Patience and Prayer

James (Ole Camel Knees) concludes his epistle with a discussion of patience and prayer in the face of adversity.  Patience is not a well regarded virtue these days.  Just about the only time you’ll see it lauded is during a football game (that’s real football not some ersatz game with grown men in short pants playing kickball).  You’ve heard the announcer on TV talking about the quarterback being patient waiting for the receiver to open up or the running back being patient waiting for his blockers.  Its ironic that this patience takes so little time that its occurrence may be easily overlooked by the casual observer.

Mostly, as Americans, we don’t want to be patient.  It is certainly in short supply in my life.  I’m looking for the shortest line in the grocery store.  I don’t want to wait for anything (not even for football season, I’m seriously Jonesin’ for some football right now).  Service is always too slow.  The internet is too slow.  Traffic is too slow. I want what I want and I want it right now.  It took a month and a half for the bank to approve and close my fast track mortgage refinance and I spent at least a month of that time yelling at them to go faster.

But James counsels patience.  For how long?  Until the Lord returns.  Ooops. He gives us an agricultural example of a farmer waiting for his crop to grow.   Most of us aren’t farmers today but we can certainly appreciate that plants don’t grow overnight and while we can water and fertilize, we are not in control of how fast, or even if, they mature and bear fruit.  I think James is telling us that it is the same with our lives.  We can do those things we know are right and can prepare ourselves correctly, but the results are always just out of our control.

But he says our patience should be based on hope for two reasons:

  1. 5:11 “Think of how we regard as blessed those who have endured.”  We see those who have endured in humility, love and faith around us, if we are fortunate we know some personally.  How to we think of them?  Would we wish to regarded in the same way?  Ultimately who is it that regards their condition?  Which brings to:
  2. Continuing 5:11 “You have heard of Jobʼs endurance and you have seen the Lordʼs purpose, that the Lord is full of compassion and mercy.”  Who’s mercy and compassion do we seek?  If we seek God’s then we must do so patiently.

Besides patience, James counsels prayer and uses Elijah as his example.  What were Elijah’s prayers like?  Four of Elijah’s prayers are recorded in detail.

1) Prayer for the son of the Widow of Zarephath (1 Kings 17:10-26) – A prayer of concern and intercession. Elijah was praying for a new thing. There had not been a resurrection in the Bible until this time. His faith was so great he was praying not based on what he had seen God do, but based on what he knew God’s character to be. He is praying, in a sense, that God should restore His honor. God has made Elijah a guest in this woman’s home how can he repay her kindness (even kindness fueled by a miracle) in this manner? How do we pray? Are our prayers consistent with the character of God or do they impugn his Character? How did God respond?

2) Prayer on Carmel (1 Kings 18:16-45) – A prayer in God’s Name. We have often heard that we should pray in Jesus’ name. In fact Jesus promised in John 14:13 that he would do whatever we asked in his name. But praying in God’s name is more than appending a notice at the end that we are doing so. We often pray for what we want and then say that we are praying in Jesus’ name when nothing could be further from the truth. So what does it mean to pray in Jesus’ name?

It means to pray for the things he wants or to pray in his place or stead. That’s what Elijah did. He prayed that the God would work for God’s purposes, not for Elijah’s. Can there be any doubt that it was God’s will to bring the Israelites back to worship him? When our desires align with God’s to the point that we are earnestly seeking God’s will to be done, and are praying for things to happen to further God’s will in God’s way, we are praying in his name.

3) Prayer by the Broom Tree (1 Kings 19:1-9) – A prayer of Despair. But after the high point of having his will aligned so with God’s that a spectacular supernatural event occurs, Elijah runs for his life. This underscores James’ statement that Elijah was a man just like us. Despite seeing what God could do he chooses not to continue fully trusting God and finds himself alone a day’s journey into the desert near Beersheba, under a broom tree. And he prays that God would take his life.

This may be the hardest of Elijah’s prayers to understand. He was physically exhausted, emotionally stressed, and in fear for his life. He did not cry out to God for succor, but for death, for an end. This was not a cry for rest but a cry for finality at any price. Have you prayed such a prayer? How did this prayer represent righteousness? I’m not sure of the answer, but I think it shows that even when he was not fully in God’s will, he knew he was still in God’s hands.

And how did God respond? He gave him bread and water, even though that was the opposite of what he prayed for, and he gave him a destination. God told him to eat and drink what was provided and go, we are not sure where, and perhaps neither was Elijah. But he went to Mount Horeb.

4) Prayer in the Cave (1 Kings 19:10-18) – A prayer of Revelation. It was on Mount Horeb that Elijah prayed his most significant prayer. You might not think it was a prayer because it was not a monologue but a dialog with God. But what is prayer if not talking with God and hearing back from him?

God was preparing Elijah to go somewhere, He had a destination in mind for him, and Horeb was not the place. God asked Elijah why he was in a cave on Horeb (or perhaps he asked Elijah why he existed at all). In response Elijah recites some of the events that lead him there, but didn’t really answer the question. So God told Elijah to go outside and see Him pass by. A wind that split the rocks came up, but God was not in the wind. An earthquake happened, but God was not in that. A fire blasted the mountain, but God was not in that either.

And when a gentle whisper came Elijah knew he was in the presence of the Creator of the Universe and he pulled his cloak over his head. Then God asked him again why he was in a cave on Horeb. Surprisingly (at least to me) Elijah gave the same answer as before. But now that God was sure he had his attention he told him exactly what to do, not in some dramatic fashion, but in a whisper.

Have we prayed for God to reveal himself to us and been looking for fireworks? Have we prayed to know his will thinking it would be some grand thing? Have we been disappointed with the whisper or the mundane or dangerous and dirty?

This is I think, a point where James would say,”Have you been hearers or doers?” Having asked for and received (or even just received without asking) an indication of God’s Will, however small and quiet, have we acted on it? What was Elijah’s response to hearing God’s instruction? The real prayer of faith would seem through James’ eyes to be the prayer that leads us to action, just as the righteous man is the one like Elijah who, imperfectly to be sure, allows his faith in God to shape his actions