What makes prayer effective? Is it the number of words, our tone of voice, or how many people hear us pray?
James 5:16 says, "Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed. The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much."* Effective is emphasized because it is a key word. What exactly is an effective prayer life?
While not exhaustive, the following list of essentials will help us as we seek to have effective prayer lives in this new year.
1) Be clean before God
James considers confessing sin a prerequisite to praying effectively. Righteous means to be right with God. To be right with God, we must have a relationship with God. Those who have surrendered their lives to Jesus and seek to follow Him are those who have the right to affect circumstances when they pray.
Righteous also means to be clean, free from unconfessed sins. Repentance, or turning away from sins that so easily entangle us (Hebrews 12:1), is an ongoing, daily, sometimes hourly, occurrence. But keeping a clean slate with God and man is a key to uninterrupted, effective praying. (Psalm 66:18 and Isaiah 59:1-2.)
2) Know God
The more we know the character and ability of the One to whom we pray, the more confidence or faith we have that our prayer will be heard and answered. That is why Bible reading is so important. Like Moses we can pray, Lord, "let me know Your ways that I may know You." (Exodus 33:13). Discipleship is all about getting to know God, His ways, His character and His purposes for us and our lives.
3) Seek God first
Jesus teaches us to be anxious for nothing. In Matthew 6:9-13, Jesus teaches us to depend on our Father to provide for all our needs, to forgive us when we fail and to protect us from evil. With our temporary and practical needs taken care of, we can focus on God's glory and pray for His will to be done on earth as it is in Heaven.
In Matthew 6:33, Jesus says to "Seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things [practical needs] will be added to you." Prayers that accomplish much are in line with God's will and seek to bring glory to Him alone.
4) Abide in God's Son
Effective prayer is in partnership with God. Jesus teaches us how this works in John 15:1-11 with the parable of the vine. Verses four and five clarify our dependence on God. "Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me. I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing."
5) Believe you will receive
Jesus was walking with His disciples when He became hungry. Seeing a barren fig tree, he cursed the tree and it withered at once. The disciples were amazed and asked how this happened.
Jesus answered in Matthew 21:21-22, "Truly I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what was done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, 'Be taken up and cast into the sea,' it will happen. And all things you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive." Jesus often emphasized the importance of belief, as He does in Matthew 9:28-29; Mark 9:19, 23; Luke 8:48, 50; and John 5:44.
6) Be available
We can get distracted by all the activity and tugs on our lives from the world. Apparently that has been the problem throughout history. In Ezekiel 22:30 God says, "I searched for a man among them who would build up the wall and stand in the gap before Me for the land, so that I would not destroy it; but I found no one."
God is still searching for an intercessor who is available and who will pray without ceasing. Jesus highlighted this in Luke 18:1 when He said we ought to pray at all times and not lose heart.
7) Glorify God alone
Pride is an easy trap to fall into when people notice that God has answered our prayer. But "pride goeth before ... a fall" (Proverbs 16:18 KJV). We will be wise and obedient if we deflect that glory and praise back to God. He is the One who initiates prayer, He empowers and equips us to pray, and He answers our prayers.
God warns us in Isaiah 42:8, "I am the Lord, that is My name; I will not give My glory to another." Jesus also teaches us in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:16, "Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in Heaven."
In agreement with the preceding essentials, the attitude of our heart is important to God. 1 Samuel 16:7 reminds us "God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart."
When our heart is pure and our desire is to bring glory to God alone, our prayers will be effective and will truly accomplish much.
*All Scripture quotations are NASB, unless otherwise noted. Elaine Helms is the prayer coordinator for My Hope America with Billy Graham and director of ChurchPrayerMinistries.org. She served 2000-2010 as the Southern Baptist Convention prayer coordinator for the North American Mission Board, and is the author of "Prayer 101, What Every Intercessor Needs to Know."