Prayers of Faith
by Jack Wald | February 9th, 2014

James 5:13-18

A couple weeks ago as part of the sermon on James’ warning to the rich, I showed a clip from Fiddler on the Roof which inspired me to show the full movie at five o’clock this afternoon. I’m looking forward to watching this with you. There is another movie that came to my mind as I was working on the sermon for this morning and perhaps we will show that on another Sunday soon. Leap of Faith stars Steve Martin and is a film about a money-making faith healer who travels from town to town with his organization. Let’s watch this Leap of Faith trailer.

The faith healer in this film is based on a German-American televangelist named Peter Popoff who rose to prominence in the 1980s. He was exposed when it was discovered that what he claimed were words of knowledge received from the Holy Spirit was in reality his wife giving him information about the people in his audience through a radio receiver in his ear. As a result of this exposé, he declared bankruptcy in 1987, but amazingly, he reemerged and is once again making millions of dollars a year from people who are fooled by his trickery.

It is clear that there are people who take advantage of others to make money as faith healers, but what is wonderful about the movie Leap of Faith is that it raises the question at the end, “Is there, in the midst of all the trickery, a God who actually does heal people?”

What we think and how we feel about healing depends on our theological tradition. If you go to an evangelical prayer meeting, you might hear prayers like this: “Dear Lord, guide the surgeon’s hands during Pete’s operation. And bring your comfort to Jean and her family following their car accident.”

On the other hand, at a pentecostal prayer meeting you might hear these prayers: “By your stripes we are healed! And so in Jesus’ name, we claim your healing for Pete. As the surgeon checks him before the operation, he will see there is no longer a need for surgery. In Jesus’ name! We claim your healing power for Jean and her family. In Jesus’ name they are healed!”

In an international church, with a wide range of church backgrounds, we become aware of how differently we approach elements of our Christian life. When we read through the book of James and come to today’s passage, we read the same words, but interpret them differently. This morning I will try to chart a course through these words and bring out God’s truth for us, for all of us.

It is common for the New Testament letter writers to conclude their letter with an exhortation to pray. Paul wrote at the end of his letter to the church in Rome: (Romans 15:30–32)
30 I urge you, brothers, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to join me in my struggle by praying to God for me. 31 Pray that I may be rescued from the unbelievers in Judea and that my service in Jerusalem may be acceptable to the saints there, 32 so that by God’s will I may come to you with joy and together with you be refreshed.

Paul has similar exhortations in Ephesians, Colossians, and in I & II Thessalonians. The writer of Hebrews ends his letter with: (Hebrews 13:18–19)
18 Pray for us. We are sure that we have a clear conscience and desire to live honorably in every way. 19 I particularly urge you to pray so that I may be restored to you soon.

This encouragement to pray at the end of New Testament letters is part of the culture of prayer in the New Testament world. But James’ exhortation to pray stands out for its detail and length.
13 Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray. Is anyone happy? Let him sing songs of praise. 14 Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord.

In any and every situation, James tells us, the appropriate action is to pray. It might be prayers for relief, prayers of joy and praise, or prayers for the sick. But prayer is what is always needed. At the end of his letter, James is sharing his life experience. He was known as a man of prayer and was nicknamed “Camel Knees” because his knees were calloused from spending so much time on his knees in prayer. James clearly practiced what he preached here at the end of his letter.

James exhorts us to pray if someone is in trouble, pray if we are happy, and pray if someone is sick. And then James goes into detail about how to pray for the sick. First of all, he tells us the elders of the church are to pray for the sick person. Who are the elders of the church? These are the spiritually mature leaders of the church. They include the pastors of the church but also others who lead the church with their spiritual gifts.

Secondly, James tells us the elders are to anoint the sick with oil as they pray. Why does James mention anointing with oil? Can you think of any precedence for this in the Bible? In fact, this practice is mentioned only one other time in the New Testament. When Mark writes about the twelve disciples being sent out by Jesus, he says: (Mark 6:12–13)
12 They went out and preached that people should repent. 13 They drove out many demons and anointed many sick people with oil and healed them.

There is no other reference to this practice. Jesus used his saliva to heal the blind but it is not recorded he used oil when he healed. So why does James tell us to anoint with oil when we pray for the sick? (And aren’t you glad James didn’t write that we should spit on the people we pray for?)

Did James say to anoint with oil because of its medical and conditioning qualities? In the dry climate of the Middle East, oil was used to moisten the skin and it was also used for healing of wounds. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, oil and wine were poured on the wounds of the man who was robbed and beaten. But this does not seem to be why James mentions anointing with oil when praying for healing of the sick.

There is also a sacramental purpose for anointing with oil. Anointing with oil was used to consecrate priests, prophets, and kings. Aaron was consecrated with oil to be Israel’s high priest. Saul and David were anointed with oil to be God’s chosen king for Israel. Elijah anointed Elisha with oil to succeed him as prophet.

Anointing with oil makes the declaration that a person belongs to God. The person is set aside for God’s purposes. So when we anoint someone with oil for healing, we are making the declaration that this person belongs to God and will serve God’s purposes. When we anoint someone for healing, we are making a statement that this person is God’s child and heading toward his eternal kingdom.

Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. 16 Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.

When we anoint someone for healing, there is more that takes place than just physical healing. When Jesus healed the paralyzed man lowered from the roof by his four friends, Jesus forgave him his sins and then he healed him.

When we are anointed by oil, we are set apart as belonging to God and it is for this reason that confession of sin, forgiveness of others, and repentance is often part of the healing that takes place.

Think about this from God’s perspective. Why would God heal someone whose heart continues to be full of anger and bitterness? God is not a pharmaceutical company, dispensing medicine to make people better. A pharmaceutical company heals anyone who can pay for their medicine. But God is building his kingdom and wants healing not only of the body but also of the heart. Healing of the body is not separate and distinct from healing of the soul.

Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.

James tells us that prayer, offered in faith by a righteous person, is powerful and effective. And he uses the example of Elijah who prayed it would not rain and for three and a half years it did not rain. Then he prayed again and it did rain. We should pray with this faith when we pray for the sick.

Now we get to the tricky part. In our experience, when we pray for someone to be healed, most times it does not happen. And when we pray for healing and someone is healed, most times it is something minor that is healed. There are occasions when there is a major, significant healing and a cancerous tumor disappears, but this is not a common experience.

Because we pray for healing and many times it does not happen, we seek understanding and explanations for why we did not get the results we wanted. So there are theologies of healing that tell us we have to have enough faith and if healing does not take place, it indicates our faith was insufficient. Sometimes the group of people who are praying for someone to be healed is challenged by the leader who says that if anyone lacks faith they should leave so their lack of faith will not prevent the healing from taking place.

How much faith is required for healing? The disciples came to Jesus and asked him to increase their faith. What did Jesus say? (Luke 17:6)
If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you.

Miracles of healing are not dependent on how much faith we have, only that we have even a small amount of faith and put our trust in Jesus to act.

When we ignore this teaching of Jesus the burden for healing is put on those who are praying to have sufficient faith to make the miracle of healing happen. But much worse is the theology that says a healing does not take place because the person seeking healing did not have enough faith. I think this is a terribly cruel theology. The person who is sick is already suffering and then is made to feel worse because of the accusation they did not have enough faith to be healed. Healing is supernatural. It does not come from us. We cannot make it happen. We cannot manipulate God to heal someone. Healing comes only and always from God.

There is a tremendous amount of dysfunction, sin,  associated with prayers for healing.

So let me take another look at this passage from James and lead us into what I think is a Biblical way to approach prayers for healing.

First, our struggles with illness and deformities are used by God in positive ways to help us grow in faith.

James begins his letter with this: (James 1:2–5)
2 Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. 4 Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.

This is a major theme of James’ letter and this exhortation to pray at the end of his letter is not disconnected to this theme. Among the many trials we face in life, illness is one of them. The trials we face in life are not without redemptive purpose. As we persevere through trials of many kinds, we develop perseverance which leads to being made mature and complete. We grow in faith as we endure the trials of life.

A few verses later James encourages us as we persevere: (James 1:12)
12 Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him.

The reward of the crown of life is far greater than any trial we endure.

Second, this means that the development of our faith is far more important than being healed from any physical problem.

Jesus raised his friend Lazarus from the dead. This was an incredible miracle and there was a lot of celebration. But some time later there was another funeral for Lazarus and this time his body stayed in the tomb. As incredible as his miracle was, it was not enough to keep him alive forever.

There are a lot of wonderful miracles in the Bible. Lepers cleansed, the widow of Nain’s son being raised from the dead, a withered arm being healed, demons being cast out, the feeding of the 5,000. But these miracles pale in comparison to the miracle of a woman who surrenders to Jesus and perseveres her whole life, growing in faith, being transformed bit by bit into the image of Jesus, and who dies in faith, heading toward eternal life. I have prayed with people who have given their life to Jesus and some persevere and others fade away. This is a mystery to me and when I see someone that perseveres, I stand back in amazement. This is a great miracle.

This is the concern for James, that followers of Jesus will persevere, not give up when trials and temptations come, not be pulled away by the distractions of wealth, power, prestige, and fame.

It is more important to God that we be with him for eternity than for us to be healthy in this life. If this sounds harsh, remember that Paul prayed for his “thorn in the flesh”, probably a problem with his eyes, to be removed. Three times he asked and the healing he asked for was not given. Why was Paul not healed? Did God not love him? Did Paul not have enough faith? Listen to how Paul understood this. (2 Corinthians 12:7–9)
7 To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. 9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.

Jesus loved Paul but knew that it was better for Paul not to be healed. The development of Paul’s faith was more important than being delivered from his “thorn in the flesh.”

Third, healing in the kingdom of God began almost 2,000 years ago.

Starting with the ministry of Jesus, the kingdom of God began to intrude into this world. After John the Baptist was imprisoned, Jesus began his ministry and he preached: (Matthew 4:17–25)
“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.”

Jesus called his disciples to follow him and then Matthew writes:
23 Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people. 24 News about him spread all over Syria, and people brought to him all who were ill with various diseases, those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyzed, and he healed them.

Every time someone decides to become a follower of Jesus, the kingdom of God advances. Every time someone is healed, the kingdom of God advances. The history of the church is not the story of denominations and buildings and organizations, it is a story of people who turn around and set out on pilgrimage to the celestial city. It is a story of people who are made whole.

Fourth, every follower of Jesus will be healed from any and every illness or deformity.

Revelation 21:3–4 gives us a picture of what our condition will be like in heaven.
3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4 He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

There will be no blind people in heaven, no one who is lame, no one who has a withered arm, no one with cancer. We will be remade, given new bodies, and we will be like the people God intended us to be before the sin of the world deformed us.

Our problem is that we evaluate our lives from our limited perspective of this world. We see this world and measure good and bad by what happens in this world. And so we look at the life of someone who cannot walk and see failure. Our problem is that we do not see far enough into the future nor do we see deeply enough into the present. In the spirit of Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, Blessed are the sick for they will be healed.

Fifth, this means then that the question for healing is not if I will be healed, but when will I be healed.

When I ask the elders of the church to anoint me with oil and pray for my healing, those prayers are always effective. God’s answer to the prayer is always, “Yes!” But the healing does not always take place right away. The healing may be seen in this life or when we come into God’s kingdom, but it will take place.

A few years ago I prayed for a little girl with leukemia. I loved this little girl and wanted so much for her to be healed. I went to the Ibn Sina hospital when I heard she had died and I laid my hands on her still warm body and prayed she would be raised to life. I looked expectantly at the sheet over her body but she did not move and she was buried.

I did not see it happen but she was raised to life. My prayer was answered. It might have had to be interpreted a bit, but it was answered and she lives, cancer free, in the kingdom of God.

In just a few minutes we will have an opportunity for anyone who wants to come forward for prayers of healing. Because you know the answer to prayer for your healing will be yes, you can come forward with confidence. And we who are praying will also pray with confidence. It is not up to us to use the right words, to have the proper amount of fervor, or to find the right amount of faith. God wants to heal you and he will heal you, in his time.

Here is what you need to do if you come forward for prayer. Examine your heart. Ask God to speak to you about any unforgiveness or any sin in your life. Confess your sin. Cleanse yourself. Expect God to heal you. God loves you and wants what is best for you. So trust him. Submit to him. Pray in submission to God in the way Jesus prayed when he said, (Matthew 26:39)
“My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.”

Pray for healing, but allow God to decide if it is best for the development of your faith to be healed today or sometime in the future.

There is no obstacle course in front of you that keeps you from receiving the healing you want. You don’t need faith the size of a coconut, only faith the size of a mustard seed. If you are healed today, it is because God sees that your healing will help your faith and the faith of others to grow. If your healing will come in the future, that is because God sees that your faith will most benefit by having to struggle longer with your illness or deformity.

Don’t turn your desire for healing into a test of God’s love for you. If you want to know you are loved, look to see what Jesus did for you on the cross. That is how you know you are loved.

In the Gospels Jesus looked at people, he saw their need, had compassion on them, and then he healed them. This morning, God looks at you, he sees your need, he has compassion on you, and he will heal you. But allow him to work in your life what he knows is best for you. Let God be lord of your life.

If you ask for healing and are healed, give praise to God. If you ask for healing and you are not healed today, submit to God and give praise for the healing that will one day take place. In either case, God loves you and is being responsive to you.