Spiritual Healing in James 5
When I disclose that I have an autoimmune condition to my brothers and sisters in Christ, I generally get responses such as, “Wow, I’m sorry to hear that,” or “I’ll pray for you.” The sentiments are appreciated.
However, sometimes I get the response, “Wow, let’s pray for you! If you just have faith, you’ll be healed right now, on the spot. Let’s go!” Out of courtesy, I usually let these people pray for me. And I mean, hey, the worst that could happen is I don’t get healed, the best is that I somehow do. Not much to lose.
But, I’ve noticed within this crowd, when I’m not healed, I’m the one to blame. I’m told, “It’s because you’re not trusting God,” or, “You simply don’t have enough faith.”
While I respect the diversity of opinions in the body of Christ, and these people whose intentions are good, it is my contention that any theology that promises (emphasis on promise) healing this side of death is more detrimental to a person’s faith than actually suffering.
I once heard a story about a man who was put in a wheelchair from the time he was 23. This man was in his 50s, I believe, reflecting on his life experience. He ran into groups of Christians like this numerous times in his life. Every time that he did not get healed, he was the one to blame. Not misreading of Scripture, not the people, not the infinitude of possibilities that could affect this man’s body. It was simply, “He doesn’t trust God.”
This man’s faith grew weaker because of these people – not stronger. He eventually was led to give up the faith. He viewed God as a tyrant for not healing him. And I think, with good measure.
Eventually, this man came into contact with a theology that made sense of his suffering. As he learned that God both grieves that this man suffers and uses his suffering for good, this man regained his faith, and become passionately in love with Christ, committing as many aspects of his life as possible to the advancement of the Kingdom of God. He started to tour the world in an attempt to help others make sense of their suffering, and to reconnect broken, ill, disheartened people to the grieving God who hung, suffering on a cross.
I write this as an introduction, as James 5 is generally used as a “proof” passage in Scripture to point to the idea that God wants to, and more importantly in this theology, will heal any and all of His faithful followers. I find this to be unreasonable.
An important point needs to be made about many common translations of James 5:14-15.
Let’s take a look at James 5:14-15a in the NIV:
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.
Now, let’s look at the same passage in the ASV, a more literal translation:
Is any 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 shall save him that is sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he have committed sins, it shall be forgiven him.
In the NIV translation of this passage, the word “well” in verse 15 is actually the word that is used throughout the New Testament used to describe the act of God saving humanity from sin. The more literal rendering then, is “save” rather than “well.” The focus seems to be on spiritual healing.
Another hint in this passage is the phrase, “the Lord shall raise him up.” This is a phrase that can be taken spiritually, as it is the phrase generally used to describe the resurrection.
Moving forward, let’s look at James 5:16-20,
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.
Elijah was a human being, even as we are. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops.
My brothers and sisters, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring that person back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins.
The spiritual focus of verses 14-15 continues in verse 16. “Confess your sins to each other so that you may be healed.” The healing is predicated on the confession of sins. James presents them as deeply connected. There is nothing that suggests that the healing cannot be physical, but the emphasis is on how rooted it is in sin. The remedy is not “naming it and claiming it,” but the confession of sins.
Another key factor is the idea that the “prayer of the righteous person is powerful and effective.” But how? In what way?
Look back at verses 17-18, which reference Elijah and his rain prayer. Taken out of context, those two verses are used to support the miraculous nature of prayer. But contextually, that interpretation doesn’t seem to stand. Look again at the verses that follow. The emphasis moves away from Elijah’s miraculous prayer of controlling the rain, back to the realm of spiritual, moral, and confession.
“…someone should bring that person back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover a multitude of sins.”
The prayer of the righteous that seems to be so miraculous in this passage is not one of physical healing, but one that brings sinners into right relation with God and community, saving them from death, and covering sin. All three of these are very real examples of healing, albeit in different forms.
In summation, the focus on healing in James 5 appears to be spiritual rather than physical, and focused on mending being brought about by confession. Contextually speaking, it appears that those who are confessing, are also seeking to be restored to God and community. It’s not confessing with the ulterior motive to be physically healed, but to be healed relationally to God and fellow man.
However, this isn’t to suggest there are no hints of physical healing in this text.
I think Beck’s edit to the passage helps a lot:
The prayer of faith shall save him that is sick, and the Lord shall raise him up…and if he have committed sins, it shall be forgiven him…Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed…if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring that person back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins.
What stands out to me, especially, is the idea of “[saving] them from death.” A lot of the healing promised by the “You shall be healed, or else your faith is weak!” crowd, is temporal healing. It shifts the focus from learning by suffering, empathizing, and even, I would say, trivializes suffering (would someone from that crowd PLEASE explain to me genocide, the Holocaust, and plagues? Please?). However, the idea that restoring sinners saves them from death is something long term. It might not be physically comfortable now, but after physical death, there will be a resurrection. Death is not permanent. Instead of simply healing them now, they are saved from any future ill health.
That is, of course, not to trivialize those suffering, or to tell them to keep suffering. The body of Christ should do everything it can to take care of those who are suffering, in pain, and in need of help. But if healing doesn’t come, let us not put the blame on those with whom we are trying to bless. Instead of blessing them, we become like demons, only tormenting them further.
* This post is not to suggest I do not believe miracles are possible. I do. I don’t believe, however, the Body of Christ can guarantee them, or be certain of them. To do so, I think, is naive and immature. A denial of reality, or an existential coping mechanism, if you will.