enough? Am I harboring some kind of covetous desire I’m not conscious of?”
If I had to check off this whole list every time I prayed, what hope would there be for me? Let’s be honest, sometimes we pray with selfish motives and don’t even know it. Sometimes we’re at odds with others. Sometimes we neglect the poor for seasons at a time. If meeting this checklist is what it takes to have prayers answered, then I have no hope. There are so many reasons for God not to hear me.
Thankfully, the apostle Paul could relate to my dilemma and addressed it powerfully.
In Romans 7, Paul cried out after going through his own endless litany of sins. “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24).
Thankfully, he answered his own question with powerful truth. “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! …There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Romans 7:25, 8:1-4).
Thank God for his amazing, cleansing grace. Paul’s teaching here answered the Psalmist, who asked, “If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” (Psalm 130:3). I can’t pray in my own righteousness or strength, yet because Christ’s blood cleanses me and makes me righteous, I stand complete in God’s presence.
Through Jesus, all my doubt and double-mindedness are washed away. Any unforgiveness is confessed and forgiven. All sinful passions are set aside. Christ’s work on the cross raises me from my dead condition and into newness of life. All strength or righteousness needed in my trial is supplied through the life of the Spirit who lives in me.
Jesus said, “Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:3-5). Jesus has made all provision for us. Therefore, we come to him boldly.
In my greatest time of need—when my son was in jail—God answered with healing, forgiving power. In spite of all my sins and shortcomings, the Lord made clear to me exactly what to do. My wife and I bailed out our son and took him home, a prodigal grateful to be set free. He was delivered from addiction, too, miraculously healed in the midst of withdrawals from heroin in that jail cell. The Father heard his cry and ours because of the intercessor, Jesus.
We are all called to come boldly, asking him anything, because he wants to answer. Give him your request today and see his merciful grace work in your life. He has paved the way for you to come boldly in your time of need. Indeed, he is your answer. Amen.