Tonight’s Bible study looked at James 5:14-18, controversial verses in some circles about prayer, faith and healing. James is continuing his teaching on prayer, this time looking at the question ‘Is anyone among you sick?’ (James 5:14) The nature of the sickness is not specified (the word astheneō means weakness, being feeble, being diseased or sick), so there was discussion about whether this refers to physical sickness only or spiritual ‘sickness’ as well. Whatever the nature of the sickness, there is both a responsibility on the sick person to request prayer from the elders of the church and a corresponding responsibility on the part of those church leaders (by whatever title they are known!) to pray for the person and to anoint with oil.
Why can’t we just pray for ourselves, as James tells us to do in James 5:13 when we are in trouble? Why do we need to call on others to pray? Why do we have to call on church leaders? Are they just ‘super-spiritual’, closer to God than the average church member? Church leaders are appointed by God and with that calling comes a responsibility to them to pray, but that is not to say that it is the virtue of the person praying which makes all the difference of itself! In all of this, James is keen for us to recognise that it is the Lord who raises people up. Faith – that trust in God to make a difference to our lives and our situations – is vital, but it is God who heals. Perhaps this is one reason James emphasises the local church in all its diversity and plurality, rather than focussing on a particular person with gifts of healing (as outlined in 1 Corinthians 12).
The prayer of faith is offered by the church elders, accompanied by anointing with oil (symbolic of the Holy Spirit, another reminder that it is God who heals, and also a symbol of healing – see Luke 10:34, Isaiah 1:6). Prayer for healing was common in the New Testament (see Mark 6:13, Acts 3:6), but it is all done in the name of the Lord (see also Luke 10:17). Prayer is offered in the name of Jesus, iis commanded and commissioned by Jesus and is carried out in the context of the local church community.
It is not always easy to know why some people seem to receive healing instantaneously and others do not. The connection between sin and sickness has long been debated, but Jesus effectively taught us that sickness is not necessarily the result of sin (see John 9:1-3). In all these ponderings, we have to accept that God’s ways are not always our ways: Paul’s ‘thorn in the flesh’ was not removed by God because he needed to learn the valuable lesson of weakness being the vehicle for God’s strength (2 Cor 12:7-10). Nonetheless, James tells us that the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well (James 5:15).
Prayer is clearly a powerful and effective spiritual weapon. James uses Elijah as an illustration of the effectiveness of prayer (James 5:17-18). Elijah was an ordinary person like us, we are told; in other words, we can all be effective in our prayer lives. Moreover, the community nature of our walk with God is stressed in verse 16 where we are urged to confess our sins and pray for each other.
It takes courage to ask for prayer, because it means admitting weakness; it takes courage to confess our sins, because we do not like to admit to them! But as we realise the need to develop our prayer life, we see that there is no shame in weakness. Rather, there is strength in community and power in prayer because we are linked through it to the God who is all-powerful and all-loving.