Synopsis: Restoration of the Sick and the Lost
As James draws his book to a close, his final section deals with restoration, first of the sick (5:13-18) through the prayers of the righteous, then of the wayward through the one-on-one efforts of the righteous.
This is the second passage in James where he gives the impression that prayer will be 100% effective if the one who prays is steadfast in praying. But both in 1:5-8 and in 5:13-18, it is possible to qualify his language so that his message correlates more directly with the reality of a world where many honest prayers are not answered as those who pray hope they will be.
The final admonition is a beautiful one, a promise of rich blessings to those who bring back someone who has wandered from the truth. The problem is that James tells us almost nothing about how to accomplish that goal.
Questions for Discussion:
1. Unanswered prayer. If our prayers are not answered, does that mean we did not have enough faith? James 1:6-8 declares that we are to “ask in faith, never doubting” (1:6), reinforcing that message with these pointed words: “for the doubter, being double-minded and unstable in every way, must not expect to receive anything from the Lord” (1:7-8). Then James 5:15 seems to give a blank check: “The prayer of faith will save the sick.” When the promised results don’t materialize, the believer can be crushed by the conclusion that it was the lack of faith that caused the failure. Yet faith is not something that can be generated by human effort, as if we get more faith by peddling harder on a bicycle. That calls for further comment in an “Excursus on Petitionary Prayer.”
An Excursus on Petitionary Prayer
The title of a C. S. Lewis essay says it all: “Petitionary Prayer: A Problem Without an Answer” (Christian Reflections, 142-151). Originally addressed to the Oxford Clerical Society in 1953, the essay points out that Scripture presents us with two thoroughly contradictory patterns for petitionary prayer. The one is expressed in the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy will be done,” and confirmed in Jesus’ experience in the Garden, “Not my will but thine be done.”
The other pattern is suggested by a number of passages of Scripture, and perhaps most vividly stated in James 1:6-8: “But ask in faith, never doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind; 7, 8 for the doubter, being double-minded and unstable in every way, must not expect to receive anything from the Lord.”
Both approaches are solidly supported by illustrations in Scripture, but Lewis sees no way of harmonizing them and concludes his essay with this simple plea: “I come to you, reverend Fathers, for guidance. How am I to pray this very night?” – Christian Reflections, 151
For a number of years, in a class I team-teach with Bev Beem of our English Department, Research and Writing in Religion, we have asked our students to do a cluster book review of three authors/books: Roger Morneau, The Incredible Power of Prayer (RH, 1997); Harold Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People (Schocken, 1981); and C. S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm, and “The Efficacy of Prayer,” in World’s Last Night and Other Essays, 3-11, originally published in Atlantic Monthly, January 1959.
Our rationale for these three authors is that they each present such a different approach to petitionary prayer. Morneau was a Seventh-day Adventist layman whose remarkable experience with the occult is told in his book, A Trip into the Supernatural (RH, 1982, 1993). His thesis is: If you are right with God, you will get what you pray for. His book is full of miracle stories, all of which are direct answers to prayer. It is worth noting, however, that he never addresses the problem of unanswered prayer.
Kushner, at the other end of spectrum, has concluded that God does not, indeed cannot, intervene in human affairs. A conservative Jewish rabbi, he was driven to this conclusion by the horror of watching his boy shrivel up and die at age 14, a victim of progeria, early aging disease. Kushner could not believe that God was responsible for such a tragedy. So, to preserve God’s goodness, he totally sacrificed God’s power. God is a good listener, but he cannot intervene.
Lewis holds a middle position, affirming that God does answer prayer, but in ways which we are not able to understand. The last lines of his essay, “The Efficacy of Prayer” – in my view one of the finest short treatments of petitionary prayer – lay out his position with clarity.
And I dare not leave out the hard saying which I once heard from an experienced Christian: “I have seen many striking answers to prayer and more than one that I thought miraculous. But they usually come at the beginning: before conversion, or soon after it. As the Christian life proceeds, they tend to be rarer. The refusals, too, are not only more frequent; they become more unmistakable, more emphatic.”
Does God then forsake just those who serve Him best? Well, He who served Him best of all said, near His tortured death, “Why hast thou forsaken me?” When God becomes man, that Man, of all others, is least comforted by God, at His greatest need. There is a mystery here which, even if I had the power, I might not have the courage to explore. Meanwhile, little people like you and me, if our prayers are sometimes granted, be-[10-11] yond all hope and probability, had better not draw hasty conclusions to our own advantage. If we were stronger, we might be less tenderly treated. If we were braver, we might be sent, with far less help, to defend far more desperate posts in the great battle. – The World’s Last Night, 10-11.
While not solving the dilemma which Lewis addressed in his essay on petitionary prayer, I do believe we can find some helpful explanations for the two passages in James that represent the “hardline” position on prayer, 1:5-8 and 5:14-15, cited here from the NRSV:
James 1:5-8:5 If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you. 6 But ask in faith, never doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind; 7, 8 for the doubter, being double-minded and unstable in every way, must not expect to receive anything from the Lord.
James 5:14-15:14 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. 15 The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven.
A helpful approach to the passage in James 1 is to allow the context to direct the focus. Rather than seeing the passage as referring to all petitionary prayers, it speaks specifically to the prayer for wisdom, a prayer that God will always answer. Whatever we ask, expect, or receive, it will always be a learning experience, one which enhances our wisdom.
The approach to the passage in James 5 is not quite so tidy or convincing, but I believe it is a possible approach that would relieve the sensitive believer from being crushed by a load of guilt when a prayer for healing of the sick does not have the desired result.
My suggestion starts with Psalm 23 rather than James 5, but I believe can offer some help in the interpretation of James. Several years ago church historian Philip Jenkins was giving a lecture on our campus when he noted what the people of Zimbabwe did to survive under the difficult rule of their president, Robert Mugabe.When they cited Psalm 23, instead of giving the normal emphasis: “the Lord is my shepherd,” thus lending a gentle pastoral interpretation to the psalm, they shifted the emphasis to Lord, giving the psalm an almost militaristic flavor, a kind of taunt to their oppressive president: “The Lord is my shepherd.” Whatever Mugabe might attempt, the believers clung to the conviction that the Lord was stronger and able to come to their defense.
Transferring that approach to James 5, we can shift the emphasis from heal to faith. Instead of reading: “The prayer of faith will heal the sick,” we can read: “The prayer of faith will heal the sick. In other words, a prayer which is not of faith will have no effect at all. But if there is to be healing, it will be the prayer of faith that makes it happen.
The challenge of petitionary prayer remains. But by God’s grace and by careful reading, we can soften the hard edges on those passages dealing with prayer so that they can be encouraging rather than discouraging to devout believers.
2. Praying opposite our mood. James 5:13 doesn’t highlight the problem of mood as much as some other passages in James. James 1:2 calls for joy in the face of trials, for example; and James 4:9 calls for turning laughter into mourning. Under most circumstances, one would think that the counsel of 5:13 would be appropriate: Sing when you’re happy, cry when you’re sad. But are there times when we should pray contrary to our dominant mood?
3. A good example. In 5:17, Elijah is named as a good example of someone who knew how to pray. Is that an encouraging example for us today? James cites his upbeat experiences; but in Scripture we can also read of those moments when he wished he were dead. According to 1
Kings 19, he was so frightened by Jezebel’s threat that he “fled for his life” (19:3). Having already run 25 miles in a driving rain from Carmel to Jezreel, Jezebel’s threat triggered another sprint, this time of over 100 miles, the distance between Jezreel and Beersheba. But Elijah did not stop at Beersheba, the last stop before the southern wilderness. He ran another full day into the desert. Here was one frightened man. That’s why he said to the gracious angel who awoke him with some food: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” (1 Kings 19:4). In that connection Ellen White’s comment is an encouraging one:
If, under trying circumstances, men of spiritual power, pressed beyond measure, become discouraged and desponding; if at times they see nothing desirable in life that they should choose it, this is nothing strange or new. Let all such remember that one of the mightiest of the prophets fled for his life before the rage of an infuriated woman. A fugitive, weary and travel-worn, bitter disappointment crushing his spirits, he asked that he might die. But it was when hope was gone, and his life-work seemed threatened with defeat, that he learned one of the most precious lessons of his life. In the hour of his greatest weakness he learned the need and the possibility of trusting God under circumstances the most forbidding. Prophets and Kings, 173
4. Bringing back a sinner. In 5:19-20, James encourages his listeners to win back those who have wandered. Would James’ own rhetoric be effective to that end? Does he sound a bit harsh for the task of winning someone back? We probably should recognize that for some, such strong words can actually do the trick. Here the words of Paul at the end of 1 Corinthians 4 are instructive as we look at the breadth of methods that God is willing to use: “What would you prefer? Am I to come to you with a stick, or with love in a spirit of gentleness?” (1 Cor. 4:21). Ellen White’s counsel to a strong-willed brother points to the same diversity of methods:
You need to educate yourself, that you may have wisdom to deal with minds. You should with some have compassion, making a difference, while others you may save with fear, pulling them out of the fire [Jude 22-23]. Our heavenly Father frequently leaves us in uncertainty in regard to our efforts. – Testimonies 3:420 (1875)