In James 5:13-20, Jesus’ brother warns his readers of the numerous challenges to their faith. In this final section, James encourages us to look to God in all circumstances of life—when things are good, and when they are not so good. When we are suffering, we should pray (v. 13a). The word translated “trouble” here is a general term that can refer to all sorts of afflictions and trials. When James asks “Is any one of you in trouble?” he is referring to the difficulties which come our way as a result of being a Christian in a hostile culture. There is a tendency for Christians in an intolerant culture to go underground, to be ashamed of their faith. We refrain from taking a stand when we should. We hesitate sharing our faith with our unchurched friends for fear of offending them. And so James is saying, “When you feel these emotions constricting your witness, pray and ask God for boldness and sensitivity.”
He goes on to instruct us how we should respond to God when things are going well. When we are cheerful, we are to sing (v. 13b). When we are experiencing God’s blessing, we are to sing songs of praise. Praise is simply an expression of gratitude. In chapter one of this letter, James taught us that all good things in life come from God; therefore, Christians should express gratitude to God for our blessings.
In verses 14-16, James gives us another circumstance in which we should look to God for guidance. When we are sick, we are to summon the spiritual leaders in the church (14-16). The kind of sickness spoken of here probably refers to a serious condition where the person is bedridden. In this circumstance, James tells us that the elders of the church are to perform two functions. First, they are to anoint the sick with oil. In our modern Western culture, this is a strange practice. But the first century Jew would have immediately comprehended its significance. “Anointing” in the Old Testament was a symbolic action which indicated that something or someone had been set aside for God’s special use or attention. Second, they are to pray. Having set the sick apart for God’s special attention, the elders are to entreat God for healing on behalf of the sick. This is no timid, uninformed prayer, but the “prayer of faith.”
James goes on to tell us in verse 15 that the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well: The Lord will raise them up. Does that mean that every time this Biblical procedure is followed the sick will recover? The answer is “yes” and “no”. The answer is “yes” in those cases where it is God’s will to heal that individual. Obviously if we could claim healing for every Christian in every illness (as some do), then no one would ever die! The answer is “no” in those cases where God’s glory is greater served by our sickness or even by our death rather than by our recovery.
Interestingly, James leaves open the possibility that in some cases sickness is related to unconfessed sin. In such cases, he prescribes that confession be made to those who have been wronged. In other words, we are to go to that person we have wronged, admit our guilt and ask for their forgiveness. James is telling us that where sin-induced-sickness is present, confession is not only good for the soul, but good for the body as well! There are some foundational facts we need to grasp concerning the relationship between sin and suffering. First, we need to recognize that there are two classifications of sin: original sin and personal sin. Christian theologians use the term “original sin” to refer to that bent toward sin and selfishness each of us have inherited from our first parents, Adam and Eve. Personal sin, on the other hand, is simply the daily expression of selfishness which flows from our sinful nature. In the broadest sense, we can say that all suffering and sickness is the result of original sin. Had sin never been introduced into the human equation, we never would have experienced suffering and sickness. But sometimes, there is a direct connection between our personal acts of sin and our suffering. Sexually transmitted diseases, alcoholism and drug addiction are some obvious examples. The Bible also teaches that God may bring sickness as a discipline for sin. We have an example of this in the first century church of Corinth (see 1 Corinthians 11:27-30). But we also know that sometimes there is no connection between personal sin and sickness. This is made clear from Jesus’ words in John 9:1-3. It is not God’s will that everyone be healed. Sometimes, higher purposes are served by our sickness—or even death—than by our recovery.
But make no mistake, God still heals today, and James has given us guidelines we should follow as a church.
Application / Challenge
Acknowledge God in the varied circumstances of life:
- Pray for strength to live out a biblical lifestyle in an increasingly hostile world.
- Make a list of 10 things you are grateful for. Thank God specifically for each one.
- If you are suffering from a lingering illness, follow the instructions James gives: Call the elders of the church for anointing and prayer.