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In the fifth chapter of his letter, James makes reference to Elijah (5:17-18). James offers him as an example of effective praying. He cites the times when Elijah prayed for rain and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years and when he then did pray for rain and the rain poured.

James intends for this to be encouraging, but when I talk with other followers of Jesus about this example it is sometimes heard as discouraging. Why? Because we don’t have lives of prayer like that! We don’t live in prayer in such a way that we ask the Father for things so definite, so massive, so life-altering . . . and see the answers to those specific prayers granted in such demonstrative ways. But James is suggesting that there is open to the friend of Jesus a kind of praying that looks like that.

I think that James probably got the idea from Jesus. Jesus speaks of that kind of praying more than once. In his final moments with his closest followers before his betrayal and death, he spoke of their lives of prayer.

“Truly, truly, I say to you, if you ask the Father for anything in my name, he will give it to you. Until now you have asked for nothing in my name; ask and you will receive, so that your joy may be made full.”  (John 14:23-24)

This sounds a lot like the way Elijah prayed. Asking and receiving. Receiving in such clear ways that joy overflows. So I wondered if there might be something in Elijah’s praying that mirrored what it means to pray “in Jesus’ name” (obviously, he couldn’t have used the name of Jesus, not knowing the name of the yet-to-be-revealed Messiah). As I looked through 1 Kings 17 (an early chapter devoted to Elijah and what God was doing through him), I stumbled upon something.

In this chapter we read about a prayer offered by Elijah. He asks God to raise a young boy from the dead. And God does that (1 Kings 17:21-22). No doubts that joy flowed from the answer to that prayer. This is like what Jesus spoke about. But what about the “in my name” part?

If we remember that to pray “in Jesus’ name” means much more than simply tacking those words on to the end of our praying (see the post “Not Just a Postscript”), then there might be something to help us in 1 Kings 17.

The young man raised from the dead is a widow’s son. Elijah had imposed upon the widow to provide for him during a time of famine. And the imposition came with both a divine commission and a divine provision. God provided a miraculously-unending supply of flour and oil so the woman and her son and Elijah would be provided for. It was while living in that provision during the time of the drought (remember, Elijah had prayed that it not rain in the land for three and a half years!), that the widow’s son died.

What helps me understand the context of Elijah’s bold and answered prayer is what we are told of him throughout the chapter.

In verse 2 we are told “the word of the Lord came to him” giving him instructions. According to verse 5, “he went and did according to the word of the Lord.” As the story unfolds in verses 8 and following, the word of the Lord came to him again and he did what the Lord instructed him to do. In verse 14, he makes reference to what the Lord has told him; in 16 the author says that what was happening was in accordance with the word the Lord had spoken to Elijah. Then we get to Elijah’s prayer when faced with the death of the widow’s son.

He called to the LORD and said, “O LORD my God, have you also brought calamity to the widow with whom I am staying, by causing her son to die?” Then he stretched himself upon the child three times, and called to the LORD and said, “O LORD my God, I pray You, let this child’s life return to him.” The LORD heard the voice of Elijah, and the life of the child returned to him and he revived. (1 Kings 17:21-23)

Apparently, Elijah is on intimate terms with God; he repeatedly refers to God as “my God.” He feels free to raise a question before God in the face of the calamity. And he “called” to the Lord. That’s an interesting word. It’s found in Genesis 3:9 when God called to Adam after the fall. Hagar called to God (Genesis 16:13) having been driven from Abraham’s house by the jealous Sarah. It is the word used in Genesis 22:11 of the angel calling to Abraham to hold his hand and not kill Isaac while on the mountain. It seems to be used to refer to the start of a conversation.

This whole chapter, then, is so very helpful. Elijah is living in intimacy with God. He and God are, apparently, talking a lot about what God is up to, what God wants Elijah to do. And Elijah is content to align himself with all that God wants. He is living “in God” and what he does he does as God’s representative. Thus, when he prays, he is praying “in God’s name”–that is consistent with what God wants, an overflow of his intimacy with God, prompted by how God has been speaking to him, flavored by the richness of his life with God.

And when prayer to God is the outflow of the heart of one who is living in that kind of intimacy, that prayer is answered in clear and joy-producing ways.

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3 Comments

  1. So the two aspects of the conversation are–“the word of the Lord coming to him” and “calling to the Lord”. I have been trying to discover for some time why the “calling to the Lord” part seems so much more difficult for me. Maybe it’s just me, but it seems easier to “hear” than to “ask”. Do you think this is a boldness issue, a belief issue or something else?

  2. Oh that my living would more aline with my praying, that my asking would line up with my listening….that our dialog would dovetail with the dance. Lord hold me so that my utterances would flow from our embrace. That my heart would find it’s greatest joy in knowing You and making You known. I pray this for my brothers and sisters as well as myself.

  3. Great thoughts, friends. Let me think with you a bit.

    The idea seems to be, as expressed by Sr, that our living and our asking would align. That seems to be at the heart of this kind of praying. And that is clearly what is expressed by Jesus in John 15:1-8. Abiding in Jesus is all about finding our lives lived in dependence upon him. And out of that, Jesus says that there should and could come an “asking.” In this way, our living flows into our asking and our asking in an expression of our living in him.

    The living in this life does include hearing from the Lord–in spite of how foreign the idea of Jesus talking to us might be to so many who see prayer almost exclusively one way (our talking to/at God). There might be times when we hear as clear a word as did Elijah that ushers in the kind of praying that Elijah engaged in. But I wonder if there are also times when we are living so very close to Jesus that we might not perhaps here a clear voice but nevertheless have a proper sense of what Jesus wants for us. And that flows into a prayer–an asking of the Father–that the Father is pleased to answer because we are living in such rich intimacy with Jesus and the praying was the overflow of that intimacy.

    With regard to the boldness issue, perhaps it is not so much an issue of asking boldly, but one of knowing more certainly. Being unsure about what we hear from Jesus can leave us uncertain as to what to ask. But the clearer we are on what he is saying to us, the freer we are in asking of the Father the things we have heard.


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