December 2, 2012 David Balzer

James 5:13-20: Powerful Prayer

“I am king.” That’s the slogan of a new campaign for eftpos. Trying to get us to use our savings accounts rather than credit.

“I am king. Master of my destiny. Ruler of my fate. When vain desire raises its head. I shall cut it off! I hold the reins. I press the buttons. I call the shots. I am free. I am king.”

Really? What happens if your card stops working? Or you lose your job and there’s no money in the account? Or someone skims the card details and empties your account? Or you forget your PIN? Or they only have your size in PINK?

What THEN? How much are you really in control?

The reality is we’re HELPLESS. Almost NOTHING we do or plan is within our control.

Health, work, relationships, safety on the road, the weather.

We like to THINK we’re king. But the reality is we control almost NOTHING about our lives. And it’s FOOLISH to think otherwise.

That’s been the message of the last couple of chapters of James. Right back in 4:13 he says Don’t boast about what you’re going to do. Don’t make plans. Because you can’t make ANYTHING happen.

Even the RICH are powerless. In the end wealth ROTS AWAY. Or moths eat it. Or the stock market crashes. Powerless. Our lives are MIST.

Instead, we should say, “IF IT’S THE LORD’S WILL, this seems like a good thing to do tomorrow.” That’s the WISE response. The Christian attitude.

The Christian recognizes his own powerlessness. Helplessness. His own inability and weakness to control things. And he recognises God’s sovereignty – God’s control – over EVERYTHING.

And that helplessness works itself out in AT LEAST THREE WAYS.

First, it means BEING PATIENT (v7 of Ch 5). Because God’s bringing about exactly what he wants to happen. WHEN he wants it to happen.

Worry and impatience are really a lack of faith. They’re a sign that you’re trying to control things yourself. Rather than leaving them up to God.

And second, in v12, an attitude of helplessness means NOT SWEARING ON OATH. James isn’t thinking about swear words. He’s thinking about the proud attitude that says, “I promise that I’ll do this! I swear it! I GUARANTEE it! You can BANK on it!”

James says that’s just FOOLISHNESS. That’s saying, “I am king!” Don’t DO it, he says. Because you can’t control ANYTHING about tomorrow. Why GUARANTEE it to someone else?

And the THIRD practical outworking of helplessness is what our passage TODAY is about. When you recognize you’re HELPLESS. When you know things don’t happen because of YOU, then you’ll PRAY.

V13. Any sort of TROUBLE, you’ll PRAY. Ask God to sort things out.

And if things are going well, you won’t pat yourself on the back. You’ll pray with THANKS because it’s GOD who’s brought it to pass. Like he brings EVERYTHING to pass.

Self-congratulation is FOOLISH. Thankfulness is WISE.

My guess is most of us AREN’T that good at thankfulness in prayer. We’re certainly fine at bending God’s ear when we want something to change, but not so good at thanking him giving him the credit when things are FINE.

Why is it when it comes to sharing prayer points here in church there are plenty of things to PRAY for but not many things we’re THANKING God for. Or PRAISING him for? Let’s work on an ATTITUDE OF GRATITUDE.

2. Involving Others (14-16)

That’s when it comes to YOURSELF. But James’ attention is mostly on how we help EACH OTHER. What prayer looks like in the CHURCH CONTEXT. From v14.

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. 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.

James is getting SPECIFIC. It’s not just the general “in trouble”. But PHYSICAL or MENTAL or EMOTIONAL SICKNESS.

And I think we can assume it’s SERIOUS sickness. Because the person has probably already prayed for themselves. Anyone in trouble should PRAY says James.

But here, things are BAD. And ONE PERSON praying hasn’t worked. And so the person has to admit helplessness. Has to DEMONSTRATE FAITH by asking for the elders of the church to pray over him, and to anoint him with oil.

There’s something about LETTING OTHERS KNOW about your need which is humbling. It’s recognizing your NEED. It’s showing in a VISIBLE WAY that you have faith in the God who answers prayer.

The other incentive James gives to proud people to share their prayer needs is down at the end of v16. “The prayer of a righteous man is POWERFUL AND EFFECTIVE.”

When you’re tempted to not bother anyone. To just keep your prayer points to yourself. God’s promising that righteous people praying for you is POWERFUL and EFFECTIVE. So SHARE the need. Admit you’re helpless. Don’t worry about BOTHERING them. Or being EMBARRASSED.

The elders have recently followed v14, and prayed for Paul and Karen as they seek the blessing of children. It’s something they’ve been praying about for years on their own. But they got to the point where they wanted the REST of their church family to join in as well.

So we went and prayed for Paul and Karen. We read out this passage, and anointed Karen with oil. And we’re STILL praying for them – as are many of YOU. Praying that God will say YES.

And I can’t WAIT to be praying THANKS when he answers our prayer.

But why the elders? I DON’T think it’s because they’re somehow better, and God is going to listen to them more than anyone else.

Part of the answer, I think, is that they’re REPRESENTATIVE of the whole church. The whole church couldn’t fit over at Paul and Karen’s. It would get a little squeezy. But the elders went as your representatives. Acting ON YOUR BEHALF.

Another reason is that prayer is part of the job description for elders. Part of what it means to lead God’s people is to SHEPHERD them. To look after them by TEACHING, and PRAYING for them.

And notice the elders are to pray OVER the sick person. I’m not quite sure what that means. But it’s something different to v16, where we’re to pray FOR each other.

It may mean nothing more than the sick person is lying down in bed. And the elders stand OVER them.

Or that the elders place their hands on the person, as a sign of God’s healing Holy Spirit flowing into them.

The other thing we’re not sure about it what the purpose of the oil is. Olive oil was both a MEDICINE, and a SIGN of anointing. A sign of God’s Holy Spirit filling someone.

It could have a PHYSICAL purpose, or a SPIRITUAL purpose.

So, it COULD mean that the elders are to pray for GOD’S healing AS WELL AS using HUMAN MEANS, like medicine, or treatment, or surgery.

And that’s CERTAINLY a good thing to be doing. Whether it’s what James means here, or not.

But my vote is that it’s meant to be a SIGN of the power of the Holy Spirit to heal that person. The oil, plus praying OVER the person perhaps with laying on of hands, both seem to be PHYSICAL SIGNS reminding us that it’s only by the power of God’s Spirit that someone is healed. Once again, a physical expression of our HELPLESSNESS in the situation.

Both the oil and the laying on of hands help our faith as we pray. Help us to pray with CONFIDENCE in God’s power to heal.

But what about when God DOESN’T seem to heal. At first reading, v15 seems to be a blanket promise for healing. “The prayer offered in faith will make the sick person WELL!”

And yet, our experience is that many Christians AREN’T healed. Christians even DIE. That was the case with my mum. A whole bunch of people gathered around her hospital bed as she was dying with bowel cancer and anointed her with oil, and prayed for healing. But she still died.

And the mistake we make when God DOESN’T heal is to say that it must be because our FAITH wasn’t STRONG enough. Or BIG enough. “The prayer OF FAITH will make the sick person well”.

But Jesus says it’s not about the SIZE of your faith, but the one in whom your faith is PLACED. Faith the size of a mustard seed can cause amazing things.

It’s like two people getting on a plane. One’s terrified, and can barely take his seat for fear of the plane crashing. The other person’s a regular. Don’t even give it a second thought. BOTH arrive at their destination SAFE. ONE hardly had any faith at all. The OTHER had LOTS of faith.

But it’s not about the faith of the passenger. It’s about the faithfulness of the pilot and the plane. That’s what will get you to your destination.

Same with prayer. It’s the faithfulness of GOD that provides the answer. Not our faith IN God.

So, as long as you have A LITTLE faith that God can heal, THAT can’t be the reason.

Let’s notice a couple of things first. Then I’ll come back to the question “What if God doesn’t heal?”

1. v15 literally says that the prayer of faith will SAVE THE WEARY ONE. The Lord will RAISE him UP.

We expect to see HEAL, But we see SAVE instead. Sometimes the word CAN mean HEAL, but there’s a perfectly good word for HEAL – it’s down there in v16. Which brings us to a second observation.

2. When we look down to v16, we’re told “CONFESS YOUR SINS and pray for each other so you may be HEALED.” We expect to see SAVED  THERE. But we see HEALED instead.

It’s almost like James has got it the wrong way around. Pray for the SICK person, and he will be SAVED and RAISED UP. Pray for the SINFUL person, and he will be HEALED.

I think… I THINK James’ point is that there’s A CLOSE CONNECTION between SIN and SICKNESS. Sickness can sometimes be the CONSEQUENCE of Sin. Look there at the end of v15.

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.

Sometimes, sickness is the result of SIN. Not always. But sometimes, the only way God can get our attention is to bring us to our knees.

In 1 Cor 11:29-30, Paul warns the Corinthians that there are PHYSICAL consequences for their Sin.

29 For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself. 30 THAT IS WHY many among you are WEAK AND SICK, AND A NUMBER OF YOU HAVE FALLEN ASLEEP.

Hear me carefully. I’m NOT saying that God is PUNISHING us because we’ve sinned. Lots of people think like that. But it’s not the way God works. At least not for a Christian.

If you’re a Christian, then Christ has TAKEN your punishment. There is NO CONDEMNATION for those who are IN Christ Jesus. Romans 8:1.

But God does DISCIPLINE us as CHILDREN. Because he LOVES us. Because he wants us to CHANGE. In Hebrews 12 it says THIS. (v5)

“My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, 6 because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son.” 

7 Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. …10 Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. 11 No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it PRODUCES A HARVEST OF RIGHTEOUSNESS AND PEACE FOR THOSE WHO HAVE BEEN TRAINED BY IT.

So the godly response to sickness is to PRAY. And to ask OTHERS to pray. But also to use it as a chance to EXAMINE YOURSELF. To see if there ARE things you need to confess.

Which is what James moves on to in v16.

16 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.

Notice the “therefore”? There’s a connection between THIS verse, and the previous ones. If you ARE sick, and you HAVE sinned. Confess it, and you’ll be forgiven.

Sin and sickness are sometimes tied together.

BECAUSE that’s the case, if you’ve sinned against someone, CONFESS to them. Pray for each other. And you will be HEALED.

If your sickness is the result of a specific sin. And you confess it. You will be healed.

But what about the question of why some people AREN’T healed?

There are at least four explanations. And there are bits about EACH ONE I’m not entirely comfortable with.

1. Some people say that if we had MORE FAITH, then ANYTHING could be healed. I’ve already said that I don’t think the LACK of faith argument holds. Jesus healed MANY people who had only a TINY amount of faith, or no evidence of faith at ALL.

2. Others focus on the word SAVED, and say the verse isn’t promising healing AT ALL. Pray for healing, you might be healed, or you might not. You might even die. But you WILL be SAVED for ETERNITY. Which is nothing more than what ALL CHRISTIANS are promised.

3. Others say, you have to add the phrase “if it’s the Lord’s will” into the promise. The prayer of faith will make the sick person well (if it’s the Lord’s will).

And it’s true that Jesus promises that if we ask ANYTHING, it will be given to us. And then in OTHER places he adds, “if we ask anything ACCORDING to GOD’S WILL.

In other words, it’s ASSUMED when he says ask for ANYTHING.

4. A fourth solution is that “the prayer of faith” is prayer that rises from a special assurance that God gives AT SELECTED TIMES that he WILL heal. It’s not something he ALWAYS does. Because sometimes he says no, or wait.

But at other times, when he’s decided to heal, he gives the   pray-ers a SPECIAL depth of faith that BELIEVES that God has PROMISED HEALING.

And God will answer THAT prayer.

I’m not sure about that. I guess it ends up at the same place as adding “if it’s the Lord’s will”.

These are a tricky couple of verses. And there are nearly as many opinions as there are experts. But here’s what I DO know. And it’s THESE THINGS we hold onto when we pray.

God WANTS me to pray. He promises that the prayers of a righteous man are POWERFUL and EFFECTIVE.

God HEARS every prayer. And he ALWAYS ANSWERS them.

God is GOOD and WISE. He ALWAYS gives us what’s BEST for us. Sometimes he HEALS us. Sometimes he DOESN’T. But I trust him, whatever his answer.

God will heal us 100% physically ONE DAY. When Christ returns, on the new heaven and earth, we’ll receive NEW BODIES. RESURRECTED BODIES. Which are PERFECT and ETERNAL.

3. Dealing With Others (19-20)

Finally, James turns to ANOTHER situation. Not sharing YOUR concerns with OTHERS. But noticing THEIR concerns. Dealing with OTHER people.

We all know them. People who’ve been involved with church. But for one reason or another have just slipped away. Not just from church, but from following Jesus. It might be a gradual thing. Or it might be because of a huge blow-up.

They might be HAPPY in their backsliding. Or they might be MISERABLE.

They might have done it DELIBERATELY. Or it’s just been an ACCIDENTAL thing.

And we never quite know what to do or say. How to encourage them back. Without appearing judgmental. Or saying something wrong.

But James says it’s WORTH THE EFFORT. Because there are great benefits. Someone’s SOUL is at stake. V19.

19 My brothers, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring him back, 20 remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins.

It’s all quite comfortable if v16 happens. If someone RECOGNIZES their sin, and then confesses it to you. That’s EASY.

But when they DON’T. When YOU have to make the move, that can be harder. Because you don’t want to put your foot in it. You don’t want to say the wrong thing. The thing that will drive them FURTHER away. Either be too SOFT, and make them think what they’re doing is OK. Or else being too HARSH or JUDGMENTAL, and not LOVING. And driving them away. Giving them an excuse to continue with their choices.

So, often, you say NOTHING.

But when it comes to saving someone from DEATH – WHO CARES if you say things the wrong way around – it’s worth the risk.

Is there someone like THAT YOU can be approaching?

Your good intentions. Your actions. Can cover over a multitude of sins. In other words, it leads to their repentance, and God’s forgiveness of their sin.

So, says James, WHATEVER situation you’re in, the solution is to PRAY. Because in ALL of them you’re HELPLESS. Trouble, sickness, sin, drought, unemployment, childlessness, loneliness. Pray!

Pray that God would bring about his purposes in YOU. And in those around you here at church. To make us more like Jesus.

How can we be making this a place where we PRAY MORE?

It’s one of the things we VALUE. “7. We value prayer, because it is effective, personal communication with our Heavenly Father.” We SAY we value prayer, but how does that SHOW itself in the things we do? Let me suggest three quickies.

1. Share your needs. Be humble and vulnerable. Trust the righteousness and good intentions and prayerfulness of your brothers and sisters here.

When Gary sends out the email asking for prayer points, don’t just glance at it. Spend some time thinking about what areas of life you’re HELPLESS in. And what you need God’s intrusion into. Which is EVERY AREA.

2. And actually PRAY for other people’s needs. Specifically. And regularly. Push through the awkward point in the conversation, and just SAY it, “Can I pray for you about that RIGHT NOW?”

Wouldn’t it be GREAT to see little pairs of people bowing their heads together all over the place after church?

3. Find someone to confess your sins to. Someone with broad shoulders who can ask you the tough questions.

GRAB someone, or TWO, and arrange to meet regularly to PRAY. And read the Bible.


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