I had a high school teacher who loved to tell stories. He’d tell the same ones over and over until we had each one memorized. I can recite tales of little boys playing baseball in 1950s LA, high school guys navigating the prom in the 60s, and college guys coping with their ’Nam vet friend in the 70s. (I’m grinning as I type this, wishing I could take the time to tell each of those stories now.)
One story he told over and over always started with the same sentence: “Elijah was a man just like us” (James 5:17, NIV). I can’t remember the context of the continually recycled anecdote (i.e., the point of telling it again), and I can’t even remember exactly how the Elijah story went. I think our teacher jumped around 1 Kings, relating a different Elijah escapade each time.
But I remember that sentence. “Elijah was a man just like us.” So when I was asked to scratch out a brief theology of prayer according to James, I thought of Elijah.
“The prayer of a righteous man,” James writes, “has great power as it is working. Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore fruit” (James 5:16-18, ESV).
I’m skeptical. Elijah was a man…just like me. Right. Even ignoring the awkward gender constructs on the English translation, I’m not convinced that Elijah was just like me.
So since that’s too confusing, let’s look elsewhere in James. Besides the end of chapter five, the two most important passages about prayer in the epistle are 1:5-8, 16-18 and 4:2-8. In the first section, James tells any Christian who “lacks wisdom” to “ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given to him” (James 1:5). Great—if you feel like a fool, you can ask God for wisdom, and He’ll give it without checking (twice) to see if you’re on the naughty list. But there’s a caveat—“But let him ask in faith, without doubting” (James 1:6). Three chapters later James adds another qualification—“You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions” (James 4:3). So while God won’t give you something that’s not good for you, there’s only one fault that will actually put you on the naughty list: doubt.
Which raises a big question: What if you ask for God to take away your doubts? What if you ask for faith? Remember the man who told Christ, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24)? Knowing that God “gives more grace” to those who ask (James 4:6), the man asked Christ for more faith. He had enough faith to ask, but not enough faith for much else. Any prayer is founded in faith—even if it’s faith as small as a mustard seed. I couldn’t ask God for more faith if I didn’t have any in the first place. And I do hope (and pray!) that God doesn’t “reproach” me for my doubts, but rather gives more faith.
If every prayer is founded in faith, then any old prayer “will save the one who is sick” (James 5:15). And any of us who prays is just like Elijah.
Even though I have that sentence ringing in my head—“Elijah was a man just like us”—I’m not entirely sure that’s the point. “Every good and perfect gift is from above,” James reminds us, “coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (James 1:17).
I’m not like Elijah. I’m human, and I have some smidgen of faith—but I know I’m not like Elijah. Nevertheless, I know that Elijah’s God and my God are the same. He doesn’t change. He gives good gifts. He is light, and in Him is no darkness at all. He gives wisdom to the foolish and uses them to shame the wise. He gives more grace.
I might not be like Elijah. But I can pray to his God anyway, trusting that the Father of lights still gives good gifts.