Today we resume our study of the book of James. You may recall that with 5:12, James begins to conclude his epistle, focusing on ways the tongue is to be used properly within the body of Christ. When we use our tongues properly, we fulfill our duty to be doers of the Word, thereby demonstrating that we have true faith (1:26; 2:14–26).
Today’s passage gives us practical instruction for using the tongue when we have to deal with some of the adversities of life. In 5:13 we read that when we are cheerful we should rejoice, and when we suffer, we should pray. James speaks of suffering here as multifaceted, including both the trials we encounter for confessing Christ as well as the more ordinary illnesses and difficulties we might experience.
This command to pray when we suffer is very much in keeping with James’ exhortation to rejoice in trials (1:2–3) and to be patient in suffering (5:7–11). Far from grumbling and avoiding the Lord when we suffer, it is precisely in our suffering that we are to bless the Lord with our mouths and ask Him for His favor on us.
Specifically, when we face the trial of physical illness, we are to call the elders to anoint us and pray for us (v. 14). In the Bible, anointing signifies a special consecration to the Lord; thus, elders are to place oil on ill Christians in order to set them apart for God’s special favor.
When this is done, God will respond to the prayer of faith (v. 15). We should be careful of two errors here. First, we should not think that this verse is an unconditional promise for physical healing.
God always acts according to His will, and it is plain from Scripture that it is not always His will to grant us physical health in this life (see 2 Cor. 12:7–10). True faith trusts God no matter what He does, and it does not arrogantly demand Him to act in certain ways. However, we should also avoid the opposite error of assuming that this verse only refers to the wellness we will experience in the new heavens and the new earth. While we will not have perfect health until then, this command to pray tells us that sometimes it is God’s will to heal our bodies before we die. And so we must ask Him to heal us now because it just might be His will to do so.
James’ confidence that prayer brings healing occurs in a context looking toward the restoration of all things at the day of judgment (5:7–9). Not until the new heavens and the new earth will our bodies be in perfect health. However, the New Testament also tells us that in this age of ministry by the Holy Spirit, the blessings of the final age have begun. So if you are sick today, ask an elder to come and pray for you because it may be that it is God’s will to heal you.