A First Line of Defense

What is your first, most immediate response toward life’s difficulties? Truth be told, I would have to give two answers: 1) Resentment toward the fact of the difficulty with corresponding emotions such as irritation, frustration, or even anger and 2) Resolve to find the quickest solution to the problem so as to remove the difficulty.  Both of these reactions are typically deployed in this order. Since resentment is accompanied by the emotional baggage mentioned, then I’m often handicapped to find the best or even any solution.

Instead, James commends prayer to us as our first line of defense against life’s challenges. He writes:

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. Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit. 

James 5:13-18

As I’ve said elsewhere, prayer is an expression of our dependence upon God. A few comments on James 5.

  1. Prayer is mentioned in every verse and is clearly the topic of this passage.
  2. James commends prayer to the individual and to the community.
  3. James does not explain the nature of the suffering. It could be physical, emotional, or spiritual. Nor does James say that the suffering is self-inflicted or a result of persecution from others. The prayer we are to offer is not necessarily for relief from the suffering.
  4. Given the theme of suffering in the context, it is likely that the “cheerfulness” James has in mind is a kind of courageous cheer in the face of difficulties. This  is not necessarily based on outward circumstances (see Acts 27:22, 25 where Paul uses the same word to encourage strength in difficulties, KJV, “be of good cheer”). A courageous faith that, in the midst of tragedy, shows itself in heartfelt songs of praise is truly a work of God.
  5. Public prayer and public confession nourishes our sense of being loved by others and promotes physical and spiritual healing in the Body of Christ (Jm 5:16). Public confession shows that the vitality of the church Body is contingent, to some degree, upon its transparency. Because God heals and forgives (Jm 5:14-15), we can safely confess our sins to one another. When we do this regularly (note the present tense in vs. 16) we experience God’s affirming love from our spiritual family and the blessings of restored physical health.
  6. In times of illness it is always appropriate to examine our spiritual lives. Unconfessed sin can be a burden to the body as well as to the soul (Ps 32:3-5). Although we need not publicly confess all sins (Pr 14:10), James likely has in mind those sins that are committed publicly (cf. Mt 5:23-26), especially those that result in physical brokenness (cf., 1 Cor 11:30 for an instance of physical sickness tied to sin. Alternatively, not all sickness is directly related to personal sin, cf., Job; Jn 9:2-3. See also 2 Cor 12:7-9 for an instance of God not healing despite fervent prayer).
  7. While in 5:14 the elders (plural, not just a staff pastor) are to be involved in prayer for healing, verse 16 says the whole community is to be involved in prayer for healing.
  8. “Anointing with oil” is mentioned only one other time in the NT (Mk 6:13). Although elders may use it when praying for the infirmed, it is not required since many NT healings were accomplished without mention of oil. After all, the focus here is the “prayer of faith” that heals, not the oil. A few possible meanings are available to us regarding the use of oil:
    • It was used for medicinal purposes. Oil included herbs and spices. Cf. Lk 10:34 where the man beaten was anointed with oil.
    • Oil is used to signify a consecration or setting aside of a person for God’s special activity or attention (see Ex. 40:15; Num 3:3). This meaning suggests there are no special healing powers in the oil itself.
    • Both for medicinal and symbolic purposes.

James motivates us to pray by highlighting the powerful effects of prayer that flow from a righteous life. James already explained the relationship of works to faith (see my exposition of James 2:14-26). Here he explains the importance of works to an effective prayer life.

Of course, the only way to change my initial reactions to the challenges of life is to, well, change my initial reactions!

Now that you know these things, you’ll be blessed if you do them.
John 13:17

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