Praying for healing; a contentious subject which people can have some very firm views on. There are views about whether God still heals today or not; views about why God heals or doesn’t; views about healing and faith; views about healing and sin; views about whether it is appropriate to pray for healing for other people; views about identity and healing.
It’s a complex subject, and we can’t get into the breadth of all of it here, but what I have been thinking about for a while is the area of healing and faith, and specifically what could be a possibly misunderstood use of a key Bible passage when it comes to whether healing is related to how much faith a person has when they pray, or to do with their sins.
The passage is the well-known one at the end of the New Testament book of James, chiefly chapter 5 verses 13-20, which in the NIV reads as follows:
13 Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise. 14 Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven. 16 Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.
17 Elijah was a human being, even as we are. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. 18 Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops.
19 My brothers and sisters, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring that person back,20 remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins.
There it is, in v14-15, if you are ‘sick’ call the elders to pray… and the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well. Seems really clear doesn’t it? Sickness + prayer + faith = healing… and time and time again people who are sick, or disabled, or dying, and their families, have sought prayer; and when they or their loved one hasn’t been healed the pain is deep, and the guilt for a perceived lack of faith is just as painful.
The problem, and one that I am grateful to a wise and learned friend for his guidance on here, is the word ‘sick’ in v14. Sickness hasn’t been mentioned before in James’ letter, so it seems at first glance to be a new topic. Or is it? Well, let’s look a little deeper…
If someone is sick and needs healing, why call the elders and not a doctor? Why quote Elijah praying for rain in 1 Kings 18:45 and not when Elijah’s prayers raised a boy from the dead the chapter before (1 Kings 17:22)?
The word ‘asthenia’ occurs 60 times in the New Testament; 24 times it is translated as ‘sick’ and 36 times it is translated as ‘weak’. If the word ‘weak’ is used in this passage, it makes a lot more sense. The theme of the whole letter is about people wavering between faith and unbelief, being blown about in different directions. Chapter 4, just before this passage, warns the reader to be decisive, to choose God and submit to him, to stop being double-minded.
The Greek word ‘asthenia’ literally means ‘no strength’. We feel weak when we are sick, but not all weakness means being unwell. We can be weak in our thinking, weak in our faithfulness, morally weak, spiritually weak.
If we use the word ‘weak’ in the context of James 5:14, we see that it is not a change of subject after all, but a continuation of his main theme…
Is anyone among you weak? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 And the prayer offered in faith will make the weak person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven.
(As an aside, the word translated as ‘sick’ in v15 is ‘kamno’ which means ‘weary’, but ‘weak’ will do.)
Is anyone weak in their faith? Call the elders, whose job it is to teach the truth of God’s word and to pray for those who are struggling in their faith. The anointing oil could be a reconsecration to the Lord.
So why quote Elijah and the rain? When Elijah prayed for rain, he challenged ‘double-minded’ Israel to reject Baal and to turn wholly back to God. His prayer was nothing to do with healing, but all to do with restoration of faith in the Lord, that the people would turn their hearts back to God again. The blessing was not so much the rain falling, but the proclamation of faith by the Israelites; “The Lord – he is God!” (1 Kings 18:39)
The final passage of James’ letter, therefore, rather than introducing a whole new theme, instead sums up all that has proceeded it, and makes the final two verses a fitting climax to the letter: 19 My brothers and sisters, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring that person back,20 remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins.
So, let us not misuse this passage any longer as a way of falsely raising hope for healing for people who are sick, disabled or dying, only to add the burden of perceived faithlessness or sinfulness to them, their families, or those praying for them.
Does God heal? I believe he still can and does, and that we can pray for healing, but we can never say that by praying in faith God ‘will make them well’. It’s not for us to make these choices for God; James didn’t in his letter, and neither should we.
With grateful thanks for an old but cherished note from a good friend.
New International Version (NIV)
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