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James 5:16-20

"16 Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects. 17 Elijah was a man of like nature with ourselves and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. 18 Then he prayed again and the heaven gave rain, and the earth brought forth its fruit. 19 My brethren, if any one among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, 20 let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins."

This section is a continuation of the one we looked at previously. In fact, it seems to me that James began the conclusion of this letter back in verse 7 of chapter 5 when he encouraged his readers to "be patient ... until the coming of the Lord." As I have said before, James is writing this letter to Christians who are encountering a variety of trials in their lives. They are finding that their faith in God does not keep them from having to deal with difficult and often very painful circumstances. James does not write them to tell them how to avoid all trials and live a victorious, pain-free life. He assumes that the trials are going to come. James is writing to help his readers to know how to go through the trials that are inevitable in a broken and hurting world.

The trials we go through essentially tempt us to be double-minded about God. We know He is loving and good so when we find ourselves in difficulties, we get confused. It is not always clear to us why we are having these struggles and so we begin to wonder if God has abandoned us. Or, we may question whether He really is all that loving and good after all, or whether it is just that he doesn't care about us in particular.

It is this doublemindedness that James is concerned about. He wants his readers to know that God is actually present, gracious, and always able to redeem. He turns their focus away from their trials to face their heavenly Father who is at work in the midst of their trials to give them more of His life, peace, and joy. Focusing on their present circumstances cannot tell them who God is or assist them in counting on Him more. He wants to enable them to turn their eyes towards the triune God and to allow Him to draw out their faith. So throughout the letter James sets before His readers the wonderful character of God: that He is the generous giver of all good gifts, the Father of lights, the One who cannot be tempted by evil and so never tempts us with such, the One who ultimately is leading us through these difficult days to make us become people who are complete and lacking in nothing.

In verse 7 of chapter 5, James encourages his readers to be patient. It looks like God will not necessarily take us through our trials quickly. As we struggle through some situations over a very long period of time, the temptation to be doubleminded about God can grow. Where is He? we may wonder. Why hasn't He fixed this by now? It is hard when looking at our difficulties to be patient. James knows that. Notice that he does not encourage them to work up their patience from sheer willpower. Once again He reminds them of the truth about God. God is at hand, He is indeed present, and His presence is the greater reality--the reality that enables us to be patient.

Why is it that the prayers of the righteous person are powerful? Because this person knows that it is God they are completely dependent on and not themselves. They are trusting God to be their Savior, the One who gives generously and seeks our perfection. So their prayers are going to be seeking God's great intentions instead of their own. They are not praying for their own wills to be done. In other words, a righteous man or woman is not praying in a doubleminded way.

James wants to make sure his readers understand this statement about the prayers of a righteous person so he illustrates it with a story of Elijah. First he tells them that Elijah "was a man of like nature with ourselves..." Elijah was not righteous "in himself," his nature was like ours. Any righteousness he exhibited was in his confidence in the God he prayed to. And look what his prayers brought about. First there was no rain for 3 years and 6 months, and then he prayed again that there was rain! His prayers were not his ability to put pressure on God to do something God did not really want to do. No, rather through his prayers he was caught up and given the privilege to participate in God's work, in what God was doing. God graciously has us participate in His wonderful work. And James wants his readers to have hope and confidence that God desires to do His great and good will and wants us to get invovled through our prayers of faith in Him.

As he brings his letter to an end, James finally turns to the situation of a believer who has wandered away from the truth. This is someone who allowed his or her doublemindedness about God to grow to the point that he or she is no longer acting out of any confidence in God, but instead is motivated out of fear, greed, anger, etc. Now here is a situation where we are truly tempted to lose trust in God. We wonder if there is any thing that can be done for such a person. Is there any hope? Certainly now, we have come to the point where even God gives up and changes His mind and purpose and heart.

Notice how tenderly and hopefully James writes these sentences. He begins with his ofted used address "brethren." He does not write them from a distance, as a master or a teacher, but intimately connected, as a brother. "If any one among you wanders from the truth and some one brings him back..." Is there any point in pursuing those who have turned away from the God they once trusted in? James wants his flock to know that here too God is continuing to be at work, and their participating in His work of redemption can have "great effects," as with the prayers of the righteous one. Will it make any difference? James says yes! It "will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins." God allows us to be a part of all the wonderful things He is doing, even for those who have turned away from Him.

What does all this mean? James is turning the eyes of His readers back to their very active, living, redeeming, life-giving God. In the midst of long and difficult trials or just the everyday frustrations and anxieties, the pains of broken relationships or the mourning over various missed opportunities, God is at work. While we may be tempted to doubt and disbelief, God remains faithful to Himself and therefore to us. He is not doubleminded about us. So James invites his readers again to gaze on this triune God, to turn our focus away from the circumstances toward our heavenly Father in the midst of our circumstances, counting it up as joy for the day when we will stand before Him "perfect and complete, lacking in nothing." Until then, we are able to be patient in hope and can turn all things over to Him in prayer.

Life here is a life full of evidence that we do not fully live in the good life our generous heavenly Father intends. Sometimes our trials are the constant frustrations of everyday life and at other times they are so big, they threaten to overcome us. Our longing for the day when we will be beyond all these struggles grows as we realize that in this life, trials will continue to be a part of our experience. It is so very easy to lose sight of God's character and purposes when life is not going the way we believe it should. It is tempting to draw conclusions about God based on our current difficulties. But this is what James writes his letter to prevent. Our trust in God can only grow as we look again at who He truly is and find Him able to be present and active in the midst of the struggles we are facing.

I hope that God brings to mind James' words to us again and again as we continue to live here in this changing, challenging and broken world waiting for the fullness of its promised redemption.

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