James closes his letter as he began it, with a call to prayer.
In James 1:5, after an opening challenge about joy in trials (which can easily be shown as a description of prayers of praise), he urges believers specifically to pray for the wisdom they need in becoming mature. James informs us that God will give generously that kind of wisdom without blaming us for our lack. The sole requirement is a faithful trust in God’s supply.
Later, in 4:1-3, James addresses the kind of selfish prayers that God does not answer. His confrontation is unmistakable: “When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures” (4:3 niv). Prayer is an essential tool, but it cannot be used to manipulate God.
James uses his closing words to describe effective prayer. He details prayer in several forms (praise, intercession, confession) and connects prayer with several other important spiritual disciplines (healing, confession, anointing, correction, praise, and mutual forgiveness).
If we can say that James’s letter summarizes the work of faith, his conclusion focuses on faith’s finest work—believers effective in prayer.
13 Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray.
There are many responses to trouble. Some of us worry; some of us vow revenge against those who have caused the trouble; some of us let anger burn inside us. Some grumble.
But James says the correct response to trouble is to pray (see also Psalm 30; 50:15; 91:15). This is not necessarily a prayer for deliverance from the trouble, but for the patience and strength to endure it.
There are three main reasons for not praying when we realize we are in trouble: ignorance, arrogance, and shame.
If we do not know that God wants us to pray when we are in trouble, we are simply ignorant of Scripture.
If we do not pray when we are in trouble because we are trusting in our own resources to get ourselves out, we are being arrogant.
And sometimes we may want to pray but are ashamed because the trouble we are in is our own fault.
James gives permission and encouragement to those who are ignorant. He urges submission to those who are arrogant. And he reminds those who are ashamed that God is full of compassion and mercy (5:11). To all of us he commends prayer.
Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise.
Because our praise is directed to God, singing is actually another form of prayer.
These songs of praise can be the formal Psalms from the Old Testament, or spontaneous personal creations that express some aspect of God’s character or our response to him.
The quicker we are to blame God for misfortune, the slower we are to praise God when good things happen. Some of us take our happiness too lightly. We accept it as if it is our due or simply the product of our efforts. In happiness, it is easy to forget God.
But a real appreciation of happy times will lead us to recognizing their source. If prayer is to be our constant communication with God, then happy times should naturally add rhythm and music to our expressions of thanks and praise to him.
14 Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.
One characteristic of the early church was its concern over and care for the sick. Here James encourages the sick person to call for the elders of the church for counseling and prayer. The elders were spiritually mature men who were responsible for overseeing local churches (see 1 Peter 5:1-4). These men would pray over the sick person, calling upon the Lord for healing. Then they would anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord.
Jesus himself instructed us to pray in his name (John 14:14). As the elders pray for this one who is sick, they are to voice clearly that the power for healing resides in the name of Jesus.
Many of the details in this passage have to be consciously applied in our own age. James wrote to people in rather small communities, bound tightly by language and culture. We live in communities marked by isolation—even from people living next door. The early church practiced house calls.
Contact, prayer, appeals to the presence and power of God, expectations of God’s direct intervention, and healing were part of daily life. The life of faith really was a life-style, not a weekend component of a compartmentalized life that fits God into one’s weekly schedule for a couple of hours on Sunday mornings.
A literal practice by church leaders of James’s guidelines for healing prayer would make churches much more personal and effective.
The sick person here is incapacitated physically. Anointing was often used by the early church in their prayers for healing. In Scripture, oil was both a medicine (see the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:30-37) and a symbol of the Spirit of God (as used in anointing kings; see 1 Samuel 16:1-13).
Thus the oil may have been a sign of the power of prayer, and it may have symbolized the setting apart of the sick person for God’s special attention.
More important than the oil itself, however, the key function of the elders is their prayer for the sick person, as evidenced in the verses that follow.
5:15 The prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well.
The prayer must be from the heart, sincere, with trust in and obedience to God behind it, and with no doubting, as in 1:5-8. The believing is the role of the elders who are praying, not the sick person’s (nothing is said about his or her faith). It is possible that the sick person’s faith is exercised in calling the elders. Also, if there is need for confession, the elders will be able to minister to the individual. The process insures dependence of believers on each other.
The Lord will raise him up.
Not the elders or the oil, but the Lord himself does the healing. Does this mean that every prayer for healing guarantees that God will make the sick person well?
It must be emphasized here that the prayer offered is a prayer offered in faith—not only the faith that believes God can heal, but also the faith that expresses absolute confidence in God’s will. A true prayer of faith will acknowledge God’s sovereignty in his answer to that prayer.
It is not always God’s will to heal those who are ill (see 2 Corinthians 12:7-9). A prayer for healing must be qualified with a recognition that God’s will is supreme.
It is shameful to find Christians hesitating to pray because God might not heal the way they wish. It is not our role either to decide how God will answer our prayers or to excuse him if our human desires are not met.
Trusting God only as long as he cooperates with our plans is no trust at all. The prayer offered in faith gives God a free hand to work. Because believers have an eternal viewpoint, we can claim the absolute certainty of this promise—God can and will heal, though not always in this world.
In the afterlife God “will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21:4 niv).
To limit God’s answers only to this world would indicate that we are trying to make God submit to our needs and desires in this life rather than submitting to him.
There would no longer be the internal conflicts, and fellowship would be strong and supportive. Those who are sick may be healed (nrsv), and the church would be unified in its prayer efforts.
The recent emphasis on small groups within churches has risen largely from a need to recapture some of these basic features of life in the body of Christ that have been neglected.
When Christians are really working to “carry each other’s burdens,” the world does take note, and we come closer to fulfilling “the law of Christ” (see Galatians 6:2 niv). Loving your neighbor as yourself does include, above all else, praying for him or her.
WHY CONFESS SIN?
Christ has made it possible for us to go directly to God for forgiveness. But confessing our sins to one another still has an important place in the life of the church.
If we have sinned against an individual, we must ask that person to forgive us.
If our sin has affected the church, we must confess it publicly.
If we need loving support as we struggle with a sin, we should confess the sin to those who are able to provide that support.
If after confessing a private sin to God we still don’t feel his forgiveness, we may wish to confess that sin to a fellow believer and hear him or her assure us of God’s pardon.
The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.
The prayer is effective because the person who is praying is righteous. The person is not sinless, but he or she has confessed known sins to God and is completely committed to him and trying to do his will. Again, we can say that the righteous person gets what he or she wants in prayer because he wants what God wants.
The Christian’s most powerful resource is communication with God through prayer. It is the instrument of healing and forgiveness and is a mighty weapon for spiritual warfare. The results are often greater than we thought were possible.
Some people see prayer as a last resort, to be tried when all else fails. Our priorities are the reverse of God’s. Prayer should come first.
Some see prayer as a way to obligate God to give whatever they claim in faith. God is pleased to use our prayers to accomplish his purposes and he delights in answering our needs, but he is never bound by our prayers.
God’s power is infinitely greater than ours, so it only makes sense to rely on it—especially because God encourages us to do so.
17 Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth.
18 Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit.
Prayer is indeed powerful—remember Elijah? The story is found in 1 Kings 17:1-18:46. Elijah had great power in prayer. A drought came as a sign to evil King Ahab of Israel that the idol Baal did not have power over the rain, God did. And when Elijah prayed, it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Then he prayed for rain, and the heavens gave rain (niv).