Perhaps you’ve seen those magic quadrant charts that seek to make the complex easier to understand. They typically identify four extremes and then plot points between them. One such chart seeks to understand the diversity of human personality using the tensions between individual and collective, interior and exterior. Is your identify individualistic or community driven? Would you prefer to be alone or in a group? The chart begs us to plot ourselves in between those poles. James has a similar magic quadrant. The difference, however, is that no matter where you are at on the chart the encouragement is the same – pray.
Magic Quadrant of Prayer
James wrote, “Are any of you suffering hardships? You should pray. Are any of you happy? You should sing praises. Are any of you sick? You should call for the elders of the church to come and pray over you, anointing you with oil in the name of the Lord. Such a prayer offered in faith will heal the sick, and the Lord will make you well. And if you have committed any sins, you will be forgiven. Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The earnest prayer of a righteous person has great power and produces wonderful results.” (James 5:13–16, NLT)
There are four types of prayer in James’ encouragement. Prayer for our own struggles and hardships. Prayers of worship when we are happy. Receiving prayer when sick and for when we know the guilt of sin. While we could plot these out in quadrant fashion the answer is the same, the difference is the type and direction of prayer.
James is intentionally broad, broader then the translation “suffering hardships” conveys. Another way to put it is – are you in pain. Any kind of pain, physical, emotional, developmental, financial, worried, anxious, stressed, guilt-ridden, conflicted, or because of a relationship? James bluntly prescribes, “you should pray.” If you can pray about it you should, as we’ll see in a moment there are times when we need the prayers of others.
James doesn’t offer how to pray, what to say, or even how often to pray. Which brings us to our reality. There are no magic formulas for prayer. God doesn’t turn us off if we fail to use the right words in the right order. He doesn’t care if we begin with “Our gracious Heavenly Father” or “Hi God, it’s me again.” He doesn’t judge our style but examines our heart. The key I’ve found is to give Him the pain, problem, or hardship and let Him provide the answer. It’s easy to pray the solution we see instead of giving Him the problem. James’ point remains, pray no matter the pain.
The opposite pole from pain is happy. This too calls for prayer although of a different type. James encourages, “Are you happy? You should sing praises.” Praise and worship are also forms of prayer. Whether spoken or sung they glorify God and remind us that our joy and our happiness is from Him. It is perhaps the easiest prayer to ignore. Our thoughts rarely turn to God when things are good unless we’ve developed a habit of praise.
Among the prayers, praise is unique. There’s no request or need in our words. Just a heartfelt bubbling of thanks and worship. The seed of praise could be anything from answered prayer to simply responding to God’s undeserved love for us. James’ point is the same, speak directly to God in praise, adoration, thanksgiving, and worship.
When we can’t pray
Receiving prayer is just as important to James has praying itself. James said, “Are any of you sick? You should call for the elders of the church to come and pray over you, anointing you with oil in the name of the Lord. Such a prayer offered in faith will heal the sick, and the Lord will make you well.” Sometimes we’re too broken to pray for ourselves. Perhaps more often than we care to admit. That too calls for prayer.
Let’s spread the net just a bit on this. Let’s include anything in our lives that make it difficult if not impossible to pray. Debilitating sickness is an obvious reason. Heartbreaking depression or grief could also silence our prayers. Any mountain in our lives that blocks our view of God requires the prayer and care of others. In the same vein, while James identifies elders of the church our elders may be identified by title but may also be women and men of faith God has placed in our lives. They may even be children with a heart of faith.
When we can’t pray; when the mountain is too huge or our strength too weak we need to willingly ask and receive the prayer of others. Men, I know this challenges our pride. It challenges mine. None of us wants to look weak or out of control. We’re not fooling God. He already knows and his opinion is the only one that matters. Asking for and receiving prayer is a vital part of our walk with Jesus.
When we won’t pray
The final of our four types of prayer is confession. Guilt and fear can keep us from seeking God. Adam and Eve hid in the garden. King David went to great lengths, even murder, to cover his sin and guilt. The enemy of our souls loves to whisper reminders of our sin so we feel unworthy to pray in faith. Those are obvious blocks to prayer.
There are two other triggers for not wanting to pray. The first is anger towards God whether actively or passively expressed. The second is apathy, we don’t pray because it’s simply not important to us. In my experience, the second is more damaging than the first.
All of these are rooted in sin which makes James’ prescription of confession appropriate. Some sins we can confess and receive healing on our own before God. Others, especially those bearing the fruit of addiction, unbreakable habit, or deep wounds require the listening ears of others. James instructs, “Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.” John promises, “But if we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all wickedness.” (1 John 1:9, NLT)
Healing and release come with confession and prayer. Does this mean that we blurt out our sin to anyone with ears. No, like the prayers for the sick we need to lean on the trustworthy hearts God has put in our lives. These are the folks that want to pull us up out of the ditch we’re in instead of wallowing in the ditch with us in a vain effort to make us feel better.
Trouble, Joy, and Endurance
Continuing the theme we’re following. The trouble in the case of prayer can be anything from external circumstances, through illness, and to our sin, guilt, fear, anger, and apathy. James’ provides a menu of prayer for everything going on right now.
The joy of prayer is found in the answer. “The earnest prayer of a righteous person has great power and produces wonderful results.” To cover the range of results and why some prayers seem to go unanswered is a topic for another day. Even when the answer is not what we expected there is still joy because our trust is in God not in the answer.
Endurance is found by continuing to walk in prayer regardless of the moment. Struggling – pray. Happy – praise in prayer and song. Sick – receive prayer. Fearful, guilty, or angry – confess and pray. The quadrant James constructed does not contain an option or moment when prayer is not desired or necessary.
James, being the practical person he was, also gave us a warning. There is a moment when prayers are not enough. Consider, “Suppose you see a brother or sister who has no food or clothing, and you say, “Good-bye and have a good day; stay warm and eat well”—but then you don’t give that person any food or clothing. What good does that do?” (James 2:15–16, NLT) Sometimes God is asking us to do more than pray.
This requires a listening ear. We should always pray, sometimes we should also act. Our prayers are a precious gift, let’s never discount their power or value. But let’s also take James’ warning to heart. Our prayers should include the question – what do you want me to do here God? Sometimes we need to risk being taken advantage of and meet someone’s felt need so God can touch their real need. So, yes, pray. And with your prayers seek God’s direction for the action that follows faith.