The Praying Life Part Two
Topic: Prayer Passage: James 5:13–5:20
The Praying Life Part Two
This morning we will be wrapping up our study of the book of James, so let’s turn to chapter 5 and we’ll be reading vv. 13-20.
Last week we looked at an overview of this passage and saw two important points James has for us:
- Weave prayer into the fabric of our everyday life
When you’re in pain, when you’re happy, when you’re sick, and when you’re in sin, pray about it. Wherever you find yourself in life, whatever’s going on in your life, invite God into it by praying.
- Weave faith in the fabric of our prayers
Prayer isn’t just a formality or a nice thing to do. There is power in prayer. Verse 16 says the prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. Prayers don’t always see powerful answers the minute they leave our lips. Sometimes there’s a span of time between the prayer and the visible answer, but God is working powerfully in response to our prayers even when we don’t see it. So pray with faith!
James says that the prayer of a righteous person has great power and we might wonder, is that me? Do I qualify as righteous? Last we saw that there are two components to this righteousness: first, that our righteousness is the righteousness of Christ imputed to us by faith. When we believe in Christ as our Savior, God fills our account with Christ’s righteousness as if it were our own. No one is righteous apart from Christ so our starting point for being righteous is believing in Jesus. The second component of righteousness is that we are living righteously. That we are, as John puts it, walking in the light, not harboring secret practices of immorality and sin. That by the power of the Holy Spirit we are saying no to sin, and when we do sin, we walk in the light by confessing that sin rather than covering it with secrecy. If there is a pet sin we are harboring behind closed doors, the first step to powerful praying is to confess our sin to God and repent of it. There is great power when a person who has received the righteousness of Christ and is walking with a clear conscience kneels to pray!
So last week we did an overview of these verses, but we passed quickly over two points that raise some questions we didn’t have time to explore last week. If you’re sick call the elders and if you’re in sin, confess it to others. Let’s look at little more closely at them this morning.
- Calling the community of faith to pray
The first thing we need to see is that James gives us a different recipe for prayer when we’re sick or in sin. He says, call upon the community of faith to pray for you. When you’re suffering, pray. When your heart is happy, sing your prayers with praise. But if you’re sick or bound by sin, don’t just pray, ask for others to pray with you and for you. Don’t try to do it alone, call for back up. If you’re sick call for the elders to pray. When you’re struggling with sin, call a trusted brother or sister, let them know what’s going on and ask for their prayers. In these two cases call the community of faith to pray with you and for you. One of the reasons God knits us in a local church is so that we can come alongside of each other and support each other and that includes praying for each other.
- When you’re sick, call for the elders to pray
14 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. 15 And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up.
This passage raises a number of questions: why the elders? Why anoint them with oil? What role does the oil play? And is James saying the person will always be healed if the elders pray with faith?
Let’s take it one question at a time:
- Why does James specifically say call the elders? Why not call for any brother or sister in the church to pray? I think the answer is, the elders, or shepherds, of the church represent the pastoral care of the church and are assumed to be mature in the faith. James isn’t saying we can’t ask any brother or sister in the Lord to pray for us when we’re sick, of course we can. In the NT we see people being prayed for and being healed in various ways. What James gives us here is something that a sick believer can do to receive healing, not something that a sick believer must do if they are to be healed. It doesn’t have to be the elders, but James is recommending the sick to call on the elders to anoint them with oil and pray for them.
- Why oil? Often in the Bible when someone is being set apart for the purposes of God they were anointed with oil and that is probably the best way to understand the reason for anointing the sick with oil in this case. Some have tried to say that there was a medicinal property to the oil, but there is little biblical or historical evidence to support that. Clearly the healing component is the prayer of faith, not the oil.
- The most confusing and controversial part of this is when James says the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick and the Lord will raise him up. It’s clearly saying that God is going to heal the person, but we all know of situations where someone is fervently prayed for but isn’t healed. Does that mean the people who prayed didn’t have enough faith?
Most of our prayers, especially prayers about really big things, are lifted up with a mixture of faith and doubt. God doesn’t answer our prayers based on how perfect our faith is. I remember praying for a guy once who had suffered from a pain in his knee for years, and I had very little faith but God really healed him! Every time I saw him after that – even years later – he would tell him he hadn’t had a problem with his knee since I prayed for him. God answers prayers even when our faith is imperfect.
Faith is based on confidence in God’s will. Faith isn’t demanding God do something, it’s confidence that it’s His will to do something and we’re praying His will right back at Him. Elijah wasn’t a perfect man (in fact, he was a flawed man) but God promised him that it wasn’t going to rain, and then God promised him that it was going to rain, so Elijah prayed with great faith cause he was praying God’s will right back at Him.
Often when we’re praying we have a measure of faith, but there are times when God gives us a distinct gift of faith – we know that we know something is God’s will. We can’t manufacture that, it’s a gift from God. Sometimes when we’re praying for the sick the Lord will put a strong confidence in our hearts that it’s His will to heal and in those moments we pray with a fierce faith – the prayer of faith – that will always be answered with healing. It’s similar to when Jesus says that God will give us anything we ask for when we ask in Jesus’ name. Jesus isn’t giving a blank check and saying God will give us anything we ask if we just say “in Jesus’ name”. In Jesus’ name means in his will and for his glory and his purposes. When our prayers align with his will and his purposes and seek his glory, we can pray with a faith that will move mountains!
Here’s the bottom line for me: God still heals today. I’ve seen God heal people immediately, I’ve seen God heal people over time, I’ve seen God heal people supernaturally and I’ve seen God heal people through doctors and medical intervention. I’ve also seen people prayed for with sincere faith and God chose not to heal them. Paul prayed for God to remove the thorn in the side three times and three times God answered “no”. We are to pray with as much faith as we can stir up, claiming God’s promises, believing God heals, but also having a strong enough understanding of God’s faithfulness and a robust enough theology that our confidence in God isn’t shaken if He chooses not to heal us or the person we pray for. And if He doesn’t, it doesn’t mean we didn’t have enough faith.
- When you’re struggling with sin, confess to one another and ask for pray
The last line of vs. 15 is a hinge connecting the thought of vs 15 and the thought of vs. 16. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Vs. 15b
It looks back to the sick person being prayed for and promise them that if their sin was the consequence of sin in their lives, in addition to healing God will forgive them of that sin. James is NOT saying that all sickness is a result of sin. Most of the references to healing in the NT have no connection to sin in that person’s life. We live in a fallen world with fallen bodies and we get sick. But there are times when God’s judgment for ongoing, unrepentant sin takes the form of sickness and in that case, if they honestly and humbly call for prayer and confess that sin, the Lord blesses them with forgiveness as well as healing.
That thought then moves James to encourage the church to have honest, humble confessing of sins to “one another”. 16 Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. James is describing a sense of humility and accountability that leads to spiritual health: that you may be healed. There are ways to misuse and mishandle this verse that leads to unhealthy practices.
- James isn’t describing a priestly hierarchy where we confess our sins to receive absolution of our sin. Only God can forgive us our sins. The exception of course is when we’ve sinned directly against someone, then we are to confess that sin to them and ask for their forgiveness for how we’ve sinned against them.
- James also isn’t encouraging us to confess our sins en mass to everyone we come into contact with. There are too many people who would judge you, gossip about you, or even use your confession as a weapon against you to make that safe or wise.
- Finally James isn’t advocating a sin-centered, introspective focus where we are always thinking about and calling attention to our sin. Years ago I read about a pastor in Naperville, IL. who started sharing so many personal flaws and sins from the pulpit that the community started calling him the TMI pastor. Too much information. It all started one Sunday when he had just returned from a conference and shared that he was going to be more vulnerable with the congregation from now on. At first, that sounded good, but he took it so far that the congregation would sit in collective awkwardness Sunday after Sunday not knowing what he was going to share next. Usually it would happen about a third of the way through his sermon when he would step around the pulpit and say, “Let me be real transparent with you…” One member complained, “Every week he confesses another personal weakness. You get twitchy wondering what’s next.” Jocelyn Garnet says, “I brace myself until he spits it out. It makes for a tense service.” Unfortunately this pastor’s decision to unload his dirty laundry week after week was taking people’s focus away from God’s word and putting it on him.
James isn’t calling for us to be TMI Christians. What he’s talking about here is a healthy sense of openness and accountability. Having people in our lives who know us, faults and yes, sins, and all and still love us. And pray for us. And being that for other people. Confession of sin isn’t the goal, prayer is. And healing that comes from confession and prayer.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the pastor who was killed by the Nazi’s near the end of WWII, explains in his classic book Life Together that confessing sin has two healthy effects in the Christian community.
The first is it protects us from the isolation of sin. Sin has a dehumanizing, isolating effect on us, driving us further and further away from meaningful human interaction. Bonhoeffer writes, “Sin demands to have a man by himself. It withdraws him from the community. The more isolated a person is, the more destructive will be the power of sin over him.” That is so true! The more destructive the sin, the more it wants to isolate us from others, the more it wants to cut us off from meaningful interaction with others and turn us into hypocrites who wear masks in the church to hide who we really are and where we’re really at.
I remember a sad day years ago in a different church when an elder and I had to confront a youth pastor with evidence that he had been visiting horribly inappropriate sites on the internet for over a year. As he sat there weeping I asked him why he hadn’t shared this struggle with anyone. In particular one of his closest friends had walked through a serious moral failure a few years before and had found redemption and healing through deep and thorough repentance. This friend would have known how to help him and perhaps spared him the devastation of losing his ministry and eventually his marriage. When I asked him why he hadn’t shared his struggle even with this friend, he said he had wanted to so many times but couldn’t make himself take that step. His situation could have been so different. Sin wants to isolate us so that it can better and more completely destroy us. Confessing our sin breaks that isolation and allows the free flow of grace in the believer’s life. When sin is binding us, James is saying call for outside help from trusted friends.
The second benefit of confession that Bonhoeffer writes about is that it humbles us. Confession deals a blow to our pride – a painful but good thing. Pride wants to counterfeit God’s genuine work in us by erecting a phony image where we look spiritual and godly but it’s not real. We’re too proud to be honest. God loves us too much to let us live our lives as spiritual phonies.
All of this means the risk of having brothers and sisters that we trust enough, and humbling ourselves enough, to be vulnerable. And it means loving others enough to risk offending them by not ignoring serious sin in their lives. It means being a community of faith that is neither judgmental nor apathetic towards each other’s struggles. James closes this letter by reminding us that God has called us to love each other enough to risk going after a friend if we see them wandering away from the truth and towards spiritual destruction.
19 My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, 20 let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.
We can make a life or death difference in a brother or sister’s life. And a brother or sister can make a life or death difference in our lives too. Verse 20 is what Christ has done for all of us: saved our soul from death and covered over a multitude of sins. We can do Jesus’ work in each other’s lives by loving and caring and running after each other. And, most importantly, by praying for each other.
Call band up.
As we close, I want to give opportunity for anyone who is sick to be prayed for.