Are any of you suffering hardships? You should pray. Are any of you happy? You should sing praises. Are any of you sick? You should call for the elders of the church to come and pray over you, anointing you with oil in the name of the Lord. Such a prayer offered in faith will heal the sick, and the Lord will make you well. And if you have committed any sins, you will be forgiven. Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The earnest prayer of a righteous person has great power and produces wonderful results. Elijah was as human as we are, and yet when he prayed earnestly that no rain would fall, none fell for three and a half years! Then, when he prayed again, the sky sent down rain and the earth began to yield its crops. (James 5:13-18, NLT)
As James draws his epistle to a close, he concludes with a specific directive concerning prayer. This is not an uncommon appeal. For example, the apostle Paul concludes Ephesians and 1 Thessalonians with the simple command, “Pray without ceasing.” James’ appeal is connected with the body of the letter, citing three situations that warrant a prayerful response and should be understood in the letter’s broader context.
First, we should pray when we are “suffering hardships.” The word here is kakopatheo, which means to “suffer misfortune.” The word is seldom used in reference to physical illness, rather it is applied to those who are currently facing challenging problems. While the command does not prohibit us from asking for deliverance from the trial, it serves to remind us that we should also pray for the endurance to remain faithful during the trial. Historical evidence coupled with our own personal experience have taught us that God usually delivers us through the trial, not from the trial. God works miraculously in both so we should not discount one in favor of the other. I have found that I have learned more spiritual lessons and have obtained the greatest growth in character through tear filled eyes that with a slice of cake.
James’ second instruction is that we should pray when we are “happy.” This is an unfortunate translation, because the word intended is more aligned with being content than superficially happy. The distinction is important because a person might find their selves content and satisfied, but not necessarily because of a direct result of something that has happened. Happiness is a response to something positive or good that has happened, therefore it ebbs and flows with the circumstances that surround out lives. Contentment is the settled state of being that knows that while “it” may not be ok, “I” am ok. Contentment understands both the limitations and the potential of having and being enough. James says that our appropriate prayer in our state of contentment is praise and gratitude to the one who ensures that we are “ok.”
The third occasion for prayer necessitates a fuller explanation around the first century culture and the way that modern faith healers have misappropriated this verse. Let me begin with how the command to pray when we are sick may have fallen on the ears of the original reader. James offers a clear set of instructions for those who are sick. They are to (a) call for the elders of the church to come (b) pray over them (c) and anoint with oil in the name of the Lord. Here’s how I would break this down. First, for the elders of the church to be summonsed would indicate that the illness is somewhat extreme. James does not suggest that the elders are faith healers, or that they even possess a charismatic gift of healing. The elders are church leaders, and are therefore a symbolic representation of the body of believers. Second, the application of oil in the process of prayer can serve two possible purposes. One purpose is the symbolic representation of the Holy Spirit who is often symbolized by oil. But a second purpose is that first century believers knew that oil also had medicinal value. I think this understanding is broad enough to be inclusive of both purposes. Calling for the elders of the church to pray over the sick and anoint them will oil is perfectly permissible today. However, it is equally permissible to consult medical professionals who may prescribe treatments such as surgeries and medications. It is helpful to know that this is the only directive concerning the use of anointing the sick with oil in the New Testament. Furthermore, it is also helpful to note that in all of Jesus’ only anointed with oil twice (Luke 10:34, Mark 6:13) in all of his healing ministry.
Closely tied to prayer by and for the sick is the confession of sins to one another. Notice that James does not say that confession produces forgiveness, although that is certainly a by-product. His chief concern with confessing sins to one another is that through our vulnerability and authenticity we find healing of another kind. Some have misappropriated this statement and have interpreted it to mean that all illness is the result of a particular sin. While the argument could be made that original sin resulted in a broken world that includes physical illness, that doesn’t appear to be James’ point. Some illnesses are the result of our sins, but not all of them. Some sins result in spiritual sickness yet leave the body healthy and whole. I think it is best to not enforce one upon the other.
James’ concludes this section with a word of encouragement. “The earnest prayer of the righteous person is powerful and produces wonderful results!” This call to faith circles back to his opening remarks in chapter 1:6-8. The prayer that produces wonderful results, as modeled by the prophet Elijah, is not marked by fervency or frequency. It is marked by faith. In my mind’s eye I picture Elijah praying for rain with one eye closed and one eye focused on the horizon looking for the clouds for form. That’s an example worth emulating!