James 5:13-20 (AD 48)
Twelve years ago I was in bed, counting the specks of dust on the ceiling for about a week, after a very bad back spasm due to inflamed disks between my vertebrae, touching the nerve. Half-way through that hideous week a young man from the church turned up in my bedroom, with an Elder in tow. The young man cared about me, and equally as much (it seemed, as I got to know him) for literal interpretations of everything.
The pain was centred in my lower back. Very low on my back…awkwardly so, given the initial impulse to pour and rub oil on the afflicted location. I also pointed out that to try and turn over would make me scream in agony and possibly pass out. They agreed to put a bit of oil on my forehead instead. They did so, and prayed over me. Two of us prayed to the God of healing that my back would be healed, not knowing whether God planned to leave me in chronic pain forever, heal me instantly, or heal me in line with doctor’s expectations. One of us prayed in expectation that I would immediately get up and walk, pain free.
In the event, God healed me in line with doctors’ expectations, which we tend to think of – wrongly – as God doing nothing.
But I felt bad. I was sad for the young man who felt an instant healing should have happened, and stressed in case he blamed me for it due to my lack of ‘faith’.
He knew these verses well, and took them as a take-it-to-the-bank promise that every illness or injury would be healed, so long as the Elders anointed the sufferer with oil and prayed with a certain expectation of healing.
The problem is, that doesn’t fit with the rest of the Bible. Jesus gave his twelve disciples temporary authority over sickness, but it was only temporary. Paul prayed for healing, and God said no. Jesus prayed to avoid suffering, God said no. And throughout history, millions of Christians have prayed for physical healing, only for God to say no. Millions of Christians have prayed for other people to be spared persecution, and God said no.
Did they all, simply, lack sufficient faith? Was James, and therefore God, saying that the key to healing is to know you’ll be healed?
No, because that isn’t exercising faith, it’s making demands. We don’t get to tell God that he must heal someone, because it’s not up to us – it’s up to him.
So what does it mean to pray ‘in faith’, if we accept the answer might be ‘No’?
It means that we know that the one we’re praying to has enough power, authority, care and concern for us to do as we ask. It means that we trust him to do the best thing in that situation – even if it’s not what we want, even if we never understand the reasons for God’s decision.
What does it mean to pray, but not in faith?
We might pray because we think God owes us – more as a command than a request. To that person, ‘No’ can destroy their false sense of faith, because they believe God is ignoring them, or that he doesn’t exist. Equally lacking in real faith is the opposite: to pray out of a forlorn hope that scarcely even believes God can hear us. In chapter 1, James said that God will always give wisdom to Christians who ask for it, but that if we doubt God will keep his promise, then we “should not expect to receive anything from the Lord” (1:7). Here in chapter 5 he said that we must trust God, even though the ‘Yes’ is not guaranteed. So there is faith that says God promised us a yes, and faith that says God did not promise a yes. So the faith is that God will do as he promised, and will do what is best, and will look after us because he loves us.
The same thing goes for when we pray someone will be forgiven. In that instance, what we’re praying for is that someone to repent, and that God will keep his promise to forgive that person they’ve called to himself.
Prayers are not spells that do magic things, nor are they ritualistic incantations to prove worthiness or religiousness. They are requests made of the almighty God who loves us, who loves to do as we ask, but who must sometimes say no.
Footnote: Pray for your Pastors and Elders
Being a Pastor is hard in this context. In any given congregation there will be people who believe all the different things mentioned above. Some Pastors deal with this by never anointing someone when asked. Some by always anointing when asked. Personally I prefer the latter approach, within reason, whilst gently encouraging people to trust God’s love regardless of this answer to this prayer.