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Reflections on prayer, faith and healing

I was intrigued that this week’s lesson didn’t focus on the 5th chapter of the epistle of James, where Our Lord’s brother provides one of the strongest bases for faith healing. As this quarter’s lesson is bringing out well, “healing” can have many dimensions! Faith can bring richer life for the Church as well as for the individual Christian. And this is one of the points made by St James, and so I’m going to do what the lesson didn’t, and focus on his epistle.

It is important, as always, to note the context of his comments on prayer and healing. He has just urged his readers to “persevere” in their life of faith, for “The Lord is full of compassion and mercy” (5:11-12 NIV). Since the life of faith includes living by prayer, he then goes on to list the circumstances when prayer might be needed and apposite. The German theologian Martin Dibelius suggested that what follows in 5:13-14 ought to be understood not as interrogatives, but as declaratives, followed by imperatives. [James: a commentary on the Epistle of James, revised Heinrich Greeven, trans. Michael A. Williams, ed. Helmut Koester (Philadelphia : Fortress Press, 1976), pp. 241, 252]. Verses 13 and 14 should thus be read as: “Someone among you is suffering; let him pray. Someone is happy: let him therefore sing songs of praise. One of you is sick; he should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him”.

This interpretation is particularly striking since it makes the assurance or promise that the prayer will be answered, in verse 15, even more marked: “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.” (NIV) Yet this will probably prompt some skepticism among readers of Spectrum, as well as (no doubt) among the early believers to whom James’s epistle was directed. Many of us will know somebody who believes that they’ve experienced divine healing; but most of us, I’d guess, know somebody who wasn’t healed, albeit anointed and fervently prayed for. In my medical career, I have prayed for divine strength and blessing on my surgical skills, that I may be an instrument of healing; I’ve also recognized a point beyond which I am helpless, and have prayed for supernatural intervention and miraculous healing. I can point to times when both types of prayer were successful; but also, sadly, to times when they weren’t.

How, then, can James write with such assuredness? Is it simply that the champions of the early church were stronger in their faith than we are, and so could achieve miracles, by belief, that are beyond us with our doubts? I instinctively think there might well be something to this—but I’m pretty sure it’s not the whole answer either. What is helpful is looking at the prayers James tells us to make, and why, as well as at the results that James declares will follow.

First, in verse 13 James bids us pray when we are “afflicted (KJV) or experiencing “trouble” (NIV), “evil” (Young’s Literal), “suffering” (NASB). It’s notable that one type of trouble is not specified and James here uses a general verb, kakopatheo. In other words, the apostolic instruction is that troublesome times are the right times to pray. This is what many of us would instinctively feel! Yet if we have had any experience of prayers going unanswered (or at any rate answered in the negative!), we might be inclined to think that “when the going gets tough”, God doesn’t get going—that God only helps with small things. James had seen his own brother crucified, and his namesake, John’s brother, beheaded by Herod—but he’d also seen, very soon after the decapitation of Zebedee’s son, another disciple, Peter, miraculously delivered by an angel: so James knew that God can help, but doesn’t always choose to. Yet his personal faith remained positive. When times get tough, it’s the time to get on our knees.

Second, immediately afterwards, James then tells us to pray when we are “happy” (NIV), “of good cheer” (Young’s Literal), “merry” (KJV), or “cheerful” (NASB). Again, he uses a general verb, euthymeo, which could also apply to somebody being encouraged. So we are to pray when things are generally good. The apostle has two points, I suggest. First is a concern that in times of happiness we could become complacent, so that we pray less. The biblical instruction is again the opposite: pray more. Too, James is worried lest we only pray when we need something, forgetting to offer thanksgiving and worship to God. Happy times are the very time to “sing songs of praise” to the Creator and Savior of us all.

Third, in verse 14, James tells us to pray in times of sickness. Again, no particular disease is identified and a general verb, astheneo, is used, meaning to be weak or sick. Physical weakness, whether in ourselves, or in those we love, can make us feel helpless and hopeless—as though there’s nothing we can do. The biblical outlook is the opposite: there is something very significant to do, namely, to pray. Weakness is the very time for prayer. It is in our infirmity that we need God’s strength.

Summary: in other words, James is telling us to pray in all sorts of situations and circumstances! We should constantly be in communion with God through prayer. The apostle’s comments come near the end of his letter, in which he has been addressing a series of issues in the lives of his readers. His desire is for healing, to be sure, but he fundamentally wants his readers to heal their relationship with God and their relationships with each other. Their relationship with God was in poor shape: they had succumbed to the “temptation to doubt God (1:6), to blame God (1:13) and to bargain with God (5:12).” [George M. Stulac, James, in InterVarsity Press New Testament Commentary, eds. Grant R. Osborne, D. Stuart Briscoe, Haddon Robbinson, vol. 16 (Downers Grove, Ill. & Leicester: InterVarsity Press, 1993), p. 182.] The apostle directs them now back to trusting their Savior, through faith and through prayer. But, too, their relationships with each other had suffered. “James has had to warn them against playing favorites (2:1), verbally attacking each other (4:11), fighting with each other (4:1), slandering each other (3:9) and judging each other (4:12). Now this present passage helps us realize what a dramatic transformation of relationships James envisions.” [Ibid., 183.]

In individualistic Western societies, with an emphasis on the autonomy of the self, I suspect the part of James 5 we most tend to overlook or understate is verse 14, which tells us to “call the elders of the church”: it is they who are to “pray over … and anoint” the ill believer (NIV). In other words, the prayer that James commands is a communal, even a corporate act. He is urging his readers, in the twenty-first as in the first century, to come together in prayer: to stand together before God in calling for His intervention in our lives.

How can that not affect our relationships? Facing up to our maker and redeemer, we are not going to judge each other, we are more likely to judge ourselves and admit our own shortcomings. Instead of trying to assign guilt to others, we will become eager to forgive each other, for there is no place for criticizing when we are interceding for someone! This is why, in verse 16, there is an apparent departure from physical healing to spiritual healing: “Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed” (NIV). It’s not because James is endorsing Hebrew misconceptions that all illnesses were the result of sins, instead it’s because James wants us to be focused on others rather than ourselves. When we confess to each other and pray for each other, we cannot help but be reconciled to each other. Jesus’s brother knew that the best way for us to find that unity for which Our Lord prayed the night He was betrayed, is on our knees, together, in humbleness and contriteness before our Father.

Once we understand why James was writing and what he hoped his readers would gain by prayer, we understand why he could write with absolute assurance of the success of prayer! There will be times when, just as James the son of Zebedee fell to the executioner’s sword, whereas Peter had his chains fall off him and his prison doors opened, at an angel’s bidding, so physical healing will not necessarily follow even united, contrite prayer by the Church. Now, to be sure, James envisions that it frequently will follow, for the Greek verb that is translated by the NIV “make well” (v.15), is sosei, “will save”, which has a sense of physical healing rather than spiritual salvation. But even when, for reasons we won’t understand this side of Jordan, our petitions are negatived in their precise request, they can and will still have an efficacious effect more generally, for us and for the Church. There will be spiritual fruitage and healing of the divided body of believers, even if not in the diseased body of one believer.

Dibelius argued that verse 16, with its declaration “The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective” (NIV), is a promise that “holds good for every believing petitioner” (op. cit., 256). We can pray with confidence and with hope, because James clearly does envisage physical, as well as spiritual, fulfillment of corporate prayers for healing. But the assurance in verse 16 is also a call for every nominal believer to become a true believer: for every follower of Christ to aspire towards righteousness and rightness with God. Let us be clear about what this means. As one commentator observes:

James is not denying salvation by grace through faith; [but] he is … convinced that genuine faith will express itself in righteousness, and the prayer of genuine faith is the prayer that is effective. After all, what causes me to try to protect myself by unrighteous means in trials? It is my unbelief. …Confident belief in God’s grace will make me strong for acting righteously in the midst of trials. [Stulac, op. cit., p. 185].

This is not a call for perfection, i.e., for righteousness in an absolute sense, since scripture teaches that: “There is none righteous, no not one” (Rom. 3:10 KJV). It is a call for commitment: to Christ, and to living more and more like Him, by a prayerful relationship with Him.

Thus, James’s writings on prayer, and particularly on prayer for healing, are a call to us to turn aside from our focus on ourselves and to focus instead on the One who died for us—to face up honestly to the choices that confront each of us, and to choose the path that ultimately leads to God, rather than the devil’s blind alley. Throughout this short but powerful epistle the apostle urges his readers, despite the very real difficulties and hardships that they faced, to resist the temptation to compromise righteousness. Here, as James moves towards the end of his letter, and as he highlights the significance of prayer by those who are righteous, he urges each of us to commit to the Way of Christ without compromise, and to experience union with God and unity in the Church, by consistently, constantly uniting in prayer with the Lord of all.

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