I have been reading from the letter of James, specifically James 5:14-16 and thinking about its ramifications for me, as a person with an illness. James writes:
Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.
My church does not have formal elders – being Anglican – but in any case I have never had, and never thought to ask for leaders of the church to come to me and anoint me and pray for me when I have been ill. I have, however, been to a healing service in a church which involved confession (to God, in our heads) and anointing with oil, which I found very soothing and good for me.
This passage is somewhat difficult for me – specifically the line “the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well.” I know that I have been prayed for by others when I have been ill, and I have prayed for others in my turn, but I have yet to see a miraculous healing. Does that mean that I am not a “righteous person”? That those who prayed for me were not righteous either? This is a difficult one for me.
That confessed, I would like to go into the passage in more detail. I have been reading the Bible Knowledge Commentary (Walvoord, J. F., Zuck, R. B., & Dallas Theological Seminary. (1985). The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures. Wheaton, IL: Victor Books) which I would highly recommend, and some of the things the authors have to say about this passage struck me as interesting.
Firstly, they point out that the word rendered “sick” (asthenei) in verse 14 literally means “to be weak” and is used elsewhere in the New Testament to mean someone who is spiritually weak – someone who has a weak faith or a weak conscience (cf. Acts 20:35; Rom. 6:19; 14:1; 1 Cor. 8:9-12) and that in verse 15 “sick person” (kamnonta) literally means “to be weary.” The only other time this word is used in the New Testament is in Hebrews 12:3, where it definitely means “weary.” They then argue that rather than seeing the person who needs anointing as a physically ill person who will be healed by the prayer of the elders, we should see them as someone who is worn down, doubting, spiritually weakened and in need of restoration. I think that is an interesting viewpoint. They write:
James was not referring to the bedfast, the diseased, or the ill. Instead he wrote to those who had grown weary, who had become weak both morally and spiritually in the midst of suffering. These are the ones who should call for the help of the elders of the church. The early church leaders were instructed (1 Thes. 5:14) to “encourage the timid” and “help the weak” (asthenōn).
When I think of anointing I tend to think of a ceremonial anointing with oil, such as at a christening or confirmation, or other church ceremony, but the book I have been reading points out that the word translated “anoint” here is aleipsantes which normally means something like “rub down” or “massage” and is not the same thing at all as chriō which is the ceremonial anointing, and the root word for “Christ”. A quote from the same book says:
“Therefore James is not suggesting a ceremonial or ritual anointing as a means of divine healing; instead, he is referring to the common practice of using oil as a means of bestowing honor, refreshment, and grooming” (Daniel R. Hayden, “Calling the Elders to Pray,” Bibliotheca Sacra 138. July/September 1981: 264).
The more ordinary use of this word is obvious elsewhere in the New Testament such as in Matthew 6:17 where someone who is fasting is encouraged to put oil on themselves, apparently as a normal part of the grooming routine of the day.
We are told that the sick person will be made well by the prayer and anointing of the elders. As I mentioned above, I have trouble with this for the pure and simple reason that I have seen good Christians who were prayed for and anointed by other good Christians and who remained sick or disabled. I neither believe God lied in this verse, nor do I believe that these people who were not healed were somehow to blame. The Bible Knowledge Commentary states:
That the restoration is spiritual, not physical, is further clarified by the assurance, if he has sinned, he will be forgiven. Many physically ill Christians have called on elders to pray for them and to anoint them with oil, but a sizable percentage of them have remained sick. This fact suggests that the passage may have been mistakenly understood as physical restoration rather than spiritual restoration.
I would also point out that very significant “if” – which suggests that, as we know, just because you are sick does not mean you have sinned. I strongly do not believe that all who are sick or disabled are somehow more sinful than other people and are being punished, although I do think that could be the case in some instances.
In short, I believe that this passage could very well be talking about a sort of spiritual refreshment of those who have become weary, perhaps with suffering persecution, or the trial that is illness. I don’t think it is talking about the healing of physical maladies – I do believe the Lord lifts us up, but I do not think he is like an ATM, where if you press the right buttons what you want comes out of the slot. Sometimes it is not the Lord’s will to heal us – perhaps we will never know why until we meet him face to face, but I don’t think that we have failed by not being healed. I do seem to harp on about this a lot but it is something I feel very strongly about and I have known people who have turned from the church, turned from the God they have been told is punishing them for being worse than other people, from the God who they were told would heal them if they did xyz and yet did not do so. I would rather see a more honest approach from us, where we say that if the Lord wills it, there will be healing, whether that uses medical science or the miraculous, but that in some cases there will not be healing, and we will have to go through life and try to manage as best we can, with the Lord’s help, and may never know why, for what purpose we suffer, and what the Lord is doing in us through that suffering. I try to think of Job – whose capacity for endurance was tested, and who was refined through his awful experiences. I hope that I am like that, and am better than I was before my illness came upon me. I hope, and I trust that that is so, but I cannot know for certain. I do know that God promises a hope and a future, and joy, even if I experience that joy in the hereafter rather than now.