Elijah was a Weak Sinner, Like Us
James 5:16-18 teaches us,
The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much. 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 earth for three years and six months. Then he prayed again, and the sky poured rain and the earth produced its fruit.
The “righteous man” that James speaks of is not a man who does not sin (there is none but the God-man, Jesus Christ), but it is the one who, when he has sinned, honestly and humbly deals with the offense before God, and others if necessary. The righteous person is the one who stands in a right relationship with God through faith in Christ and lives out the reality of authentic faith. When this kind of person prays, his or her prayers “accomplish much”; that is, they work on his or her behalf. In contrast, the person who cherishes unrighteousness will not see powerful answers to prayer. Unconfessed sin, as admitted by the psalmist, is a barrier to answered prayer: “If I regard wickedness in my heart, the Lord will not hear” (Ps. 66:18).
To encourage our faith, James provides an historical example to whom we can relate—the praying prophet Elijah. Three characteristics of this man of prayer are mentioned in the text.
Elijah was one of us (v. 17a). Though he is a famous Bible character, Elijah was “a man with a nature like ours.” He was a sinner like us. He was not some kind of super-saint. Elijah was just a man. “The Bible records that he suffered the same human weaknesses that we do: he became hungry (1 Kings 17:11), afraid (1 Kings 19:3), and depressed (1 Kings 19:9–14).” He battled the same sin-nature and resisted the temptations we all have in common (1 Cor. 10:13). But he was also a man of faith who believed that God could do what seemed impossible.
Elijah prayed earnestly (v. 17). Elijah therefore prayed “earnestly,” which literally means “he prayed with prayer.” Elijah did not pray halfheartedly. Instead, he prayed with a whole heart that was devoted to God. Charles Spurgeon once said, “Without the heart prayer is a wretched mockery. There is as much grace in the bark of a dog or the grunt of a swine as in a form of prayer if the heart be absent …God is as likely to hear the cry of ravens than to regard prayers uttered in chapels or churches, if the mind is not in earnest.” Like the prophet Elijah, we are called to cultivate a heart that is earnestly “devoted to prayer” (Rom. 12:12).
Elijah reaped the fruit of his prayers (vv. 17–18). How Elijah prayed is how God answered. He prayed for no rain and the land was dry for three-and-a-half years. He prayed again, this time for rain, and a great cloud burst open (see 1 Kings 17:1–7; 18:1). So will it be for the men and women of God who will trust God enough to cry out to Him.
The life of Elijah is an encouragement to us to be men and women of prayer. As we grow in God-dependency, evidenced by an increased reliance upon God through prayer, we too will see Him do great and mighty things on our behalf.