“Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. “ (James 5:13)
Why is it that sometimes the best advice also sounds like the most trite and shallow advise? Indeed if someone is suffering, prayer is a good thing. But prayer does not always relieve suffering. It is not like a bandage that suddenly turns the suffering into “everything being okay.” It is not that simple. And what makes the first piece of advice son “flighty” is the admonition that those who are cheerful should “sing songs of praise.” It just seems like superficial advise.
“Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven.” (Verses 14 – 15)
And if the “prayer of faith” does not “save” them – does not heal them? Then what? And why is forgiveness of sins tied in with being sick? I am suspicious that Old Testament thinking about the body is behind some of the writer of James’ suggestions. Being one who has physical ailments, and is educated in ailments of the mind & the spirit/soul, I dislike very much improper and harmful cause-and-effect theories concerning all three.
“Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.” (Verse 16)
I consulted with the commentary by Albert Barnes, and as usual his careful discussion and analysis helped me see this passage from a different perspective. Perhaps Barnes’ analysis is not exactly what the writer of the book of James meant; but I am not questioning that. What Barnes helped me see is that it is very possible that the writer of the book of James is giving a quick reminder to his readers who would have understand his brief exhortations are under girded with a much longer preaching at another time/in another place. The writer of the book of James lightly touches on what has a much broader and deeper consideration behind it.
“Elijah was a human being like us, 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 the heaven gave rain and the earth yielded its harvest.” (Verses 17 – 18)
If one compares the admonition to pray, praise, and confess with Elijah’s devotion and depth of faith, it comes much closer to what I would have expected in the first place.
“My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another, you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.” (Verses 19 – 20)
If then illness comes from having a sinful nature or by what ever means falling into sin where previously there was no sin, then the turning back from that will be an event for great rejoicing. And if we are to bundle together sin and ill health, then the saving from sin will also return one to health. It is, however, bile on my tongue to lump the two together. I would rather commend the concerned believer who leads a fellow believer back from the edge of sin; or extol a believer who has turned someone from a sinful life to a being a true believer. It makes me uncomfortable to intermingle health and faith belief. Perhaps in that far off (or not so far off) day when I have a chance to discuss such theological issues, I can better see what thinking went into such passages. Or maybe, having been informed of the divide that there is, biblical writers might revise their theology. For now, beloved reader, let us work towards health in both spheres of human experience. Selah!