Effective Prayer

The unstable man

After exhorting us to seek wisdom, James moves to another of his principal themes—prayer that gains results. He says that a man who petitions God for wisdom must ask in faith. But as James expands upon the necessity of faith, he clearly does not mean to limit his advice to one kind of prayer, the prayer for wisdom. He expects us to understand that faith is the condition for any successful prayer, whatever it may seek. Faith is the key to unlock the storehouse containing all of God’s benefits.

The Epistle of James is rich in uncommon words and unusual figures of speech. We find several examples here in the opening discussion of faith. He contrasts faith with "wavering" (v. 6). The word refers to a struggle within the mind, arising when a man’s thoughts take both sides in an internal debate. A debate over what? There are two possibilities. Since James does not tell us which kind of wavering he means, he likely means either one. It is wavering if a man doubts whether God will in fact hear and answer his prayer. Likewise, it is wavering if he is not sure what he wants God to provide. Either kind of wavering compromises faith and reduces to doubting. Therefore, good alternative translations for "wavering" and "wavereth" are "doubting" and "doubteth."

In a striking simile, James compares the doubting man to "a wave of the sea driven with the wind and tossed" (v. 6). The Greek expression does not picture a single wave, but a whole seascape of waves sweeping first one way and then another as constantly shifting winds play upon the water.

James declares that such a man will not receive anything from the Lord (v. 7). His petitions will hit the ceiling and come right back. The throne room of heaven will shut out his voice. Such a man suffers from a grievous flaw in his character. In seeking to describe this flaw, James found himself at a loss to convey the idea with any familiar word, so he coined a new one, or at least he used a word that occurs nowhere else in ancient literature. He says that a doubting man is "double minded"—literally, "with two souls" (v. 8). Perhaps he was fashioning a Greek equivalent for an expression employed twice in the Old Testament (1 Chron. 12:33; Ps. 12:2): "double heart" in English and "a heart and a heart" in Hebrew. The Hebrew expression, suggesting a divided heart, speaks of a man who is insincere, whose statements cannot be depended on either because he has divided loyalty or because he is downright dishonest. In his use of the comparable Greek term, James gives it a different sense, referring to a man who prays with a heart divided between faith and doubt. As we said earlier, either the man does not know what he wants or he does not believe God will give it.

The tragic outcome is that he is "unstable in all his ways" (v. 8). The word "unstable" suggests something that is not planted firmly on the ground—something that is unsteady and likely to topple over. James means that wherever a double minded man walks, he will have a hard time staying on his feet. He will stagger along rather like someone who is intoxicated, and as a result He will always be slipping and falling. In other words, he will be constantly getting into trouble.

Faith as a prerequisite

In his emphasis on faith, James again shows the mind of his older brother, Jesus. One of Jesus’ core teachings was that with faith, nothing is impossible. Although the first three Gospels, called the Synoptics, differ sharply in their coverage and style from the Gospel of John, they all agree with John that Jesus viewed prayer as an instrument with unlimited power (Matt. 7:7-11; John 16:23). Jesus taught clearly throughout His ministry that the condition for successful prayer is faith (Mark 9:23). The immediate inspiration for James’s remarks on faith, setting it in contrast to doubt, seems to be the following saying of Jesus: "Jesus answered and said unto them, Verily I say unto you, If ye have faith, and doubt not, ye shall not only do this which is done to the fig tree, but also if ye shall say unto this mountain, Be thou removed, and be thou cast into the sea; it shall be done. And all things, whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive" (Matt. 21:21-22).

The promise that all things are possible through the prayer of faith is stunning in its magnitude. It is absolute. There are no hedges on "all things." Can we begin to conceive what "all things" might include? To urge us to greater imagination of the possibilities, Jesus affirms that by faith we could move mountains. How much faith do we need to accomplish great things? Not much. An amount comparable in dimensions to a tiny mustard seed will do (Matt. 17:20). Even with so little faith, nothing is impossible. But although Jesus promised that by faith we could move mountains, we feel mighty pleased with ourselves if by faith we manage to move a few spadefuls.

We find a comparable promise elsewhere in the teachings of Jesus: "And the Lord said, If ye had faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye might say unto this sycamine tree, Be thou plucked up by the root, and be thou planted in the sea; and it should obey you" (Luke 17:6). Why do we not see Christians moving trees and mountains? So far as I know, there is no recorded instance of a believer casting a mountain into the sea or uprooting a tree and transplanting it elsewhere just by the power of prayer. Why not?

Sometime ago I planted trees on my property. As I was doing the work, I naturally could not help but notice the many eye-catching specimens of flowering trees and shade trees in the yards of other people around town. Why did I never command one of their trees to move to my property, and if I had done so, why would God never have granted my desire, through I prayed with perfect faith? Because I would have been stealing somebody else’s tree.

On my own property, I have many trees and shrubs growing wild out in the draw behind my house. Many are strong, attractive, and flourishing. Many would be more useful if they were relocated to barren ground. What if I commanded one of these to pluck itself up and replant itself in my front yard? I own the tree. Making it move would not be stealing, and it would serve me better in its new place. So, if I prayed for God to move it, I would be seeking a good thing.

Or would I? Basically, I would be seeking to escape from work. God never performs a miracle just to suit our laziness. In His view, answering my prayer for relocation of the tree would not yield a good result, but an evil result. Look down a few verses. "God cannot be tempted with evil" (Jas. 1:13). God cannot be persuaded to do evil even by the prayers of His children. That is why many prayers are never answered. They are seeking evil, not good.

Now we understand why Christians do not go around removing mountains and trees. It is hard to imagine any circumstance when casting a mountain into the sea or transplanting a tree would be necessary to accomplish any good thing. Can you think of any? I cannot.

Then why does Jesus use the moving of mountains and trees to illustrate what we can accomplish by faith? Because these are clearly impossible things. You cannot move a tree, much less a mountain, just by speaking a word. Jesus is teaching us that by faith we can do the impossible. His illustrations are especially helpful because they show that there is nothing beyond the reach of spiritual power. The power of prayer can affect not only hearts and minds, but also the world of nature.

Why is faith the fuel for great spiritual power? Because faith, like doubt, can be either of two kinds, and both please God. Just as doubt can be uncertainty as to what to pray for, so faith can be confidence in what we should ask. Just as doubt can be unbelief that God will answer, so faith can be confidence that He will. Either kind of faith shows God that we are becoming exactly what He wants us to be.

The first kind of faith shows that we are growing in spiritual judgment. Through long fellowship with the Father and meditation on His Word, we have come to understand what things we should seek. We have acquired the mind of God as we survey possibilities in the future. God is certain to reward a prayer for good things, for as we seek and acquire them, we not only bring His grace and goodness to the world, but we turn away from seeking things that are spiritually ruinous.

The second kind of faith shows that we think God is good. Any doubt that He will answer a prayer for good things insults Him. It makes Him out to be morally neutral, or stingy, or impotent. Faith is really a way of praising God for His goodness, His generosity, and His power. We credit Him with having all three attributes beyond measure when we pray in faith. No wonder God is then open to our request. It puts us in the place of fulfilling the purpose for which we were created—to bring glory to God.


1. If I really believe that prayer is no less powerful than God Himself, surely I will be constant in prayer. But am I?

How much time do you actually spend praying? How many requests do you actually bother to raise before God?

Suppose I gave my wife an amazing new invention—a supersmart, multifunctional robot capable of doing every manner of housework. Would she use it or store it away in the basement? You can be sure that she would never scorn a labor-saving device. Yet we have a tool more capable than any robot—prayer.

You cannot see answered prayer if you never pray. And if you fail to let God show Himself real through answered prayer, your faith will grow weaker. It will atrophy, like a muscle never used. Faith is always growing stronger or weaker, and the difference usually depends on whether we pray.

2. If Jesus said I could move mountains, am I praying for benefits as large as He promised? Or instead of "all things" (Matt. 21:22), am I praying for "small things"?

It is childish to pray only for recovery from colds and for good weather at the church picnic. You should pray in faith for souls, for a great work of God in your community and in your nation, for worldwide revival. You should go beyond requests that might be fulfilled in the natural course of events. You should pray for obvious miracles.

Looking back over our lives, I can see that God has often moved mountains for us. He has granted healing or relief of many serious afflictions. In every difficult move to a new home, he has smoothed the road. He has faithfully provided for the spiritual welfare of our children, grandchildren, and beloved sisters and brothers in Christ. He has always taken care of us financially, even giving us far more than we actually need.

Unanswered prayers have fallen in two categories.

  1. He has not granted our prayers for the salvation of certain people. Why? Because God is not always willing to override a person’s stubborn contempt for the truth. Sometimes He may (2 Tim. 2:25-26), but sometimes He may not. When Samuel persevered in praying for Saul, the Lord turned a deaf ear to the request, advising Samuel that Saul’s rejection would not be reversed (1 Sam. 16:1).
  2. God has not always granted healing for the aged. He did not, for example, deliver my mother from her last illness. Well into her nineties, she had outlived her usefulness in Christian work. To prolong her life would have condemned her to more suffering and mental decline. God gave her something far better than healing. He gave her heaven.

3. If faith is necessary for successful prayer, do I actually pray in faith?

You are not demonstrating much real faith if you pray with a sleepy or distracted mind. Then you are just mouthing words. It is essential to engage your mind in what you are saying so that you can be clear and decisive. James addresses this issue again later (James 5:16), exhorting us when we pray to wake up, get involved, and put both heart and passion into our petitions. We especially need to affirm our confidence that we are seeking something good and our confidence that God will give it. But is that how you pray, or do you grope and mumble and apologize? Of course, we know that God will refuse a request that is not good, yet that possibility should not keep us from praying with confidence.

4. To be sure that I am asking for good things, do I first exercise myself to find out the mind of God?

Do you pray only after you have contemplated His Word and consulted the Holy Spirit? Or do you run ahead with requests that may only be spasms of selfishness?

How can you tell the difference? James will deal with that question later. Here, we can say that one test is whether other godly people are willing to join in the same request. That is why the agreement of two or three is grounds for assurance that a prayer will be answered (Matt. 18:19).

Study Questions

  1. What is the prerequisite to achieve answers in prayer?
  2. What kind of man does God decline to hear, and to what is he compared?
  3. What does double minded mean?
  4. What kind of life can such a man expect?
  5. What promise of Jesus does James recall?
  6. How much faith is required to be effective?
  7. Why do we not see believers moving trees or mountains by faith?
  8. What then does the promise mean?
  9. What is the first kind of faith, and why does it please God?
  10. What is the second kind of faith, and why does it please God?

Further Reading

If you have found this lesson helpful, you might want to obtain Ed Rickard's commentary on the whole Epistle of James. For a brief description and for information on how to obtain it, click here.