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The actual number may be wrong. But some people love to use James 5:16 as a solid basis for answered prayers. Especially when it comes to physical healing.

“Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is very powerful in its effect.”

Is this verse being misused when used to say the prayer was answered because that person was righteous?

It’s like saying there are maybe hundreds of thousands, possibly millions of believers in need of physical healing for others or for themselves. But their prayers aren’t answered because they’re not righteous?

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  • I've always viewed that text as meaning the sick believer calls upon other believers to pray for him/her. It is not any supposed righteousness of the sick person that is being spoken of. Nobody is righteous, the Bible states, yet millions of prayers are, indeed, answered (though healing might not always be the answer according to God's perfect will.)
    – Anne
    Commented Jun 22 at 14:26

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James is speaking to Israel in the book of James (James 1:1). However, we can consider what Paul says (2 Timothy 2:7) regarding who is righteous today:

Romans 3:10

As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one:

Romans 3:23

For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God;

Note what Christ ascended in glory says to Paul, our "pattern", regarding healing today:

2 Corinthians 12:7-10

And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure. 8 For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me. 9 And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ's sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong.

The answer may become more clear if we "rightly divide" (2 Timothy 2:15) what is written directly to Israel from what was written directly to us.

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    I understand. So what you’re saying is that this specific verse was for something spoken to Israel not us. So therefore people are wrong in using it to act as if the prayers were answered because the person praying was righteous. THANK YOU!
    – Lyd
    Commented Jun 19 at 20:36
  • Yes, but I'm only repeating scripture. I didn't come up with that conclusion on my own. Thanks! Commented Jun 19 at 20:45
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    +1. Good answer - especially your opening about no one righteous!
    – Dottard
    Commented Jun 19 at 22:51
  • @Dottard Much appreciated! Commented Jun 19 at 22:52
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Logically, the fact that a righteous person's prayer is powerful does not lead to the conclusion that a person asking (for healing or anything else) is righteous. One need not appeal to the argument that "no one is righteous" to understand this. There are countless examples in the Bible of God hearing the prayer of sinners. For example Psalm 51:

Turn away your face from my sins; blot out all my iniquities. A clean heart create for me, God; renew within me a steadfast spirit. Do not drive me from before your face, nor take from me your holy spirit. Restore to me the gladness of your salvation; uphold me with a willing spirit.

The psalmist here admits he is not a righteous person. But we may be assured his prayer for a clean heart was answered. So yes, it is a misuse of the scripture to claim and an answered prayer means the person asking must be righteous. In regard to the OP's mention of healing miracles, see Mark 13:22

False messiahs and false prophets will arise and will perform signs and wonders in order to mislead, if that were possible, the elect.

Conclusion: an answered prayer, even one involving a miracle of healing, is no proof that the person who uttered it is righteous. God answers the prayers of sinners as well as saints. Nor does the fact that a prayer is not answered prove that the petitioner is a bad person.

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In order to answer the OP, we have to first deal with an elephant in the room. James refers to “a righteous person” and Paul says, “There is no righteous person, not even one.” How do we reconcile these two, seemingly opposite, statements?

Paul is referring to the state of every person. James is referring to an action of the individual. The importance of the term ‘action’ will become quite relevant in a moment. As for Paul's clarity that he refers to state, see Romans 1:17-3:20. I’m certainly all too familiar with this state.

How do we know that James refers to the action of an individual and not to the state?

Three reasons.

  1. He uses the word ἐνεργέω (to productively work). It’s a participle that modifies δέησις (request, prayer, the focus is on the need). So, James is talking about a “productively working request.” So, at this point, with just this phrase, we know that the request is directly connected to its producing something--it’s action. We know that the righteous person is somehow connected. And, we assume that the prayer makes that connection (but this assumption makes the prayer righteous, and not the person, a distinction James clarifies via Elijah).

  2. The context talks about people being challenged beyond their means to handle. The popular and well established understanding of ἀσθενέω (weak, feeble, sickly), James 5:14, is being sick. I think it is better understood more broadly, as “being challenged beyond what one is able to handle”. This can be caused by one’s own sin, by catastrophic failure, or other people’s sin. The job of the Elders is to determine how to handle such a situation and get the person back on their feet (the metaphor ἀλείψαντες αὐτὸν ἐλαίῳ (“anointing with oil”) speaks to this. This wasn’t medicinal, it was more like getting the guy a shower and a shave. People of the time did this to get themselves ready for the day.

    I know that’s going to be a big stretch for many readers, and I can’t show the details here, but, I think it important to see that this section (verses 7-20) as not just about people with a medical problem, but people who are challenged beyond what they are able. And, that these people may be in that challenged state because of sin, theirs or others. The response to such a person is applicable to what righteousness looks like. And the OP points to how one is to respond to weakness (challenge).

  3. He illustrates this productively working request with Elijah's two prayers. This illustration clarifies the connection. It’s more than just saying a prayer. Elijah is an illustration of what it means to be what James refers to as “a righteous person.”

But that means we have to define righteous first.

Modern Christianity has reduced a number of words to simply mean “being a good person”. ‘Holiness’ is another. So, we’ve lost clarity when the Bible uses certain terms. In our heads, we too easily translate the terms to, “good person.” I think we’ve done that with ‘righteous’, possibly thinking of it in more superlative terms: “an especially good person.”

The terms ‘righteous’ and ‘righteousness’ are always associated to one’s relationship to the covenant agreement God has put in place. A covenant agreement is one where two (or more) parties agree to a “I will do this and you will do that; I will benefit this way and you will benefit that way.” Very much like a contract, but much more solemn. A covenant is irrevocable except through death. The agreement binds the two parties to a “law” of sorts that is stipulated within the covenant. This “law” is what Paul often refers to when he uses the term. In Jewish terms, the term Torah was defined by the covenant. One kept Torah for covenantal reasons. And Torah is not just a delineated set of rules; it’s a way of life that can be summed up in two “rules”: Love God, love your neighbor.” The point being that a righteous person (whether God or a human being) acted righteously when they performed Torah. (The New Covenant is between God and Jesus where Jesus represented and represents and will represent us as a federal head, performing Torah in our place, but that’s an aside to the OP question.)

In Biblical terms, covenants are associated with sacrifice.

Sacrifice is also a term we’ve largely emptied of its meaning. We don’t practice sacrifice today, so it’s not part of our daily conversations. Sacrifice, as the Bible uses it, is associated with dying and the effective dealing with sin. Sacrifice was stipulated within the covenant as the means by which a member of the covenant showed they were faithful to the covenant. The removal of sin was necessary for a holy (ie set apart to God) relationship with the other member of the covenant (ie God). We see an echo of this mediatorial nature of a sacrifice in how the Elders are to deal with the incapacitated person. Is there sin? How do we get the person back on their feet? How do we pray?

So, righteousness and sacrifice are inextricably linked. This linkage is key to the “powerful and productive working” of an action. And so, it’s key to the answer to the OP’s question.

Being righteous involves sacrifice, and that’s the Biblical definition of sacrifice. It’s not our watered down version. We see this in the Elijah illustration.

So, how was Elijah righteous? See: 1 Kings 17-19:8

In a world whose foundation was an agricultural economy, he prayed that it wouldn’t rain--and he didn’t leave.

Certainly, he was told by God to go to the brook Kerith “in the east”. But, that brook dried up. And he needed Ravens to bring him food. These are scavenger and predator birds. He took part in the famine. The story, as told, is explicit about Elijah's engagement.

In other words, Elijah, recognizing the extensive sin that permeated his society, urged God to righteously and effectively deal with that sin. And, he showed his faithfulness to that covenant agreement by taking part in the sacrifice that would be needed.

This involvement is mirrored by the other half of the story where Elijah prays for the opposite--rain. There, he is again directly involved in the sacrifice, an actual sacrifice. As an aside, it’s interesting Elijah’s prayer for rain to stop and an explicit request for rain to start isn’t recorded. It’s like he actually never referred to rain. What we do know is Elijah referred to his faithfulness to what God had revealed, and that God would be faithful to what he had promised. This is the type of action the term ‘righteousness’ refers to. See 1 Kings 18:36 (NASB20):

Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, today let it be known that You are God in Israel and that I am Your servant, and that I have done all these things at Your word. Answer me, Lord, answer me, so that this people may know that You, Lord, are God, and that You have turned their heart back.

The phrase “God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel” brings to mind the covenant relationship that established the nation. The “I have done all these things at your word” is Elijah’s righteous behavior. And, God “turn[ing] their heart back” is God’s righteous behavior (which was done by holding back the rain). So, the prayer of a righteous person is the prayer of a person who enters into the effective remedy of sin. It’s not one who thinks their righteousness is simply praying. A righteous person is engaged in the productive work.

One last rather important clarification. Every single one of us can only do what we can do. There are some whose work is prayer. Those who are called to the most are often those who are challenged the greatest. Perhaps this speaks to the “millions of believers in need of healing” in the OP. Christiana Tsai comes to my mind since, though I regrettably never met her, lived not far from where I grew up. She’s known as the Queen of the Dark Chamber, for obvious reasons. Greatly challenged, but she did what she could do. If I could only be half as faithful.

James states that we are to “pray for one another.” Simply praying is not to be thought of as a low bar. However, James does lift the bar high as he writes (this is all verse 16) and refers to the “righteous person.” In any case, if we follow James instructions to “pray for one another”, then maybe it wasn’t my prayer that was the one that was answered. How would I know?

I think the answer to the OP is: The measurement of righteous action is my faithful and sacrificial action given to God’s promise so as to remedy sin’s impact on those around me. It’s my engagement in the person’s life, possibly through prayer, not the prayer’s answer.

(I think this answer in another post related to James 5:12 shares relevant context for the OP question here. Specifically, the section with heading, "Oaths under Trials / Persecution". It speaks to those who are challenged (ἀσθενέω).)

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