What is Effectual Fervent Prayer?
“The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much”
The phrase, "effectual fervent," has been a well-known expression used in relationship to prayer for centuries. It originates with the King James version, and is actually translated from a single Greek word, energeo (ἐνεργέω), a cousin to our word for energy. Generally speaking, it conveys the idea of “energizing,” similar to an electrical current that brings energy to a circuit. When applied to the passage, this suggests a type of prayer that is “passionate, heartfelt, heated, persistent” and so forth. The Amplified Bible, renders it another way that’s especially illuminating: “The earnest (heartfelt, continued) prayer of a righteous man makes tremendous power available [dynamic in its working]” (James 5:16 TAB).
This kind of prayer is quite the opposite of a lethargic, repetitious or superficial type. And while passionate, it is not merely whipping up emotions, or generating exciting sounds or words... but expresses an intense sincere confidence in God. This might also be described as praying “radically,” with everything you got, with all your heart... along the lines of what Jeremiah wrote, “And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart” (Jeremiah 29:13).
The late British Methodist minister, William Booth, also knew something about such radical prayer. In 1865, this 36-year-old Englishman founded the Salvation Army, with the intent to evangelize the poor, and literally changed his society with the Salvation message of Christ. He once said, “You must pray with your might... That does not mean saying your prayers, or sitting gazing about in church or chapel, with eyes wide open, while someone else says them for you. It means fervent, effectual, untiring wrestling with God. It means that grappling with Omnipotence, that clinging to Him, following Him about, so to speak, day and night, as the widow did to the unjust judge, with agonizing pleadings and arguments and entreaties, until the answer comes and the end is gained.”
“This kind of prayer, be sure, the devil and the world and your own indolent, unbelieving nature will oppose. They will pour water on this flame. They will ply you with suggestions and difficulties. They will ask you how you can expect that the plans and purposes and feelings of God can be altered by your prayers. They will talk about impossibilities and predict failures; but, if you mean to succeed, you must shut your ears and eyes to all but what God has said, and hold Him to His own word: and you cannot do this in any sleepy mood; you cannot be a prevailing Israel unless you wrestle as Jacob wrestled, regardless of time aught else, save obtaining the blessing sought—that is, you must pray with your might.”1
When I read such words by God’s great men of the past, I tremble at their passion and faith. Men such as Booth and others stood on the front lines of intercession, and persevered until God honored His fervent radical prayers of faith.
In his book, The Essentials of Prayer, author E.M. Bounds wrote, “Prayer must be aflame. Its ardor must consume. Prayer without fervor is as a sun without light or heat, or as a flower without beauty or fragrance. A soul devoted to God is a fervent soul, and prayer is the creature of that flame. He only can truly pray who is all aglow for holiness, for God, and for heaven.”2
As the scripture says, this type of energeo prayer, will “avail much,” or will have a prevailing effect, when engaged by a “righteous person.” And who is a righteous person? Any believer who is washed in the blood of Jesus Christ, forgiven of their sins, and who is walking after the life and teaching of Jesus Christ.
Clearly, righteousness is not something that any of us can attain by our actions alone. The Bible says that our own efforts of righteousness are as worthless filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6). However, when we place faith in Jesus, the righteousness of Christ’s Spirit comes to dwell within us, elevating us to a status of righteousness in God’s eyes (who no longer sees our sins or blemishes), and this generates a new nature of righteous behavior in the way we live and act.
In other words, righteous acts by themselves do not make us righteous in God’s sight. Rather, a faith relationship with Christ is what brings about His righteousness … and then the indwelling of His Holy (righteous) Spirit, produces the fruit of righteous behavior (Galatians 5:9). “Dear children, don’t let anyone deceive you about this: When people do what is right, it shows that they are righteous, even as Christ is righteous” (1 John 3:7 NLT).
Interestingly, when the Holy Spirit inspired James to provide an illustration of such prayer, he chose Elijah, whose prayers God had used to demonstrate His mighty power. “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)
James’ point was, that although Elijah’s mighty prayers and exploits were legendary, he was also a man of frailties and flaws. This was never so obvious than when after being used to display God’s power to Ahab, the wicked idolater and king of Israel, Elijah then recoiled in fear and fled from the threats of Jezebel, Ahab’s wife. He actually crawled under a juniper tree where he asked the Lord to take his life (1 Kings 19:2-4).
How can we make sense of such embarrassing behavior from this mighty man of God, whose prayers God used to control the weather for more than three years? This was the same man who called fire down from Heaven, and who destroyed four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal. The simple explanation is, Elijah was “human.” He was a mere mortal, whose prayers God used in awesome and astonishing ways... but was still just an imperfect human being, just like you and me.
Thus, James message is clear. If God could hear and answer the passionate faith-filled prayers of Elijah, a common man “with a nature like ours,” He can likewise hear and answer yours and mine. The Lord is eager to answer the effectual, fervent prayers of ordinary, but righteous followers of Jesus Christ!
1 God’s Generals: The Revivalists, Roberts Liardon, 2008