“Marshall, it says in James 5:16 that the prayers of a righteous man are powerful and effective. But what do you do if you know that you are not a righteous man but you are trying very hard to do righteous things? Does that mean there is no power in my prayers?”
My friend who wrote this is going through major trials in his life, some of them self-inflicted and some not. And my heart broke as I read his question because he doesn’t see God at work. The problem with his question is that he is starting at the wrong point. His view is that in order to be righteous, I do righteous things, then God is pleased with me. Action determines identity. However, for the Christian, we are righteous because of what God has done, therefore we do righteous things. Identity determines action.
And so what about this question of the prayers of a righteous person?
1) How do we become righteous? The Bible is clear that there is no one who is righteous (Romans 3:10), and that if you want to try and use your righteousness to earn favor with God, the bar is set impossibly high (Matthew 3:20).
Righteousness is a free gift, given in and through Christ. Paul says in Philippians 3:9 that he has a righteousness not of his own but that comes from God on the basis of faith. Christians are righteous because Jesus is righteous and He gives His right standing with God to us.
2) Righteousness and prayer: So when Christians pray, we pray as righteous men and women based on Christ’s work.
3) The mystery of waiting: When God doesn’t answer how we hope or tarries in answering, it’s not because we aren’t doing enough righteous things. We’d sort of prefer it to be that way in a sense because then we might be able to control our own destiny. But prayer doesn’t work that way – it’s more mysterious and dependent on God to answer in His way and His timing.
It’s hard and uncomfortable to wonder why God doesn’t answer our prayers, and it’s natural to think that we are doing something wrong, that God is mad with us and holding back His blessings. But prayer is an act of faith, putting our concerns into bigger hands and offering the outcome to God, trusting His love for us even when it seems hard to see.