April 13, 2008

God Cares About Our Needs: James 5:13-18

In the winter of 1936, Mary Stevenson, who was 14 years old, sat in the freezing weather on her front porch, locked out of her house, in Chester, Pennsylvania.

She loved to write poetry, and while she waited for her parents to come home, she used a piece of scrap paper and short stubby pencil to write a few poetic thoughts. We have become very familiar with what she wrote. It’s come to be called “Footprints in the Sand”:

One night I dreamed I was walking along the beach with the Lord. Many scenes from my life flashed across the sky. In each scene I noticed footprints in the sand. Sometimes there were two sets of footprints; other times there were one set of footprints. This bothered me because I noticed that during the low periods of my life, when I was suffering from anguish, sorrow or defeat, I could see only one set of footprints. So I said to the Lord, “You promised me Lord, that if I followed you, you would walk with me always. But I have noticed that during the most trying periods of my life there have only been one set of footprints in the sand. Why, when I needed you most, you have not been there for me?” The Lord replied, “The times when you have seen only one set of footprints in the sand, is when I carried you.”

In our passage today, James is telling us the very same thing: God cares about us and makes provision for our every need.

“Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing psalms. 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. And the prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much. Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed earnestly that it would not rain; and it did not rain on the land for three years and six months. And he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain, and the earth produced its fruit” (James 5:13-18).

In this passage, James shows us four ways in which God cares for us.

God cares about our emotional needs (13)

“Is anyone among you suffering?” The term means “enduring afflictions” or “suffering through troubles,” which could mean physical pain or any kind of hardship or distress. James is referring to the emotional suffering and pain that comes from difficulties. Today, we might say “Is anyone among you really stressed out?”

The correct response to suffering or being stressed out, James writes, is to pray. It’s not to be understood as a one-time prayer, which we would translate as “say a prayer,” but better understood as something like “keep on praying,” or even “constantly pray.” So James says the correct response to suffering is to keep on praying about it. This may mean praying for deliverance or for the patience and strength to endure the hardship or stress. In other words, pray and don’t be stressed out!

James is not alone in giving us this solution. Here is what Paul tells us in Philippians 4:6-7: “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.”

Notice that Paul doesn’t tell us just to pray to be delivered, but not to be anxious, which means not to be stressed out about a situation. So a big part of the solution to both the problem and the stress is prayer.

Next James asks, “Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing psalms.” He is telling us that when things are going well and we don’t have a care in the world, remember to praise God.

It’s a good reminder. When we are suffering, we know to go to God in prayer. But if you are like I am, you can easily forget to praise God when everything is positive. I tend to complain to Him about the problems, but forget to praise Him when things are going well. The writer of Hebrews says, in Hebrews 13:15, that praising God is our sacrifice to Him: “. . . let us continually offer the sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of our lips, giving thanks to His name.”

James’ viewpoint is that we do this by “singing psalms.” In the New Testament, the term “sing psalms” is used to mean to celebrate the praises of God in song, whether it is literally one of the psalms or a hymn. Paul refers to “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord” (Colossians 3:16).

God cares about our physical needs (14-15)

Verse 14 would be translated literally: “Someone among you is sick. Let him call for the elders of the church and let them pray over him, having anointed him with oil in the name of the Lord.”

Christians are not immune from illness, obviously. Anointing was often used by the early church, along with prayer, for healing. James’ instruction here illustrates the active involvement of elders in the lives of Christians.

In the Bible, oil is both a medicine and a symbol of the Spirit of God. Not surprisingly, olive oil did have a medical use in the early New Testament era. In Luke 10, we read the account of the Good Samaritan, who used wine (as an antiseptic) and oil (as a salve) to treat the wounds of the man who had been injured. The oil was most likely olive oil, which contains an anti-inflammatory chemical related to chemicals in the ibuprofens we take today for pain. Olive oil on wounds eased pain slightly and promoted healing. I have read that olive oil is estimated to have about 10 percent of ibuprofen’s pain relieving properties when ingested or absorbed through the skin.

While this is an interesting fact, remember that anointing with oil also symbolized the Spirit of God from the earliest days of the Israelites, and it is this purpose to which James primarily refers. Anointing with oil was common in Israel’s history in commissioning priests and prophets. A typical example is found in 1 Samuel 16:13, where we find Samuel anointing the young shepherd, David, with oil: “and the Spirit of the Lord came upon David from that day forward.”

Nowhere do we find anything that is spiritually magic about the oil itself. The anointing with oil is a symbol or a sign of the power of prayer and the setting apart of the sick person for God’s special attention. But it’s interesting that James’ instruction is sound both spiritually and physically, and after anointing the sick person with oil, the elders are to pray for his or her healing.

Then James tells us “the prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise him up” (verse 14). He is emphasizing the praying of the elders on behalf of the sick person, who has called for them to anoint and pray. The promise is that “the Lord will raise him up (cure him). And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.” The emphasis is on God’s grace, with the promised answer to the elders’ prayer and forgiveness of sins.

God cares about our spiritual needs (16)

While God is deeply concerned about our physical needs, He is even more concerned about our spiritual needs; our bodies are temporary, but our spirits are eternal. James writes, “Confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed.”

Confessing to each other is not something with which we are comfortable. Nevertheless, the biblical instruction is to confess to one another and pray for one another “that you may be healed.” Here, James has switched his thoughts from physical healing to spiritual healing.

Confessing—that is, talking to each other about what tempts us and where we have failed—accomplishes several things. First, we find out that we are not alone; I am not the only one who struggles with unrighteousness. In addition, it holds us accountable. Sometimes, it’s the fact we may be found out that keeps us from committing a sin. Confession also invites deeper, one-on-one relationships and love for each other, and it can be practical for us in overcoming temptations, when someone can tell you “I know how you feel; I have felt the same way; and here is what I found.” Drug addiction treatment centers give us a very good example of this principle. The most effective addiction counselors are themselves former addicts.

Even more important, verse 16 tells to pray for each another. That means we bear each other’s hurts, pains, and faults and take them to God in prayer. Paul writes in Galatians 6:2: “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” What is the “law of Christ”? We find it in John 13:34, where Jesus says: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, as I have loved you.”

So, bearing each other’s burdens as if they were our own, as well as praying for one another, are not just nice things to do. They are expected of us.

Finally, James reminds us that “the effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.” The term “fervent” means to work hard for or exert power, and “avails” means able to overcome. James’ emphasis is “avails much”; that is, able to accomplish more than we may have thought possible. “Righteous” doesn’t mean perfect. It refers to the person whose sins have been confessed and forgiven. It is primarily from this verse that the tradition in the church is to begin prayer with confessing our sins and asking for forgiveness.

Concluding Thoughts

When the Holy Spirit inspired James to write this letter, He didn’t just want to leave us hanging with a set of rules to follow. He assures us that being involved with each other and praying for each other works.

In verses 17 and 18, He gives us an example of prayer that “avails much”: “Elijah was a man with a nature like ours”—that is, he was not given special powers. But God acted powerfully and visibly when Elijah prayed.

The account of the incident to which James refers is found in 1 Kings 17 and 18. Elijah was given the task of confronting the false religion of Ba’al and of declaring that the Yahweh is the only God in existence. In 1 Kings 17, we read that Elijah declared the word of the Lord that there would be a drought in which there would be neither dew nor rain unless the Lord sent it. Then, 3-1/2 years later, with drought and famine throughout Israel, Elijah confronted the prophets of Ba’al on Mt. Carmel. After the demonstration of the power of God in the miraculous burning of the sacrifice, Elijah prayed long and fervently for rain. In 1 Kings 18:45 we read about the result of his prayer, which he prayed after 3-1/2 years of no rain and not even dew: “the sky became black with clouds and wind, and there was a heavy rain.”

The Holy Spirit wants us to know that it does not take a special anointing for prayer to be effective. One demonstration is the account of Elijah. The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous person is strong and powerful and accomplishes much.

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