Our topic this morning is prayer. And just saying that much will have produced different reactions in different people. For some of us it may be a feeling of guilt that we’ve not prayed as we should. For others it may be the encouragement of a recent answer to prayer. For others it may be the perplexity of just not knowing what to pray about a certain situation (or of praying what, as far as you can see, is the right thing, but seeing apparently no answer). And for others it may be the pain of having prayed faithfully for something and then been told that most cruel of things: that it didn’t happen ‘because you didn’t have enough faith.’
Well, this morning’s Bible passage gives an example of someone at prayer which touches on some of those issues, and others. The example is the prophet Elijah, and before we look at it I’m going to pause and give you a time to pray individually. And I want to suggest that you bring to the Lord whatever is uppermost on your mind about prayer – maybe one of the things I mentioned a moment ago, maybe something else – and that you ask him to speak to you and your specific situation through this passage.
So now let’s turn to 1 Kings 17. We’re in a sermon series on the prophet Elijah. The story so far is that the LORD’s Old Testament (OT) people, Israel, have largely turned away from the LORD to a false god called Baal. Baal was a fertility god. And people believed he was in control of the rain, so that if you worshipped him he’d water your crops and give you food. It’s as if Israel was saying to the LORD, ‘We don’t trust you to do rain; we don’t believe you’re in control of everything. So we’re going to trust in Baal for this particular need of food.’ So to show them who really does control everything – including the rain – the LORD sends a drought. Look at chapter 17, v1:
1 Now Elijah the Tishbite, from Tishbe in Gilead, said to Ahab [who was king of Israel at the time and a total unbeliever], "As the LORD, the God of Israel, lives, whom I serve, there will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years except at my word." (17.1)
Now look on to chapter 18, v1:
1 After a long time, in the third year, the word of the LORD came to Elijah: "Go and present yourself to Ahab, and I will send rain on the land." (18.1)
But first, the LORD has to do something else. You see, just imagine that straight away after chapter 18, v1, the LORD had sent rain. How would most people have responded? Would they have said, ‘Well, it’s obviously the LORD who sent the drought and then the rain. Baal is obviously the false god and the LORD the real one. We must all turn back to the LORD’? No, most people would have said something like, ‘At last, Baal has answered our prayers for rain.’ Because unbelievers will always find an unbelieving way to interpret events. So what the LORD had to do before sending the rain was to show people that Baal was the false god - which is what we looked at last week in chapter 18 – where Elijah sets up a test. The prophets of Baal pray for Baal to send fire from heaven and nothing happens. Elijah then prays for the LORD to send fire from heaven and he does. So look on to chapter 18, v39:
39 When all the people saw this, they fell prostrate and cried, "The LORD -he is God! The LORD -he is God!" (18.39)
So now the LORD can send the rain without them thinking they have Baal to thank for it. But he doesn’t just send the rain. He sends it in answer to Elijah praying for it. So what can we learn from Elijah’s praying?
First, OUR EXPECTATIONS IN PRAYER MUST BE GOVERNED BY THE BIBLE (vv41-42)
Read on in v41:
41 And Elijah said to Ahab, "Go, eat and drink, for there is the sound of a heavy rain." 42 So Ahab went off to eat and drink, but Elijah climbed to the top of Carmel, bent down to the ground and put his face between his knees [that is, in prayer]. (vv41-42)
Now when Elijah says in v41, ‘there is the sound of a heavy rain’, there wasn’t literally - the sky was cloudless at this point. What he means is, ‘Rain is absolutely certain.’ That’s his expectation. He’s saying, ‘I’m certain that this is God’s will, and that therefore God will do this in answer to prayer.’ Now how can he – or we – ever say that? The answer is: our expectations in prayer must be governed by God’s Word. So look back again to chapter 18, v1:
1 After a long time, in the third year, the word of the LORD came to Elijah: "Go and present yourself to Ahab, and I will send rain...” (18.1)
So Elijah has a specific promise of God which means he can be certain that rain is God’s will and that therefore if he asks for it, it’ll be given. And the general principle for prayer is this: we can only be certain that God will do something if we have in the Bible a specific promise that says he will - or a clear statement that it is his will. Eg, take this promise from 1 John:
9If we confess our sins, he [God] is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1.9)
So let’s say that I’ve just told a lie to someone to cover up for something I’ve done wrong. And my conscience is pricked. And I go and own up and apologise. But then I need to deal with the Lord - because my lie is first and foremost a sin against him. So I come to him in prayer. How do I know that if I confess that sin he will forgive me? The answer is: because I have a specific promise: 1 John 1.9.
So can I call on us, when we’re praying for a person or a situation, to ask, ‘What does the Bible tell me to pray about this? Are there any promises of God or statements of his will that apply to this situation? Ie, according to the Bible, what can I and what can’t I expect of God when it comes to praying for this?’ Eg, I prayed with a friend as he was going through medical school exams. And we met to pray before his finals. And before we prayed, we talked about what we could definitely expect God to do. And he said, ‘Well, we can’t definitely expect him to get me through. We don’t know that me passing is definitely his will. But we do know that it’s his will that his people aren’t anxious so let’s pray that. And we do know that it’s his will that his people bring glory to him whatever happens. So let’s pray that if I pass, I’m a good witness to the Lord in saying that it’s him who got me through, and that if I have to resit, I’m a good witness in not showing distrust or disappointment in the Lord.’ Now we did also ask that he might pass – because that’s what we both hoped for, and since the Lord had got him that far we had strong reason to trust that it was the Lord’s will to get him all the way through. But we had to add, ‘If it’s your will’ – because on that request, we had no specific promise.
Now this first point begs the question, ‘When God has made a specific promise, what’s the point of us praying and asking him to keep it? Surely he’ll keep it anyway, since God is always faithful to his promises?’ That’s a big question. I’ll just say two quick things. One is this. Imagine you’re a parent and you say to your seven-year old on holiday, ‘I tell you what, I’ll buy you one of those fantastic ice-creams we saw earlier when we walk back to the hotel.’ And later on, you’re waiting for them to say, ‘Please can I have that ice-cream now?’ But the question never comes. And you walk back past the ice-cream shop. And the question never comes. How do you feel as the parent? Surely you feel distrusted. You longed for that relational moment of being trusted, of being asked, of sharing their enjoyment of the ice-cream - and maybe even of being thanked. But it never came.
And surely the first reason to ask God for things he’s already promised is that if we don’t, we’re expressing distrust in him and his promises – when, like a parent, God longs for that relational moment when we move beyond reading about him or thinking about him or talking about him and actually trust him and go to him and ask for what he’s promised.
But there’s at least one other thing to say to the question, ‘If God’s already decided to do something, what’s the point of praying for it? And that is, that in many situations, God has decided to do things by involving us in prayer. Take another eg: there are plenty of New Testament (NT) promises that God will bring at least some people to faith as we share the gospel. So, shall we just share the gospel but not bother to pray for people to come to faith (since God has already decided, and promised, to bring people to faith)? Well, no - because God has decided to involve us in his work of bringing people to faith, by working through our prayers – in a way that I don’t pretend to understand. It’s a bit like the parent, this time, who’s baking a cake. And you can bake the cake you’ve decided to bake without the help (in inverted commas!) of your four-year-old. In fact, it would be quicker and less messy to do it yourself. But you involve your four-year-old, so that they have the privilege of being part of doing something that they’d be powerless to do on their own. So, eg, if we pray for people to come to faith, and they do, we’re able to look back and say not, ‘I did that,’ but, ‘I had the privilege of being involved in God doing that.’
What about one of the hardest examples of all - praying for someone who’s seriously ill? The principle is: our expectations in prayer must be governed by the Bible. So, what can we expect of God in the situation of illness? Is there a parallel promise to 1 John 1.9 (about sins) about sickness? Is there a promise that says, ‘If we pray about any illness, he will always heal?’ No, there isn’t. (To justify that answer would take some time – see the footnote to this sermon transcript for a few important points.) And when we can’t base our prayers on the specific foundation of God’s promises, we have to base them on the more general foundation of God’s character. So, eg, is the Lord compassionate? Yes. Is he able to heal? Yes. So I can ask for healing. He wants me to pour out my heart and say, ‘Lord, I long for you to heal so-and-so; I long for them to be restored to health and to their family (and so on).’ But I have to add, ‘If it’s your will.’ And in that situation, like so many others, that’s precisely what I don’t know. So I can’t expect healing. So can I call on us not to tell ourselves we can, and not to tell others in that situation that they can. Because if it turns out not to be God’s will, those false expectations lead to deep disillusionment.
So that’s the first thing. Our expectations in prayer must be governed by the Bible – or, ‘Pray Biblically’.
Secondly, OUR ATTITUDE IN PRAYER MUST BE HUMILITY BEFORE GOD (vv42-44)
Or, ‘Pray humbly’. Let’s read from v42 again:
" 42 So Ahab went off to eat and drink, but Elijah climbed to the top of Carmel, bent down to the ground and put his face between his knees.
43 "Go and look toward the sea," he told his servant. And he went up and looked. "There is nothing there," he said. Seven times Elijah said, "Go back."
44 The seventh time the servant reported, "A cloud as small as a man's hand is rising from the sea." (vv42-44)
Now so far we’ve assumed that Elijah was praying. So look at this verse from the New Testament (NT) book of James to put that beyond doubt. James 5 says this:
17Elijah was a man just like us. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. 18Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops. (James 5.17-18)
Notice in passing that it says, ‘Elijah was a man just like us.’ Now in some ways he wasn’t - eg, he was a prophet to whom God spoke directly. But in other ways, he was just like us. Just as sinful. Just as unworthy to approach God. And James’s point is that this is not some ‘supersaint’ whose example is beyond us. He was just like us. So we can pray just like him and see God answering just like him. So, what can we learn from his attitude in prayer?
Well it’s pretty obvious that he prays with humility. Verse 42: he ‘bent down to the ground and put his face between his knees.’ That’s an outward sign of inward humility before God. And again in passing, that’s a reminder that body-language is helpful in prayer. There are no rules about this, but, eg, I do do some of my private praying on my knees because it helps me remember who I am before the Lord – how small I am and how sinful I am and how dependent I am.
So even when Elijah is asking for something he knows God has promised, he asks with great humility - because the fact that God has promised us something doesn’t mean we deserve it. It means he’s unbelievably gracious to people whose sinfulness means that we don’t actually deserve anything - except judgement. And can I say: we need to be especially humble when praying for those situations when we do have no specific promise or statement that a certain outcome is the Lord’s will. Eg, praying about a job application, we need to be humble: ‘Lord, I don’t know whether this job is your will. All I know is that it is your will that those who can work do work - the Bible tells me that. So, please help me with this application, but if this one isn’t your will, then close this door and lead me to the one that is. And help me to keep trusting you, meanwhile.’
But can I say that humility does not mean cringing in fear before God, as if he’s not our loving heavenly Father, as if we can’t have any expectations of him. Humility is recognising the truth about ourselves – namely, that we’re sinful and don’t deserve anything. But alongside humility goes faith, which is recognising the truth about God – namely, that he gave his Son the Lord Jesus to die on the cross for the forgiveness of our sins, so that, if we’re trusting in him, the door is always open for us to approach him. In fact, the door of judgement that kept us out has been ripped off its hinges and thrown away. So can I say: if you’re feeling particularly conscious of sin right now, or spiritually dry, or if you’ve not really prayed for ages, don’t let any of that stop you from praying. Because we come to God not on the basis of anything in us, but on the basis of Jesus’ work on the cross. The reason – the only reason – why God will always hear us if we come to him sincerely in prayer – is the cross.
So Elijah comes humbly. And he is then further humbled by the whole business of prayer - which is often our experience, too. Look back to v43. He prays, then v43:
43 "Go and look toward the sea," he told his servant. And he went up and looked. "There is nothing there," he said. [Ie, no immediate answer to prayer. You’re going to have to wait. And pray again. And wait and pray again. And wait and pray again. And wait and pray again. And wait and pray again. And wait and pray again. And wait and pray again.] Seven times Elijah said, "Go back." 44 The seventh time the servant reported, "A cloud as small as a man's hand is rising from the sea." (vv43-44)
Isn’t it striking that the man who got the instant answer on Mount Carmel gets no instant answer here. And yet he’s the same man, with the same right attitude, and both times praying for the right thing. So why the difference? Or for us, why is it, eg, that three years ago the Lord answered your prayers for a friend to come to faith but for the last two years, no friend has come to faith? Or why is it that one person praying for a job in your Home Group gets an answer next day, while yours takes six months to happen? The answer is that ultimately we don’t know, because we don’t know the whole mind of God – we just know the tiny fraction of it that he’s given us in the Bible. So there will always be some mystery to us about how and over what timescale the Lord answers our prayers. But one reason why God might sometimes make us wait for things – even though they’re the right things to pray for and he’s decided to give them to us – is to help our humility. To remind us that he’s not a genie for whom our prayers are his command. But a heavenly Father who wisely uses waiting to help us avoid taking him or his gifts for granted.
So let’s be humble as we pray. Not demanding but requesting things. And not assuming we know better than God what we need or when we need it.
Thirdly, A WORD TO THE UNBELIEVING (vv44-46)
And of course you can be unbelieving as someone who’s not yet a Christian – you’ve never trusted in the God of the Bible – or you can be unbelieving as a professing Christian who’s temporarily approaching life with little or no trust in the Lord.
Well, if Elijah is the example of a believer, then King Ahab is the example of an unbeliever. The LORD has sent a drought on his country - partly as a judgement for turning to Baal; but partly as a mercy – to bring him to his senses and show him that Baal is a false god and that trusting him doesn’t work. And what’s Ahab’s response? To turn to the LORD? No. In chapter 18, we find that he frantically searches the whole land – both for food and for Elijah (presumably thinking he could force him to end the drought). Ie, Ahab carries on completely unhumbled, still clinging to the illusion that he’s in control. Well, let’s re-read from the end of v44 to the end of this incident. End of v44:
So Elijah said, "Go and tell Ahab, 'Hitch up your chariot and go down before the rain stops you.' "
45 Meanwhile, the sky grew black with clouds, the wind rose, a heavy rain came on and Ahab rode off to Jezreel. 46 The power of the LORD came upon Elijah and, tucking his cloak into his belt, he ran ahead of Ahab all the way to Jezreel. (vv44-46)
So what’s the symbolism in v46? What does it mean that even though Ahab is in his chariot - his tank, his symbol of power and control – Elijah the LORD’s prophet runs ahead of him every step of the way? Surely the LORD is saying to Ahab, ‘You’re not in control. I am, every step of the way. And you need to admit that and start trusting me.’ Which is both a rebuke and an invitation.
And it may be a rebuke and invitation that some of us in particular need to hear. Maybe God has sent the equivalent of a drought your way - to bring you to your senses; to show you that trusting in yourself and in your own frantic, anxious efforts to secure your life and happiness doesn’t work; to turn you to himself for the first time - or back to himself if you’ve wandered. And the invitation is there. And if you don’t know how to turn to him, why not pick up this booklet Why Jesus? That explains how. It’s on the Welcome Desk near the door. And if you feel you don’t know enough to turn to him yet, why not join us on our Christianity Explored course – there’s a leaflet about that on the Welcome Desk, too.
So that’s Elijah’s example in prayer. And you could sum it up like this: Pray Biblically. Pray humbly. But the bottom line is: Pray – as an expression of our faith that the Lord is in control of everything, and that he is a heavenly Father committed to supplying every real need that we have.
FOOTNOTE ON PRAYING FOR HEALING OF SICKNESS
The full passage in which James quotes the example of Elijah in prayer reads like this (in the ESV – a more literal word-for-word translation from the original Greek than the NIV):
13Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. 14Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. 15And 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. 16Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. 17Elijah 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. 18Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit.
19My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, 20let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins. (James 5.13-20)
Some Christians take vv14-16 to teach the general principle, in all situations, that if we pray for a sick person to be healed, they will be healed. I don’t believe that is what this passage teaches.
Looking away from this passage for a moment, let me give just two examples of unhealed sickness elsewhere in the NT: 1) In Galatians 4.13, Paul writes, ‘As you know, it was because of an illness that I first preached the gospel to you.’ Ie, some illness led to Paul either going to Galatia or staying longer in Galatia than he had planned. 2) In 2 Timothy 4.20 Paul writes, ‘I left Trophimus [one of his co-workers] sick in Miletus.’ Ie, some illness meant that a colleague of Paul could not continue with him on his mission and had to be left behind. Now, if James 5.14-16 teaches the general principle, in all situations, that if we pray for a sick person to be healed, they will be healed, I don’t think we would have those two examples in the NT: presumably, Paul and his co-workers (men of faith if ever there were men of faith) would have prayed and Paul/Trophimus would have been healed. But I take it we have to assume that they did pray and were not healed.
Coming back to James 5.13-20, notice all the slightly odd details:
• Why is the sick person not told (like the suffering person in v13) to pray himself? Instead, he is told to call the elders (the leadership of the church) to pray for him.
• Why the elders? Particularly, since there’s no NT teaching to say that they, by virtue of their position as leaders and teachers, have either more faith than other godly church members, or a particular gift of healing.
• Why the mixing together of the issues of physical sickness and sin? Eg, why, in v15, does it say, ‘And if he has committed sins...’? Surely James should assume that every member of the church has ‘committed sins’. Or is he thinking of some more specific sin? Again, why in v16 are we told to confess our sins to one another and pray for one another not so ‘that you may be forgiven,’ but so ‘that you may be healed’?
• Why does James take Elijah as his example of prayer in addressing this church? Elijah ministered at a time when God’s people had turned away from him and were consequently brought under a judgement (drought) until that judgement was lifted through the prayer of Elijah. Why did James choose that particular example as a parallel to the situation in the church he was writing to?
Perhaps most unhelpfully of all, we take James 5.13-20 out of the context of the whole letter of James. James is a letter full of judgement on the church. Most of the letter is a condemnation of the professing church members’ sub-Christian behaviour and a warning of God’s judgement (eg, 2.8-12, 3.13-18, 4.1-12, 5.9, 12). In 2.14-26 he questions whether their professed faith is actually genuine; in 4.4 he says they look more like people who still belong to the world in their spiritual and moral allegiance. Ie, James isn’t dealing with a few minor problems in an otherwise healthy church. He’s dealing with people turning away from the Lord, ie, he’s dealing with a near-apostate church – exactly the situation Elijah had to deal with. (‘Apostasy’ refers to ‘turning away from’.) And I think the best reading of 5.13-20 is that the Lord had brought sickness on at least some of the church members who professed his name yet had clearly turned from him as clearly as Israel had in Elijah’s day. It is not true that all sickness can be traced back to specific sin in the life of the sick person (see John 9.1-3). But it is true that some sickness is a specific judgement on specific sin in the life of the sick person (see John 5.14 in context; 1 Corinthians 11.30-32 in context – a very similar congregational situation to the one James was dealing with).
So now come back to 5.13-20:
• Why does the sick person have to call for others to pray for him (v14)? I suggest: because, in judgement on his near-apostasy, the Lord is not hearing his prayers (cf 1.6-8, 4.3). If he comes to his senses, he is to be humbled by having to ask others – who’ve remained faithful – to pray for him.
• Why the elders? Because this is also a disciplinary matter for the leadership of the church. If the sick person is near-apostate, the elders may/should have been involved in warning him and calling him to repent - and possibly even in putting him out of fellowship (see Matthew 18.15-20, 1 Corinthians 5.1-5).
• Why the mixing together of the issues of physical sickness and sin? If my reconstruction is right, the answer is obvious. ‘If he has committed sins’ (v15) looks not like a reference to the ‘normal sinfulness’ of someone seeking to live for Christ, but the more specific sins of apostasy – of turning away from Christ, having professed him. Isn’t that the issue the letter ends with, in vv19-20? Doesn’t the way the letter ends suggest that this was a – if not the – big issue on James’ mind and his primary reason for writing?
• The example of Elijah fits this pastoral situation perfectly. Elijah was dealing with a largely apostate people (they’d turned away form the LORD to Baal), who were experiencing tangible and specific signs of judgement (drought) on their apostasy. This had been promised/warned of, eg, in Deuteronomy 28.20-24 - which also includes sickness as another tangible, specific sign of judgement on apostasy. In my view, James is dealing with an exactly parallel situation to Israel in Elijah’s day: a church partly/largely apostate, and experiencing tangible and specific signs of judgement (in this case, sickness – the similar situation in 1 Corinthians 11.30-32 shows clearly that the Lord still does judge serious sin among his new covenant people as he did among his old covenant people, using sickness).
In conclusion, I believe our problem is that we read James 5.13-20 without realising that the original situation was more specific than first appears. James is not giving a general comment on general sickness in the church. He is dealing with a partly/largely apostate church experiencing judgement in the form of the sickness of at least some of its members. But God’s judgements (this side of the return of the Lord Jesus) always have a merciful intent. The intent is that the near-apostates turn back to the Lord, by coming to their senses through their sickness, and re-approach the Lord by calling the elders to pray for them. If they thus repent, the Lord will meet them with the forgiveness of their sin of turning from him (the particular sin uppermost in James’ mind – vv19-20), and the lifting of the sickness which is a sign of judgement on their turning from him.
I don’t pretend that answers every question either about James 5 in particular or about praying for the sick in general. But I do hope that it shows that James 5 needs careful interpretation and that it does not teach the general principle that if we pray about any and every sickness we will receive healing