By Andrew T. and Phyllis J. Le Peau
Doug, a friend of ours for twenty years, had been diagnosed with late-stage lung cancer. He was under forty and had never been a smoker, but the diagnosis came nonetheless. We had had some opportunities to discuss spiritual issues and concerns with him—though not in depth—and we knew he had attended church most of his life; still, we weren’t sure if this offer would be outside his comfort zone or not. When Phyllis asked about coming to pray, however, he enthusiastically welcomed the offer.
Our church has a customary practice of praying for healing. If someone is sick, people in the congregation know they can ask the elders to come, just as James 5:14 recommends. So the two of us had been called on several times to gather with other elders to pray for people with chronic, acute or terminal illnesses.
The situation with Doug was a bit different in that he wasn’t a member of our church. But the church was willing to send us and a few others who volunteered. When we arrived, Doug’s two teenage children and a few friends were there too. Andy explained that praying for healing was not magic. We do not manipulate God and tell him what to do. We aren’t God. He is. Nonetheless, Andy told them, we know that He loves us, cares for us and wants His best for us. So we can come to God confidently with our requests.
He then asked, “What do you sense God doing in your life?” Doug said that despite his shock at the diagnosis and confusion about what to do, God seemed very real, very close in the midst of it all, almost as if he could touch him. Doug also talked about how great his wife, Marie, had been through it all. She was completely focused on his care and well-being, making calls to doctors as needed and seeing to his needs. We were struck by this, especially, because Doug and Marie’s marriage had not always been a close one. They were often distant from and sometimes tense with each other. It seemed that God was already doing healing in their lives.
“I have some oil here,” Andy said then. “It’s just ordinary olive oil. The New Testament letter of James says that when elders pray for the sick, they should anoint with oil. In the Old Testament oil is a sign of health, of joy and of God’s blessing. I’m wondering if you would like us to use just a drop on your forehead to anoint you as we pray.”
With a smile Doug said he thought that would be good. Phyllis invited everyone who wanted to pray aloud to do so, but explained that no one had to. She also noted that short, informal sentence prayers would be good; no long speeches to God were necessary. So we gathered around Doug, who was sitting in his favorite chair. Some put a hand on his shoulder or arm. Others just stood nearby. Andy put a drop of oil on his finger and traced a cross on Doug’s forehead; and we prayed.
We thanked God for what he was already doing in Doug’s life. We thanked God for the many blessings he had given Doug in family and friends and meaningful work. We acknowledged that humanly his situation was very serious, but that God had good things in mind for Doug. We knew we could entrust Doug into God’s care, since He loved Doug far more than any of us could. Knowing that sickness and illness were not God’s will, we prayed that God would heal. We also acknowledged that we didn’t know why God sometimes broke through barriers to healing and sometimes didn’t. These things were mysterious. But we were confident in both God’s power and desire to heal. We prayed that as Doug and Marie continued to walk this path, that God would continue to be close to them, close enough to touch.
After about fifteen minutes of prayers and tears, we all stood in a circle and prayed the Lord’s Prayer together to conclude. We also hugged and offered some words of comfort to each other. Doug and Marie then invited us all to lunch, which we gladly accepted.
God designed us to be whole people—body, soul and spirit. And God cares about the totality of who we are, not just our spiritual side. He is the one who gave us bodies, after all, and all He made He declared to be good (Genesis 1:31). The health of our bodies matters to Him; He knows and cares when we’re sick.
Obviously, sickness can have physical causes that require physical treatment—broken arms, infections, disorders. But lifestyle (what and how much we put into our bodies, the amount of exercise we get, where we live, etc.) can also affect health. So can emotional factors like stress at work or in our relationships.
As James reports, sin can be a factor too (which may be connected to our lifestyle choices and our relationships), as can the accuser, satan. For example, when Peter told Cornelius about Jesus he described “how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Ghost and with power: who went about doing good, and healing all that were oppressed of the devil; for God was with him.” (Acts 10:38).
Notice, though, that James does not explicitly say that sin causes illness. He is very careful in how he puts it in 5:15, “And the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him.” If the sick person has sinned, says James. So it is entirely possible to be sick and not have an issue of sin to deal with. This suggests that we should be alert to the possibility of a connection, but never presume one. As written, in John 9:1-3 Jesus said the man’s blindness was not caused by sin. Likewise Job’s troubles were not caused by his sin either.
James 5:15 raises another question for many people: the question of whether prayer—at least a prayer with strong enough faith—always results in healing. Certainly sin can be a barrier to answered prayer. James has already covered this in 4:2-3: “Ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss, that ye may consume it upon your lusts.” Paul tells in 2 Corinthians 12:7-8 how his thorn in the flesh was not healed—something we certainly can not attribute to the apostle’s lack of faith.
Some people, related to 5:15, have wrongly taught that we should in faith “act like” we are healed after praying—even if the symptoms remain. This was not the pattern in the New Testament, however. When Jesus healed the paralytic, the man got up and walked (Mark 2:12). When he healed the Gerasene demoniac, the man sat clothed and in his right mind (Mark 5:15). If the symptoms remain, we are not healed. So if the doctor says we still have diabetes, we should take our insulin.
The question of why God doesn’t always heal is an immense one. We say God is Creator and Ruler of the world—and yet, given the evidence in Scripture and in our own experience that everyone (good or bad, Christian or not, full of faith or full of fear) does eventually die, obviously there are times when healing does not take place.
What, then, does James mean when he says that “And the prayer of faith shall save the sick,”? First, he is affirming, as he is throughout 5:13-18, that we should pray; the word pray or some form of it is found in every single verse in this section. Second, he is affirming that God can and does heal. Third, he is affirming that God works in concert with our prayers. Fourth, he makes clear that we do not heal. God is the one who “shall raise … up” the sick person.
James 5:14, in particular, offers some clarification. In that verse James instructs, “Is any sick among you? let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord:” What does it mean to anoint “in the name of the Lord:”? This is not a magical incantation we utter to somehow force God’s hand.
At base, to do something “in the name of” another means to act by the authority or will of someone else. Ambassadors act according to the instructions of their country’s leader; they do not have independent authority. So to pray for healing means we must take into account the will of God in the matter.
While we can be confident that God’s will for us is to be whole people—body, soul and spirit—we should not be arrogant in assuming we know what God’s total will is in particular situations. James strongly cautions against just such presumption in the rich (1:10), in teachers (3:1-2), in merchants (4:13-17) and in landowners (5:1-6). Obviously, though, his warning against pride applies to all of us in whatever we do, including when we pray. We humbly seek God’s will, we confidently ask that God’s will be done, but we leave it to God to do his will as he pleases, when he pleases.
Doug has his ups and downs emotionally, physically, spiritually. We continue to call him, visit him and pray for him. In all this we hold to our faith in God’s love, grace and mercy, now and forever.