James 5:13-20 – Is anyone among you suffering? Then he must pray. Is anyone cheerful? He is to sing praises. Is anyone among you sick? Then he must call for the elders of the church and they are to pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer offered in faith will restore the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up, and if he has committed sins, they will be forgiven him. Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed. The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much. Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the earth for three years and six months. Then he prayed again, and the sky poured rain and the earth produced its fruit. My brethren, if any among you strays from the truth and one turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.
This passage is often used as an example of how to pray for the sick. The elders of the church are gathered, the one suffering from illness is anointed with oil, and prayers are lifted up, asking for God to heal. While I believe this is something good to do, as I ponder the context in which James gave these instructions, I wonder if there’s another meaning to his words.
The Greek word translated “sick” here is astheneō; it’s used 36 times in the New Testament. Its literal meaning is “to be weak, feeble” (a, negative, sthenos, “strength”). It is used to express physical sickness but also to be powerless, impotent, without strength.
A primary theme in James is endurance under trials. James writes to encourage and urge believers suffering persecution to stay faithful to God. He opens his letter with this very admonition, recognizing that in perilous times, we need wisdom from God. He also reminds us that a key obstacle to faithfulness and endurance is doubt.
James 1:5-8 – But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him. But he must ask in faith without any doubting, for the one who doubts is like the surf of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind. For that man ought not to expect that he will receive anything from the Lord, being a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.
James goes on in the body of his letter to admonish Christ-followers to live holy, set-apart lives, caring and loving for each other, and treating one another with honor. He reminds us that our good works are evidence of our faith, and if our faith does not produce a changed life, we may need to reexamine our salvation. He makes a strong case for living with an eternal perspective (our life is simply a vapor) and avoiding friendship with the world (a big reason why we need wisdom in these last days!).
Then, in the last half of chapter 5, James bookends his letter by returning to the topic of endurance.
James 5:8-9 – You too be patient; strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near. Do not complain, brethren, against one another, so that you yourselves may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing right at the door.
It’s in this context that he mentions praying and anointing the “sick,” including instructions about forgiveness of sins committed, and ending with the encouragement to turn the brother back who strays from the truth. We know he isn’t preaching some erroneous theology that those who are sick must have sinned; Jesus dispelled that theory when he healed the man born blind (John 9:2-3). Yes, sin does affect us physically, mentally, and emotionally, but all sickness is not a result of personal sin.
I believe James may be speaking less of physical illness and more about spiritual weakness. His topic is endurance. He has made a point about doubting. He is instructing and urging the believers to live godly, Christ-centered lives in the midst of persecution and a hostile culture, avoiding the temptation to slip into the patterns of worldliness and thinking too much of this temporary world. When we see our brothers or sisters slipping away from a pure devotion to Christ, we are to gather around them and pray for God to strengthen and heal them spiritually. We are to turn those who stray from the truth back from the error of his way in order to save his soul from death and cover a multitude of sins (James 5:19).
Paul often used this same Greek word translated “sick” in James 5 to refer to spiritual weakness (Romans 4:19; 14:1; 1 Corinthians 8:9,12; 2 Corinthians 12:10; 13:9). Perhaps we ought to consider that James is using it in the same way, taking into account the passage as a whole.
This understanding relieves us of our tendency to disbelieve or doubt God’s Word when He allows our loved ones that we have anointed and prayed over to die, as though James’ words are a promise from God to heal if we just pray effectively enough. The fact that he uses Elijah’s prayer as an example affirms this. Elijah prayed that it would not rain for one reason – so that Ahab would know that God is the only true God. It was for Ahab’s spiritual well-being. Remember what happened at the end of those 3 ½ years of drought? The battle on Mount Carmel, where God proved Baal a liar. Sadly, Ahab didn’t respond to the truth he couldn’t deny. He refused to confess his sins and he was not healed.
Notice that it is the weak brother’s responsibility to call for the elders to pray over him or her. Spiritual healing – renewed strength when your faith is wavering, or you are doubting God – comes when we recognize our needs. And in that recognition, God may reveal sin in our hearts that is causing the weakness or doubting, in which case, it is a time of forgiveness and restoration.
Are you suffering? Then pray.
Are you cheerful? Then sing praises.
And if you find yourself struggling in your faith, doubting God’s Word, giving in to worldly temptations, or on the edge of denial, reach out to your brothers and sisters in Christ. Ask for their prayers. Humble yourself to be anointed, acknowledging your need for God’s strength to endure in these perilous times.