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James 5:13-15

"13 Is any one among you suffering? Let him pray. Is any cheerful? Let him sing praise. 14 Is any 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; 15 and the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven."

This section actually forms a whole piece with the rest of this letter, but I thought it would be easier to break it up into two parts. James is drawing his pastoral letter to a close. What does he want to leave his readers with as he finishes up? In the midst of their various struggles, what is the last thing he wants them to hear from him?

At the beginning of the letter, James encourages his readers to see that the trials they are facing are all opportunities for their trust in God to grow and deepen. He tells them that God's intention is for their faith in Him to become a steadfast, deep and abiding confidence in their heavenly Father that will grow until they are "perfect and complete, lacking in nothing" (1:4).

Now James wraps up his letter by reminding his readers how to participate in God's work to grow their love and trust in Him. How does James do this: he calls his readers to prayer. In the immediately preceding section, he spoke to them of the nearness of God. He said they can be patient in the midst of their lives here on earth because "the coming of the Lord is at hand." God is here, with us, present in our midst. The reality of His nearness enables us to be steadfast.

So how do we grow in our ability to be patient, to know and count on the nearness of our heavenly Father? We pray to Him, whatever our current circumstances are. "Is any one among you suffering?" James asks. "Let him pray." Remember, suffering is where James started this letter: "Count it all joy, my brethren, when you meet various trials..."(1:2). Here, as in the beginning, James has in mind the same idea which includes any and all painful situations. "Is any one among you suffering?" He doesn't qualify what kind of suffering it is or its severity. It is enough only that one is suffering.

And what are we to do when we are suffering? We are to pray. We are to turn our situation and all of our anxieties, questions, doubts, and struggles over to the good God James has been pointing us to throughout this letter. He is the God who desires our perfection and completion (1:4), who gives generously without reproach (1:5), the source of all good gifts (1:17), who gives grace to the humble (4:6), and who is always at hand (5:8), nearer than the very trials we are going through.

What James is doing here is assuring his readers that it is God's very character to be intimately concerned with their sufferings. When we suffer we wonder and are even tempted to think that God is absent or indifferent. James has been assuring his readers and continues to assure them that this is not the case. When we are suffering the most immediate, practical, and effective thing we can do is to pray because our suffering does not mean God has turned against us and abandoned us.

Prayer reminds us of God's character and nearness. Prayer enables us to hand over again to God what only He can redeem and transform. Prayer puts us where we can receive His peace and comfort. Notice that James does not outline for them certain principles to live by to alleviate their suffering. He simply tells them to pray, to communicate with the living God. This is the first thing we are to do, before decisions are made or actions taken.

Next James considers those who find themselves currently in a situation that is happy, contented. "Is any cheerful?" Oddly enough, when suffering is alleviated we can also be tempted to wander from God's immediate presence! We may fail to see the connection between God and our happy situation. We may sense no immediate need for God. But, again James reminds his readers of the true reality of their circumstances. God is the source of all good and perfect gifts, James has told them in the first chapter. Here James says that the appropriate response to happiness is to praise God. God has everything to do with the blessings we receive. To not praise Him is to miss the opportunity to "receive the Giver with the Gift" as George MacDonald would say. Our happiness is not full and complete when we fail to recognize the One who is giving to us. Thanksgiving completes and perfects the joy of everything good.

Now James turns to physical illness. "Is any among you sick?" This illness may or may not have a direct connection to personal sin. But James does consider this possibility as well. So, it seems to me that here James is dealing with a lack of wholeness or health, both physically and spiritually. He deals first and foremost with physical disease possibly because we may be tempted to believe God is less concerned with that than He is with spiritual disease. James spends more time dealing with this concern than the previous two--and I think this is because he wants to emphasize to his readers that God is indeed present, active, and loving when we are physically broken and in pain. It is not a sign of God's rejection.

This section of James's letter has received a lot of attention over the years and is familiar to all of us. Verse 15 is often the focus because of the puzzle over the promise offered in it. I know that you all have stories of prayers for someone's healing that seemed to go unanswered. We know that God does not always bring someone back to full health the way we are hoping when we pray. So, what is James saying here? Let's work our way through the passage.

First, James calls his readers to prayer again. But it is interesting to me that James encourages his readers to seek out prayer from others on their behalf. Apparently there are times when it is good, right, and appropriate to ask others to come over and pray for you. We are to place ourselves in the position of receiving the prayers of others for us. It is interesting to me that God's intention for us is that not only are we to receive our lives, peace, identities, etc. from Him but that we may also receive it from Him through one another.

Second, James tells his readers to call specifically on the elders of the church to do the praying. We are to ask those who are more mature in the faith, who have a ministry of shepherding us to pray over us, on our behalf. Why is that? Is it because God is more willing to listen to them, that we have a better chance of success with them?

It may be the case that when we are suffering some illness we will feel alienated not only from God, but from the church and so it's leaders as well. We may be tempted to think that those more spiritual will not want to have anything to do with us. Our illness, we think, indicates spiritual failure and so we don't really belong to the church. James says, no, you belong, go to the elders, they are there to minister to you the grace of God. Don't stay away, but come together. Don't let illness separate you from God or His people.

James then goes on and describes their prayer as "the prayer of faith" and says that it will "save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up..." What is this "prayer of faith?" Do the elders have more faith than others? Is God looking for a certain amount of faith before He will work? What is faith anyway? Maybe we can begin to get an answer by looking as what this prayer of faith results in.

James says it will "save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven." What does James mean, "save" and how is it related to being sick? The word here translated "save" is a word James has used earlier in this letter. The Greek word is a rich one with several related meanings. It includes the idea of healing and wholeness as well as rescue. So it can have an immediate and temporal as well as a spiritual and eternal sense. In 1:21 James encourages his readers to receive the implanted word "which is able to save your souls." In 4:12 James reminds them that there is one lawgiver and judge, "he who is able to save and to destroy." Since James uses this word here in this passage and follows it with "the Lord will raise him up" it would seem that James is using this word with its broader meanings included. Since James includes the idea of being forgiven of sin, if there are sins involved, what he means by "saved" clearly includes the spiritual dimension. Saved then seems to cover a wide range of outcomes including both the physical and the spiritual dimensions.

James is drawing out what God is doing with "the prayer of faith." God is going to save, raise up, and forgive. Is God concerned with brokenness, weakness, pain, sin? Absolutely! God is Savior--this is Who He is. His will is to bring about complete restoration, wholeness, healing. Remember chapter one? He purifying or testing of our faith is to make us "perfect and complete, lacking in nothing." This is what He desires for us, what it means for us to be the first fruits of His creation. We can count on Him for our complete redemption and healing, for His raising us up, because this is His heart.

Now, back to the question of what is "the prayer of faith?" Is James concerned about some amount of faith that some people have. I don't think so. The prayer of faith is one that hands all over to the Savior God, confident in His character and purposes rather than counting on the strength of one's own believing. Faith always has an object outside of and beyond one's self. In the Bible we are always directed to put our faith in something, or rather Someone! The object of our faith is the God in whom we trust We are never directed to put faith in our faith, in how strongly we trust. As we mature, our trust grows and fits more nearly with who we see God to truly be. We trust Him to be true to Himself, and our requests become more reflective of what we know He is up to. So, the elders are those who pray as we all ought to pray: in knowledge and confidence that God truly is Savior and that His will is to bring about salvation, wholeness, complete health. Their prayer reflects a maturity in their knowledge of who God is, not a confidence who they think they are or what they can do.

And James says that God will work through these prayers. God is intimately concerned about healing the brokenness of our lives. We can count on Him to be our salvation, to bring complete health into our lives. This doesn't necessarily mean that we will see immediate healing the way we want it in each situation brought before the elders. But we can know where ultimate healing resides and that in the end, ultimate healing will be given--a healing that death will not be able to take away because it is beyond death. No illness, pain, suffering, dysfunction, or sin has the final say in our lives.

This passage reminds us to see the reality of God's connection to everything in our lives, and to turn to Him in all circumstances trusting in His good character and purposes. Sometimes we want to deal with a situation in our lives by applying principles or making plans without going back to our vital and necessary connection to the real and present God. These past two weeks we went camping for our vacation. As often happens, there were moments went tempers wore a bit thin and we were wrestling with how our children were treating each other. We decided to have a family meeting and my first impulse was to go over how to treat each other and my expectations for the rest of our time together. Gary, however, wanted to remind us all of God's presence and work. He asked the children to consider whether they trusted that God was for them and whether He was good and faithful when He made us a family. Could we count on Him to bless us because we were together, each of us a part of the family He created? Could our actions towards each other reflect our trust that God was faithful to our family and at work to make us all He created us to be? I appreciate again being reminded of the richness I can know when I take the time to see how God is connected to all of my life.

I have been noticing over these past weeks as I have mulled over this passage that I can grow in the habit of turning each and every concern consciously to God in prayer. Am I struggling with a relationship? I can pray for the person with whom I am dealing. Is the day looking too crazy? I can begin on my knees handing each piece to my living heavenly Father. He is able to handle all the pieces far better than I can.

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