In quick succession, James shares seven times that believers should pray and how they should pray:
- When suffering. This Greek word (kakopatheō) is broad in its application and encompasses many kinds of affliction or suffering. Any kind is a good reason to pray. Instead of allowing it to separate the sufferer from the Redeemer, it should serve as an opportunity for them to grow close in faith and trust. The instruction is beautiful in its simplicity: “Let him pray” (James 5:13).
- When cheerful. When happy or joyful, it’s an opportunity to express oneself in psalms, songs of praise to God. Often God is only remembered when pain reminds us of our need. However, it both glorifies God and elevates our own spirits when we remember God in the good times too.
- When sick. When they are in need of extra prayer, or the idea of praying seems overwhelming, James urges the sick one to not neglect prayer. Instead, ask others to pray. Notice the detail that the sick one is to reach out and ask for help in their dark time. Sometimes the only way someone else will know of a need is if they’re told directly—and asking for help is encouraged here.
- When sinning. Sin hurts the sinner. Confessing these trespasses to safe fellow believers and uniting with them in prayer is a beautiful and healing part of community. Instead of wallowing by oneself or denying that there are any issues, James invites the believer to seek healing in the ways God has provided.
- With fervency and righteousness. Jesus told His disciples a parable with the explicit purpose of encouraging them to persist in prayer (Luke 18:1). It is the fervent, repeated prayers of a righteous person that “avails much” (v. 16). Often, the believer does not see the answers to their prayers for lack of persistence, or even for lack of walking according to what God has revealed (that is, they lack righteousness).
- When you need something that’s impossible. Elijah, though having the human nature of all humanity, asked for something impossible according to the laws of nature: to determine when it would stop raining and when it would resume. It was through prayer that this was done, as a witness to the power of God (1 Kings 17–18). Prayer is not just to bolster up what you can already do in your own strength; through prayer, the impossible can happen.
- When someone is straying. Though these two verses do not explicitly mention praying, the context and biblical principle of intercessory prayer can be seen (e.g., 1 Tim. 2:1; Phil. 1:19). When seeing someone wander from the truth, it’s not a time to look the other way. Instead, the believer should do all that is in their power (especially prayer!) to turn them back to the truth.
In one way, this passage could be seen as an expansion on Paul’s shorter version: “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17).