"Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray. Is anyone happy? Let him sing songs of praise. Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. And 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. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful." - James 5:13-16
I was unable to post last week as I was sick! Tuesday was perhaps the most miserable day I have had with sickness. I have had more pain ... when I had my heart bypass, but as far as being very sick, last Tuesday was it! While I was thankful to be able to get back to the office on Wednesday, I wasn't at "full strength" and the week went by very quickly. I thank the Lord for the strength to preach His Word Sunday morning and for a return to a good measure of health.
Tuesday reminded me how very quickly the human body can be struck with illness, and of those who suffer with chronic illness as well. All of us are vulnerable to disease, and sickness often comes without warning. As I lay in bed (something I NEVER do, even when I am sick) last Tuesday, I had time to think of a lot of things, and one of those was healing. As I prayed and others prayed for me I had the comfort of knowing that God was with me and that this was probably a very temporary illness. But it did bring to my mind a question I have been asked often: "Does God still heal today?"
My sickness was pretty much over in 24 hours, but for some, the suffering and trials of physical ailments lasts for months, years, even a lifetime. I have been told by some that God wants all of His people to be healthy. Of course, that raises all kinds of problems for those of us who believe in a sovereign God who is able to do anything He desires to do. His wisdom and power are beyond limit, so if He WANTS everyone to be healthy, why doesn't that happen? We know that sickness and suffering and death are part of the consequence of the sinful world in which we now live, but if Jesus came to overrule that, why do believers still get sick? Why do they have heart disease and cancer and other chronic illnesses? We could understand it if that happened only to unbelievers. But how do we explain believers being sick and even dying from some physical disease?
One answer (a terrible one by the way!) is that some don't have enough faith to believe that God can heal them. He would do it ... if they just believed. Of course, that is not a biblical answer and thus not a true answer, but many people seem to fall for it. There are countless television ministries that tell people God is waiting for them to "sow a seed" (usually a round figure, like $1,000), and there are "miracles" that can be bought by such supposed obedience. These charlatans make a mockery of God's truth and of His grace. God doesn't charge for miracles!
Others go one step further and claim that those who aren't healed may be sick in the first place because of some sin in their lives that is either ongoing or unconfessed. They tell people that if they confess their sin and repent, God will heal them. Laying a load of guilt on people who are already suffering hardly seems loving, and is rarely "effective" in bringing healing, except perhaps by coincidence. Of course, if someone is addicted to drugs, living a lifestyle of promiscuity, ignoring God and going one's own way without any regard for the things of God or His offer of love and forgiveness, then repentance is necessary, but to declare that all or most physical disease is caused directly by one's own sin is, again, not only untrue, but extremely harmful to the spiritual welfare of those who do not experience healing - even after they have done all THEY can do.
Where do people GET this stuff? And why do so many who claim to be Christians listen to them? Well, they get it from twisting and distorting God's Word. Much of this teaching comes from one passage: James 5:13-16. While I do not have time or space in this blog to go into all that needs to be said about these verses, let me point out some crucial points that James makes.
He begins by asking two questions in verse 13, and giving brief answers: "Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray. Is anyone happy? Let him sing songs of praise." OK, here are two different circumstances that people often find themselves in: "trouble" and "happy." In the context, James is writing about submission to God, trusting Him and knowing that He is present. He is talking about being patient in times of suffering and standing firm and persevering because God is near. His point in verse 13 is that if you are in trouble, "pray," because God is near. If you are happy, "sing songs of praise," because God is near.
Then he goes on in verses 14-15: "Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. And 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."
Notice that James writes that PRAYER is important and that praying in faith, believing God will do what He has promised, brings healing, restoration. So what kind of healing is James talking about? If he is talking about physical sickness and physical healing, then why doesn't more healing take place today - REAL healing? Here's my answer, and I believe the context demands this understanding of what James writes, inspired by the Spirit of God ...
James is NOT talking about physical illness!! The Greek word translated "sick" in verses 14-15 can and often does mean "weak, weary and tired." This fits much better with the context of the verses that precede and those that follow verses 13-16. To whom is James speaking? He is speaking to Jewish believers who had been scattered from Jerusalem during intense persecution (Acts 8:4). He says in chapter 1, verses 2-4: "Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything."
This is the subject of James' letter and he begins and ends on this subject: trials "test" your faith and help you to mature, making you stronger in the end and helping you to persevere, for the glory of God. At the end of his letter James returns to this subject and tells those who are feeling spiritually weak, weary and tired to ask for help, to call the elders and to ask them to pray over them, asking God for the strength He has promised to give. The anointing with oil symbolized "being set apart for a holy purpose," and served as a reminder to the one being prayed for that they were a child of God through faith in Christ. When James says that if they have sinned, their sins will be forgiven, he points to the fact that people sometimes isolate themselves from their brothers and sisters and wander away from God and the Church, His people, and that leads to the spiritual condition they are now in. By calling the elders of the church the person is confessing their need and asking for help and they need to be reassured of God's grace and forgiveness in Christ Jesus.
After using the illustration of Elijah to show the power of prayer offered in faith, James summarizes his message in verses 19-20: "My brothers, if one of you should wander from the truth (and become weak, weary and tired) and someone should bring him back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins."
As the elders come and pray for a brother or sister who calls them and asks for prayer the lost sheep is found and brought safely into the fold once again where they can be nourished and restored to spiritual health and strength. Because they have been turned back to the truth of God's love and grace their lives will be spared from the many harmful sins in which they had been engaged and those they may have engaged in in the future. Repentance "covers over a multitude of sins."
Using James to talk about "faith healing" or even praying for physical healing is taking that passage of Scripture out of its context and making it say something it doesn't. James is talking about restoring a brother or sister who is feeling spiritually weak and tired, perhaps one who has "wandered from the truth," and restoring them to fellowship with God and His people where they can grow and mature and their faith can be strengthened ("tested"). This is an essential part of the ministry of the body of Christ and it needs to be sought out by those who find themselves in this condition. God desires to "heal" them and WILL heal them.
So, does God heal? Absolutely! God promises spiritual healing to ALL who come to Him through faith in Jesus Christ. Sometimes we need others to remind us, to call us back, to pray for us, to pray with us. Prayer is, indeed, powerful!! But what about PHYSICAL healing?? Does God still heal people, physically? Does God still do miracles? We'll have to leave that for next time, but here's a hint: the answer is in God's Word!