As her cancer got worse, she got less interested in her own church of many years, and more engaged with this other church. Her husband didn’t mind at first because they gave her attention and hope: the hope of healing. Her health was spiralling downwards month by month. The other church took her on as their special project. Their pastor received a prophecy that she would be healed: they just needed more faith. She was urged to believe in earnest that God would heal her. Of course she wanted to do that. There were many prayer meetings, but before long they had to move to her bedside in hospital.
With no progress this pastor urged her to stop talking to her old church friends, for they were undermining her faith that she would be healed. The ‘other’ church members kept an almost 24 hour a day vigil by her bed. Her own husband and kids barely got any time with her now.
But after all that she died.
Undeterred the pastor and some others kept praying for a resurrection. They prayed all night. The next day they asked to pray around her body in the morgue. They prayed all day till finally they slunk back home again.
At the funeral the ‘other church’ members looked defeated and sad. The pastor was upbeat, thanking God for the miracle of extra weeks and months.
I watched all this unfold. I was so angry. Her son was so angry he threw in his faith in God. I wish I could tell you this is not a true story, but it is.
Can God heal sickness today? Of course he can. Should we pray for healing? Yes, certainly. But let’s get our expectations about healing right!
Healing is one of the coolest things Jesus did on earth, as He brought a little slice of heaven to earth. The apostles had some share in this ministry. But when you turn to the letters of the New Testament, which show what the normal Christian life looks like for us, we get a surprise: there’s relative silence about healing. It is only mentioned in two places, here and another, and the other is just a simple mention in 1 Corinthians 12 that ‘gifts of healings’ exist. So James chapter 5 is key. We need a close look.
What is James 5 promising? And more broadly what is he teaching us about life here on earth in these last days?
If you have just dropped into MBM today, I hope you can notice this about us, that we work hard to understand what the Bible says, because there is truth and freedom in hearing what God has to say to us. It’s worth the effort.
When I used to rock climb, every climb had what’s called a ‘crux’: the hardest bit. If you could crack the crux of the climb the rest was often easy. The crux of James chapter 5 is one particular repeated word that we need to understand. From verses 14 and 15:
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. 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. (NIV)
Notice the word ‘will’. There is complete and 100% certainty. Healing is guaranteed by the infallible word of God. God says ‘will’ be healed.
But imagine that you are sick, gravely sick. You must call the elders—the church leaders—to you, but you can’t get to them. You’re stuck in bed so they come and pray over you. They anoint you with a little olive oil. There is nothing magic about that. But is a clear sign to you that they are taking your situation seriously, and dedicating your need to God, they pray in faith. There was a time like this a couple of years back when you were healed, but not this time. You are not healed. You’re still sick, and you are left confused by the promise in James 5:15, and his words ‘will make the sick person well’.
But this is not just about our stories. We know from the Bible itself that healing doesn’t always occur. The apostle Paul, a man especially gifted in healing, prays three times for some sickness or trouble to leave him. He called it a ‘thorn in my flesh’, but it didn’t go away. Another time Paul admits his visit to the town of Galatia was because of sickness:
As you know, it was because of an illness that I first preached the gospel to you (Galatians 4:13 NIV)
In 2 Timothy 4:20, Paul mentions that ‘I left Trophimus sick in Miletus.’ He left his sick friend behind and journeyed on without him. They no doubt prayed for Trophimus but healing didn’t come.
So what do we do with the promise that prayer ‘will make the sick person well’? This doesn’t seem to fit with our experience or with Scripture.
Let’s look at five solutions people suggest to solve this dilemma.
First, some say to the one who is not healed, ‘Your faith wasn’t strong enough for you to be healed.’ This is, at first glance, a fair enough comment, since verse 15 says that ‘the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well’. But hang on, think about the phrase ‘your faith’ in this response. Who was doing the praying here in the situation James is describing and encouraging? It was not the sick person. It was the elders of the church. It is only their faith that could ever be questioned. We must never say to a sick person, ‘Have more faith and you’ll be healed!’ That’s just cruel. And if it was a problem with the elders’ faith, what happened to the apostle Paul those times when healing didn’t happen? Surely you don’t get a more faithful elder than the apostle himself? To pray ‘in faith’ is about who you pray to, that your trust is in our powerful Lord. It is not about some certain intensity or technique of praying, that could become a kind of self-trust. It is putting faith in our prayer methods. No: the power of the prayer is not in the pray-er but in the God we pray to.
Second, some say, ‘James is not talking about physical illness at all’. Some have thought that the sickness here is not physical, but a spiritual illness: discouragement, disbelief, backsliding. But the word ‘sick’ used here plainly means physical sickness. You can’t get around that. If it were a spiritual problem then you wouldn’t anoint with oil but just preach the gospel.
Third, some think that James forgot to say, ‘if it is God’s will’.’ In last week’s passage we saw James use the language, ‘If it is the Lord’s will’. Maybe he wants us to remember that here? We know that answers to prayers depend on God’s decision. But why be so definite that healing ‘will’ happen? You can’t get around that.
Fourth, some think that healing is only for the time of the apostles, not for today. But the thing is that James is giving instructions to normal churches here with normal elderships and who don’t have apostles. James could have told us if this wasn’t for us, but he doesn’t.
Fifth, some take the approach, ‘Let’s just fake it!’ ‘Hallelujah! He was healed, trust me, look at my smile, my very white teeth, and while you’re at it could you help me pay off my private jet’. This is the TV healer, who only ‘heals’ people with sore backs and headaches. They will have God to answer to on the last day, and I wouldn’t like to be in his or her shoes.
This passage is not about special healing services. This is about ordinary church leaders going to a bedside. This is very private and unspectacular.
So what do we do with the promise that prayer ‘will make the sick person well’? Often when there is confusion about a Bible passage, we should take a step back and see if we are misunderstanding it altogether. What is the context here?
James is a letter about dealing with sin in the church. James has hammered us again and again on one sin or another these past weeks. The last sentence of verse 15 is also about sin: ‘if he has sinned, he will be forgiven’. Verse 16 is about confessing sins to each other. And the confession, it says, brings healing! Verses 17-18 talk about the prayer ministry of the old prophet Elijah to a sinful Israel and her king, where God used Elijah’s prayers to stop the rain for over three years to discipline them for sin. And then God used Elijah’s prayers to reverse this judgment and bring healing rain. And verses 19-20 are a final appeal to help turn sinners from the error of their ways.
Could it be that James is not talking about just any old sickness here, but about that sickness which is caused by sin, where God disciplines his people? Back in verse 9 we read:
Don’t grumble against one another, brothers and sisters, or you will be judged. The Judge is standing at the door!
In verse 12, there is a warning about honesty.
All you need to say is a simple “Yes” or “No.” Otherwise you will be condemned.
If God has brought the sickness as judgment and discipline to wake up his church, to call sinners to repentance, then this is no ordinary sickness. This is a sickness where you should call the elders, verse 15:
And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If [it’s true that..] they have sinned, they will be forgiven.
James is wrapping up his letter in a pastoral kind of way. He might have been aware of illness among his readers, and suspects a spiritual cause. His last word, then, is a word of self-examination, confession, and healing prayer. James doesn’t just want to hammer them with things to change. He wants to see them restored.
Someone might say, ‘Hold on a bit, Mark! What are you saying? I’m not sure that my loving God would ever do that! This doesn’t feel right!”
Alright, think of it this way: since Adam and Eve fell into sin in Genesis 3, there has been discipline for sin. That discipline takes the form of death, toil, and pain. God’s intention is to wake us up. Every day that we see death, toil, and pain, we are reminded, ‘My sin kills. I need Jesus!’ And it gets more specific in the New Testament, Hebrews 12 says, ‘The Lord disciplines the one he loves […] God disciplines us for our good that we might share in his holiness.’ (Hebrews 12:6,10 NIV)
This is God’s tough love! And there is a very specific example in the church of Corinth. The Corinthians had a bit of an issue with the Lord’s supper. Some were bingeing on wine and getting drunk: they obviously used bigger cups and stronger stuff than we do at MBM! While others in their church were going hungry, abusing communion big time!
Paul rebukes them, and says in 1 Corinthians 11:
Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves. That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. But if we were more discerning with regard to ourselves, we would not come under such judgment. Nevertheless, when we are judged in this way by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be finally condemned with the world. (1 Corinthians 11:28-32 NIV)
How do you sober up a bunch of believers getting sloshed at church? God brought sickness and death among them. That is better than being condemned with the world! This is to wake them up and bring repentance. This is our God. He loves us enough to discipline us.
Think of a child in a playground. They decide to run off. If the parent doesn’t stop them and discipline them, then they could run onto the road and get cleaned up by a bus. A loving parent stops and disciplines their child. Your God loves you enough to stop and discipline you. Sickness can be that loving discipline. There is such a thing as sickness caused by sin.
Now, let’s get something straight: not all sickness is like this. Most sickness is just the general consequences of that Genesis chapter 3 fall of mankind, and it strikes us in a more or less ‘random’ way. ‘Random’ is not the right word, but what I mean is that we have no explanation as to why some suffer and others don’t. That is just what life is like in a fallen world. So Job suffered but he was innocent. The man born blind in John chapter 9 suffered, but Jesus says it was not his fault: “neither this man nor his parents sinned”.
Hear me clearly: not all sickness is a result of specific sin, but it can be. And if we get sick, we should examine our hearts and ask if that is the case. This is not God slamming us, being cruel: “O, someone upstairs has got it in for you”. No, this is loving discipline for our good. I reckon this has happened to me, but let me share someone else’s story. A guy called Carl Laney writes:
Well do I remember one night when I woke up with a severe pain in my lower abdomen. As I lay in bed, the pain increased. Finally, I rose and began walking around in an attempt to relieve the discomfort. Was it something I had eaten? Was I having an attack of appendicitis? Was this the beginning of a stroke?
On the verge of panic, I asked the Lord to take care of me and to restore me to well-being. As I was praying, I realized there was an area of my life in which things were not right […] it seemed God was bringing this issue to my attention through my pain. I confessed it […], asked forgiveness, and appropriated the cleansing of the cross (1 John 1:9).
As I concluded my prayer the pain began to ease. Within ten seconds it was completely gone. I have never experienced that pain again.
Coincidence? Some would argue that it was, but I believe that attack was by divine design. I had been disciplined.’
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. (NIV)
Why such certainty? Because if God has brought sickness to discipline a sinner, then prayer is the only cure for it, and it will work 100% of the time. So if you find yourself seriously ill, here is what to do: You use all medical treatments available to you. They are good gifts that God gives us. You dial ‘000’, go to the doctor, take medicine, have the operation, go to the counsellor, rest up. But, also, you need to examine your heart. Has God given you this time in bed to show you something? Is there a sin that the Lord is wanting you to deal seriously with?
If something comes to mind, then prayer may be the only remedy! The author whose story I just shared prayed about it himself. That is ok. Paul did that about the thorn in his flesh too. But we’re a body of Christ, not just individuals. So why not do this together as James says.
Call in your Growth Group leaders or some staff. We’ll come to your sickbed. We can even anoint you with oil. Ray mentioned he has done this for someone just the other month. We’ll have a time of confession of sins, we’ll pray in faith, trusting God’s promise here. And if sin is the cause, you can expect full and complete healing. And you can be reassured by your healing that your sins are completely forgiven through Jesus. That is a very specific application for any of us in sickness. We now know what to do.
But as we come to the end of James let’s step back and see what he wants for us?
He wants us to avoid sin in the first place, that God would not need to discipline us. Sin does us no good. I was reminded of that the other week watching the movie ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. It is a movie about the life of Freddie Mercury, lead singer of the 70s British rock band ‘Queen’. I’ve always loved their music, but it didn’t enjoy the movie. I was just sickened by Freddie’s lostness. He wanted to break free, but it robbed him or joy and of life. Sin doesn’t deliver on its promise.
So, as we wrap up, notice two tools for us to put off sin and enjoy righteousness. They are two ‘p’s’: patience and prayer.
First, we are called to be patient in these last days. Being a Christian in this world is hard. James’ readers were tempted to grumble, despair, and to wander from Jesus. So James says to them ‘be patient’ and don’t give up, verse 8:
You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near. (NIV)
These last days will not go on forever. There is relief on the horizon. Jesus is full of compassion and mercy. He will return and fix this mess. So hang in there!
I wonder if one of the reasons we might over-focus on things like healing is that we have an impatience with the bitter realities of life in these last days. Death, toil, and pain make life so hard and is the reality we face. But a day is coming when Jesus will fully restore of bodies with 100% healing and no death, sickness, and no end. The call is to be patient until then, even through suffering.
And secondly, another tool to make it through these last days is to be prayerful, verse 16:
The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective. (NIV)
This is not just the prayers of some super-Christian you could never match. We’ve all been declared righteous through our Saviour Jesus! And the comparison with Elijah reminds us that he was a human as weak as us, and yet look how God used his prayers! Your prayers are powerful and effective!
Prayer in this passage can be by yourself, or with leaders, confessing sins with each other. It is not how you do it, but that you do it. Just pray! Seek God’s empowerment for this hard life. Make prayer your reflex reaction. Just do it without thinking. Are you dealing with impatience? Pray. Trouble? Pray. Happiness? Praise. Sickness? Pray. Sin? Pray. And watch God come through!
Just last month one of our staff, Lynette Cain, found out that she had a kidney stone. There it was, clear as day on her scans. She was in a lot of pain and needed an operation. A brother prayed for her, that the kidney stone would simply disappear, and God came through! The next scan was completely clear and no stone. Healing came through a simple prayer. It is powerful and effective. You have a fierce weapon for life this side of Jesus’ return. Get it out, sharpen it up, use it, and pray!