Some years ago I saw a book by Ronald Dunn entitled, Don’t Just Stand There, Pray Something. I thought that this was a clever title. But more to the point, it is a truth with which James would agree.
As we saw in our previous study of James, the issue of prayer fits very well in a book that is known for its practicality. In a letter in which James has sought to exhort believers to prove their faith by their works, it unsurprising that he would come to the end of his epistle and mention prayer seven times. After all, what could be more practical than praying?
Unfortunately, with all of the issues with which believers often find themselves busy, prayer is often low on the list of priorities. In the daily busyness of life we tend to think that we do not have time to pray. We are deceived into thinking that prayer is a luxury for which we would love to have more time, but after all, with so much demanding our attention, who has time for such an activity? And I say this as one who faces the same temptation.
Often I find myself in my study preparing sermons or lessons, or even performing some administrative task, and the call to pray is ignored because, after all, there is so much to do! Bill Hybels has addressed that excuse in another aptly titled book on prayer: Too Busy Not to Pray. There is the well-known story of Martin Luther who once told his colleagues that he had so much to do that he would therefore need to spend the first two hours of the day in prayer. You see, Luther and Hybels realised the practical necessity of prayer. I have not read Hybels’ book but I would not be surprised to discover that in fact he has highlighted James quite a bit.
In this study, we return to James 5:13-18 in order to examine more closely the practical necessity of prayer. And my goal is quite clearly that we be not merely hearers of this Word but that we be doers as well. May our prayer meetings swell in number to the glory of God and to the good of His people. For after all, this is precisely why James tells us to pray.
A Prayerful Response
James begins his exhortation with these well-known words: “Is any among you afflicted? let him pray. Is any merry? let him sing psalms” (v. 13). And so we see that, whether we are under pressure or enjoying pleasure, we are to offer prayer—in the form of either petition or praise—to God. Regardless of our circumstances, we are to remain God-centred, for He is the sovereign Lord whether we are afflicted or merry.
Job lived wonderfully illustration of this principle. He was a godly man, who experienced great blessings from the hand of God, and enjoyed a vibrant relationship with Him. Yet when God allowed him to be severely afflicted, he lifted his voice to God in prayer. “Then Job arose, and rent his mantle, and shaved his head, and fell down upon the ground, and worshiped, and said, Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither: the LORD gave, and the LORD hath taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD” (Job 1:21).
A pastor friend and I used to have a running debate regarding 1 Thessalonians 5:17, which reads simply, “Pray without ceasing.” He thought that Paul was exhorting us to always be in prayer; whereas my interpretation was that we should always have a prayer life. To be honest, his interpretation may well be correct, for that is very much what James seems to be commanding right here.
A Promised Recovery
Most of the space in our previous study was taken with vv. 14-15: “Is any sick among you? 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: and the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him.”
We noted that these are some of the most difficult verses in all Scripture, but that a careful analysis of them certainly puts them within our understanding.
We asked the question, what does James mean by those who are “sick”? We noted the possible interpretation that “sick” speaks of those who are spiritually weak, but we concluded that such an interpretation is unlikely. As the word is used predominantly in the New Testament, it speaks of those afflicted physically, and it is this interpretation that we therefore assumed to be correct. (We did, however, note that spiritual weakness often accompanies physical sickness, and so the application to spiritual weakness is a valid one.)
We do not want to promote the idea of a health-wealth-prosperity gospel. That is, we do not believe that Christians will always be healthy and prosperous. We do not believe that it is God’s will that a Christian never be afflicted in any way. That being said, James does give us here a means by which we can expect healing when there is sickness in the church. Henry Frost writes,
When a saint is well, it is his bounden duty, being a bondslave of Christ, to use all of his physical, mental and spiritual powers for the praise and glory of his Saviour and Lord.
When a saint is sick, the same obligation, within the limit of his strength, is upon him; and he has the additional obligation, in order to test and discover God’s will concerning him, of seeking to re-obtain the health which he has lost.
In other words, when we are healthy in body it is incumbent upon us to robustly serve God with our body. When we are sick, it is incumbent upon us to pray to God for a healthy body with which we can then robustly serve Him.
Of course, it is perfectly possible to serve God faithfully when we are not well. I have known believers who have spent most of their lives ill, but who have nevertheless served God in a mighty way. Certainly James is implying that, when we are sick, we should not just throw in the towel and surrender. We do not simply resign ourselves to a life of suffering. We should pray, and ask God to heal us, not for selfish reasons, but primarily that we might serve Him with our bodies.
It seems from the context of James that the person calling upon the elders is so sick that he cannot go to the elders. The elders are called to his bedside, and they pray over him, which again suggests a posture in which the one sick is unable to even rise from his bed. The one who is sick, however, is at the same time submissive to God’s will—whether that involves healing or not—and so calls God’s representatives in the church to pray for him.
As I have already said, this is a difficult text, but what makes it perhaps even more difficult is the fact that, in our commitment to biblical Christianity (and thus our rejection of the false), we are so scared of miracles and healing, that our immediate temptation is to run to this text to find out how to disprove the teaching that this speaks of miraculous healing. Whilst I do not believe that there is any biblical grounds to suggest that God grants the gift of healing to any particular individual in our day, it cannot be denied that God often heals the sick, and that He does so through the means of prayer. And here we have a promise that “the prayer of faith shall save the sick.” The power is not in the prayer, but in the God to whom we pray; nevertheless, when prayer qualifies as a “prayer of faith,” healing is a promise.
We have several doctors in our church, but I do not first call one of them when I am sick. The first Person upon whim I call when I fall sick is God. There have been times when God has heard my prayer and made me well without medical intervention. There have also been times when that has not been the case. Nevertheless, whatever the outcome, I am convinced that our first recourse in times of illness should be to pray.
Now, we saw previously that God often uses means to bring about healing. He may use medication, or the intervention of medical practitioners. Nonetheless, all healing ultimately comes from God. The best doctors are those who realise this, and thus the most effective doctors will surely be those who invest time in prayer. The best medical practitioners realise that they are but means in the hand of a sovereign God, and they submit to His sovereignty in all things.
In this text, however, James does not focus his attention on the means of medical intervention. Rather, he draws attention to the practice of calling upon the elders of the church to pray for restoration. The text assumes that you are an active member of the church, for you must surely have a healthy relationship with the elders in order to call upon them. We noted in our previous study that calling upon the elders can (and should) be the response to a number of burdens, in addition to actual sickness. For example, those who are burdened because of barrenness would do well to call upon the elders of the church to pray for them. Those who have lived with a particular physical ailment for many years would do well to call upon the elders of the church to pray. I do not suggest that this is a carte blanch promise that God will grant healing in these circumstances, but He may well do so. We do not know the ultimate outcome, but we do know that God commands us here to pray when we are burdened about such things. What a shame it would be for us to spend our entire life sick when we could have been well by simply calling upon the elders of the church to pray!
I suppose that there are several (perceived) obstacles to us calling upon the elders of the church to pray for us. One perhaps is that we are intimidated by science. I have read many articles over the years in publications such as Time and Newsweek magazines which cast doubt upon prayer. Articles have been published to the effect that prayer is simply a psychosomatic response to illness: Some get well after prayer, others do not; therefore, it is all just a case of mind over matter. It may not seem very scientific to call upon others to pray for you, but let us remember that God is the one behind all science! There is nothing “unscientific” about the believer calling upon the elders to pray. “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him” (James 1:5).
Another obstacle to us calling upon the elders might be our own pride. We are concerned that if we call upon the elders they will begin probing and will perhaps uncover some sins that we would prefer to keep hidden. James does say, “If he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him” (v. 15). This does not mean that all sickness is necessarily the result of sin, but in some cases it may well be. The fact of the matter is, responsible elders will probe when they are called upon to pray for the sick. They will exhort the one who has called upon them to search his heart for sin that has not been dealt with. And perhaps we fear that they will find out about something that we have tried to keep hidden.
A third obstacle might simply be the pride of not wanting others to be involved in our lives. We prefer to remain private, and it is far too intrusive to have others get involved in praying for us. But v. 16 deals with the fact that such prayer is a body issue.
Having said all of that, what is the result of calling upon the elders to pray? James states it quite plainly: “And the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him” (v. 15).
In order to properly understand this text, it is important that we grasp the precise nature of “the prayer of faith.” A wonderful illustration can be seen in the account recorded by Luke in Acts 3. The story is well known. Peter and John were walking to the temple at the hour of prayer, and at the gate of the temple encountered a man who had been lame from birth. The man was begging for money. Stopping, Peter and John looked upon the man, who expected to receive some financial assistance. But they had other plans. “Silver and gold have I none,” said Peter, “but such as I have give I thee: In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth rise up and walk” (v. 6). Immediately, the man was healed, so much so that he (who had been lame for 40 years) began “walking, and leaping, and praising God” (v. 8). When those at the temple saw this, they were astounded, and gathered around to hear more. Peter then began explaining what had happened.
And when Peter saw it, he answered unto the people, Ye men of Israel, why marvel ye at this? or why look ye so earnestly on us, as though by our own power or holiness we had made this man to walk? The God of Abraham, and of Isaac, and of Jacob, the God of our fathers, hath glorified his Son Jesus; whom ye delivered up, and denied him in the presence of Pilate, when he was determined to let him go. But ye denied the Holy One and the Just, and desired a murderer to be granted unto you; and killed the Prince of life, whom God hath raised from the dead; whereof we are witnesses. And his name through faith in his name hath made this man strong, whom ye see and know: yea, the faith which is by him hath given him this perfect soundness in the presence of you all.
Now, clearly this man had to exercise some faith in response to Peter’s command to rise and walk. Remember that he had been lame for 40 years. The command to rise and walk was not something that he would ordinarily attempt every morning before asking to be carried to the temple. But he recognised the authority in Peter’s command, and obeyed. He was thus healed “through faith in [Christ’s] name,” as Peter says in v. 16. But notice: “the faith which is by [Christ] hath given him this perfect soundness in the presence of you all.” Thus, the faith that the man exercised was in fact by Christ. It was given to Him by the Lord Jesus Christ, and thus as he exercised the gift of faith God healed him.
There is a cruel teaching which claims that those who are not healed do not have sufficient faith. If you have enough faith, the reasoning goes, you will always be healed. The problem with this teaching, of course, is that faith is a gift of God. The “prayer of faith” spoken of by James must originate from God.
Some argue that “the prayer of faith” in James 5 is a reference exclusively to the faith of the elders who are praying. I do not believe this to be the case; I believe that “the prayer of faith” is as much that of the sick person as it is that of the elders. After all, would it not require faith for the sick person to call upon the elders in the first place? Perhaps another illustration will be helpful at this point.
And again he entered into Capernaum after some days; and it was noised that he was in the house. And straightway many were gathered together, insomuch that there was no room to receive them, no, not so much as about the door: and he preached the word unto them. And they come unto him, bringing one sick of the palsy, which was borne of four. And when they could not come nigh unto him for the press, they uncovered the roof where he was: and when they had broken it up, they let down the bed wherein the sick of the palsy lay. When Jesus saw their faith, he said unto the sick of the palsy, Son, thy sins be forgiven thee. But there were certain of the scribes sitting there, and reasoning in their hearts, why doth this man thus speak blasphemies? who can forgive sins but God only? And immediately when Jesus perceived in his spirit that they so reasoned within themselves, he said unto them, Why reason ye these things in your hearts? Whether is it easier to say to the sick of the palsy, Thy sins be forgiven thee; or to say, Arise, and take up thy bed, and walk? But that ye may know that the Son of man hath power on earth to forgive sins, (he saith to the sick of the palsy,) I say unto thee, Arise, and take up thy bed, and go thy way into thine house. And immediately he arose, took up the bed, and went forth before them all; insomuch that they were all amazed, and glorified God, saying, We never saw it on this fashion.
So determined were these men to get their friend to Jesus, that they actually climbed into the roof and lowered Him to Jesus from above. Important to note, however, is that whilst the friends had faith that Jesus could heal their friend (“seeing their faith”), surely the man himself must have shared that faith? The word “their” refers not only to the faith of the four friends, but to the faith of the man himself. And yet, ultimately, the faith was granted by God.
“The prayer of faith,” biblically speaking, is not something that we work up ourselves by chanting over and over, “I believe, I believe, I believe.” No, the prayer of faith originates from God, and that is why there is a promise of healing. When we pray according to God’s will, He hears us (1 John 5:14-15). We may not always know that we are praying the prayer of faith (although, when we pray, we must certainly pray believing that God can answer!), but God knows! He ultimately receives all the glory, for He not only responds to the prayer, but in fact produces the prayer that ultimately results in the healing of the sick. God knows when the prayer of faith has been prayed, for He is the one who initiates such faith-filled prayers.
After our previous study, several questions were posed to me, many of which are important to deal with at this point. Let me take a few moments to answer some of these questions.
First (and we have already touched briefly on this), it has been asked whether it is right to say that the reason people are not healed is because they do not have enough faith. The answer to this is a categorical no! The issue is not how much faith a person has but rather the issue is the object of their faith and what He wills to be done.
Second, is it a cop-out to pray, “Your will be done?” Where is the faith there? Is such a prayer not the same as throwing up our hands in despair and resigning ourselves to fate? Again, we must answer this with a resounding no. The fact is, we do not always know the mind of God, and such a prayer is in fact a form of faith in itself, for it is behaving dependently on the Lord.
Third, what do we say about those times when we knew or felt that our prayer was going to be answered according to our request and yet it was not? Is this fair grounds on which to dismiss this passage? Of course not, for our faith must be in God, not in what we feel or assume. Be careful of deifying your feelings!
Fourth, if I am unsure of what God’s will is in my prayer then should I pray anyway? This time the answer must be a resounding yes! If what you are asking for is in line with Scripture then there is absolutely no reason not to pray. And James 5 clearly teaches that to pray for healing is in line with Scripture! The assumption here, of course, is that the individual in need of prayer is right with God, or desires to be so. In such cases, by all means pray that God’s will be done. That is a faithful prayer.
At the same time, let us be cautioned that, if our prayers are not God-centred or clearly contradictory to Scripture, we ought not to pray them. If we know that our sickness is due to sin and we refuse to repent, it does no good asking God to heal us. “Whatsoever is not of faith is sin” (Romans 14:23).
A fifth question raised is somewhat technical in nature: When the Lord Jesus died, was not healing in the atonement? In other words, when Jesus died on the cross, did He not secure healing for all those who would put their faith in Him? Isaiah 53:5 says that “with his stripes we are healed,” and the apostle Peter quotes this in 1 Peter 2:24. What precisely is meant by this? Is this speaking of healing from physical ailments?
Great men like A. J. Gordon and A. G. Simpson have held that healing is in the atonement and we can therefore confidently claim healing from all physical ailments. Of course, these men still died, and thus it is clear that we cannot expect complete healing from all physical conditions all the time.
Some appeal to Matthew 8:16-17 to claim that healing is in the atonement: “When the even was come, they brought unto him many that were possessed with devils: and he cast out the spirits with his word, and healed all that were sick: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Isaiah the prophet, saying, Himself took our infirmities, and bare our sicknesses.”
Importantly, Matthew claims that Jesus’ healings were done “that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Isaiah the prophet.” In time and space, the atonement had not yet taken place, but Jesus healed people as a foreshadowing of the greater (spiritual) healing that would take place at the cross.
But this does not fully answer the question. Is there then any sense in which healing is in the atonement? My answer to this question would again be a confident yes. Healing is most certainly in the atonement. That is why the Bible refers to salvation as the experience of a “new creation.” That is why Romans 8 gives us hope about the future. That is why we are promised that one day we will receive new bodies. That is why Revelation tells us to expect a day when there will be no more sickness, no more death.
However, though healing is in the atonement, so is the resurrection! In fact, the point of the atonement was not to make the sick whole but to make the dead alive and the old, brand new. Whilst full physical healing will one day be a reality (at our death or at the Lord’s return), we cannot always expect that this side of eternity. We might say that healing is highly overrated! All those who are healed by God are eventually going to die to be raised completely new by God. Hence, the fact that healing is a benefit of the atonement in no way implies health is the believer’s birthright in this life. Rather the birthright is a completely new body!
And so we know that an ultimate, eternal healing will eventually come to every believer, but there is nothing in Scripture to suggest that we can claim or expect healing for every illness we face in this life. Even the apostles, who received authority from Christ to heal various sicknesses, could not heal whenever they wanted to. Paul advised Timothy to take medicine for his stomach ailment (1 Timothy 5:23) and later told Timothy that he had left Trophimus at Miletum sick (2 Timothy 4:20). No doubt, he would loved to have healed these dear brothers, but the fact that he didn’t do so indicates that he couldn’t. If the apostles couldn’t just heal whoever and wherever they wanted, why should we assume that it is God’s will for us always to be healed. One day, however, in eternity, there will be no more need for doctors.
For now, however, we pray for healing and trust God in His wisdom to grant this as He sees fit. If He grants healing then we thank Him and serve Him wholeheartedly with whole bodies. If He chooses not to heal us, we trust His wisdom and serve Him wholeheartedly with bodies that are afflicted with whatever ailment we have. Whether well or sick, we continue to serve our Lord.
A Proper Relationship
James now shifts gears slightly and addresses the issue of relationships in the church. “Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed” (v. 16). As we saw previously, the call to prayer began with an individual emphasis (v. 13), and then moved to an eldership emphasis (vv. 14-15). Now, James urges a corporate participation in prayer (v. 16).
We cannot get away from the importance of having healthy relationships within the body. James again assumes the possibility that sickness is the result of sin. He is not suggesting that this is always the case; nevertheless, he writes, “Confess your faults one to another.” He assumes that there is such a relationships within the body that we are transparent enough to confess that we need help.
I am pleased to say that I can see growth in this area in our own church. People seem to be forming and maintaining more transparent relationships, and prayer has certainly received much attention in the church. But we cannot afford to become comfortable where we are and therefore be grow superficial when it comes to sin or to those committing sin.
Interestingly, the word translated “healed” here is a word that is used in the New Testament both of physical and spiritual healing. Perhaps James deliberately uses the word to highlight the fact that both emphases are necessary. Whether we are struggling physically or spiritually, we ought to be transparent enough to cry to the church for help.
A Powerful Righteousness
James then encourages us that prayer is not merely psychosomatic in its effect. “The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much” (v. 16). We might paraphrase, “The prayer of a righteous man has much strength, having been made effective [by God].”
As we noted, “a righteous man” is an apt description of every believer in Christ, for all believers have the righteousness of Christ credited to their account. Of course, James does not merely intend to speak of positional righteousness, for he has emphasised the need throughout his letter to be practically righteous, to have a faith that works. And here he challenges those who are living out practical righteousness that their prayers are effective when lifted to God. As Derek Tidball has correctly said, “We cannot live in flagrant disobedience to God and then expect him to listen to our prayers when it suits us. James 4:1-3 has already taught us that. We need to live in a right relationship with him as a general matter of course if we are to intercede effectively.”
We must be careful here: It is not the righteousness of the person praying that produces the power; it is God who works His power through the righteous. Thus, all of the glory goes to God even though we are blessed to be a means to His power. Let us be encouraged by the promised effectiveness of righteous and fervent prayer.
A Positive Reinforcement
To encourage us in this what he has already written on this matter of prayer, James concludes his teaching by giving us an example in vv. 17-18 of power through prayer. “Elijah was a man subject to like passions as we are, and he prayed earnestly that it might not rain: and it rained not on the earth by the space of three years and six months. And he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain, and the earth brought forth her fruit.”
Now notice that James does not point to Elijah as a “prophet.” We know that he was a prophet, but that is not the apostle’s focus here. Instead, he draws attention to Elijah as a fellow human being, with the same desires and burdens that we have. We may not be quick to compare ourselves to Elijah, but James tells us that he was just like us.
Elijah, of course, was a righteous man who loved and sought to please the Lord. Unlike the surrounding world, he lived a life in conformity to God’s standard. He confronted the prophets of Baal and stood for the truth of God at a difficult time. But even after his great victory atop Mount Carmel, displaying God’s power against the impotence of Baal, we find him complaining that he alone is faithful to God, and actually asking God to end his life! How much like us he was!
When God told Elijah that He would once again send rain to the land of Israel, Elijah went to prayer. But as he prayed, he kept sending his servant to check the sky for rainclouds. In contemporary terms, we might say that he prayed but at the same time kept an eye on the weather report! And yet he clearly had God’s Word on the coming rain, and thus his was truly a “prayer of faith,” which was answered as God sent rain to the parched land of Israel.
Significantly, James speaks of the time period of the famine in Elijah’s day as “three years and six months.” In the Old Testament, it simply mentions three years (1 Kings 18), but perhaps James is drawing attention to three years and six months here because he is writing to the very people who would experience three years and six months of intense affliction during the Jewish War (which would culminate in the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD). The Bible speaks of this as a time of “great tribulation” (Matthew 24:21) and as “the last days.” James has already drawn attention to this time period in v. 3, and perhaps he is doing so again.
The believers to whom James was writing lived in difficult days (just consider the context of chapter 5), and James’ exhortation to them was for them to pray. Elijah, too, lived in difficult days, and he prayed. Thus, they had an inspired example to whom they could look for encouragement during their time of affliction.
It seems then that James is opening wide the windows of exhortation at he brings this passage to a close. His immediate challenge was for the believers to pray in their sickness, but now it is as if he says, “And not only when you are sick—pray for all things at all times! Whatever burdens you, lift it to God in prayer!” Yes, they would face times of apostasy, but so did Elijah. And when Elijah prayed, God answered!
Commenting on these verses, Alec Motyer writes, “The most unpromising tracts of land conceal beneath them rich oil wells, seems of gold; grey seas cover deposits of natural gas. This is the picture suggested by the Word—not the unpromising face of the landscape but the immensity of the concealed power.”
If we are honest we will surely admit when it comes to the ability to pray that we are weak. Who are we to think that our prayers can change things? We are so much like Elijah: Despite the victories that God seems to give we are prone to whine and complain. But we miss the point: Elijah was prone to the same weaknesses that we are, but he still prayed! We ought not to look at the unpromising landscape of our lives, but at the concealed power of God behind our lives!
James has instructed us regarding our privilege and responsibility to experience power through prayer. We have heard the Word; let us now be doers of the Word. For, indeed, faith without works—including the work of prayer—is dead, being alone. May God grant us the grace to continue growing in prayer that we might experience His power for His glory!