Pray like Elijah.

When our pastors encourage us to pray, sometimes they do it by quoting this particular verse. Maybe not in the NKJV as I’m about to, but all the good translations have the same gist.

James 5.16-18 NKJV
16 Confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much. 17 Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed earnestly that it would not rain; and it did not rain on the land for three years and six months. 18 And he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain, and the earth produced its fruit.

“See?” they conclude: “Elijah was a person just like us. Bible says so. And when he prayed, it stopped raining for three and a half years; 1Ki 17.1-7 and when he prayed again, it rained like crazy. 1Ki 18.41-46 Your prayers can have just as much effect as his. So pray!”

Yeah, but… Elijah wasn’t a person just like us.

I mean he’s human like us. James says that, anyway: He has “a nature like ours,” or as the KJV put it “subject to like passions as we are,” Jm 5.17 KJV which is their way of translating ἦν ὁμοιοπαθὴς ἡμῖν/in omiopathís ymín, “with the same pathology as us,” or in clearer English, “felt exactly like we do [when we pray].” That’s the point pastors wanna make: You got doubts; Elijah had doubts. But he prayed and God did stuff. So pray, and watch God do stuff!

But the part of that passage we keep going back to is “The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.” A righteous man.

Elijah was righteous. As for us… well, we’re not so sure we’re righteous.

Obviously there are Christians who feel plenty righteous, and are naming-it-and-claiming-it full speed ahead. Is God giving ’em what they demand from him? Not always. In fact the more arrogant they get, the less he cares to give ’em, ’cause God doesn’t wanna encourage this kind of prideful dickishness in his kids. Certainly they’re not who we think of when we’re talking righteousness. We’re thinking of Elijah, and trying to measure ourselves up to him.

And sometimes incorrectly, ’cause we got the wrong definition of righteous on the brain: We imagine it means good. The prayer of a good person is gonna work… and we’re not so good. Not as good as Elijah. So if we want prayer results, we gotta become as good as Elijah. Gotta rack up some good karma, and then God’ll recognize us as being worthy of granting us our requests. Till we do, of course we’re not getting what we want; God doesn’t listen to dirty sinners.

Okay, time to remind everyone: Righteous means we’re in the right standing with God. How do we get righteous? By trusting God.

Galatians 3.11 ESV
Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” Hb 2.4

You wanna be righteous like Elijah? It’s not about being good like Elijah. We have no stories in the scriptures about how he was particularly good; about his acts of charity and Law-following and other good deeds. We have loads of stories about how he trusted God, and how far that took him. You wanna be righteous like Elijah, you gotta trust God like Elijah.

And yeah, Elijah struggled with trust issues. After he prayed for the rain to stop, after he called down fire from heaven to burn up an offering (and the entire stone altar it sat on), 1Ki 18 one little death threat from the queen got him to flee for his life, go to Mt. Sinai in Midian, and complain to God about how it seemed the whole world was out to get him. No it wasn’t, said the LORD; go back and get back to work. 1Ki 19 Elijah certainly didn’t have unshakable faith. Like James said, he was a man with a nature like ours.

Elijah prayed for massive things and God met those requests, and I suspect that’s because Elijah already lived a lifestyle of praying for small things and God meeting those requests. He had to grow his faith to the point where praying for big things was doable. Still might’ve been a faith challenge, depending on how impossible these things looked, but if you’ve regularly seen God grant prayer requests, it gets less and less impossible-looking over time. So that’s my advice to you: If you’ve gotta grow your faith to Elijah-level proportions, start small and work your way up.

But faith, not good works, is how we get righteousness. (Good works is simply the fruit.) You wanna be the righteous person whose prayers avail much? Work on the faith.