Suffering, Healing, and the Prayer of Faith - Part Five
Many of you who are unfamiliar with Bridgeway Church here in Oklahoma City may not fully understand what I mean when I say we are a church committed to both the Word of God and the Spirit of God. Continue reading . . .
Many of you who are unfamiliar with Bridgeway Church here in Oklahoma City may not fully understand what I mean when I say we are a church committed to both the Word of God and the Spirit of God. Or, upon hearing that, you may respond by saying: “Big deal. All churches believe in the importance of the Bible, and all churches believe in the existence of the Holy Spirit.” That may be true, but that’s not what we mean here at Bridgeway.
We are not merely “believers” in Word and Spirit. We strive to be practitioners. That means we are devoted to verse-by-verse expository preaching of God’s Word. We are committed to changing our beliefs when the Bible tells us we are wrong. We change our behavior when the Bible tells us we have gone astray. The Bible exercises authority over our lives when it comes to what we believe and how we behave.
But we also strive not merely to affirm the existence of the Holy Spirit, not merely to insist on his vital importance for Christian living. We also strive to experience the power of the Holy Spirit through all the spiritual gifts described in the NT. We believe these gifts continue and are valid in the church today because the Bible tells us they are. Thus we are people of the Spirit precisely because of our commitment to the authority of the Word. And we aim to implement, facilitate, and exercise these gifts in the power of the Spirit for the good of Christians and the glory of God.
One more thing. We refuse to let our emphasis on Scripture quench the presence and power of the Spirit, just as we refuse to let our pursuit and experience of the Spirit diminish the authoritative role of the Scriptures.
That is why I approach a passage like James 5 in the way I do. We are looking very closely and carefully at each word and phrase so that we might understand the truth about divine healing. And once we have determined what God’s design is for the church today, we will do precisely what the text says: we will anoint the sick with oil, we will confess our sins to one another, and we will pray for one another so that the sick might be healed.
Some of you may remember a story often told about John Wimber, a dear friend of mine who founded the Vineyard movement and died in 1997. John was the manager and also contributed to the musical arrangements of the Righteous Brothers in their early years. When he came to faith in Christ he attended a church with his wife, Carol. After the service John greeted the pastor and asked him a simple question:
“Sir, I enjoyed the service, but when are we going to do the stuff?”
“The ‘stuff,’” the pastor asked, in a somewhat bewildered tone of voice? “What do you mean by the ‘stuff’?”
“You know,” said John, “the ‘stuff’: healing the sick and casting out demons and prophesying. The ‘stuff’!”
“Oh, I see what you mean,” said the pastor. “We don’t do the stuff. We preach about it. We believe what the Bible says about it. But we don’t do it.”
Well, here at Bridgeway we are committed not only to believing the “stuff” but “doing” it as well. And so we turn our attention yet again today to James 5 and the subject of the healing of the body.
We now turn our attention to what James says in the remainder of v. 15, extending through v. 16. And there are five things that warrant our close study. Here is our passage:
“Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. 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 one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. 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. Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit” (James 5:13-18).
First, James says in v. 15 that “the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up” (v. 15b). He doesn’t mean that this person was an unregenerate, unbeliever. The word “save” is often used in the NT to describe not merely spiritual forgiveness of sins and deliverance from eternal condemnation. It is also used to describe physical healing of the body. There are countless examples of this in the NT, but one verse should be enough. It concerns the woman who suffered from a discharge of blood for over twelve years. We read in Matthew 9 that
“she said to herself, ‘If I only touch his garment, I will be made well.’ Jesus turned, and seeing her said, ‘Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well.’ And instantly the woman was made well” (Matt. 9:21-22; see also Mark 6:56; 10:52; Luke 17:19).
The word translated “made well” that occurs three times is the same Greek word found in James 5. We could as easily translate Matthew’s text: “If I only touch his garment, I will be saved. . . . Take heart, daughter; your faith has saved you. . . . [and] the woman was saved.”
And this is confirmed by what we see in the next phrase which says that God will “raise him up,” that is to say, he will physically raise him up from his sickbed.
Second, James says that “if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven” (v. 15c). James is in harmony with Jesus (John 9:1-3) and Paul (2 Cor. 12:1-10) that not all sickness is the direct result of sin. Sometimes it is (1 Cor. 11:27-30; Mark 2:1-12) but not always. The “if” in verse 15 is not designed to suggest the one who is sick may never have sinned. The meaning is that if God should heal him in answer to prayer, this indicates that any sins of the sufferer, which might have been responsible for this particular illness, were forgiven. In other words, if sins were responsible for his sickness, the fact that God healed him physically would be evidence that God had forgiven him spiritually.
Third, James says that before you pray for one another you should “confess your sins to one another” (v. 16a).
The NT never singles out any individual or special group of ministers who alone are “priests” and are uniquely privileged or empowered or have greater and more consistent access to God. All Christians are priests. James has in mind mutual confession; not of all individuals to one priest, but of each individual to every other individual as the need may present itself.
So how does this work? Some suggestions for how to confess your sins to one another.
(1) First, this “confession” can happen anywhere at any time. It can happen over coffee or lunch with a friend. It can happen in your small group, if you should choose to confess in the presence of several people. It can happen in a smaller gathering with two or three of your closest friends. It can happen after our services here at Bridgeway, with the help of one or several of our prayer ministry members.
But note carefully that it is confession “to one another” and not just to God. Certainly there is the need for confessing sins to God, but James has in mind taking this a step further and making it known to another Christian. Not a non-Christian. Not a golfing buddy or the lady next door. It is one Christian to another or to several other Christians.
(2) Although James does not specify when or where or to how many this confession should be made, it seems reasonable to think that the first and best way to obey this command is to do it privately rather than publicly. I don’t think James is encouraging that all the members of a local church stand up in front of the rest and publicly confess their sins. It may be that on occasion a few need to do this, but James is probably thinking of a more private, one-on-one situation.
(3) The first and most obvious way in which we might fulfill this command is by confessing to the person against whom we’ve committed the sin. If “Joe” has sinned against “Mike” it is much easier for him to tell “Bob” – “I sinned against Mike when I slandered him to a group of people just to make myself look good.” It is much more difficult for “Joe” to go to “Mike” directly and say to him – “Mike, I need to confess to you that I sinned against you. I spoke ill of you in front of others, all to make myself look good. Would you please forgive me for this?”
Quite honestly, sometimes we are willing to tell someone else a sin we committed as a way of avoiding having to confess to the person we sinned against face-to-face. But what good is it to confess your sin against “Mike” simply by telling “Bob” about it? That enables you to “confess” without also repenting and asking for forgiveness from the person you offended.
I don’t think James means that if your struggle is with lust that you should go to the woman or man who is the focus of your lust and say: “I need to confess to you that I often lust for you. I have sexual fantasies about you.” No. That should be confessed to a third party. And it may be best that you not mention the name of the person for whom you lust.
(4) People often ask: “Do I need to confess my sins to someone I know, or can it be to a stranger?” Again, oftentimes people prefer to confess to someone that doesn’t know them. It’s easier. It’s safer. It’s less likely you’ll feel ashamed or embarrassed because a total stranger has no prior expectations of your behavior. Some are disinclined to confess to someone who already knows them out of fear they might lose face or suffer loss of respect. But if this is in your heart, it may be an indication that you aren’t entirely sincere or humble or broken. If you are still self-protective, one might wonder if you are being entirely honest with the Lord and with others about your sins. What good is that sort of confession?
(5) I think the best way to fulfill James’s counsel is first of all, if possible, confess your sins to the person against whom they’ve been committed. Ask their forgiveness. But second, if your sinful struggles are more general and less directed to a particular person, speak to a friend or several of them and open up your heart in honest contrition. Some sins are more self-referential in the sense that they can be present in your life and no one else would know about them. I have in mind things such as envy, unbelief, greed, selfishness, idolatry, jealousy, drunkenness, and pride.
(6) If someone confesses their sin to you, you are under strict obligation never to repeat the content of that confession or the person’s sin to anyone else. There are two exceptions. First, it may be that the person confessing gives you permission to tell others. Second, if they confess to you that they have committed a physical or sexual assault against a minor, you are obligated by law to report this to the authorities. It may be best that you report this to a pastor or an Elder who will then assist you in making the report to the proper legal authorities.
(7) What should you do if someone comes and says, “I’ve been sexually unfaithful to my spouse.” What should you do? First, process this with a pastor or Elder or your community group leader. Second, the likelihood is that you would need to return to this individual and say to them: “It’s important that you not conceal this any longer from your spouse. You should go to them immediately and confess to them also. If you don’t, I will do so myself.” Give them a reasonable time-frame within which to make this happen.
Fourth, after confessing your sins, “pray for one another” (v. 16b). Notice the word “therefore” with which v. 16 opens. In other words, he is saying: “Since God can heal the sick when we pray for them, as v. 15 makes abundantly clear, be diligent to pray for one another.”
What we learn from v. 16 is that it isn’t just the Elders who are responsible to pray for the sick. The entire body of Christ, men and women, young and old, are instructed to pray “for one another” so that “you,” the people in the local church, “may be healed.” You must never think that you are excused from praying for the sick simply because you are not an Elder. The word translated “one another” is all-inclusive: everyone in the body of Christ is responsible to pray for everyone else.
Ask God to increase your faith and confidence in his ability. Ask God to impart a gift for this particular healing. Ask God to be merciful and kind and compassionate. Ask God to release his power into this person’s body and to restore it completely to its former condition of health.
Note carefully that James does not simply say, “Expect God to heal you.” He holds out the possibility of healing but only after we confess our sins to one another and pray for one another.
But why is confession so important? Why would God seemingly suspend healing on it? There are several ways to answer this.
If your sin is one of bitterness or resentment or unforgiveness, there is an undeniable emotional and psychological release that comes with confession. These sinful energies in the soul can eat away at you much like an acid, poisoning your heart, bringing depression and anger, blinding you to the truths of God’s grace. It’s almost as if such sins release a toxin into your spirit. They sour the soul. They likely cause you to doubt God’s goodness and power.
If the sin is one of unforgiveness or resentment, you may need to speak directly to the other person involved. “I need to confess to you that I’ve not forgiven you for what happened. I still hold anger and bitterness in my heart toward you for what you did and I often find myself wishing that bad things would come your way. That is evil. It is sinful for me to think of you in this way. I don’t want to think or feel this way ever again. Will you forgive me for failing to forgive you? Will you forgive me for holding this against you?”
One more thing should be noted. It is horribly inconsistent and presumptuous of us to continue in unrepentant sin all the while we ask God to heal our bodies. It’s as if we are saying: “God, I’m enjoying my sexual immorality too much to give it up, but while I’ve got your attention, could you help me with this deep pain in my back?” Or, “Lord, I genuinely resent Steve/Sally. And I intend to continue to hold resentment in my heart. But since you’re merciful, would you go ahead and heal me of diabetes?”
What this tells us is that God has chosen to suspend healing mercy on the repentance of his people. When the hurting don’t get healed, it may be a result of stubbornness and spiritual insensitivity more than because “God doesn’t do that sort of thing anymore.” Simply put: we should never expect that God will heal us while we hypocritically nurture in our hearts unforgiveness and anger and spite and greed and lust without sensing any need to confess such sins or to turn from them.
Fifth, what reason do we have to believe that any of this will make any difference at all? The reason is found in the last half of v. 16 – “The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working” (v. 16c). Do you believe that? If not, why not? Is God misleading us by having James write this? Surely not.
So what does James mean by the word “righteous”? In one sense, all born-again believers are “righteous” through faith in Christ. God has imputed or reckoned to you the righteousness of his Son. So every Christian can lay hold of this promise. On the other hand, he also wants us to understand that if we choose to live “unrighteously” by willfully resisting God’s will and selfishly refusing to repent or confess our sins, we shouldn’t expect that our prayers will accomplish much. This is what we saw in James 4:2-3.
But if we humbly acknowledge our sins and seek by God’s grace to live in accordance with his revealed will, there simply is no limit to what God will do for us in response to our prayers. Never forget: there is “great power” in and through prayer because we pray to an omnipotent and almighty God!
So, why doesn’t God always heal the sick? That’s the question we’ll seek to answer in the next article.