13 Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise. 14 Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them 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 them up. If they have sinned, they 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 person is powerful and effective.
17 Elijah was a human being, even as we are. 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.
19 My brothers and sisters, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring that person back, 20 remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins.
Today we conclude our sermon series on the book of James. I have been challenged to think about a few things in a different way and I hope that you have as well. And how appropriate is it that James ends with a call to prayer? After several weeks of hearing difficult teaching on ethics, justification, and peacemaking, I know that I need a little help. So James turns to God with a petition today, asking for God’s healing, God’s guidance, and God’s forgiveness. This morning, however, we are going to consider how people have perhaps misunderstood this passage in a way that has done more damage than it has done good.
This passage at the end of the book is one that gives support for one of our practices in the church that we only do every now and then, and that is anointing with oil. We often anoint people with oil when they are being commissioned for a new ministry, like a person being ordained for ministry or a missionary being sent off to the far corners of the world. But specifically, today’s passage speak of anointing sick people with oil.
The only time I saw people being anointed with oil when I was growing up was in the last minutes of their lives. So as a young man I assumed that anointing with oil was something that you did before someone died to help them get into heaven. You put a little oil on their head and they squeeze through those pearly gates a little easier. This was especially helpful for the rich people, because it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. Those gates must really be tight!
When I first started out in ministry as a lowly intern I had the opportunity to participate in an anointing service in a hospital as a beloved brother gasped for breath. I obviously had some confusion about the practice of anointing with oil at that time so I asked the senior pastor and he simply pointed me back to today’s passage. If we gather the elders of the church, pray over him, and anoint him with oil, perhaps God will heal him.
It didn’t work.
Why didn’t it work? Was it a lack of faith? Or perhaps the lead pastor wasn’t really that righteous of a man?
Let’s start with verse 16 and work our way backwards. James writes, “The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.” I believe that with all my heart but I also don’t want to make this phrase out to mean something that it was never intended to mean. First of all, while James says that the prayer of the righteous person is powerful and effective, he never says that the prayer of the unrighteous person is weak and ineffective. Just because the first one is true doesn’t necessarily mean the opposite is also true!
That’s good news, because I’m not exactly what I would call a righteous person. Oh, sure, I’m forgiven. But righteous? Let me just quote Paul for a minute from Romans 3:10, “No one is righteous, no, not one.”
You could argue that those who are forgiven are righteous in God’s eyes, and that’s true. But I want to be careful because what I don’t think James is saying is that God only hears the prayers of the righteous, or even worse, that God is involved in some sort of accounting business where he measures your righteousness and your sinfulness and bases whether or not he will answer your prayers in a positive way on you having more checkmarks on the righteous side of the ledger than on the sinful side.
I imagine some child praying at night, “God, please heal grandma. She’s awful sick and the doctors don’t think she is going to make it.” And God is up in heaven thinking, “Ah, Jimmy, I’d love to help you out there. But yesterday you stole a piece of candy from your sister and that tipped you over to the unrighteous side of the ledger. Try again when you get a few more good deeds under your belt.”
That would be absolutely terrible! Now I understand why people think that this is how God operates: this is how we operate! There is a Latin phrase for this, it is called “Quid Pro Quo.” Quid Pro Quo means giving something to get something. This is how our world works. If you walk into a grocery store, do you just pick up a gallon of milk and walk out? No, that is called stealing. If you want to receive that gallon of milk, you have to give something to the store, namely money.
That’s a very obvious example. Let’s get a little more complicated. Election season is upon us once again and the yards of Staunton are littered with signs encouraging us to vote for one candidate or another. Each of those candidates wants something of you, they want your vote. But what incentive do you have to go out on a chilly November day to stand in line to tap a name on a screen? The candidates want something from you, so they offer you something. If you vote for me, I’ll clean up the city. I’ll cut crime. I’ll make more jobs. I’ll cut taxes. Quid Pro Quo means that you give something to someone with the expectation that they will return a gift to you in some way.
Since this is how our world operates, we assume that this is how God operates as well. How many of us prayed to God saying things like, “God, if you’ll just make this girl like me, I’ll give you the rest of my life and do what you want.”? That’s how I got into ministry! That’s not how God works and that isn’t the way we are supposed to live as Christians.
In the Bible there is a story that Jesus tells about some people that go to the temple to pray. One man is a religious leader. He is pious. He is respected. He is righteous. There is another man who was a tax collector. He was despised by the people, and he knew it.
There are a number of differences between these men. Perhaps most significant is their attitude. But Jesus tells us that the sinner, the reject, the one who prayed a humble prayer was the one who prayed the effective prayer that day while the “righteous” person went home unchanged.
Perhaps the point of this story is that it isn’t our righteousness that causes our prayers to be effective or not. It is our attitude when we approach God that makes the most difference.
So just because God hears the prayers of a righteous person and those prayers are powerful and effective, don’t think that the prayers of a sinner such as me have no power.
Continuing to work backwards, let’s look at verses 14-15b: “Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up.”
This passage is misunderstood by so many people today. We know James isn’t saying what some people want him to be saying. Is James saying that anointing someone with oil and praying over them will heal that person every time? I can’t say for sure, so why don’t we just ask James himself what he meant? Oh yes, we can’t. He is dead.
In the Bible Jesus says things like if you have enough faith, you can tell a mountain to throw itself in a lake and it will listen. Elsewhere we are told that Jesus wasn’t able to do certain miracles in his home town because the people didn’t have faith.
I believe that God can heal people and that people can be healed through prayer. If I’ve ever visited you in the hospital, you know that I always pray for your healing. We have a time of sharing and prayer each Sunday because we believe that there is healing that can take place through prayer. But I also know that prayer is not fool-proof. This fool is proof of that!
I am not getting any younger. My body aches and hurts from time to time. When my back goes out I can be totally useless for about a week. And for the last two years I have had problems with my right elbow. I have some kind of tennis elbow which causes shooting pain to go from my hand to my shoulder when I pick something up at the wrong angle.
Should I pray for healing? Sure, and I have. But I still hurt. I’ve even “anointed” my bad back with oils, like Icy Hot and Bengay, but it hasn’t helped! Verse 15 says that the prayer offered in faith will make the sick well. So obviously, my problem is a lack of faith. If faith is able to move mountains, or make the rain stop and go again, as James says it does, then surely a prayer in faith can help my poor back!
I think that I am mature enough in my faith to know that faith does not always lead to healing. But this teaching is out there. A friend of mine who suffers from MS, has been told that the reason she suffers is because she doesn’t have faith. One family proudly boasted to her that the reason that they don’t have any health problems, even though they are the same age as my friend, is because they have a strong and healthy devotional life. What they were implying then was that my friend does not, and that is why she suffers.
How do you think this affects someone who is already suffering? I don’t think it helps them to try harder. This idea that if you are sick the only thing that is keeping you from getting better is a lack of faith is total crap.
Now it may be true that this couple is healthy because they have a strong devotional life. Remember when we started out this series on James we looked at the teaching that “All good things come from the Father.” I agree with that! All good things do come from the Father. But that does not mean that all bad things come from the Father. Suffering does not come from a lack of faith. In fact, some of the greatest examples of faith come from those who suffered great sickness, affliction, and trauma, and were never healed.
When someone tells me that all we need is faith and we will be healed, I like to ask them for examples of people of faith in the New Testament. Often they will think of Paul. Paul was a great champion of Christianity. He started many churches and wrote a large portion of our New Testament. But Paul suffered a lot. He was beaten. He was shipwrecked. And he was eventually put to death. But we often forget that Paul also had a chronic affliction.
In 2 Corinthians 12:7 Paul speaks of having a thorn in his flesh. We don’t know exactly what this thorn was, but when is a thorn something pleasant? Paul was a man of great faith. How else could we explain why he kept going from city to city when he was rejected and beaten? But he says that he pleaded with God to take away his affliction. Not once, not twice, but three times. And each time Paul pleaded God said no…kind of.
When Paul asks God to take away his thorn in his flesh, God replies, “My grace is sufficient for you,” which is God saying no, yet there is more. It is a no, but… No I will not heal you from this, but don’t forget that there is something bigger going on. There is grace; there is forgiveness.
When James writes that the prayer of faith will make the sick person well, he uses the Greek word “sodzo.” Sodzo has a broad meaning. It can mean a physical healing, like when a sick person gets well or a broken bone heals. But it is also one of the words that can be translated as “save” or “salvation.”
If you want to impress your friends sometime, talk to them about soteriology. Soteriology is the study of salvation and the word comes from the same root as sodzo. Soteriology is the study of how Jesus saves. Under this category we would have thing like atonement theories, physical healings, and liberation theories.
The NIV, which we read from today, translates sodzo as “healed” in this passage. The KJV translates it as “saved.” Which is right? I think both.
No, the Bible does not guarantee that if you are sick that all you need to do is pray and you will automatically be healed. Nor does it say that if you don’t have enough faith that your prayer will not be effective. What it does say is that if you are sick you can pray and you will experience sodzo. We just aren’t told whether that sodzo will be in this life or the next.
Finally, I just want to look at verse 13: “Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise.”
I’m always in trouble, so perhaps I should take the command to pray without ceasing a little more seriously. The point is that God is there to help. One of the reservations that I have in presenting a different understanding of this passage is that when people are sick that we will simply say that they will be healed in the next life. That is true, but God also cares about our bodies and our minds right now.
If you are in trouble, pray. What does that even mean? How many different ways could I be in trouble? I can’t even begin to count! I could be in financial trouble. I could be having relational problems. I could be having problems at work, at school, in my own home. Which does James mean? I think he is intentionally being vague. If you are experiencing any trouble, pray. Pray because God cares about your problems. If he didn’t we wouldn’t be asked to pray!
James then flips it all around and says that if you are happy, sing songs of praise. And this change seems a little too quick for me, to go from troubles to celebration at the flip of a switch.
I’m not a happy-go-lucky kind of person. I’m not always an optimist. But this much I know for sure: we all have reason to celebrate. We all have reason to be happy. Even in suffering, evening in sickness, we have reason to sing songs of praise.
It is so easy to get bogged down in all of the negativity of this world. Refugee situations, mass shootings, poverty, and warfare are a part of our lives and those are troubles that we should be praying about. But in the next breath James reminds us to sing songs of praise for what is good.
So today I celebrate the small things. In the beginnings of yet another political season, I celebrate that my five-year-old son had a fun time taking a straw-poll vote for sheriff last week. In the midst of a great storm that caused flash flooding in our area, I give thanks that people came out to support the MCC Relief Sale. As I anticipate my next back strain or elbow pain, I am thankful that even though my body may ache today, one day I will be given a new body. And I will spend eternity in the new heaven and new earth with a God who loves me and calls me his own.