Recently at Horizon, I preached a message from James 5:13-20 as part of the Margins message series. The theme of the passage is obviously about prayer, and we connected that theme to the rest of our Margins messages. But several people have been puzzled by a particular section—James 5:15—in which James talks about prayer for healing. So let’s spend a few minutes here just reviewing what James means when he talks about prayer for healing.
This is significant because it seems as though there has been quite a few medical issues within our Horizon church family as of late. So whether the issue is a hip or knee replacement, a heart procedure, cancer treatment, or seizures, what connection does prayer have in these situations? The implications of James 5:15 are serious. If I am sick, and I have the elders of the church pray that I get well, and then I remain sick, what does that say? Is my sickness a punishment from God for sin? Did I—or my elders—not pray with appropriate faith? Often, that’s where people end up—they think that their sickness comes as a result of an offence to God, or that their prayers somehow lack the right amount of faith. Kind of depressing for those who struggle with health, but not what James intends.
There are some who try to dance around the issue by claiming the Greek language of James does not refer to physical sickness in 5:14—as the English implies. But I do not believe there is evidence in the Greek text to think that James is referring to anything other than physical sickness. Let me offer three different ways of looking at James 5:15 that might help us understand what is meant by a prayer for healing.
(1) It is important for us to remember that sickness is not necessarily the result of sin. Remember the story in John 9:1-5. A blind man is brought before Jesus with a question of who sinned to cause the blindness. Jesus answers that neither the blind man nor his parents caused the blindness because of sin. There may, in fact, be sicknesses that comes as a result of sin; but we certainly cannot claim the knowledge of always discerning when this is the case and when it is not. And so we should very rarely be the ones to ascribe a sickness as the result of a sin.
(2) While sickness is not a part of God’s desire for his creation, he can still use sickness to accomplish his purposes. Paul prays in 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 that God would take away his physical affliction. No one can argue that Paul’s prayer lacked faith. But Paul concludes that God chose to allow the affliction to continue in order to keep Paul humble before God. We probably would not go around looking to get sick so that God could use us in our state of affliction. But at the same time, we should never dismiss our poor health as a total estrangement from God.
(3) Let’s remember from examples in the gospels that the ability of Jesus to miraculously heal people of their sickness does not always occur as a result of their faith. While it is true that there are a few examples where Jesus points to the faith of those whom he healed, Jesus does not need their faith in order to bring about healing. In fact, many of the healings recorded in the gospels claim no connection to the level of faith displayed by those who were healed.
For those of you who struggle with health, don’t let the words of James 5:15 discourage you. Be assured that, one day, you will receive a body that enjoys perfect health. As James points out in 5:16, the prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective, and this is still true even if it does not result in a physical healing.
till next time…