James 5:13-20 – The Prayer of Faith (part three)

Today we’re concluding our study in the letter of James, which is all about the temptation to be double-minded: trying to be friends with God and friends with the world. Today is the last part of a three-day focus on James 5:13-20.

See yesterday’s post for today’s to make any sense.

We’re now at the point where we can look at one possible answer to the problem with this passage in James ‘And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well.’ The prayer of faith is one offered in accordance with the will of God. Faith produces a righteous lifestyle (James chapter 2); a righteous lifestyle (such as Elijah’s) means we can pray according to the will of God. Which means it will be done.

This may solve one problem – what James is on about – but it opens up another one. Why, then, is it sometimes the will of God not to heal? There’s no one answer, and mostly we don’t know, but are a few possibilities why God might not heal someone, or grant a particular request:

Sin – James makes it clear that healing involves more than physical well-being, but is also connected with forgiveness of sins. When Jesus healed people, he also forgave their sins – he healed (or ‘saved’!) the whole person, not just their body. So specific unconfessed sin may be one reason. James tells us in v16 to ‘confess our sins to one another’. This doesn’t mean confessing to a priest so that we may be forgiven; but it does mean ensuring there is nothing in our lives which is a persistent barrier between us and God. And in doing so, taking hold of the gift of Xn community God has given us.

The Fall – we’re living in a fallen world, and although Jesus has saved us from the eternal consequences of our sin, as the human race we’re still suffering from the physical ones. Jesus kicked off the kingdom where sin and its effects would be dealt with, and he demonstrated it by healing, casting out demons, and other miracles. Yet we’re still waiting for it to be fully realised – that’s why we still pray ‘your kingdom come’. Sickness exists mostly because we live in a fallen world, and God is not yet ready to bring this fallen world to an end.

Other purposes – God sometimes has reasons not to heal us, that he is ‘working all things for good’. The reason God gave Paul for not healing him was that God’s power was made all the more obvious in Paul’s weakness. Maybe God and his purposes in the world will be more served by our sickness than our being healed.

Although this isn’t our focus in this passage, these principles can be applied more broadly than just prayers for healing. There are other sorts of requests God sometimes doesn’t grant – even ones you’d think are according to God’s will. Like prayers that God would save a friend or family member; or prayers that a gospel event will go well. Sometimes those requests are not granted. Sometimes we find out why; sometimes we don’t.

The most momentous example of an ungranted request – I won’t call it an unanswered prayer – is one prayed by Jesus. He said:

Mk 14:36 Father… everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.

Jesus specific request wasn’t granted. If it had been, the consequences for us would have been catastrophic. What was answered was his desire for God’s will to be done – whatever that may mean.

Sometimes, however, it won’t be obvious to us – even in hindsight – why God didn’t grant a particular request; why his answer was ‘no’, or ‘not yet’. That’s what makes him God, and not a genie in a bottle. That’s what ensures that prayer remains all about God, and not about us.

In the movie Bruce Almighty, Bruce is angry at God for not answering his admittedly rather self-centred prayers. Bruce complains ‘he could fix my life in five minutes if he wanted to’. So God responds by letting Bruce try to be God for a week. Bruce uses his powers to get his own way all the time, to exact revenge on his enemies, and to impress his girlfriend by bringing the moon nearer the earth to make the mood more romantic – causing a tidal wave in Japan. He answers yes to everyone who prays to win the lottery, creating 400,000 winners and a riot when they discover their share of the jackpot has been reduced to almost nothing. In the end, Bruce gives up and hands control of his life – and the world – back to God.

But think about this for a minute: what would the world be like if God automatically answered every prayer made by Christians. Maybe not the selfish ones like Bruce made, but even if he answered every well-intentioned prayer. It would effectively mean that prayer became a super-power that every Christian would have. It would no longer be about God – but about us.

Philip Yancey guesses that the consequences would be disturbing:

Christians would comprise a favoured class who never got sick, never lost their jobs, never experienced a traffic accident. And how would that affect the Christian community, not to mention those outside it? The biblical history of Israel, a favoured people who had access to God’s supernatural power, gives a clue. Golden eras, such as the reign of Solomon, fostered pride and decadence while the times of national humiliation brought about spiritual growth.

The mystery of why God answers some prayers and not others much of the time has to remain a mystery. There’s no easy answer. But through it, God remains God, and not us.

So why bother praying, then? If God is going to do what God pleases, then why should we pray? If God’s will is going to happen anyway, what’s the point?

A newspaper report from Lincolnshire, England: the Christian Police Association has set up ‘Prayer Watch’, which they call a ‘spiritual twist on the Neighbourhood Watch scheme.’ Christian officers will ask the public to pray for a reduction in crime, sending out email alerts to ask for specific prayers. Some local residents aren’t too sure about idea. ‘Churches can pray for whatever they like,’ said one man, ‘but if God does exist are you telling me he doesn’t know about little old ladies being attacked?’

This is the kind of thinking that keeps many people from prayer. God already knows. And he’s going to do his will whether I pray or not, so why bother?

Yet this neglects two key principles:

(1) As we noted at the start, prayer is firstly about helping us see the world as God sees it; about aligning our wills with his; it’s about relationship, not about transaction.

(2) God, for reasons best known to him, has chosen to work through prayer. He doesn’t have to. But that’s the way he’s chosen for his will to be carried out – in response to human requests. For whatever reason, in his wisdom God won’t grant every request every time; but he will work for the good of those who love him, through the good things and the bad.

(5:16b) ‘The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective’ because that’s the way God has chosen to work. It’s a privilege we have been given – for God to work out his will in the world in response to our prayers. When viewed that way, the question shouldn’t be why bother, but why not?

To think – and pray – about

So coming back to our passage for today, this means it’s important to pray for sick people – because that’s how God has chosen to heal, in response to prayer. And how do we pray for the sick? We pray in faith, which means:

  • We pray earnestly, with our whole heart.
  • Praying in faith means we are walk closely with God so we can know his will.
  • Praying in faith doesn’t mean it depends on the strength of our conviction, but rather on the strength of the one we pray to – God.
  • Praying in faith means we pray with risk – a general prayer for God to bless ‘the sick’ is not displaying risky faith. Faith takes risks – which is why James is talking about a specific prayer for a specific person to be specifically healed. This doesn’t mean we demand instant healing, but it doesn’t mean we rule it out, either.
  • And finally, praying in faith means we acknowledge God’s sovereignty in prayer. He is in charge, not us.

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