Misunderstood verses #8
Or, Is that what the Bible really says?
Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. 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 one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.
“God will heal you if you have enough faith.” James 5:15 is often misinterpreted and becomes the source of grief, shame, and fear for people who are living through physical weakness. It’s exactly the opposite purpose James had when he wrote the letter. Written to Jewish believers scattered around the Middle East, Northern Africa, and Southern Europe, the words were designed to encourage them in their persecution. James told them to “count it all joy” when they encountered trials. He instructed them to seek wisdom from God and remain steadfast in the things they knew to be true. He warned them to act on their convictions, watch their tongues, love each other regardless of social class, and stop quarreling over trivial matters. He reminded them that this world is temporary and that the Lord would return to judge evil.
James focuses on the spiritual health of believers. We need to establish our hearts and stand firm in the face of hardship- much as the scattered believers of the first century had to stand firm in faith against all kinds of atrocities. Whether in suffering or in cheer, James instructs prayer and praise first. Anointing a sick person’s head with oil recognizes that God does the healing, no matter how that healing manifests itself. The oil is both medicine and metaphor. The forgiveness of sin preempts the need for physical healing. God may indeed grant a miraculous healing, but if healing takes a different form, it is not because of a lack of faith. Grace might be emotional healing that allows a chronic illness to become a source of ministry or encouragement.
Grace looks different from the perspective of the humble. Consider the many Christians whose injuries were the source of their lifelong work of proclaiming the goodness of God. Joni Eareckson Tada, who became a quadriplegic after a diving accident as a teenager, never would have reached the audience she now has without her physical limitations. Hope Heals author, Katherine Wolf, suffered a catastrophic stroke as a young mother. Her emotional and mental healing, while not physical, allows her suffering to be joy in her life. The ways in which God heals after anointing with oil and fervent prayer draws people to Him. The focus is not on physical healing, but the grace of God that allows the hurting to endure and seek His joy.
Bless the Lord o my SOUL, and forget not all His benefits. Psalm 103
When James calls people to pray and anoint the sick, he is not offering a magic spell that forces God to physically heal the sick. James calls the elders to lead in fervent prayer to redirect our attention to God’s grace. The things of this earth are fleeting; the power of heaven is eternal. Anyone who uses James’s letter to promote a health-and-wealth doctrine misses the point. James is consistent with Jesus when he says that suffering is part and parcel of this life. Jesus said, “In the world you will have tribulation, but be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world”(John 16:33).
Anointing and praying is not for our physical benefit, although God may choose to provide miraculous healing. Anointing and praying benefits our souls. When the Lord is present in our anointing, our cups of faith and love overflow. In that overflow, we can withstand the discomforts of the flesh, as Job did. Becoming a follower of Jesus never means the end of sin. Our nature is changed, but the process of living out that change is fraught with challenges. Paul, himself, mourns that he does what he hates because, while he is spiritually free from the bondage of sin, he still lives with a physical mind and body that conspire him to remain tethered to this earth and its temptations. James taught that “we will all stumble in many ways.” We are no longer judged by the Law, but we cannot escape our humanity this side of eternity.
God yearns for us to draw near to him. James wrote, “He years jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us.” We may be justified at conversion, but sanctification take a lifetime. While we are in process, James reminds us that “He gives more grace.” Ultimately, we will be fully restored and God will be glorified in our final and perfect healing.