First published 14 June 2011
So after studying thirteen or fourteen Bible passages about prayer and faith, what were my thoughts as I turned back to the passage that had set me thinking? That’s what I will share with you as I come close to the end of this series. I learnt a lot about prayer and about God, and I hope that you have done too, as I’ve taken you through the verses that challenged me.
The verse that triggered my thoughts was James 5:14-15, “Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven.” Is it as simple as that? Pray, and get better?
Back in Part 5 of this series I said that, when we consider the rather blunt statements James makes throughout his letter, we ought to have in mind the purpose of the letter. Once you get to know him James is not difficult to understand. He’s just knock-down blunt!
He starts his letter, “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To the twelve tribes scattered among the nations: Greetings. Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” (1:1-4)
He is straight to the point. The letter is all about the right response to suffering and hardship. It’s not scattered, random, thoughts ranging from temptation, to favouritism, to faith and deeds, to grumbling, to prayer, to healing sick people. It is challenging the responses to hardship that come from lack of faith. It is encouraging an uncompromising walk in the wisdom of God, through faith, with love, underpinned by prayer.
So when we come to the fifth chapter, let’s spend a little time looking at how he leads into the verse we are looking at. Here’s the passage (James 5:7-18) in full so that we can refer to it:
“Be patient, then, brothers, until the Lord’s coming. See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop and how patient he is for the autumn and spring rains. You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near. Don’t grumble against each other, brothers, or you will be judged. The Judge is standing at the door!
“Brothers, as an example of patience in the face of suffering, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. As you know, we consider blessed those who have persevered. You have heard of Job’s perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy.
“Above all, my brothers, do not swear—not by heaven or by earth or by anything else. Let your “Yes” be yes, and your “No,” no, or you will be condemned.
“Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray. Is anyone happy? Let him sing songs of praise. Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.
“Elijah was a man just like us. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops.”
James has been condemning, in the verses immediately before this, the rich believers who are using their wealth as protection against persecution and hardship, rather than helping their poorer brothers. They have “hoarded wealth” (v3) just in case they might need it as they face hard times for the Lord. But they have ignored those who have hardly anything and the people who are starving to death around them.
The godly response to this hardship is not in using wealth, but to, “be patient… until the Lord’s coming.” (v7) They are not to “grumble against each other” (v9) over who has and who hasn’t, or whether they can avoid persecution. In short, they are to have faith, believing and trusting that the Lord is coming again to bring judgment on their oppressors and bring them salvation as He promised.
He gives the example of the Old Testament prophets (vv10-11), who persevered in the face of suffering, never compromising, never failing to proclaim God’s Word even if they were tortured, imprisoned or ignored. He gives the example of Job, who refused to speak ill of God, even in sickness, poverty and bereavement. And he assures us that, “The Lord is full of compassion and mercy.” (v11)
When he says, in verse 12, “do not swear… Let your ‘Yes’ be yes, and your ‘No”, no…”, he is warning against trying to bargain with God: “I swear on my life, I’ll do xyz if only you will relieve my suffering…” We are to simply do the right thing because it’s right, patiently waiting for our vindication at the coming of the Lord.
Is anyone in trouble? “He should pray.” (v13) God is full of compassion and mercy. We don’t need to swear and try to bargain with God and twist His arm to do good to us. We should pray, knowing that He intends our hardship for our own good, persevering so that we, “may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” (1:4)
Are we happy? Let’s not, in complacency, forget the one who provides “every good and perfect gift” (1:17). “Let him sing songs of praise.” (5:13) Don’t neglect prayer and praise when you are in trouble or when you are happy. Both are from God and are for our good.
Are we sick (vv14ff)? Here we get to what we wanted to understand. Isn’t the tendency to complain, to languish in bed feeling sorry for ourselves, to ask why God has done this to me or let this happen to me? “He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord.” James bluntly says, in effect, “don’t just lie there! Have faith in God and go and gather the church around you and ask for God’s help!”
James is not here giving a ritual or an instruction book for divine healing. He is telling us to wake up and get serious with God! Anointing with oil is not a magical remedy. Having the elders come and pray is not giving them wizard-like powers. Those are to picture someone who seriously, truly believes that God is powerful and compassionate. When one of us is sick, we should get on our knees, calling on the name of the Lord in earnest, persevering prayer.
So James says in v15, “And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven.” Literally, the phrase is, “… will save the sick person.” In the context, making the sick person physically cured of his sickness seems, at first sight, to be the primary intention, but James doesn’t elaborate. Likewise, the phrase, “if he has sinned, he will be forgiven” does not imply that James makes a link between sin and sickness, as it appears at first. As we shall see, James is pointing at the mercy of God, who forgives our sins freely through faith in Christ and repentance.
So James is expressing the confidence that if we pray in faith, a sick person will definitely be saved – those who trust in Christ to such an extent that they confess their sins, ask for prayer, and are confident of forgiveness through him will receive forgiveness and eternal life. But James does hold before us the possibility that we may also receive physical short-term salvation from our particular illnesses. Whether our salvation is an immediate freedom from sickness, or a complete freedom from sickness and death after the Lord’s coming (which James has only been talking about 8 verses earlier), faith manifested in earnest prayer will bring it about. Whether we are raised up from our present sick bed, or raised up from the grave, faith in Christ, manifested in prayer is what gives us access.
I think this is the right way of looking at the verse, since James says at the start of the passage that we are to “be patient… until the Lord’s coming.” Jesus never promised complete freedom from hardship or sickness before His second coming, even if we pray our socks off. In John 16:33, Jesus assures us that, “In this world you will have trouble.” His promise is not to always relieve us of trouble. His promise is, “But take heart! I have overcome the world.” In particular, Jesus did not promise His followers freedom from death before He comes again. Those who are not chosen to be alive when He returns will definitely die. And that means that some sicknesses will end in death, and some sicknesses will last until death. The greatest thing that Jesus did for us by taking the punishment for our sins on the cross, and rising from the dead, was to give us victory over death. Death is not to be feared, because it is the gateway into eternal life, when we will all be “mature and complete, not lacking anything” (1:4). As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:56-57, “The sting of death in sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
What James wants from us ultimately, which is what God wants from us, he spells out in v16: “Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.” We are to be a community, a church, a family that loves and cares for each other, so that we pray for each other. We are to be a family that strives together for righteousness, humbly confessing our sins and our failings, and encouraging each other to trust Jesus for forgiveness, and encouraging each other to look forward to His coming. In a community like that our prayers will be “powerful and effective”.
However, lest we shrink from prayer because we know that we are not perfect, he gives the example of Elijah in verses 17 and 18. “Elijah was a man just like us.” If you read about Elijah in the book of 1 Kings in the Old Testament, you will find that he showed both great faith and great cowardice. He argued with God and then spoke boldly in His name. He had failings and fears just like we do. And yet when he prayed God brought a drought, and when he prayed again God brought rain. God answered Elijah’s prayers in an amazing way.
To quote George Stulac’s commentary, “Having emphasised righteousness as a condition for effective praying, James is not wanting Christians to postpone praying while they try to attain some level of perfection or super-spirituality… James is saying: Strive earnestly for the goal of righteousness, but get down immediately to the business of praying.” (p186)
And I can’t think of a better way to sum up the passage in James 5, and indeed probably the whole of James’ letter, than with Stulac again: “In your trials, you don’t need the power gained by money or favouritism or selfishness or fighting or swearing; use the power of prayer, for which you need righteousness. Commit yourself to doing what is right without compromise; then you may rely on God in prayer for all your needs.” (p185)
I’ll write again to summarise the lessons from all these studies, but if there is one thing that has come through time after time it is this: Even though God does not promise to give us everything we ask for without exception, He is our Father, He is compassionate and merciful, He loves His children so much that He purposed that His only Son should die so that we can spend eternity enjoying Him in Whom is the greatest joy, and He wants us to pray. He enjoys giving us things we pray for, if they are according to His will.
So I want to encourage you, as I have been challenged, if we have learnt nothing else together studying these passages – pray! Pray! Pray! Strive for righteousness, strive to know God’s will from His Word, and pray some more! Pray privately. Pray with the church. Pray for healing. Pray for strength. Pray for more righteousness. Pray for small things. Pray for big things. Pray for amazing things. Pray at home. Pray at work. Pray in bed. Pray at mealtimes. “Pray continually!” (1 Thessalonians 5:17) Pray! Pray! Pray!