Bible Passage: James 5:13-20
Most of James’ letter is practical. It talks about things to do and say that express our faith outwardly. In the final part of his latter, James wants to ensure that we don’t forget to also express it upwardly. It is not enough to live out our Christianity well as we live in the world, if we don’t do so in the context of a vibrant relationship with God.
It would be easy for James to say something like ‘whatever is going on, you should pray’. This is the heart of his message, but expressing it in such a general way would lead to it being easily dismissed or excused. Instead, James breaks it down into three different situations we may find ourselves in and applies his call to prayer to each of them.
Those Who Are Suffering (v13): This is a theme that he has already touched on in the letter and is more than likely the situation of many of his original recipients. Walking through suffering well is not simply a case of ‘grin and bear it’ or even of counting the blessings that we know will come out of it (as important as that is) but of being driven to a deeper relationship with God in prayer through the suffering.
Those Who Are Cheerful (v13): Just as suffering can lead us to closer fellowship so can joy. Again, we can look back at what James has written already and be reminded that ‘every good and perfect gift is from above’ (James 1:17). Whatever has caused us to be cheerful can ultimately be traced back to God’s gracious hand. Therefore, songs of praise are the appropriate response.
Those Who Are ‘Sick’ (v14): This third context is one that has caused debate and confusion for many. At first glance, it seems like James is talking about the physically sick being healed, but as the passage progresses, ideas of confession and forgiveness seemed to be used interchangeably with ideas of sickness and healing. There are three possibilities of what is going on:
- James is talking about healing sickness and sin is the cause of sickness. At times sickness can be a direct effect of sin (e.g. liver disease called by alcohol abuse, sexually transmitted disease contracted through immorality and injuries sustained through violent attacks in anger). Thought this is the case now and then, Jesus taught that we should not assume there is always a direct causal link (John 9:3). To assume an automatic link between sickness and sin is a dangerous thing to do and an incorrect understanding of James here.
- James is talking about forgiving sins and using ‘sickness’ as a metaphor. Given that healing and forgiveness seem to be used interchangeably it has been suggested that James is not talking about physical healing at all but rather healing a sickness of the soul. This would explain the impact of verses 19-20 in rounding off the book of James, which has challenged the reader on a number of possible areas of sin which they may be in danger of falling into. Moreover the word rendered ‘sick’ could be understood to mean ‘weak’ which makes this view more plausible. Nevertheless, this option does not make much sense of a plain reading of the text. If James wanted to talk about forgiveness only then he would have done so, and would have no reason to confuse his meaning by alluding to healing. Notice also that in verse 15 he says ‘if’ somebody has sinned, meaning that this will not always be the case.
- James is talking of healing but understands that sin may be an issue. In using the word ‘if’, James is not implying that sin is always the cause of sickness, but he is suggesting that if one comes forward to be healed who has unrepentant sin, then to heal the illness without dealing with the sin would not be the right response. As we consider the example of Jesus with the paralytic man, Jesus both forgave his sin and healed his body. We must ensure that both are priorities in our ministry.
Having highlighted these different types of people, James then gives three applications for how we should pray for healing:
- Call for the elders to anoint them with oil. Anointing with oil is symbolic of the Holy Spirit and it is his healing presence that we seek.
- Confess and pray together. Though the involvement of elders is important they are not the only ones who can see people healed as they pray. Any one of us could see this. The example of Elijah is helpful. He saw incredible answers to prayer, but he is a man just like us. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful not because the man holds the power, but because he is in relationship with God and God is all-powerful.
- The prayer of faith. James has already explained what the prayer of faith is in 1:6-7. He is calling us to pray without doubting. Such faith is a supernatural gift of the Lord and it is with such prayers we see healing.
- The passage speaks of the anointing of oil my elders. You could bring oil along and have some elders in your church create space to pray for healing for people.
- You could have a time of open prayer where people articulate their prayers and songs to God whatever is going on in their lives.
- The practice of confession is lost in many contemporary churches. Encourage people to develop relationships where they can be real with trusted people about their struggles and sins and pray together for God’s spiritual healing.