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 the righteous man is powerful and effective. (James 5:13-16)
I have had some concerns about the meaning of the above verses for years. It seems that they saying that if you are physically ill and are not getting better that you will get healed if you call in the elders to pray for you and they anoint you with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer must be offered in faith of course which means praying without doubting that God will answer those prayers. And those who are doing the praying must be righteous, for it is seems that it is only the prayer of the righteous that is powerful and effective.
Although I do like the sentiment that if I pray hard enough or have enough faith or have achieved just the right amount of righteousness that my prayers for physical healing will be answered, I do have some questions about this understanding of the passage. For example, how fervently do I need to pray? How much faith is required? How righteous do I or the others praying need to be? And if my prayers for physical healing aren’t answered, does that mean that I wasn’t praying hard enough or that my faith was not strong enough or that I wasn’t righteous enough?
What I’ve also noted over the years is that some who pray for physical healing are healed even though they have doubts that they will or aren’t as righteous as God desires; that some who are godly and who have bucket loads of faith aren’t healed even though they pray with full confidence that their request will be honored by God; and some who are ungodly or who don’t pray at all are often healed of their ailments anyway. It seems to me that getting healed physically frequently has little to do with our faith or lack thereof, to our personal righteousness or the absence of it, to how fervently we pray, or to whether or not we ask others to pray for us or to anoint us with oil.
And so what exactly are these verses promising when they say that a prayer offered in faith will make a sick person well? Are they promising that if we pray with an appropriate amount of faith or righteousness that we will be healed from whatever ails us physically? Or are they promising a different kind of healing from a different type of ailment?
Clue #1 – What Follows “Therefore”
One clue to what these verses are promising is found in the portion that follows the word “therefore”:
Therefore, confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. (vs. 16)
Note that the promise of being healed in this verse is conditional. What is required is mutual confession of sin and praying for one another. This suggests that the sickness the person is experiencing has something to do with their personal sin. This could mean that what ails them physically is a direct result of sin in their life and that they won’t be physically healed until their spiritual problem – their sin issue – has been addressed. But it could be that James was not talking about physical healing at all but instead was addressing how to get healed from what ails someone spiritually.
One thing to note in this respect is that James never mentions physical healing specifically in these verses. He simply mentions healing in general without indicating what type of healing he was addressing. Although James could have been talking about how to get healed from a physical ailment, it could just as well be that he was addressing how to get healed from a spiritual one.
Clue #2 – What the Trouble Is
Another clue in identifying what type of sickness James was addressing and what type of healing is being promised is to note what precedes the verses that talk about “a prayer of faith” and “the prayer of a righteous man”. Here’s what comes before these verses:
Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray. Is anyone happy? Let him sing songs of praise. (vs. 13)
Although “any one of you in trouble” could be interpreted as “anyone suffering from a physical ailment” or “anyone happy” could be understood as “anyone glad they are not”, it seems to me that James was referring to a different kind of trouble and a different source of happiness. If “trouble” in verse 13 is meant to be linked to what follows the word “therefore” in verse 16, then this person’s trouble may have something to do their spiritual condition. If that condition is healthy, they should praise the Lord for it. If not, then they need to pray to be healed from what is causing them to be sick spiritually. And if their prayers for spiritual healing are ineffective, then:
He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. (vs. 14)
And then follow this instruction:
Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other. (vs. 16)
Connecting “trouble” in verse 13 with “confess your sins” in verse 16 provides a significant clue about the type of sickness James was addressing. What follows verses 13-16 must also be taken into consideration however if one wants to have a better understanding of what kind of sickness James was talking about and what type of healing is being promised.
Clue #3 – Elijah’s Prayer
James followed verses 13-16 with an example of a prayer offered by a righteous man and what it accomplished. That man was the prophet Elijah. Here’s is what James said about him:
Elijah was a man just like us. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops. (James 5:17-18)
It may seem at first glance that Elijah was praying about the weather and by noting this James was simply reinforcing that if you are righteous and have faith that your prayers, like those of Elijah, will most assuredly be answered. But there is much more to this incident than what James noted. The entire chronology is recorded in 1 Kings 16:29 thru 1 Kings 18:46. Here are some highlights of this:
- Ahab, the king of Israel, provoked the anger of the Lord by serving Baal, setting up an altar for Baal in the temple, and doing “more evil in the eyes of the Lord than any of those before him. (16:29-33)”
- In response to this evil, Elijah said, “As the Lord, the God of Israel, lives, whom I serve, there will be neither rain in the next few years except at my word. (17:1)”
- The drought continued for three and a half years. At the end of this period God told Elijah to present himself to Ahab (18:1). Elijah did so.
- Elijah then told Ahab that it was his disobedience of God that was the cause of the troubles Israel was experiencing. He also told Ahab and the Israelites that they needed to make a choice on whom they were going to worship; they had to choose either God or Baal (18:18-21).
- The people did not respond; they remained silent (vs. 18:21).
- Elijah then set up a contest on Mount Carmel between the priests of Baal and himself to prove whose god was strongest – whose god was real. Elijah showed through what took place that Baal was powerless – that he didn’t exist at all – and that the Lord God is in only God (18:22-38).
- Upon seeing what happened on the mountain, the people “fell prostrate and cried, ‘The Lord — he is God! The Lord — he is God! (18:39).”
- Following this act of contrition and repentance, Elijah said that the rains would return. And they did (18:41-45).
Note that the troubles the Israelites experienced were a direct result of sin and it wasn’t until they repented that their troubles ceased. Could it be that this is the type of trouble James was referring do when he asked, “Is any one of you in trouble?” Could it be that how the Israelites responded to their troubles – by contrition and repentance – is the action James was instructing believers to take when they are experiencing similar troubles – that they need to “confess their sins to each other and pray for one another”?
Clue #4 – James’ Conclusion
Here’s how James concluded:
My brothers, if one of should wander from the truth 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. (James 5:19-20)
These verses describe a situation where a sinner who has wandered from the truth is turned back from the error of his way by a brother and as a result is saved from death and a multitude of other sins. Could this be further clarification of the type of trouble James mentioned in verse 13 and what to do about it? Could the troubles the Israelites experienced due to their sin and what it took to remedy this be an illustration of this in verses 17-18? Could the one who restores the brother in verse 19 be one of the elders the troubled person asks to pray for him in verse 14 or one of those this person confesses his sins to in verse 16?
Clue #5 – The Whole Context of James
One last thing worthy of note is the entire tone and context of the book of James. James was writing to believers who didn’t seem to understand that their faith needed to be evidenced by works. James then described what some of those works ought to be. When James did this, he didn’t say, “You need to have more faith,” or, “You need a better relationship with God.” What James did say is that how we speak and act provides evidence of what we believe. And if our faith doesn’t result in what ought to characterize a healthy relationship with God, then something is wrong with it; it is useless and ineffective; it is dead (James 2:26). It seems to me that the entire book of James is about what one needs to do to avoid being spiritually ineffective. And if our ineffectiveness is the result of being spiritually sick, maybe it’s time to call in someone who can be of help in turning us away from the error of our ways so that we don’t continue to wander away from the truth and fall into additional sin.
What prayers offered in faith will always be effective
And so, what prayers offered in faith will always be effective? I believe it is prayers for spiritual healing. If we are spiritually sick and have a sincere desire to be brought back into a healthy and fruitful relationship with God, and if we then do what James instructs us to do – if confess our sins to one another and ask others to pray for us – God promises that He will forgive ours sins and heal us from what ails us spiritually.
That’s my understanding of these verses, at least as I see it today.