In these last few verses, the last recorded words of this pillar of the 1st century church, James gives four different scenarios we might encounter and how to deal with them. Three of them we’ll discuss today, the fourth tomorrow.
If you’re “in trouble,” or “suffering” (as some translations render it), you should pray. Might I make a practical suggestion on how to carry this out, one I’ve handed out several times over the years? Read some Psalms. I’m not particular about where you start. Just pick a place in Psalms and start reading. Pretty soon you’re going to find one or more which address the trouble you’re facing: betrayal by a “friend,” oppression by the powerful, sickness, feelings of abandonment by God, etc. Most of these Psalms are addressed to the Lord and lay out their complaint in very stark terms. Take the Psalms you find and pray them back to him, being as brutally honest as you can. Of course, most of the Psalms also end with an expression of confidence and trust in him to make things right in his own way and time.
If you’re happy, especially if your Savior just rescued you out of a tough situation, you should sing. In this day and age, with all the varieties and availability of different styles of Christian music, there’s no excuse not to incorporate that into your personal time: Singing in the car, doing housework, etc. If you’re alive and saved, that alone is more than enough reason to praise and thank him, but you should also recognize recent deliverances as well.
Then we come to what to do if you’re sick. I’d probably interpret this as extreme circumstances, not something as simple as a cold or a light wound or injury. If someone’s suffering from chronic illness or debilitation, that’s when the instructions of vss. 14-16 come into play. The “elders” of the church (whatever title they might have) need to come visit this person, and I’d assume they need to ask the person if there’s any sin he needs to confess and repent from. They pray together, and the elders anoint him with oil in Jesus’ name.
What’s this anointing oil? Some say that it’s for medicinal purposes. Others say it’s a literal ceremonial anointing. Still others claim that this “anointing” is symbolic of the elders’ prayers, encouragement, etc. I’d go with either of the first two explanations, but the third seems doubtful to me, since the “oil” is listed along with prayer. Churches differ in how exactly they carry out these verses, but I think I can come up with some principles most of us can agree upon:
· Spiritual leadership in the church is vital. Yes, all of us need to pray for each other, clergy and laity alike. But in extreme circumstances, the leadership needs to be called. Not that their prayers are any more worthy than any godly Christian. But James specifically says the elders, not just anyone from the church, since theoretically they're going to be more mature than the rank-and-file believer in the church.
· When someone is chronically sick, they do need to rule out any unrepentant sin in their life. Yes, Job’s friends made some horrible mistakes. But it is possible that a Christian who’s involved in a sinful lifestyle (and doing nothing to correct it) might be inviting the harsh discipline of God. If that’s the case, he needs to confess it, not just to God but to the leadership. Not so that they can judge him or shun him or feel themselves superior, but so that they can help pray him through this and help restore him to full fellowship.
· Sin is actually more serious than physical sickness. Verse 16 says that we need to confess our sins to each other so that we might be healed, not just physically but spiritually. The passage as a whole focuses on dealing with the spiritual root cause of one’s illness, not just dealing with the physical symptoms. Physical health is great, but it pales in comparison to the spiritual blessings he pours out on us when we’re right with him. .
So if we follow these instructions, is this a blanket promise that the person will be immediately healed? Based on the rest of Scripture, I have some real problems with that interpretation. Yes, God does heal, sometimes in ways that confound medical science. But the verse says that the Lord will “raise him up,” which is rather generic, not a specific promise that he’ll heal every time if we just follow the right formula. He’s a Person with a will and a plan, not a computer that releases a certain output if the right input is submitted. The very word “pray” means to “ask,” as in asking a person for something. If we’re asking a person for something, he might say no, especially if he’s wiser than the requester, and in this case the wisdom gap is infinite.
Having said all that, I have a confession of my own to make. When I get sick, my first resort frequently is medicine, and my last resort tends to be prayer. It needs to be the opposite. I also need to confess that I’m not good at confessing my sins to other Christians. Obviously we need discretion: The place to start confessing one’s sins is probably not in the middle of a worship service in front of dozens or hundreds of people. But we need to be open and honest with each other about our failings.
Then James makes a very counterintuitive statement: Elijah was a man just like us! I don’t know about you, but when I read his stories in 1 Kings, the last thing that goes through my head is “Oh yeah, this guy is just like me!” But he was a man called by God to a certain purpose, and in that sense he and I have something in common. He wasn’t perfect, just a man through whom the Lord did extraordinary things, because he made himself available to his Master. To some degree, I can do that.
Guided by the Spirit, Elijah prayed for a severe drought, and for 3 and a half years it didn’t rain a drop in Israel. Then—again guided by the Spirit—he prayed that it’d rain, and it did, by the bushel-load. When the Lord guides us in our prayers, he can lead us to ask for amazing things, and if what we’re asking is according to his will, he’ll do it. It’s not a question of if he can do it; it’s just a question of if it’s according to his plan.
What a wonderful privilege and honor it is, to be part of his plan, to be used by him in our prayers and to see him at work. It’s just an issue of being available to him. Am I? Are you?
Father God, by your grace, make me available. Give me listening ears and a soft heart to hear your Spirit’s prompting. Whenever we do things your way instead of some goofy plan we came up with, it always ends well. Always always always.