…The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails 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 land for three years and six months. And he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain, and the earth produced its fruit. (James 5:16–18—NKJV)

I was asked to preach in a Christian school chapel service on the subject of prayer. I did not want to make the study of prayer boring. A subject as important as prayer needed something that connected with these teens’ daily life. As I prayed and studied, the thought struck me that a believer’s prayer work is useless if it does not come from the heart. “Heart-work” sounded enough like homework that I decided to use it. Just as homework is a daily requirement for a student, so prayer heart-work is a believer’s daily duty. The question for every believer to answer when he puts his head down on his pillow at night is, “Did I do my heart-work today?”

Before we address the kind of heart-work that prayer is, notice the simple description of the one who is doing the praying: He is identified as “a righteous man.” Righteousness is an attribute of God that may be shared by men. It starts in a man’s heart when he is born again through faith in Christ’s finished redemptive work. Jesus Christ died, the Righteous for the unrighteous. When a man is born again, he is clothed in the righteousness of Christ. A man’s state of being righteous is a declared one—by God, the Father—designed to be made practical in everyday life. If a man is truly saved, he desires to live a righteous life in obedience to the commands of God. He will stand in awe of God, recognize his own unworthiness, confess his sin to God, and depend upon the Holy Spirit for any good that comes out of his life. It is this kind of a spirit-led life that will avail much.

James, the brother of our Lord, uses two terms to describe the kind of prayer that draws upon the resources of heaven. The first is the word “effective.” The Greek word means to be operative, to work. Prayers that are aimless, lackluster, unspecific, unengaged, rote, formulaic, or generic cannot be Holy Spirit led nor Holy Spirit empowered (Romans 8:12–27). Why pray if the prayer is not to a purpose? The term relates to the “inworking” within the one praying; it is a work of God (consistent with the mind of God) within his heart. Obviously, the effectiveness will be determined by the Lord and not by us, for certainly He does not abrogate His sovereignty when He commands men to labor in prayer with specificity (Psalm 37:1–7). The Greek word for prayer is expressive of an inferior begging of his superior.

Just about any human endeavor that is worthy to be undertaken has identifiable measurements by which effectiveness of effort can be gauged. When a child is sick with a fever and a parent labors to see him get well, the parent will consult a doctor and get a prescribed way of treating the ailment. The parent will diligently watch over the child, measure the fever, administer the dosages, and hover near until the fever abates and the child is on the mend. Prayer, in order to be effective, must not be slipshod, calloused, or heartless any more than the labors of a loving parent for an ailing child. The parent’s job is not finished until the child is well, neither is the prayer-warrior’s job complete until his prayer of his heart has been effectual.

The second word is “earnestly” (verse 17). This is where the heart-work begins to seem like applying “elbow grease” to a worthy project. Epaphras was one who did his “heart-work.” Colossians 4:12–13 records, “Epahpras, who is one of you, a bondservant of Christ, greets you, always laboring fervently [contend with an athletic enthusiasm] for you in prayer, that you may stand perfect and complete in all the will of God. For I bear him witness that he has a great zeal for you.” Fervor takes spirit, drive, effort, liveliness. It will not be disheartened, distracted, or dissuaded. Elijah prayed “earnestly,” as the Greek puts it; “he prayed with prayer” (a Hebraistic construct which denotes intensity).

There are three passages where our Lord promises answered prayer in “whatsoever you ask,” each tied to the command to abide in Christ (John 15:7). Answered prayer is promised for requested issues of loving obedience (John 14:13–15), loving fruitfulness (John 15:16–17), and loving joyfulness (John 16:23–24). It’s heart-work!

Someone thoughtfully simplified God’s answers to prayer this way:

“If the request is wrong, God says, ‘No.’

If the timing is wrong, God says, ‘Slow.’

If you are wrong, God says, ‘Grow.’

If the request, timing, and you are right, God says, ‘Go!’”

Pray, and do not fail to do your “heart-work.” Trust and obey.