Summary: When should we pray for health? When should we confess our sins? James compels his readers to think about their relationship to one another as a cause of their discomfort.
PRAYER + FAITH = HEALING
“Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.”
Many years ago I was leading a study through the Book of James. Arriving at this passage, I asked the participants to speculate why James advised anointing with oil. In addition to the usual responses one would expect of a group of people intent on understanding the Word of God more perfectly, one man said, “If he lubricates the sick person, maybe he’ll slide right out of bed.” I’m not trying to slide sick people out of bed; but I do believe it is important for us to understand what James is saying so that we are equipped to honour the Lord through knowing His will.
In a previous message, I briefly alluded to the subject that is before us today. The message today deals with the poorly understood and oft-abused ministry of anointing the sick for the purpose of healing. There appears to be two extremes among contemporary churches—either viewing anointing as necessary to effect healing, or ignoring this as an action that had validity in the days of the apostolic church, but without value among Christians today.
Some individuals have promoted a “ministry of healing” through anointing. Often, healers offer “blessed” oil for “a gift to the ministry.” They claim that when these special oils are applied to the afflicted parts (even empty wallets), they cause healing. They offer no money-back guarantee, because if the sick person doesn’t have enough faith, the oil can’t work. It is a pretty good business that permits the sale of oil that costs a few cents to mix and bottle, which can be sold for twenty dollars or more. There are no restrictions on the effectiveness, because if it doesn’t work, it is the fault of the one using the oil and not the fault of the oil.
During the years of my walk before the Lord, I have witnessed many individuals who claim to possess the gift of healing. These individuals don’t bat a thousand; in fact, their success rate is often lower than that observed and identified as spontaneous remission. When confronted by their failures, they are often prone to say that those for whom they prayed didn’t have faith. If someone is not healed, it is their own lack of faith, and the healer is off the hook.
Other believers—undoubtedly sincere in their faith—have dismissed what James writes. It appears that those rejecting James’ words are often more concerned to react to abuse than to provide a careful exegesis of what he has written. They are more concerned not to appear to be countenancing error than to provide an accurate exegesis of the text.
An old saw presents a hermeneutic principle: any text out of context is pretext. Therefore, if we will understand what James teaches, we will need to understand the context. Then, having the context in view, we will need to examine what is actually said in JAMES 5:13-16.
REASONS FOR ILLNESS — If we will understand what James is saying, we need to understand the reason for illnesses. In the ultimate analysis, all illness is the result of sin. I don’t mean that we are punished because we have sinned, but I do mean that we are part of a fallen race. Sin has infected the race, proving to be the ultimate cause of illness.
Paul compels us to confront this truth when he writes in the Letter to Roman Christians, “Just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned— for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come” [ROMANS 5:12-14]. Illness, and ultimately death, is the result of sin.
Surely, none of us are so insensitive or obtuse in our thinking as to imagine that infants die because they have sinned. Innocent children do die. I still recall with sorrow a funeral that I conducted for a child that lived but minutes following his birth. The parents were immigrants, and as you might imagine, they were deeply grieved at the death of this long-anticipated child. The parents had approached their pastor, but he was too busy to conduct a funeral. They spoke with the associate pastor of the congregation, but he excused himself as being too busy. They approached me, heartbroken and feeling deserted in the world.