The prophets of Baal believed their god would pay attention to their request if they engaged in a flurry of tortuous and religious mumbo jumbo. Christians often believe the same about our God-that long, tedious hours spent on our knees, pouring our hearts out before the Lord, is what it takes to get God's attention. Jesus said, "When you pray, do not use meaningless repetition as the Gentiles (known as Pagan) do, for they suppose that they will be heard for their many words. So do not be like them; for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him"(Mt 6:7-8). God is not moved to act by the number or the choice of words we offer.
The Bible does offer three prerequisites for unlocking the power of prayer.
A right relationship with God
James wrote, "The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much" (James 5:16). James was describing Elijah is a model of powerful praying because Elijah is a model of righteousness. Many people trip over the word righteousness. They assume, since they are not perfect, it means that God will not hear their prayers. But righteousness does not mean perfection. Instead, the Bible uses the term righteousness in two ways. Sometimes the word righteous refers to "judicial righteousness." At the moment we trust in Christ as our Savior, God declares us to be in right standing before Him. To put it another way, the instant we acknowledge our lack of perfection and our complete reliance upon Jesus Christ for forgiveness, God declares us "not guilty" in the great courtroom of heaven.
Because Jesus has already endured the punishment we deserve, we never need to fear that God will one day dredge up our sins and hold us accountable for them. Perhaps you are familiar with the concept of double jeopardy-the legal notion that a person cannot be tried for the same crime after he has been acquitted of it. If you are declared "not guilty" for robbing a store, you can never be charged for that crime again. Christ willingly endured the punishment we deserve; we have been acquitted from sin, and our death sentence has been commuted. We never have to worry about divine double jeopardy. That is why Paul declared, "Therefore there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus" (Rom 8:1). But having a right standing before God means more than never having to face His judgment for sin. Judicial righteousness also radically changes our relationship with God. Instead of being slaves of sin, we are now children of God, with all the privileges that accompany that relationship.
When you become a Christian, your status changes from being outside God's family to being a member of God's family.
Paul explains that when we enter God's family through faith in Christ, we have the same rights as God's beloved Son, Jesus. He says, "Because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, 'Abba! Father!' Therefore you are no longer a slave, but a son; and if a son, then an heir through God" (Gal 4:6-7). "Abba" is an Aramaic word denoting the intimate relationship between a father and his child, translated "Daddy" or "Papa." Because of our right standing before God, we do not have to approach Him with our requests as some distant deity but as a daddy who loves us. And since we are His family members, we know He listens just as carefully to our requests as He does to the requests of His Son, Jesus Christ.
Does that mean that God automatically says yes to everything we ask of Him? No. God even said no to His Son, Jesus, on occasion. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus pled with His Father to spare Him from the experience of the cross. When God refused to offer an alternative way to provide redemption for the world, Jesus acquiesced to His Father's plan, saying, "Not My will, but Yours be done" (Lk 22:42). Realizing that God might not grant our request should not keep us from making the request-no matter how outlandish it may seem. Because of our right standing with God, we approach our heavenly Father with our requests-whatever they are. John said, "This is the confidence which we have before Him that if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us"(1Jn 5:14). God answered Elijah's prayers because he was a righteous man. But Elijah's righteousness extended beyond his judicial standing before God. Elijah's life also represented the second meaning of righteousness used in the Bible-which just happens to be the second prerequisite to answered prayer.
Obedience to God's Commands
Righteousness refers not only to our right standing before God (judicial righteousness) but also to our right acting before God (ethical righteousness). Judicial righteousness describes what God does for us by declaring us not guilty and placing us in His family. Ethical righteousness refers to how we obey God after we become part of His family. Obedience to God's commands is a prerequisite for answered prayer. As Peter said, "The eyes of the Lord are toward the righteous, and His ears attend to their prayer, but the face of the Lord is against those who do evil" (1Pet 3:12).
Ethical righteousness does not mean we act perfectly all the time-that is impossible. But living righteously denotes both the desire and the direction of our life. A truly righteous person-the kind of person God listens to-has made pleasing God the primary desire in his or her life. That does not mean that person can always pull it off, but at least he wants to. Having the desire to obey God requires cultivating a distaste for sin. But beyond our desires, righteousness also refers to the direction of our life. I am glad that God does not evaluate my life by the major blunders I have made. God looks at the general trajectory of our lives-are we moving closer to Him or farther away from Him? Fortunately, God does not judge the whole of Elijah's life by his one colossal failure of faith after Mount Carmel. Instead, God declared His servant to be righteous because Elijah acknowledged his failure, received God's forgiveness, picked himself up, and resumed his walk with God. What about you? Is your primary desire in life to please God? Is the general direction of your life moving closer to or farther away from God? Your answers to these questions reveal whether you are a righteous person and can expect powerful answers to your prayers.
An Unshakable Faith
Throughout the Bible there is an inseparable link between faith and answered prayer. Here are just a few examples: "Without faith it is impossible to please God, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him" (Heb 11:6). "If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him. But he must ask in faith without any doubting" (James 1:5-6). "The prayer offered in faith will restore the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up, and if he has committed sins, they will be forgiven him" (James 5:15).
But what does it mean to pray "in faith"? This is where many Christians get it wrong. They have been taught that faith is a synonym for positive thinking. They believe that if they can conjure up enough positive persuasion that God will do what they want Him to do, then God will reward their positive belief with a positive answer. Their prayers are reminiscent of the little engine that could: "I think God will, I think God will, I think God will." That is not faith; that is presumption. Prayer is not forcing God's hand to do what we want Him to do.
Faith is believing God will do what He has promised to do. When you pray for a raise in your salary, physical healing for your child, or a promotion at work, you may or may not be praying according to God's will. That does not mean you should not ask for those things. In those cases, praying with faith means boldly asking and quietly trusting in God to do what is best. But when we pray for the reconciliation of a broken relationship, power in sharing the gospel with an unsaved person, or victory over an alluring temptation, we can have the confidence in knowing-as Elijah did-that we are praying according to God's revealed will. And the confidence provides power to our prayers.