Daily Update #301

13 Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. 14 Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing 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.

James 5:13-15These are challenging verses, especially verse 15, for all of us who believe in prayer and healing. It can be challenging for those we know who need prayer because they are ill, and it is those for whom healing has not or did not happen. It is for those of us who pray for healing and don’t see it and for those of us who pray and are privileged to see God’s hand. We have all wrestled with each of these situations. Like you, I have seen amazing transformation and tragic loss. These words then present some of our most intimate challenges, about God in our suffering. We can get hooked on one or two phrases, but some close text work can help. Sorry if it feels like a lecture, but this is a thinker with very real implications.

  1. The word, ‘sick’ certainly includes physical sickness, but the suffering, v13, harks back to how Old Testament prophets struggled and their malaise often included pressure, exhaustion, persecution, depression and more…. Weak is perhaps a better word.
  2. It is the sick, or weak, person who calls for help. Perhaps they are too weak to pray for themselves, and it is serious enough for the individual to ask for help. It is good we have Praying Friends, and good we can respond sensitively.
  3. The word ‘pray,’ is the simplest and most common term for prayer in the NT. It is not any special kind of prayer needing particular words or a formula. Elders, perhaps those gifted in prayer, undertake the responsibility, indicating the need for godliness, and humility. 
  4. Prayer of faith is essential, but the power lies not in the pray-er, but faith in the Lord’s sovereign rule, which extends beyond what we can see or imagine. What cruelty it would be to be told neither your prayers or your faith were sufficient because of some eternal change that could not be seen! 
  5. The oil mentioned was used for consecration, anointing, rather than for medicinal purposes. Therefore it is an outward symbol of God’s gracious inward work and not effective in and of itself. 
  6. The phrase, ‘the Lord will raise him up,’ also points forward to the resurrection and God’s providence over all our life, see James 4:15. The inclusion of his sins being forgiven, indicates a broader range of issues than only physical illness, James 4:6.

There is a combination of ideas in James’ thoughts here that might not sit well with our solution-focused thinking and quick answer culture. We want this, so we must do that, which is how these verses have often been read. But there is more, James’ thinking seems wide enough to also include encouragement for the downhearted and redemption for the sinner. Healing is certainly there, but so is the faith and eternal future of the unwell person. There are often situations in which we find we grow in Christ even as we deteriorate in the body. I was reminded that healing is included within the idea of salvation, but also sanctification, the ongoing salvation, is in the healing.

So the encouragement I take away is not what this passage doesn’t say, but the breadth of what it does. James encourages Christians, in lots of situations where they feel weak, too weak to pray for themselves, to ask for prayer. James encourages us to be willing to answer that call in simple humility and holiness, to be prepared to hear and respond to all our brothers and sisters who call. He advises us to do this because God is our lives, for our good, 5:11.

O God, the protector of all who trust in you,
without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy:
increase and multiply upon us your mercy;
that with you as our ruler and guide
we may so pass through things temporal
that we lose not our hold on things eternal;
grant this, heavenly Father,
for our Lord Jesus Christ’s sake,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Tomorrow’s passage:  James 5:16-20