“The prayer of faith will save the sick person, and the Lord will raise him up; if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
Prayer is powerful stuff. You believe that, right? In spite of our nation’s growing secularity, a sizable majority of Americans still profess to pray regularly. You would think, then, that most of them believe there is some kind of effect or benefit to it. But just how much benefit does it bring? James here suggests there is potentially a lot of benefit.
James says flat out here that “the prayer of faith will save the sick person.” Let’s just lay it on the line: Is that true? Well…it depends. Wait, so does that mean I don’t actually believe the Scriptures are inerrant as I have so often claimed? Because this sure seems like it has to be an either-or proposition.
This is one of those places where we need to set a verse in the context of not only the larger passage and book of which it is a part, but of the whole Scriptures. Now, we need to do that with everything we read in the Scriptures, but this is one of those places where it is even more important than others because the potential for tragic misunderstanding is so great.
There are two important caveats when it comes to apparent promises of healing as the result of prayer in the Scriptures. Both are equally important to keep in mind. The first James refers to in the next verse. He did back in 4:3 as well. Prayers that work must be prayers of faith. In other words, when we ask for God to do something (like, for instance, heal someone who is sick), we have to actually believe He’ll do it. If we don’t, we should not expect Him to do anything for us.
If that surprises you at all, put it in personal terms. How likely are you to do something for someone who you know doesn’t really believe you’ll do it? You might do it to spite them (and we occasionally see God doing that in the Scriptures), but that would be about the only reason. If we want God to answer our prayers affirmatively, we need to actually believe He’ll answer them.
Of course, there is another side to this that often gets abused in some circles. The other side is this: If God doesn’t answer in the way we want Him to answer (notice how I phrased that…God always answers), then we must not have had enough faith. This idea can quickly become spiritually abusive in truly destructive ways. It comes out of a kind of vending machine theology that is dangerously wrong in its basic assumptions about God. This is why the other caveat here is so important.
The answer to our praying also depends on God’s will. Now, we could quickly run off into some thick weeds here that I do not want to even try to address right now. But, the simple, if hard, truth is that God is not going to answer affirmatively a prayer that is not in line with His plans for how His world is going to unfold. We see this impacting even Jesus Himself. In Mark 14:36, Mark relates from Peter that the night before the crucifixion Jesus prayed that He wouldn’t have to go through it. But, the tag on His prayer was this: Not my will, but Thine. What God wanted was what was going to happen. It still is.
Of course, like before, there is a challenge to accepting this idea. Namely, what about when God doesn’t seem to want the same thing we do and we are convinced it is a good thing. What could be wrong, after all, with God healing our mother who is slowly and painfully dying from cancer? Why wouldn’t God answer that prayer? Well, again, that runs off into some especially thorny weeds I’m not going to be able to untangle here except to say what I have many times before: If we don’t get God’s character right, we aren’t going to be able to make positive sense out of this idea. If, for instance, we are not absolutely convinced that God is good and is working to bring all those who trust in Him to a good end, we will not be able to accept it—and Him—when He allows things that seem to us to be bad.
All of that being said and understood (just sit with those two ideas for a while and let them sink in before you go on if need be), what James says here is powerful. Prayer can result in the healing of sick people. People who were ill can be healed as the result of faithful prayer. He even says that prayer (and specifically the prayer of church elders) can result in the forgiveness of sins. This is powerful stuff.
The question, then, becomes: How frequently and fervently are you unleashing this power in your own life? And, are you praying to the God who can actually bring all this power to bear? Is prayer something you use occasionally as a last resort, or something you turn to as a first response? Your forays into prayer don’t have to be formal, on-your-knees affairs. They can be informal and clunky and messy. They simply need to be faith-filled and intent on seeking God’s will at the expense of your own no matter what the issue is. If you will do this, you will start to experience the power of God in ways that will leave you glorifying Him. That sounds pretty good to me too.