The Prayer of Faith
Toward the end of his epistle, James abruptly shifts gears. He has brought his reader through several scathing attacks on ungodly and abusive speech. Now, as a sort of counterweight to all he has said before—as an addendum obviously intended to leave us with a balance of positives and negatives—he shows us the right way to use the human tongue. He recommends four kinds of speech in particular, all meeting God’s approval because they are clean in their content and constructive in their effects. Each has a place in our lives, depending on the circumstances.
The first kind of wholesome speech is prayer for relief and deliverance when either oneself or one’s brother is troubled by an affliction (v. 13a). The kind appropriate for expressing a glad heart, bubbling over with merriment, is singing (v. 13b). The third kind is confession of sin (v. 16), and the fourth is godly counsel (vv. 19–20), which will be the subject of our next lesson.
Let us take a closer look at each kind of speech pleasing to God. The second he introduces but the first we will consider is to "sing psalms" (v. 13). These two words in English render a single Greek word that in the New Testament refers generally to the singing of sacred songs, whether or not they are psalms in the strict sense (1 Cor. 14:15; Eph. 5:19). So, here is another instance of James agreeing with Paul, who also urges the saints to sing. Singing is so important that Paul wants the music to continue in their hearts even when their lips are silent (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16). The command to sing is prominent throughout the Psalms (Ps. 92:1–4; 147:1, 7). Why does Scripture so strongly encourage singing? The basic reason is that God Himself likes to hear it. Many activities that engage people now will cease when this world comes to an end, but singing will go on forever. One of the few things we know about heaven is that the saints will sing (Rev. 5:9; 14:3; 15:3). Their singing will be an eternal delight to God, because it will render praise and love through a mode of expression that is at once thoughtful, creative, and harmoniously beautiful. A singing congregation or choir is an exquisite picture of relations within the body of Christ. Each voice submits to a large plan for the smooth functioning of the whole. Yet the whole derives its perfection from individual voices making unique contributions to different parts.
The church today is embroiled in controversy over what kind of music is appropriate for Christian songs and hymns. We cannot delve into a detailed discussion of music standards. But we can say emphatically that the chief test of whether something is right is always how God Himself views it. When we discussed entertainment, we said that our standard when evaluating a book or program or movie should be whether Jesus would enjoy it. Likewise in the realm of music, we need to seek God's opinion. He certainly has an opinion, for He is a musician and music critic of the highest order. Indeed, He is the very creator of music. Therefore, as far as we are concerned, the right music should be whatever He likes. We can list three kinds of music that unquestionably must be an offense to Him.
- We can be sure that He does not like so-called Christian music written primarily to make money rather than to glorify Him. When Jesus found that commercialism had invaded the Temple, He drove it out (John 2:13-17). Like all servants of God, a Christian musician is entitled to support for his ministry. "The labourer is worthy of his hire" (Luke 10:7). But accepting support is not the same as chasing profits. Money-grubbing is the lifeblood of all contemporary Christian music (CCM) put out by secular corporations under the control of unsaved board members.
- We can be sure that God does not like music that denies truth or debases things that are holy. In CCM, much is either doctrinally off-base or morally off-color, and the name of Jesus is disappearing. He is seldom if ever called Christ or Son of God.
- We can be sure that God does not like music in a style derived from nightclubs and other places where people gather for drunken revelry in celebration of fleshly lust. That's the devil's music, not His. The devil is also a musician (Ezek. 28:13–16). His music includes anything that can be readily classified as jazz, pop, or rock.
Prayer for the afflicted
In verse 14, James returns to the first kind of wholesome speech, the kind seeking divine help when either oneself or one's brother is "afflicted." He now tells a believer what he should do if he is suffering one of the most common afflictions, which is bodily sickness. Here is a topic of great importance. Sickness plagues all mankind. Whatever sickness we have suffered in the past, we will probably suffer worse in the future. We need to know how to respond.
James advises any sick person that he should summon the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. The grammatical construction suggests that the anointing should precede the praying. Several historic controversies have arisen from this verse. First, is James describing a procedure that the Lord intended for the church universal? In other words, are all churches everywhere and in every age obliged to handle sickness exactly as James prescribes? Second, what is the purpose of anointing with oil? Third, is it essential for success?
Some bodies of churches as well as some individual churches acting alone have decided that in cases of severe illness they should follow the exact procedure laid out by James. The elders gather around the bed of a sick brother and pray for him after anointing him with oil. Most churches, however, have viewed James’s procedure not as an obligation, but as an option. They reason that if it were an obligation, the New Testament would refer to it more than once. But Paul, the founder of the gentile churches, says nothing about it, although his letters are full of instruction spanning the whole gamut of doctrine and practice.
The impasse for most churches is the requirement to anoint with oil. James himself makes it quite clear that such an anointing is not what produces healing. Rather, healing comes by "the prayer of faith" (v. 15). So, if anointing is not the real instrument of healing, what is its purpose? We gain insight on the practice by looking at other Biblical references to it. Mark records that Jesus’ disciples anointed the sick with oil before they healed them miraculously (Mark 6:13). Why did they do this? The story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-36) indicates that in Jewish culture, anointing with oil was considered a form of medical treatment. We also find mention of the same practice in secular sources. We now understand why it was customary even for the disciples. They were healing by a combination of natural and supernatural means. They did the best they could using ordinary medicine and relied upon God to accomplish the rest. In other words, they did just as we do today. We do not shun doctors and human devices. We use them, while depending on God to make them effective and to carry the healing beyond anything possible by natural means.
Viewed in this way, the procedure James describes was appropriate for the Jewish churches he was addressing, but it is not binding on us all. There is no harm in using it, especially if it tends to encourage faith. But it is better to draw from James’s advice the appropriate application to our culture—that while relying upon prayer as the real instrument of healing, we should also use the best of modern medicine.
In the next verse, verse 15, James makes another statement which has fostered much controversy. He says, "And the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up." But the universal experience of Christians is that some of God’s children remain sick even after the church prays for them. So have we found a contradiction between promise and fact? No. The promise of healing here in James is not intended to be absolute. God has always performed mighty miracles of healing in response to a prayer of faith, and he still performs them today, but whether He grants healing is subject to four conditions. What are they? The first two we surmise from James’s own discussion.
Confession of sin
James says that if the sick person "have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him" (v. 14). Steeped in the Old Testament, James knows that sickness is often God’s tool of judgment in the lives of believers as well as unbelievers. King Ahaziah, a rebel against the God of Israel, did not recover from his sickness because he sought help from the false god Baal (2 Kings 1:16). But also King Uzziah, a follower of the true God, was stricken with leprosy because he tried to usurp the privileges of a priest (2 Chron. 26:16–21). In the New Testament, Paul reaffirms that a believer’s sickness may come from God’s chastening hand (1 Cor. 11:29–30).
Yet every sickness is not the result of sin. James agrees, for he says, "if he have committed sins" (v. 15), implying that sin might or might not be at the root of the sickness. It was the habit of the Jews to see divine judgment behind all the troubles of life, but Jesus rebuked them for being simplistic (John 9:2-3). He pointed out that these troubles can have other causes, such as God’s intent to glorify Himself by showing His hand of deliverance.
But if sickness comes as a punishment from God, the church cannot reasonably expect Him to heal the sick person so long as he persists in his sin. Any prayer for healing, however fervent and full of faith, will be ineffectual. James therefore says, "Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed" (v. 16). He is stating the first condition for healing. If the sickness is God's chastening for sin, the sin must be confessed and put away.
Confession of sin is the third kind of wholesome speech. Why does James specify confession "one to another"? Is it not enough to confess our sins to God? James is holding to his perspective throughout the epistle. Often he has reminded us that many sins characteristic of believers are violations of the royal law, the law requiring us to love our brother as ourselves. When we sin against our brother, we cannot make it right just by apologizing to God. We must exercise some practical humility by going to our offended brother and apologizing to him. We must confess our fault to the one we have harmed.
In verse 16, James states a second condition that must be met before God will consent to a prayer for healing. It must be "the effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man." This condition combines two requirements.
- The prayer must be "effectual fervent." The translation here rests on a single Greek word, which is the root of the English word energy. Prayer will avail only when it is energetic both in intensity and in perseverance.
- The prayer must rise from the lips of a righteous man. The futility of prayer when the petitioner has sin in his heart is a common teaching of Scripture (Ps. 66:18; Isa. 59:1-2; Mic. 3:4).
Thus, to pray successfully for healing, we must first cleanse our hearts of sin that will obstruct our access to God, and we must dedicate ourselves to praying with energy. The casual prayer of a carnal Christian will bounce off the ceiling.
It may seem to us that God is asking more than we can do. He wants energetic prayer, yet, like the disciples who went with Jesus to the Garden and fell asleep instead of praying for Him, we are lacking in energy. As Jesus said to them, "The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak" (Matt. 26:41). James therefore reminds us of Elijah. Although he too was a creature of flesh, "subject to like passions as we are," he met the requirements of effective prayer (vv. 17-18) and through prayer accomplished great wonders. He stopped rain from falling upon Israel for three and a half years. Then he made the rain to resume. His human limitations did not keep him from being righteous enough and fervent enough to win God’s assent to his requests.
James’s point is not that we should wield the power of faith as a weapon against our enemies. The New Testament gives us no warrant to call down divine judgment upon them. Rather, we should ask God to bless them, and the blessing we seek should be broad in scope. We should want them to enjoy not only spiritual enlightenment, but also provision of material needs. If we make rain an issue of prayer, we should seek it for all men, thus emulating God Himself, who "sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust" (Matt. 5:44–45).
Thorn in the flesh
By comparing Scripture with Scripture, we learn the third condition for healing. God will not remove an affliction that yields spiritual benefits. He left the thorn in Paul’s flesh to keep him humble and to assure his dependence on divine power (2 Cor. 12:7-9). Because he had been granted visions of Christ and heavenly glory, Paul was vulnerable to pride, and because of his natural abilities, he was tempted to serve God in the power of his own flesh.
If you read Christian biographies, you will discover that many other giants of the faith also suffered a chronic affliction which God refused to take away. C. T. Studd, pioneer missionary to Africa, endured chronic and severe gall bladder attacks even as he tramped through the jungles. He never learned the cause until a doctor diagnosed his condition as he lay on his deathbed. Amy Carmichael, rescuer of so many abused children in India and founder of the mission work known as the Dohnavur Fellowship, spent almost twenty years as an invalid, seldom leaving her room.
Why did God so limit her life? I think the reason is that she was an outstanding poet. Although her work never won general acclaim even among Christians, God must have liked it, else why did He confine her to a life that did not permit her to do much except write poetry?
Thorns in the flesh are seldom fatal. Their purpose is not to shorten life, but to guarantee useful, God-dependent service. So, their ultimate effect may be to lengthen life.
Sickness unto death
There is yet a fourth condition for healing. None of us can escape the last sickness in life, the one leading to death. Death is an inescapable curse upon sinful humanity. Before we pray for a Christian on the verge of death, we should examine his prospects in the light of Paul’s dilemma described in Philippians 1:23-24. Paul knew that it was better for the churches he founded if they remained under his care, yet it was better for him to depart and be with Christ. The lesson for us is that if age and infirmity have so impaired a saint that he has neither the power to serve God in an active ministry nor the capacity to enjoy his days on earth—or if there is another consideration perhaps known only to God that overrules prolonging his life—then it is better for the saint to graduate to a higher existence, surrounded by light, bathed in love, and filled with joy. We can pray for his healing, yet we should leave the decision with God, for only He can perform the calculation whether it is better for the saint to stay or to depart.
For a saint of God, death comes when God determines that the time is right. It does not simply depend on the person's state of health. It is depends rather on what God decides is best for him and for the work of God. Matters of life and death always show His boundless wisdom.