Prayer, Faith, Trust, Sickness, Healing
We have really enjoyed the practical instruction given to us by James over the last several months. James was writing to people who had been scattered because of the persecution of Christians. Many of the people were facing hard times. The book of James is practical and to the point. At the very beginning of the letter James invited the people to pray and ask God for wisdom in the midst of their trials. As he concludes his letter he brings them back once again to the subject of prayer.
13 Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray. Is anyone happy? Let him sing songs of praise. 14 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. 15 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. 16 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.
17 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. 18 Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops.
PRAYER THE NATURAL RESPONSE TO LIFE
James argues that prayer should be a regular part of our lives no matter what our circumstance. We should pray when we are in trouble, when we are happy, and when we are sick and distressed. In other words, prayer should be our natural response to life. We should desire to live every day and face every circumstance focused on the Lord.
We tend to think that it is natural to pray in the time of trouble. That is not always the case. Sometimes we face trouble and don’t pray because our sinful desire to be in control. We don’t want to need God’s help. We want to do it on our own. We have convinced ourselves that the strong person is the one who doesn’t need help from anyone else . . . including God.
This sounds noble but it is really foolish. Suppose you were elected to be the President of the United States. Instead of selecting cabinet members you announce that you are going to save the government a lot of money by eliminating all these jobs. You tell the electorate that you do not need the help of all these other people.
Though at first we might rejoice at the perceived reduction of government bureaucracy, you should quickly realize that the wise leader is the one who surrounds himself with capable advisors. The person who feels they never should need help is headed for trouble.
There are others who do not turn to the Lord for help in the time of trouble because they feel they have messed up to badly. They feel they are outside the reach of God’s mercy and grace. They are like a sick person who says, “I am sick but don’t want to go see the Doctor because I’m so sick the Doctor won’t want to see me!” It is in the times of deepest need when we discover God’s greatest sufficiency.
James gives us the other side of the coin. He says, “If anyone is happy, Let him sing songs of praise.” When things are going well it is easy to forget God. We often feel that we don’t “need” God because we are doing fine on our own. James says in these times we should be praising God for His goodness and blessing. He told us in chapter one that every good and perfect gift comes from God. We should thank Him.
James reminds us that we should be living and breathing prayer. We should seek His help in the daily events in our lives.
- When we find ourselves getting anxious and angry we should seek His help to honor Him
- When we witness something beautiful we should stop, marvel in wonder, and give Him thanks. As we do, we will find that we are able to see even more of what is beautiful in life.
- When we walk into our place of work we should ask God to be honored through our labor.
- When we walk into our home at night we should thank God for our family and ask God to help us lead and love our family.
- When we are in the check-out line at the grocery store we should thank God for providing for our needs.
We should see and acknowledge God in every area of our life.
CASE STUDIES IN PRAYER
The Sick James gives us the example of the person who is “sick”. The Greek word for “sick” can be translated two different ways. It can be translated “sick” (as in a physical disease or infirmity) or it can be translated “weak” as in a person who is spiritually weak (the passages that talk about the “weaker brother” use this word. It is the same Greek word. I8 times in the New Testament the word is translated “sick or ill”. 14 times it is translated “weak”. Which way is the word being used in this passage? Both could fit the context and both would speak a powerful message.
Since every version of the Bible has chosen to translate the word as “sick” rather than “weak” and since Jesus (the half brother of James) always used the word in this way I am going to use the word as referring to sickness. However, I do think we need to expand our view of who this passage is talking to. It is not simply referring to those who have physical needs; it is also for those who are spiritually sick (or weak). It is for those who have received a bad diagnosis and those who are spiritually shaky.
Though many people are healed from physical and spiritual problems in the Bible, this is the only place in the Bible where we are told how to seek healing. This makes the passage very important and instructive for us. However, we must also be careful. The Bible is not interested in giving us a formula for healing. God does not want us to put our trust in a formula but in Him. How we do something is less important than who we are seeking and honoring.
What is interesting here is that the focus is not on some celebrity Healer. There is no great production. This is not a show. In fact it seems to be more of a private act. There is no money involved. Notice how different this is from some of what is often called, “a healing ministry” today.
The first thing James does is tell the sick person to call for the elders of the church (the church leaders or mature believers) and ask them for prayer. The responsibility is on the sick person to call the elders. There are at least two reasons for this. First, the elders may not know about the illness unless they are called. Too many times people are disappointed with the Pastor for not visiting them when they were sick and the Pastor didn’t even know they were sick.
Second, the sick person should initiate the call because doing so is an act of faith. It is easy to suffer in silence. It is natural to not want to “put yourself on the spot”. There is a measure of humility involved in asking another to help you. There are times in the Bible when the sick person does not initiate the prayer for healing but generally the sick person should ask for prayer.
It is possible that the phrase “pray over the person” refers to the “laying on of hands” (this is when all the prayers put their hand on the person being prayed for as a way of establishing a physical “connection”).
The “anointing with oil” may refer to the prominence of oil as a medical treatment (as in the parable of the Good Samaritan). In this case the teaching would be that we should take advantage of all natural means of healing before calling the elders of the church. It is just as possible that the oil was a symbol of God’s presence.
The prayer is to be a prayer of faith in the name of the Lord”. Leith Anderson writes,
The elders of the church are to gather with the sick person and pray in faith for healing. That doesn’t mean they have faith in their prayers. It doesn’t mean that they have faith in healing. And it doesn’t mean they have faith in faith. It means they have faith in God. The elders are to pray with absolute confidence that God hears, God cares and God has the power to heal. If that faith is missing they fail as elders and their prayers are worthless. The prayer should be sincere, strong and compassionate, passionately desiring healing, fully confident in God.
If you were to do something in my name I would trust that you would do what I would have done and in the way I would have done it. Your action should represent my heart and desire. In the same way, when we pray in the “name of Jesus” we are should be seeking to align ourselves with His will.
The comment that their sin would be forgiven reminds us that somewhere in this process the sick person should be questioned to see if there is any sin in their life that needs to be dealt with. Sometimes sin is the direct cause of sickness. Sometimes our guilt makes us sick. Our first priority should always be to restore a person to the Lord.
The difficult part of the text is in verse 15 and 16
And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up.
God seems to guarantee healing. The text doesn’t say the prayer may make the sick person well, it says it will make the sick person well. This is troubling because it is not our experience. We pray for people all the time who don’t get better. Sometimes people die. If people were always healed after prayer, Christians would not die, they would not need insurance (how’s that for health care reform?), they would never have any of the diseases which plague the rest of the world. But that is not the case.
What do we make of this? There are two ways of answering this issue. The first is to say that the key factor is the “faith” of the one praying. The argument is: if you don’t have enough faith the person will not be healed. There are many who seem to hold this view. In my mind this is a pretty brutal viewpoint. It leads some to guilt and shame and leads others to try to “muster” more faith. Anderson again writes,
I have heard accusations that children have died because parents or elders didn’t exercise enough faith. It makes God out to be exceedingly cruel. He is portrayed as a God who allows innocent children to die because some adult’s faith rated only 2.3 on a faith scale when God needs at least a 2.5 to perform a miracle. While faith is important, faith doesn’t heal. God heals – and God has a record for doing great things in response to minimal, mustard-seed-size faith.
A second way of answering the problem of this text is to conclude that we do not understand the text rightly. It is possible that there is an implied condition that is not immediately evident. Let me illustrate what I mean. In Mark 11 we read,
22 “Have faith in God,” Jesus answered. 23 “I tell you the truth, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart but believes that what he says will happen, it will be done for him. 24 Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.
Based on what the text literally says it would seem that we can have whatever we want if we believe strongly enough. We can even command mountains into the sea! But is this really what Jesus was promising or is there an implied condition?
I don’t believe Jesus was telling us that enough faith will allow us to change the landscape whenever we wanted to do so or to have anything at all we want. God is not into parlor tricks or catering to the whims of His people. It seems clear that Jesus was saying when needed or when appropriate God would grant any prayer that we truly and faithfully prayed.
I think the same is true here. God in His sovereignty sees differently than we do. There are times when He decides not to heal someone. We don’t know why. Perhaps sometimes God is more glorified in the way we handle a sickness or a crisis than if He were to take that painful circumstance away. Perhaps sometimes God makes us well in a deeper way. He may give a peace that surpasses comprehension, or a trust that defies explanation. God may heal us in the ultimate sense. We mistakenly see death as the final defeat of our prayers for healing . . . but for the believer, is death not the ultimate, final and perfect healing? We tend to see the death of a child as a tragedy. However, is it really a tragedy for the child? Is it tragic to early rest in the arms of Jesus? Is it tragic for a child to be spared the heartaches of life? God’s wisdom is superior to ours and His definition of “well” is also superior to ours.
Let me state clearly: I believe in Biblical healing. Throughout the New Testament the disciples often laid hands on a person and prayed for them and they were healed. Jesus sometimes healed in this way. The church would be much stronger (and healthier) if we trusted God enough to follow His guideline. When we have done this as a church we have seen God do great things. We will come if you call.
Elijah In verse 16 James reminds us that prayer is a powerful tool. He said “The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.” To illustrate his point he turns to the prophet Elijah.
Elijah prayed for God to send a famine on Israel and a famine began that lasted 3 ½ years. The purpose of the famine was to bring Ahab to his knees in submission to the Lord. After the contest on Mt.Carmel, God told Elijah rain was coming. We read that account earlier from 1 Kings 18.
Notice a few things. First, Elijah was confident in God’s sovereignty over creation. He knew that God has the ability to stop or start the rain. In the same way Joshua knew that God had the ability to keep the sun from going down for a full day. Faithful praying starts with this kind of confidence in the power of God.
Second, Elijah devoted himself to prayer. This was not a quick and mumbled prayer for God to bless. Elijah bent down on the ground with his face between his knees and prayed fervently. I would have loved to have heard him pray. I think we would have been stunned by the intensity and intimacy of the prayer.
Finally, He was specific. Elijah did not pray in a general way . . . he prayed specifically. He prayed for rain. This kind of specific prayer makes it possible for us to know when God has answered our prayer. When Elijah saw the rain clouds he knew God had specifically answered his prayer.
What would happen if we prayed this way? What would happen if we prayed this way for the sick, for our country, for our neighbors, for the ministry of our church? What would happen if we truly turned to and trusted God to overcome the obstacles we face daily? We cannot begin to imagine what God would do in us if we prayed like this.
We will finish the book of James next week as we look at the last couple of verses. But for today I want to share three challenges.
Believe Boldly. As believers we must recognize that God is the ruler of the universe. There is nothing too hard for God. He can heal any illness (at any stage). He can restore broken bones, reverse devastating handicaps, and erase a disease from a body. He can restore shattered relationships. He can give guidance to the most confused or use the person who feels like they have nothing to offer. When we come to the Lord we need to believe boldly. God is able to help us no matter what our problem. Study the Scriptures. Notice what God has done. See how faithful He has been. We are so quick to call perfectly timed events “coincidence”. We call a remarkable recovery an amazing feat by modern medicine. I think God is at work. Watch with wonder!
Trust Fully. We must trust God’s sovereign wisdom and grace. God will and does answer our prayers. Even when we don’t get the answer we desire or expect, true faith trusts God’s perspective and decision above our own. We need to trust God fully and do what He says.
I hope if you face a crisis that leaves you sick or weak you will call for some of the leaders of the church to come and pray with you and for you. Faith begins when we are willing to do what He tells us to do. You are never wrong when you do what He tells you. You can never see Him work in great ways if you aren’t willing to give Him the opportunity.
Pray Constantly. If we are going to trust God for the great needs in our lives we must prepare by developing our day to day relationship with Him. Such preparation begins when we learn to include God in every part of our lives. It means sharing our frustrations honestly, confronting our temptations directly (without excuses), and noticing and giving thanks for the blessings we too often take for granted.
Prayer is not a discipline we must master (though there is some discipline involved). It is a relationship we develop. And this relationship with the God of the universe will be our greatest joy, our greatest source of strength in times of difficulty, and the place we turn when we feel like life is caving in around us.