(A) Introduction (Read the reference.)

One is tempted to write that this is one of those passages in the Bible that has done more harm than good. For some it has raised hopes only for those hopes to be dashed. Others have been plunged into guilt because their prayers lacked the faith to restore a loved one back to health. A few, like me, find the whole subject of supernatural healing deeply perplexing. If it is the will of God for a man dying of cancer to be miraculously cured why did he get sick in the first instance? I would actually prefer to ignore the concluding verses of James. None of the commentaries that I consulted have helped much. It may, however, benefit someone if I share how I have tried to make sense of what James wrote - with, I hope, some assistance from the Holy Spirit.

(B) Pray in times of trouble.

One filthy day in February I was driving home with three companions from a bird watching expedition to the North Norfolk coast when my clutch cable broke. It happened as I was changing from first gear to second on a large roundabout. I kept going but I realised that I could never get home to Bury St Edmunds in second gear. So I pulled into a garage just off the main road. A man with a scarf wrapped around his mouth came out into the driving sleet to find out what we wanted. I didn't think he would help. But I was in trouble - so I told him what the problem was. Mr Greenard said, "I can replace your clutch cable tomorrow if you leave your car with me. I will loan you a motor to get home in." I shall never forget going next day to collect my car. It was a lovely afternoon. I paid Mr Greenard 10 more in cash than he asked for. He was very, very pleased to have been able to help a traveller in distress.

The psalmist assures us: God is our refuge and strength, an ever present help in trouble. Psalm46v1. I believe that. I cannot believe that God is worse than Mr Greenard! Yet when I watch programs on the Jewish holocaust I am filled with awful doubts. Where was the God of refuge when his ancient people needed him most?

I read a terrible article by Sacha Bonsor in the Daily Telegraph on January 24th 2005. It was about pain. Sacha had an operation on her brainstem that temporarily injured the nerve carrying pain. It caused raw agony that she never conceived possible. This is what she writes: My pain is best illustrated by the thoughts that accompanied it: during the week after surgery, if someone had given me a gun, I would have fired it at my head. I do not know if, as the Oxford report aims to discover, I would have been in more pain without my faith, but I do know that, in the heat of the moment, God did not come into it - not even for a thank you that I was alive. Unfortunately Sacha's operation was not completely successful and had to be repeated. She was full of dread. This is how she felt while waiting for the second operation: I cried out to this God in whom I had put my faith and I heard no reply. I was paralysed by fear. The only sign that I had any faith left was the fact that I bothered to tell the God I no longer believed in that He had abandoned me.

Severe pain is the worst of troubles. To what extent is God a refuge and strength in time of raw agony? All I can say is that God brought Sacha Bonsor through her ordeal. She did survive it.

My Uncle David died from motor neuron disease. He wrote to me not long before his death. He assured me that all was well with him - all was well with his soul. He had Jesus and that was enough. What more could a man want than Jesus as his Saviour and Friend. David, my very dear uncle, had one who was undoubtedly a very present help in trouble.

I pray to God in all my trouble. When it comes down to it the only experience I can really know and trust is my own. God has been my refuge and strength in big and little troubles. Emotionally I was pushed to the limits caring for my father when he became demented. It is stressful struggling for three hours in the morning to dress the one you love who is resisting your every effort to get him into his shirt. I, like Sacha, questioned whether God was giving me the help I needed. I thought He could have made it easier for me. Yet as I indicate in An Eulogy God helped me through.

One day at school I lost my keys. The Headmaster was very good and let me use the school minibus to get home. When I reached home I had no way of getting in. I didn't fancy breaking a window to gain entry. I gloomily walked round my house looking without much hope at the windows. All were closed. I had a small prayer. Then on impulse(?) I walked up to one of the windows and hit the frame hard with the palm of my hand. It burst open! I shall always believe God in pity directed me to the only window that was not properly fastened.

So friends I pray to God whatever my trouble because in my experience he is a refuge and strength. I trust he will be so in future. I like James Boswell's description of Dr Johnson at worship on Good Friday in the church of St Clement Danes: I shall never forget the tremulous earnestness with which he pronounced the awful petition in the Litany: 'In the hour of death, and at the day of judgment, good LORD deliver us.'

(C) Thank God when things go well.

Anyone unfamiliar with the human condition might expect men and women who have been singularly blessed by God to show gratitude. One way to do this is to sing a song of praise. Sadly, men and women do not invariably thank God for his goodness.

A prayer of thanks is preferable to complacency. Recently God has come in for a lot of criticism for the tsunamis that struck the coast of Asia and killed so many people. I could, perhaps, understand this reaction if the people of Britain were flocking to church to praise God for 60 years of peace and unparalleled prosperity. They do no such thing. Instead increasing wealth has made people self-content, secure and complacent. The vast majority of folk are not one wit better than the rich farmer who on gathering in a bountiful harvest said to himself: "This is what I'll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I'll say to myself, 'You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.'" Jesus went on to say: "God said to him, 'You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?'"

The successful farmer congratulated himself. He did not ascribe any part of his wonderful harvest to God's provision. On the whole people in the West attribute the huge rise in their standard of living to human ingenuity and inventiveness. It is the result of advances in Science and Technology. The part played by the earth's huge reserves of fossil fuel tends to get overlooked! We should be just so thankful to God for his munificence.

The rich fool intended to be self-indulgent. He was going to take life easy, eat, drink and be merry. Isn't that how we are in Western Europe and the U.S.A. - terribly extravagant - getting through the World's oil reserves as if there was no tomorrow, wasting food, eating and drinking far too much and encouraging rampant consumerism.

Whenever God blesses us we should thank him - for a good meal, an enjoyable game of cricket, a wonderful novel, a happy day at work, a refreshing walk, a friendly conversation and a piece of good work. When I was a schoolteacher I used to thank God for Lucy's smile!

(D) The prayer of faith.

(1) Two easy ways out.
I am tempted to argue that in the days of the early church when medical knowledge was rudimentary to be prayed over by the elders of the church and to be anointed with oil was preferable to most of the treatments then available. Even as late as the nineteenth century remedies such as blood letting did more harm than good!

Some commentators reason that miracles were confined to the apostolic era. Their purpose was to kick start the church. As the apostles died out so too did supernatural healing.

Both these views severely limit the value of the concluding verses of James' epistle. I am going to interpret James' teaching on prayer and sickness in the spirit of Paul's words to Timothy: All Scripture is God breathed and is useful for teaching , rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. 1Tim3v16.

(2) The sickness James refers to isn't any old sickness.
For the vast majority of sicknesses we consult the doctor because that is the best way to get better. For those illnesses that are beyond even the most skilful doctors help it might be appropriate to call in a healer. There seem to be some individuals, both Christian and non-Christian, who have powers of healing. My colleague, Mr Clear, told me of a very strange incident. One day he took a pupil home from school. The mother of the pupil invited him into the house. She happened to notice that David was limping and asked him what was the matter. He told her that he had wrenched his knee and damaged some ligaments. The woman said, "I can soon sort that out for you." She put her hand on his knee. Mr Clear felt a strange warmth and walked out of the house completely cured.

We must accept that the vast majority of illnesses for which doctors have no remedy are never cured. Terminal sickness is just that - it ends in death. It is very significant that the practice of anointing the sick with oil and praying over them survives in the Roman Catholic Church as the rite of extreme unction. The rite is performed to prepare men and women for death. I can understand how this came about. The church soon discovered that when a person was so ill that the prayer of faith was requested the result was not healing but death.

The few times I have known the elders of a church meet to pray over and anoint a dying man the man has died.

(3) The sickness James writes about must be one for which the action prescribed is appropriate.
It will help us to look at the treatment James' advises:

    (a) Call in the elders.
    James does not tell the sick man to consult those in the church with the gift of healing. There were those in the early church with this gift. The elders were not necessarily blessed with this gift of the Spirit. They were essentially the leaders of the local church. The elders were responsible for the well being of the church and the discipline within the fellowship.

    (b) Anoint with oil.
    The oil was not just to be poured over the sick person in the way it was used to anoint a king. Rather it was to be massaged into the head, neck and shoulders of the sufferer. It was the sort of intimate, hospitable procedure practiced in the family to show love and high regard. When my brother Philip's daughters were small they used to comb their father's hair. He enjoyed it! That is the sort of thing James is referring to.

    (c) Offer the prayer of faith.
    The prayer of faith is one where you are certain of the outcome because it is in the will of God. It is impossible to offer such a prayer for the terminally sick because their is nothing in God's word to say that the restoration of the sick is in His will. It plainly is not. People get terminally ill because all sinful men and woman have to die. That is the inevitable consequence of the fall.

    I have heard Christians argue that if you do possess an inner certainty that a chronically ill man will be restored then you can offer the prayer of faith. This is a very dangerous assertion. It doesn't work. I can remember several years ago sitting in my garden on a glorious sunny day praying for Pastor Wolstenholme's daughter who was seriously ill with cancer. I was suddenly overwhelmed with an assurance that she would recover. I am not usually much influenced by feelings but on this occasion I was so sure that God would heal Pastor Wolstenholme's daughter that I phoned him up to tell him. The young woman subsequently died.

    We had a boy at Debenham High School - Simon. He had leukaemia. All the Christians on the staff prayed for Simon. He underwent prolonged and intensive chemotherapy. Month after month he fought to be well again. It was a terrible shock when he died. We all thought he deserved to live. We had convinced ourselves that God in his mercy would ensure his treatment was successful. I found it difficult to take the prayer at his funeral. I felt God had let us down.

    Where Christians are convinced that the prayer of faith does make a sick person well God's failure to act produces terrible guilt. The only possible explanation for God's unwillingness to heal must be a lack of faith or unconfessed sin in the life of the prayer.

    (d) Confession of sin.
    James encourages church members to confess their sin and pray for each other. This collective action results in healing.

(4) The sickness James writes about should be one that suits the context.
Elijah is mentioned as an example of a man whose prayers were powerful and effective. The prophet's main concern was the spiritual restoration of Israel. He wanted the LORD to be given his rightful place in the hearts and minds of his people. James develops this theme when he writes: My brothers, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring him back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover a multitude of sins.

(5) The sickness involved.
There are sicknesses that result from sin. Acute anxiety can produce stomach pains. Guilt and self-loathing result in skin diseases and eating disorders. Anger can raise blood pressure and lead to strokes. Hatred and jealousy can bring on migraines, asthma and inflammatory complaints.

Where relationships between Christians brake down in a church people in the fellowship will be less than happy. Where believers fall out spiritual decline sets in followed by depression and stress induced illnesses. During a time of bitter division in my own church my mother suffered haemorrhages behind her eyes and it wasn't long before my father had Parkinson's disease.

James' remedy is peculiarly appropriate for the various ills that accompany a rupture of loving relationships between Christians.

(a) It is appropriate for the elders to pray over someone whose unbrotherly behaviour and disruptive conduct has made them sick. The elders have a responsibility for the care of the flock.

(b) To anoint someone with oil who has been rejected is a sign that they are accepted. It is a way of showing concern and brotherly love.

(c) It is possible to pray in absolute confidence for the reconciliation of Christians and the restoration of a believer to the fellowship. We know it is the will of Christ that Christians forgive one another. He wants us to be united even as he and the Father are one.

(d) If we are prepared to confess our weaknesses and to pray publicly for one another this will prevent divisions occurring with the ensuing hatred and resulting sickness.

(E) Conclusion.

I realise that what I have written may not seem very convincing to some. A few folk in my own church were rather disappointed by my treatment of the passage. I think they hoped I would unlock the secret of James' teaching so that we could pray effectively for the terminally ill. However, I think there are lessons to be learned from the concluding verses of James:

(1) Do we follow James' advice when we are low spiritually - out of sorts - suffering from a variety of stress related disorders? Do we ever call in the elders of the church to pray specifically about what is troubling us? Please note: it is all the elders not just the ones you like! I wonder how many elders have been asked to pray over a man who is insanely jealous of his wife. Anyone doubting the damaging affects of jealousy should read Samuel Pepys' diary.

(2) Do you believe in the prayer of faith for reconciliation? Would you ask the elders to pray about your hatred, the grudges you hold, the grievances that have destroyed your peace? In some ways it is a lot easier to pray for the chronically sick. Faith without works is dead. The prayer of faith should be accompanied by deeds. So prayers for old wounds to heal should be accompanied by those actions needed to bring it about.

(3) What grieves Jesus most: a godly Christian dying of cancer or a church mortally wounded by internal divisions? When a Christian dies they go home to glory. When a disallusioned Christian, upset and disaffected, drifts away from the church they are in danger of being lost.

(4) Our churches would be healthier if we: spent more time praying for one another, were prepared to admit our weaknesses, adopted intimate ways of expressing acceptance - like kissing and hugging and brought our problems, in faith, to the elders.


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