Just Tell Me What to Do | 11.8.20 | Faith Meets Reality Wk. 16
Drew Williams, Pastoral Intern
This last week, I was having a conversation with a friend, and they said something that I’ve felt many times. And I wondered if you’ve ever related to this?
They said, “I just wish God would tell me what to do!”
Have you ever thought that? Have you ever said that out loud?
Maybe you’re like me. I grew up going to church. I knew all the Sunday School Bible stories. I considered myself a Christian. But I never really felt like I totally understood what I was supposed to DO as a Christian.
I knew the greatest commands from Jesus: Love God, and Love Others as yourself. But how?
What if the situation in question is hard to apply that to?
For instance… Which job opportunity is more loving to God? Which clothing purchase is more loving to others?
What am I supposed to do when life throws me a curveball, and all my normal routines are out of whack? What am I supposed to do? What does God want me to do right now?
Have you ever felt like that?
Well, in today’s passage, we’ll get James’ answer to the question: “what am I supposed to do as a follower of Jesus?”
So let’s hear together James 5:13-18
Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise. 14 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. 15 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. 16 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.
17 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. 18 Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops.
James is just about finished with his letter, and so he’s hitting all the big foundational things he wants us to remember as he closes. It’s as if he’s winding down and using that famous preacher line: “If you don’t remember anything else I’ve said, I want you to remember THIS.”
No matter what situation you find yourself in…pray.
That’s it?! That’s the answer?! That’s so…Sunday School…
But James isn’t joking around. He’s writing to people who are under intense persecution and oppression, who are looking for guidance and hope and strength to persevere. And James knows JUST the thing that they need. Prayer.
James lists all kinds of different situations in life that his readers might face, and then lists prayer as the one thing to do. In fact, prayer is mentioned in every single verse of this passage.
Clearly, James thinks that no matter what situation we find ourselves in, the thing we should do is pray.
Now, if you’re like me, you might scoff at that.
“That’s it?! But prayer is so PASSIVE… I want to know what to DO. I need something Active.”
And now, I realize that saying that out loud makes me sound like I’ve got hyperactive issues or like I need to be in control, rather than sit back. Maybe you can relate.
But this passage isn’t just directed at people who busy themselves with tasks. This is for everyone, and it details just what a community of Jesus followers do, no matter what situation they are facing.
(Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray.)
James starts by speaking to those who are suffering, which, if we look back at his previous sections, probably refers to the poor who are suffering at the hands of the abusively powerful. In today’s context, James would be speaking to anyone who feels like the decisions of the powerful are causing hardship and suffering for them.
(Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise.)
James then refers to those who are “happy.” This is not contrasting people who are experiencing good and bad in life. Remember, James is writing to the scattered church, who are ALL undergoing persecution or suffering of some kind. Some of them are really struggling, and others of them are able to have courage and bear up under the suffering. Both are encouraged to turn to the Lord.
And those who are going through this time with difficulty aren’t being told to pray for the removal of hard things, but rather to pray for strength to ENDURE the hard times. This is precisely how he began his letter in chapter 1, encouraging us to consider it “pure joy” whenever we face trials, because testing produces PERSEVERANCE.
And we don’t always like that, do we? We like to eliminate discomfort. When we’re being pushed, we like to run away or push back. No one likes to stay there and withstand it. But James knows that God uses adversity as part of our spiritual preparation and growth. And prayer is not passive, it is ACTIVE WAITING. Prayer allows us to remember that our effort cannot save us. Prayer turns us back to God and allows us to understand what God is forming in us through the pressure around us.
One theologian said, “Prayer is THE necessary discipline for every Christian’s faith.”
James is simply saying, “Do you feel like you’re suffering right now? Pray to God. Do you feel like you’re able to be joyful in spite of the circumstances? Sing and praise God for giving you strength to endure!”
You and I know we don’t always need the reminder to turn to God when life is hard, but James knows that we definitely need the reminder when times are good. He’s encouraging us to make praising and thanks a habit so that we don’t take the good days for granted. They’re a gift!
He then moves on to discuss a different type of situation: sickness. (Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them) James instructs his readers to call the elders of the church to come pray over them if they are sick. And these elders are not what we would consider the modern “office” of elder, that carries with it responsibilities for running the church, overseeing the finances, leading ministries. Rather, these would have simply been people who were respected in the community for having a strong faith and for being willing to walk alongside others. Today, we would think of mentors. No matter their age or stage of life, these mentors are people who help lead and inspire others, both in big and small ways, as they learn to follow Jesus together.
James wants us to remember that even though we can pray on our own, prayer is not only an INDIVIDUAL response to the situations we face. We are also called to LEAN on the prayers of the community, especially people who you respect for their mature faith.
And why are we to ask for prayer support when we’re sick? Because “the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well.” How? “The Lord will raise them up.”
James then mentions how their sins will also be forgiven. And even though James states this matter-of-factly, we should pause here because this section can raise some questions for us. We read sections about healing, and we wonder, does that still happen today? If we pray for healing, but nothing happens, does that mean we didn’t have enough faith? And what’s this whole thing about forgiveness of sins? Is sickness caused by sins? If we pray for healing, and nothing happens, is it because of unaddressed sin in our life?
First, let’s talk about sin and forgiveness. Jesus’ own disciples had the same assumption about how sin causes sickness or bad things in your life. In John 9, we find a man born blind, and the disciples ask Jesus how he came to be that way. “Who sinned, rabbi? Him, or his parents?”
They were operating under the assumption that SOMEONE’S sin must have caused his blindness. So who did it? Did he sin in the womb and therefore get punished with blindness? Or did his parents do something sinful, so they got punished with a blind kid? This view of sin sounds a lot more like karma than the character of God. And Jesus thinks so, too. He says, “the blindness wasn’t punishment for sin. But it’s an opportunity for God to be glorified.” Jesus then takes that opportunity, and restores the man’s sight.
In many other instances of healing, we see Jesus also forgiving sins. So, while Jesus makes it clear that sickness isn’t necessarily punishment for sin, sin and sickness are still connected because they are both effects of our broken, fallen world. They are both different ways that we are broken and kept from being whole, from being holy, just as God intended us to be. And Jesus is interested in healing……. not just our physical sickness, but also our spiritual sickness and separation from him.
We still see how sin and sickness are connected today. Sometimes, the sin involved is addiction to alcohol or drugs that causes a sickness in our relationships when we ignore our responsibilities to our family or community. Maybe the sin is anger or abuse, which causes and comes from both physical and emotional brokenness. Sometimes, we see an emotional sickness caused by bitterness or envy.
In all these areas, God desires to heal. And he calls us to pray.
However, it’s still okay and probably good to have a healthy skepticism about healing prayer, because we’ve all heard of charlatans who manipulate people with their name-it-and-claim-it messages that actually put the burden on us. When we pray and things don’t happen the way we hope, we think it’s our “fault” because we don’t have enough faith.
But we need to remember that healing isn’t based on our faith. That would make our faith a WORK that we have to muster up. But that’s not it at all. The LORD is at work in prayer and healing. It’s due to HIS power, not human effort. Jesus doesn’t NEED the faith of a sick person as if he needs an extra boost for his healing power.
The power to heal is in prayer, not the pray-er. Not in the one praying.
But sometimes, we don’t receive the answer we hope for. Many of us know of how the Apostle Paul prayed for God to heal him of some “thorn” in his flesh (see 2 Cor 12:7-10). But God was using that for a different purpose in Paul’s life. Not for God to be glorified in Paul’s healing, but for God to be glorified in how Paul relied upon God in spite of his situation.
Jesus prayed to be spared his suffering (see Matt 26:36-44), but he knew that God had a bigger purpose in his answer, and so he submitted and obeyed. And he was content. How? He knew the same thing James knew:
We can pray to God no matter what situation we’re in because God is a good Father who gives good gifts…and the best gift is his very Presence with us. No matter the answer that we hope for or receive in prayer, we can know that God is with us, sustaining us in the very situation we face.
And that’s why James feels so confident in being able to confess sins. (Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed) He knows God is good and merciful and offers forgiveness. And no matter what situation we’re in, when we pray and draw close to God, it’s another opportunity to receive grace and forgiveness and to be reminded of the fact that we are set free from sin. We can be healed of our sin. We are being made right, made righteous, by God’s work in us, allowing us to participate in his work around us. (The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective)
Then James mentions one of the giants of the Jewish faith, the prophet Elijah, who was considered a prayer warrior because his prayers were tied to a drought and the subsequent rain that ended the drought and saved the people. But James doesn’t focus on his heroic nature, but rather brings up the fact that he was normal. He “was a human being,” JUST LIKE US.
James is emphasizing that EVERY believer has access to the kind of effectiveness in prayer that he’s illustrating with the example of Elijah, because it’s not about the character of the one praying. It’s all dependent on the character of the One we are praying to.
We too can pray for miracles and God hears our voice just as he did in the days of Elijah.
And even in proclaiming that to you, I must confess that I struggle to believe it sometimes.
Some of you know of the time in my life when Megan and I were first married, and my mother in law had a complication from surgery and ended up hospitalized for over a year and a half. Some of you walked with us through that hard time, and you know that the journey was a roller-coaster of ups and downs. There were times when it seemed like recovery was going so well, and there were times when we would get a phone call in the middle of the night because she had coded and had been brought back.
That was a very trying time for us. I found myself praying for healing and wondering if God was even listening, because I wasn’t seeing the results I hoped for. We prayed together. We prayed over her. We prayed with others. We asked for prayer on social media. In the end, Megan’s mom received ultimate healing when she walked into the arms of Jesus after a long battle in the hospital.
That wasn’t the answer to prayer I had envisioned. We knew that ultimate healing was being free from pain and being in the arms of Jesus, but we were also sad because we still wanted her with us. But we also had peace, even though “peace” didn’t make any sense, so we knew that HAD to be from God and he had heard our prayers. It just was different than I had thought. To be honest, I’m still asking God to help me understand, even four years later.
And at the same time, I’ve also seen God come through in incredible ways immediately in answer to prayer. A few years ago, I had a meeting with a friend who had just finished a martial arts workout, and he asked for prayers since he had hurt his arm and had heard a pop and was worried what that might mean. Even though he mentioned it as we were about to leave, I asked if we could stop right then and pray. So we did. While we were praying, he said he felt heat radiate down his arm from his shoulder and the pain went away. He was immediately able to move his arm without any pain, even though he had been cradling it just a few minutes earlier. A visit to the doctor the following day confirmed that no lasting damage had happened. We praised God together.
And so, even as I continue to pray and put my hope in God, I also continue to struggle with trusting God.
James wants us to know that no matter what situation we find ourselves in, we can pray to God because he’s a good Father who gives good gifts and who is Present with us.
So, what are you supposed to DO? Well, first, discern if you’re in a season of suffering or enduring right now.
Maybe you’re feeling like you’re struggling right now. James says to pray. Maybe you’re doing pretty alright and are handling all the craziness in our world pretty well right now. James says to pray and praise God for sustaining you.
Whichever side you fall in, then ask the Holy Spirit, God’s very Presence with us, “what next?” What’s one next step you can take in your habit of prayer?
Maybe you need to commit to daily prayer. We have resources on that and would love to walk alongside you with that. Send us a text or an email to reach out to the pastoral team so that we can resource you and guide you.
Maybe you already do that, and want to grow deeper in your prayer life. We’d love to partner with you in that as well.
Because we know that God is good, we get to pray when we are hurting. We get to pray when we are happy. And we get to pray with the church family.
God is always available to draw near to us, and when we draw near to Him, he offers us grace and healing, and he points us to others to be able to offer the same to them.
Isn’t that good news?