We once went to a restaurant and were seated. We were enjoying the conversation, but after a while we noticed that no one came to take our order. We wondered what to do, do we go and ask or do we just keep waiting. Eventually, one of us went to find serving personnel to ask and they had a horrified look on their face. They had forgotten about us. When we asked, we got good service.
We were in Vancouver for a month and I was taking some courses at Regent College. One day when driving home from school the engine all of a sudden quit. I took a bus to the place we were living and the first thing I did was call home to Manitoba to a friend who is a mechanic and asked him what the problem might be and what I should do. His advice helped me find a good garage and get the problem solved.
We find it quite natural to ask others for help when we know that we need help and we know that they can help us. We ask because we are sure we can trust the person and that they will be willing to help us. Are we as quick to go to God for help? Do we trust that He will answer? Do we believe that His answers will be the best for us?
As we come to the last section in James, we find another pastoral word, a wonderful word which encourages us to pray. I am glad to end the series on James on this note. As we have listened to what God has to say to us in James, we have often heard difficult words and concepts which we find hard to live by. Now at the end, James directs our thoughts to God and invites us to pray to the one who can answer. Recently God has been teaching me about prayer and the importance of prayer. Many of you have been reading about prayer and I think that across the land today God is calling people to pray. There seems to be more interest and emphasis in prayer and so I am glad today to talk about asking God for help and developing a relationship with him.
I. Prayer In Life 5:13
If you ever go to the home of a dairy farmer, there will be a well worn path from the house to the barn. Two or three times a day they walk that path. Many of you have well worn paths to your shop or to your garden or to your neighbour’s house. The well worn paths in our life tell a lot about what is important to us and where we spend a lot of time. Is there a well worn path in your life to God?
In verse 13, James writes, “Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray. Is anyone happy? Let him sing songs of praise.”
The first observation I would like to make about this verse is that it recognizes the two sides of life. Although there are times when we are on an even keel, often we are either leaning towards times of trouble or times when we are happy. Life is like that. These are the emotions and experiences we have in life.
How do we deal with those times? I would like to read this translation from the New Realistic Version. There it says, “Is any one of you in trouble? He should worry. Is anyone happy? Let him feel guilty.” That is often how we respond to these very real experiences in life.
James, however directs us in another way. When trouble comes into our life, we are invited to pray. Ethel Barrymore writes, “When life knocks you to your knees--well, that's the best position in which to pray, isn't it?”
When things are going just great, that also is the time to pray - this time in praise. George Failing said, “He who does not pray when the sun shines will not know how to pray when the clouds roll in.”
We have both days of trouble and days of happiness. In both cases, we need to learn to beat a path to God. He is the one who can help us in the times of trouble and he is the one who has blessed us when we are happy.
II. Prayer In Sickness 5:14-18
The most common concern that is raised by people in the church requesting prayer has to do with health. The most prominent and regular prayer item in the bulletin is “Let us pray for healing and for God’s strength for those dealing with health related issues.” Currently in the prayer calendar that the prayer team receives, 12/14 people on the prayer team list are there for health problems.
It is likely for this reason that this passage deals primarily with what to do when we are sick. What do you do when you are sick? Once again the answer is to pray, but there are some special aspects to this prayer.
A. Call The Elders
The first thing that James says we should do is to call the elders of the church.
There are some people who when they are sick like to keep it to themselves. They don’t want others to know that they are having a problem. The instruction of James to call the elders tells us that keeping it to ourselves is not the way for a member of the Christian community to act in times of illness. Calling the elders is not a legal requirement and it is not magical as if the elders are the only ones who have the power to heal. There is a gift of healing as we learn in I Corinthians 12-14. This passage is not about an individual with the gift of healing, however, it is about the community of faith which God has given so that we can care for each others. Going to the elders is a recognition that healing happens in the community of faith. When we don’t tell the church about our needs, we have bought into the world’s view of individual strength and self sufficiency. When we tell the elders, we submit ourselves to the community - in this case for their care.
Furthermore, this centres our life in the community of believers. There are people around who will teach all kinds of things about healing. You can find healers who will do it if you support their ministry. People have told me about individuals from other churches who have come to them saying that they are not being healed because they do not have enough faith. They are hurt and it causes them to question their faith. Jake told me about a teacher he once heard who told him that a large percentage of epilepsy was demon possession. Such actions are destructive. By bringing our health problems to the elders, we accept the leadership of the church and we find both strength and guidance from those we know and trust as spiritual leaders. One writer says, “the process is to be centred in the congregational life of the afflicted person and flows to the person from the leadership of the local congregation.”
We do not often do that and I am so glad that we are studying this passage today. We have so many people who have had or are having health problems. We need to develop a healing ministry in the church and the Bible is very clear that what we need to do is follow this pattern. I would like to encourage you that if you are sick, or if you become sick, please do not hesitate to call the elders. We have about 8 ministers and 5 deacons. I would encourage you to call any one of them. I do not think that all 13 of us need to come, but several should go and minister.
B. Anointing With Oil
When the sick person calls for the elders, they are to do several things. One is to pray over the sick person and the other is to anoint them with oil. The context also indicates that confession of sin is involved and I will take a look at that in a moment.
The pattern is pretty simple, but there is one aspect of it that makes us wonder. What is the need for anointing with oil. I remember that the first time I did it, I wondered “why do I need to anoint with oil, why not just pray?”
There have been different explanations for the meaning of anointing with oil. One is that in those days, oil was medicine and what James is saying is that prayer combined with medicine is the path of healing. We need to be careful because the language used does not seem to mean that this is medicine spoken of here. Anointing with oil would not be the treatment for every illness and so I don’t think that this is a good explanation.
Some might think that the oil does something magical, that in some ways it promotes healing. The nature of who God is and our relationship with him would suggest that this is not the case. So if someone on TV offers a vial of oil which if you use it to anoint yourself you will be healed, don’t buy it, that is not the point here.
I think that the oil is a symbol of God’s grace and presence. In the OT when kings or prophets were anointed with oil, it was a symbol of God’s presence with them. It is the same as the bread and cup in communion or the water in baptism. It is a symbol of God’s grace and his promise to act. We use the symbol because it makes the meaning more real to us. Therefore we use the oil as an outward sign of the inward power of God to heal. It causes us to remember that God is physically present with us and that we rely on Him to heal us.
C. The Promise of Healing
The other question with the passage is the promise which is made in verse 15 which says, “and the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well.”
The minister of music had changed the order of service. He wanted to make certain there would be no confusion, so he whispered to the preacher, "After the prayer there will be no response." Does it sometimes seem to you that after the prayer, there is no response?” Why is there not always an answer?
Perhaps the reason is that we do not ask God. Earlier, James has already accused the people of that when he says, “you do not have because you do not ask.”
We may be tempted to believe that God does not want to heal or cannot heal. In other words, we doubt God’s power or his love.
I mentioned before that some suggest that there is no healing because a person does not have enough faith. Perhaps they are right. In some cases in the miracles which Jesus did, he indicated that the healing was easy because the people had a strong faith. In other places, however, he indicated that all it took was faith as a mustard seed. He was also open to the man who said he believed, but indicated that his faith was not strong when he asked Jesus to help his unbelief. Do we believe and how much faith is enough faith?
Some might suggest that healing didn’t happen because people have failed to follow the correct procedure. You didn’t call the elders or you didn’t use the oil or something like that. We should be afraid of that kind of thinking because it arises out of a magical view of God and takes us away from a relational approach to God.
Another reason might be that there is sin in the way. I will take a closer look at this reason in a moment.
Another reason is that perhaps God’s will is that healing not happen. We know that all of us have an appointment with death. Sometime that day will come for us. We need to leave room for the sovereignty of God and learn to accept that God may choose not to heal because our time has come, or some other reason which we do not now know and may never know. Faith is being able to accept whatever God allows into our lives.
Do you remember the multiple choice quizzes you had in school. One of the things that happened on those tests is that the final option was sometimes “all of the above.” Perhaps that is the case here that it is not any one of these explanations, but that it could be any one of them.
When healing does not happen, we need to examine why. Have we asked? Is it God’s will? Do we believe that God can heal? Have we dealt with sin?
It is also helpful to recognize that there can be different kinds of healing. Sometimes God heals immediately and physically. Many of his miracles were like that when Jesus was on earth. Sometimes the healing will come through doctors or over time. Sometimes, the healing will not be a physical healing at all, but a healing of our emotions or our ability to cope. At times, the healing will only be an eternal healing.
When we consider all of these different ways of looking at healing, then we can understand the promise. From the outside, it may appear like rationalization, but as we put our trust in God, we will find that it is not, but that God is real and active.
D. The Power Of Prayer
In the end of this section, we are encouraged to be bold in prayer. I think that the fact that sometimes we do not see the answers that we would like causes us to become discouraged in prayer. James, however, encourages us that we need to pray and that God acts when we pray.
James declares “the prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.” Then he points to Elijah as a man like us who was a man powerful in prayer. He points to the experience of Elijah who prayed that it should not rain and it did not rain and then that it should rain and it did rain. What made Elijah’s prayer powerful and effective? We think that it was powerful and effective because Elijah was a special person to God, but then we read the text and it says that he was just like we are.
When we examine the life of Elijah, we soon see that he was a man like we are. He experienced the same kinds of discouragements and doubts as we do. The clearest example of this came after he prayed for fire to come down from heaven and burn up the sacrifice and demonstrate that God truly was God - and it happened. Immediately after this experience, however, he ran away in fear into the wilderness and sought a demonstration of the power of God - after he had just seen one. When we see Elijah in that light, we know that he really was very much like we are.
Elijah’s prayers were effective because he was a righteous man. Unlike so many of his fellow citizens, he continued to trust in God. One writer says, “The righteous person is the community member, the person who confesses sins and adheres to community standards.” God hears our prayer when we walk in righteousness.
Another reason why Elijah had such power in prayer when he prayed for the rain was because he knew that it was God’s will to pray in this way. The interesting thing is that even though God had this in mind, he did not do it without the prayer of Elijah. God chooses to act in response to our prayers. The statement here and the description demonstrates that we need to pray and that our prayers are effective. We do not need to be super heroes, only people who are willing to go to God.
The intent of these verses is to encourage us to pray for one another and especially when we experience illness. God acts as we pray and so our prayers are very important.
One writer says, “Prayer has to do with expectations, “if we have no expectations from God then we will have little to pray about; conversely, if we have great expectations of God, we will be much more intense and disciplined in our prayers.”
III. Sin, Prayer & Healing 5:19, 20
The question of the righteous person raises another issue. Prayer is a significant element in this passage. Prayer is mentioned 8 x’s in 6 verses. But there is another theme that is also prominent in these verses. Sin is mentioned 5 x’s in 6 verses.
A. Sin, Prayer & Sickness
We need to make several observations about the relationship of sin, prayer and healing.
Sin is mentioned as a problem in itself. Sometimes sin is the sickness. In fact, the worst disease that any person has is the disease of sin. James has made us very aware of the many ways in which God’s people can fall into sin. Are we dealing with sin in our life?
The more prominent issue in this passage, however, is the relationship of sin to sickness. There are some who suggest that sickness is a direct result of sin. There are obviously times when this is true. If you sin by disobeying the scripture about alcoholism, the consequences of drunkenness - liver problems, accidents or other illnesses - can easily be seen as a direct consequence of sin.
Sometimes sickness can be an indirect result of sin in the sense that there isn’t a natural connection, but a spiritual one. God sometimes uses sickness either as punishment or warning. I Corinthians 11:29,30 is one example. It says, “For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep.” In a number of cases, Jesus tied forgiveness of sins to healing and so we know that there is a connection like this. Mark 2:1-12, John 5:1-15
But we need to be careful not to attribute sickness to sin in every situation. In John 9:1-3 we read, “As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.”
As we are aware that sickness is not necessarily a result of sin, we, nevertheless need to deal with sin if we seek healing.
The other thing to be aware of is that sin hinders our prayer life. Psalm 66:18 says, “If I had cherished sin in my heart, the Lord would not have listened…” And Isaiah 59:2 says, “But your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear.”
As we contemplate the path to God in prayer, we cannot be careless about sin in our lives and must also deal with it.
James says two things about dealing with sin in the community of believers.
B. Confess Your Sins
In verse 16, he says, “confess your sins to each other.”
Married for 16 years and with two great kids, Kurt Stansell seems to have it all together. He has a successful investment counseling business, and he's a founding elder at his church. And he's a sex addict. Kurt's the first to admit it.
For years, Kurt struggled with pornography. It started with magazines, but eventually turned into visits to Triple-X theaters and strip joints. Kurt kept repeating a cycle of guilt and remorse, then prayer and repentance, only to find himself back at it again.
Eventually, Kurt found an accountability partner named Stan. At first, Kurt held back, being less than honest about his problem. But when he finally confessed, telling Stan the whole truth, Kurt immediately felt a weight lifted from his shoulders. He was on the road to victory.
"I began to understand what shame does," Kurt says. "When we Christians try to hide something in the darkness, we give Satan incredible license to work in our lives. So, the more open I could be, the less of a hold Satan seemed to have." -- Gregg Lewis
We are often reluctant to confess our sins, but if we want victory and if we want to have a clear path into the presence of God and if we want to be the people who are righteous and so have great power in prayer, confession of sin is not an option.
C. Turning One Another From Sin
The other thing James reminds us of in regards to the importance of dealing with sin is that we need to hold each other accountable.
There is little doubt about what these verses mean. The problem is actually doing something about it.
Again, the New Realistic Version of the Bible would say, If one of you should wander from the truth, let everyone gossip about it and judge him in his sin. How contrary to the loving intention and the life giving intention of what James says here!
The Ministerial has been studying the matter of church discipline over the past several months and when we have completed this study we intend to come to the congregation with a recommendation regarding how we ought to help each other avoid sin and what to do when there is sin. A large part of the suggestion we will make is that all of us are responsible for each other and if we see anyone sin, we are responsible to help the other person return to a walk of faithfulness. It is not up to you to come to the ministerial to complain about another person, it is up to you to go to them and help them back.
The only request I would make is that you make sure that when you confront someone it is for sin. James does not say that we should confront someone if we have a difference of opinion with them, but if they wander from the truth. It is also important to confront in love.
The importance of this is so great that if we will do it, we will save a person from death and cover a multitude of sins.
I pray for courage for all of us to care enough for each other to help each other be faithful to the truth of God.
We must also never forget that where sin is dealt with, there is forgiveness. Vs. 15.
We have talked today about a path to the door of God’s house. That path is beaten down as we repeatedly, in all matters of life, come to God in prayer - in trouble, happiness and sickness. The path is cleared and the door is opened when we deal with sin by confessing it to one another and by holding each other accountable.
Is there a path from your door to God?
Andrew Murray said, “Reading a book about prayer, listening to lectures and talking about it is very good, but it won't teach you to pray. You get nothing without exercise, without practice. I might listen for a year to a professor of music playing the most beautiful music, but that won't teach me to play an instrument.”
Let us beat a path to the door of God’s house!