Unfortunately, that’s typical of the way many Christians approach life. If nothing else works, having exhausted all other remedies, all other options, and having tried everything else, we fall back on prayer. While for most people that may be normal, we’re NOT “normal” people–St. Peter says we’re a “peculiar people!” (1 Pet 2:9) Prayer should be our natural FIRST response to the character of a loving God who says, “This is what I’m like. Come to me. Ask what you will.” Prayer isn’t dead religious ritual but the natural response of a person alive with the Holy Spirit in a loving relationship with God.
St. James asks a simple question: (5:13) “Are any of you in trouble?” The particular word he uses here means “trouble not related to injury or illness.” He will deal with that in detail later on. So, here the “trouble” could be financial, legal, occupational, relational. If you can say, “I’m in trouble. Things aren’t going well and I’m in this situation that I don’t know how to deal with,” then this text is for you! Are you in trouble today?
Let’s just take finances as one example of how this works. Many of us, at the first sign of money troubles, think “Let’s get a loan.” Or maybe decide to sell off some assets. Or maybe we will turn up the thermostat up to 85F. Or we’ll get the kids a paper route and have them bring the money home. Or maybe we’ll play the lottery. But St. James has this really simple response, “So, you’re in financial trouble? You should pray.” It’s interesting that he doesn’t say to immediately call your lawyer, your doctor, your homeowners association president, not even to call your pastor! He says, “Pray.” That doesn’t mean you can’t do those other things. But your first response is to pray.
On the other hand he asks, “Is anyone happy?” Great! Remember where that came from. God is allowing these wonderful things into your life. Praise and thank Him for it. James’ idea here is of a relationship in which prayer, thanksgiving, coming to God with our needs, coming to God with our thanks, is just a natural outflow of our relationship with Him. This is a call to let God invade every part of your life. Inviting God to come alongside of us in our troubles, our joys, our areas of struggle, our relationships, our finances is to invite Him to apply His unlimited power and wisdom to our particular needs.
Then, in 5:14 we get: “Is anyone 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. And the prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.” Who is responsible to take the initiative? The sick person is to ask for prayer. Some congregations make this easier to do than others. I once served a congregations which made this this extremely easy for to do. During the distribution of the blessed sacrament, we invited people to visit with our Prayer Ministry Team in the back of the church, just to make it easy to obey this scripture. But the responsibility rests on the sick person to ask for the prayer.
Second, who is the sick person to call for? Elders! This verse isn’t saying, “Get an old person to pray for you.” There’s nothing wrong with that but it’s not what James is saying. New Testament “elders” are certain people recognized by the local community for their pastoral leadership. Why are these Christians told to get elders to pray for them? Because they are to be a part of a community of believers that are under authority. There is a popular movement right now that says, “I don’t need to go to church; I just need to be the church. I don’t have to submit to the authority of a local church.” Attitudes of independence and rebellion which manifest in the local church are not conducive to what Jesus has placed us here for. The promise of v. 15 assumes submission to spiritual authority and connection to biblical community.
Third, how are the elders to pray? They are to anoint the person with oil. There is no healing power in the oil itself. The oil is symbolic of the Holy Spirit. Anointing with oil is a visual recognition that only the Holy Spirit can do the actual healing. Anointing with oil is an act of obedience and faith that the Holy Spirit will touch the person. The prayer of the elders is to be “in the name of the Lord.” To act in someone’s name is to act in that person’s authority. When elders pray over the sick, they aren’t limited by the own power and ability. The Kingdom of God stands behind their prayer.
“And the prayer of faith will save the sick….” What is the prayer of faith? It is prayer that expects an answer. In a story left out of the lectionary, (Mk 11:12-14) Jesus and His disciples are on their way to Jerusalem from Bethany. Up ahead Jesus sees a fig tree that looked like it might have some figs on it. Even though the season for figs had not yet come, the lush leaves on the tree made it appear to be in season early. However, when Jesus got there it only had leaves. So Jesus says to the tree, “Let no one eat fruit from you ever again.”Jesus then goes on to Jerusalem and cleanses the temple and goes back to Bethany that evening. The next morning they see the very same fig tree and Peter points out how it had dried up from the roots just as Jesus had spoken over it. (Mk 11:22-24) “So Jesus answered and said to them, ‘Have faith in God. For assuredly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be removed and be cast into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that those things he says will be done, he will have whatever he says. Therefore I say to you, whatever things you ask when you pray, believe that you receive them, and you will have them.’”
The challenge we so often face is whether to believe what God has said or to believe what my five senses are telling me. Right after Jesus spoke to the tree and said, “Let no one eat fruit from you ever again,” did the tree look any different? Not at all! If you were there relying on your five senses you might say, “That was strange. The tree doesn’t look any different than it did before Jesus prayed. I guess it didn’t work. Maybe Jesus can’t really do all He claims He can.” But faith looks beyond the appearance of things. In reality, the moment Jesus spoke to that tree its roots began to dry up, but the public, physical, visual manifestation of that reality took some time to manifest.
So, let’s apply that principle. Say you go to church and get some hands on prayer and anointing for healing for whatever ails you. There is the distinct possibility that God would work a miracle and the answer would be immediately evident. But that’s not how healing usually works. Miracles are instantaneous, but healing reverses the destructive process and accelerates recovery. In other words, the sickness usually dries up from the roots, just like it happened with this fig tree. We pray in faith and the healing process begins. At that point our five senses tell us nothing has changed, but just like with that tree, often something is happening which we don’t yet see in the present moment. The problem is many people stop right there and conclude that it didn’t work. And sure enough it doesn’t work because unbelief can abort the process.
But Jesus said “And these signs will follow those who believe: In My name they will cast out demons; they will speak with new tongues; they will take up serpents; and if they drink anything deadly, it will by no means hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.” The word recover implies a process. It doesn’t say they will immediately be well. This verse says they will recover. As a part of sharing the gospel, we are also authorized to lay hands on the sick and expect them to recover. Our part is to pray in faith. God does the heavy lifting. We don’t pray for the sick because we see result—of course, that’s wonderful when something amazing happens right before your very eyes—but we pray because we’re commanded to do so.
Sometimes we have to just say, “I’ve got these questions, but here’s what I know for sure.” And what we know for sure is that God has asked us to act on our relationship with Him by praying, and by bringing to Him our problems, our praises, our illnesses. We pray with confidence that as we join together in praying for specific things and asking for specific things, our God is great and loving and will certainly raise us up.
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Steve Stutz, M.Div., is a former mainline denominational pastor and certified Transformational Life Coach. As a spiritual director and coach, he specializes in helping busy people find their way through the challenges and obstacles that keep them from fulfilling their potential–in business, in relationships, spiritually and temporally! He works with individuals and congregations ecumenically and around the world. You can contact him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org