Effectiveness and “Making a difference”
Or, Ineffective Interviewers, Political Activity, and (sometimes) Prayer
On a Netflix special that consisted entirely of an interview, I heard a master interviewer¹ interviewing another interviewer-become-interviewee about a project that involved hundreds of conducted interviews. (You might have to read that sentence again.) Near the end, the interviewee was asked why she did it all.
“Because I believe we can make a difference.”
And then—as though she knew those words were empty, and being unaware that adding the next part would actually weaken her statement—she appended,
“I really believe that.”
No matter how much I might sympathize with her cause (and I happened to have been tipping about 72% in her direction), I didn’t “believe that” at all. I don’t believe that her thoroughgoing efforts, her passion for the subject, or the resultant documentary about her interviews will make any noticeable difference in the reality of the situation. They will ultimately be ineffective.
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More than one Facebook friend believes the current U.S. presidency (or another one—it really doesn’t matter which) has a chance of making a positive difference. Many also feel otherwise. Whatever their vantage points, they all really seem to “believe that.” I’m not necessarily able to discern these matters very well, but I myself haven’t observed much presidential effectiveness. I suppose several presidents of yesteryear could be said to have been effective in one or more ways. I’m not about to sing “Mister, we could use a man like Herbert Hoover again” here, but it does seem that there’s a slim current-era likelihood of much good effect from major political figures in this country. I highly doubt that petitions, bills, resolutions, and documentaries (no matter how interesting and on-point) will ultimately be effective. Political gangings-up, whether by the liberal-biased media or the conservative-biased evangelicals, aren’t going to be too effective in working good, either. None of it will make much difference, or if it does, it will be short-lived.
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My wife notes that certain consumer product markets have changed in good ways in the last decade, based primarily on the demand side. Non-GMO-label products have proliferated, and artificial coloring has disappeared from many items, for instance. While regulations have not followed suit, i.e., government lags reality, some health advocates and activities have arguably made a difference.
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James said the prayer of a righteous man is effectual. (OK, I don’t actually know the words James used, or whether they were first penned in Hebrew or Aramaic or Greek, but “effectual” in the KJV is a richer word than “effective.” I can do without the subsequent “availeth much.”) Most people I know would say “prayer makes a difference,” but I have for years preferred to put the emphasis on God, not on the activity or the words of prayer per se. Prayer is not some elixir or magical incantation that is effective in itself. No, it is the One prayers are directed to that must make them “effectual.” My own “prayer life” (a Christianese phrase not found in scripture) was once in a time of relative plenty, but it is now in a time of famine. The prayers I’ve eked out in recent months/years haven’t seemed very effectual. They just haven’t made a difference. Not so far, anyway. That is discouraging.
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My dad recently wrote me a personal reflection about a prayer in his own life. His words were transparent, humble, and rich in personal history, and he experienced the “effectualness” of his own prayer. I am grateful for him and his experience, and I am also envious. May I be simultaneously encouraged for him and discouraged for myself?
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A couple weeks later, I participated in a small group study of the last part of James chapter 5. That passage of text has some interesting translation-interpretation issues (e.g., healing/saving, the connection with anointing, righteous/just, and others). Beyond those matters (which do intrigue me), I keyed in early on the word “anoint” and began to wonder about possible allusions here to King David’s sin (2Samuel 11). Could it be that this entire, concluding section of James’s epistle was intended to lead the predominantly Jewish audience to hark back to times of old? Below, I have divided James 5:13-20 into three sections and made a few observations on the right.
|13 Is anyone among you suffering? He should pray. Is anyone in good spirits? He should sing praises. 14 Is anyone among you ill? He should summon the elders of the church, and they should pray for him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick and the Lord will raise him up – and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. 16 So confess your sins to one another and pray for one another so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great effectiveness.
This section can be taken as relating to emotional and spiritual health as well as physical. See especially v16 which may be connecting the two. There may be dual “healings” here (v15, v16)—both spiritual and physical.
|17 Elijah was a human being like us, and he prayed earnestly that it would not rain and there was no rain on the land for three years and six months! 18 Then he prayed again, and the sky gave rain and the land sprouted with a harvest.
||This section provides a clear, emphatic example of the effectiveness of praying. Here, it is physical, but the earlier part of the Elijah story (1Kings 18) dramatically connected both the spiritual and the physical.
|19 My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone turns him back, 20 he should know that the one who turns a sinner back from his wandering path will save that person’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.
|Elijah and David would have been quite familiar to James’s audience.
It is really only the anointing in v14 above that caused me to recall and look up David’s repentance story. If my hunch is correct that there might be an echo here of Nathan and David, the import of 5:13-20 could be to say to the Jewish audience, “Pray for one another’s deep needs. Remember: praying was effective in Elijah’s case and also in David’s. The physical side may or may not be changed, but the spiritual will be.”
In any event, the praying James is encouraging focuses on spiritual results.
Doubtless, Jewish believers in the middle of the first century CE would have known well the story of David and Bathsheba, even though it was 1,000 years in the past. Perhaps when reading James’s suggestion of anointing the (spiritually?) sick one with oil, the Jewish reader would have called to mind more than one anointing in their history, including David’s anointing of himself, connected with his own spiritual healing, as recorded in 2Samuel 12:20. The appeal to Elijah is inserted as a central testimony to God’s responsive action, and then the curious James 5:19-20 concludes the letter.
So, what to make of verses 19-20? If—and I do say if—I’m onto something with this recall of King David, then verses 19-20 could be alluding, in rabbinic remez² fashion, to the work of the prophet Nathan. In other words, the ideas of (1) turning a sinner from his ways and (2) the resultant covering or cancelling of sins could have led a Jewish Christian to remember that Nathan effectively spoke a message from God for the sake of a sinner.
It can also be so with the Jesus-follower in the new age, when he, too, will speak for God to a sibling who is sinning. A few people have attempted such a “turning” effort with me; their concerns were well-intended and appreciated but not entirely on point. I’ve probably needed it a lot more at other times, and I’ve neglected doing the same for others way, way too much. Maybe I just didn’t believe it would make a difference. And that is on me.
B. Casey, 5/2/17 – 5/27/17
¹ I know of only a few who could rightly wear the label “master interviewer,” but I’m sure there are many others who just aren’t known to me. Barbara Walters has been known as a master interviewer, but the interviewer in this case was Oprah Winfrey. I myself would like to interview Oprah to ask if her parents didn’t look up how to spell “Orpah” before naming her. And then I would like to discuss the biblical account of Orpah, Ruth, Naomi, and Boaz with her. Somehow I think Oprah probably already knows of the story, but we could discuss it with some depth, and I imagine she would be intrigued by the details of the Hebrew narrative.
² Remez is briefly explained here (“Remez is one of the methods that Jesus used quite often when he quoted scripture, which is a teaching method by which the teacher quotes a verse from the Bible but the point he is making is from the verses surrounding the one he quoted”) and also here, and here.