Thursday, November 8, 2012

Sickness and Prayer

   In the years since my father died of cancer, I have done a lot of praying, studying, and reading about the intersection between prayer and sickness.  Many things remain murky, but one thing has become clear: We misread the Bible time after time when it addresses this issue.
    It's an understandable human mistake. We want God to make our lives better based on our definitions and expectations.  Physical health is one of those areas in which we long for a Savior, and why wouldn't we?  We are all part of a creation that groans.
   The book of James ends with an interesting paragraph:
Is anyone among you sick? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise. 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.” - James 5:13-16 
    Seems pretty straight forward. If you are sick, the elders will anoint you with oil, and a prayer offered in faith will make you well. Period.
     Of course, I had to ask several questions: Why does it say "If you are sick" twice?  Why oil?  How will I know if my prayer was full of faith? And why just the elders? Are the deacons just not spiritually on the same plane?  So with close by, and the rest of James at my internet fingertips, I dug in.

           “If you are sick (in trouble), pray.  If you are good (happy), sing songs of praise." 

    Sickness here is from the Greek, astheneo, which means to be physically feeble, sick or weak. We see this exact word used other places in the New Testament, which helps us see what the result of this kind of prayer.
     Sometimes, an answer to prayer for this kind of sickness is healing:
   "And wherever Jesus entered into villages, cities, or a country, they laid the sick in the streets, and asked if they might touch the border of his garment: and as many as touched him were made whole."  Mark 6:56
     Sometimes, an answer to prayer for this kind of sickness is comfort:
“Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.” Matthew 25:36
   It's the same word for sickness in all three passages. In the book of James, the sick are told to pray. In the other two passages, the sick are passive recipients of healing and visitation. Sometimes, we have to ask, sometimes we don't.  Sometimes we get healed, sometimes we get visited. Perhaps it is out of our hands how God chooses to meet us at the point of our sickness.
     James 5: 15 speaks of a different kind of sickness.
“If you are sick, don’t wait for the elders to find out and show up: call them to pray over you and anoint you with oil in the name of the Lord. A prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up.  If their sins brought about this illness, or if their illness caused them to reflect on their lives and repent of sins, God’s forgiveness will also heal them spiritually.  That’s why it’s important to confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed not just physically, but relationally and spiritually.” - James 5
    Once again, we know more about this kind of sickness through other references in Scripture.  Paul writes in Hebrews 12:3, “Think about the one who endured such hostility from sinners, so that you may not become tired (sick) and give up.”  "Sick" here is kamno, faint or wearied; ready to collapse; losing inner strength. In this case, it's not a medical ailment. This kind of sickness means that your heart, soul, mind, and strength are done.
     Here, James makes a connection with sickness and sin.  The "anointing with oil" seems to be a reference to a typical medicinal solution for a physical ailment, but the prayer involves a reality beyond the physical.
    Something in your life is destroying you spiritually, and it’s eating you up inside. A spiritual sickness sometimes manifests as a physical illness.  The kind of prayer you need here is not for physical health, because that’s not the problem.  You need spiritual resurrection.  Your body and your soul are connected, and your soul needs fixing. If your soul is fixed, physical health will follow.
    So what does this passage say when read in its entirety?  The cause of sickness is either physical or spiritual. If there is a natural cause for illness, go to a doctor.  If there is a spiritual cause for an illness, seek out the prayer and counsel of a spiritually mature person.


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