The morning message is concluded and the elders come forward during the final hymn. They gather on the chancel steps to pray with those who come forward from the congregation to share specific needs. The elder lays hands on the people and prays for the release of the Lord’s healing power in them. Some people come expressing a need to know Christ, others need assurance of forgiveness, some have concerns for loved ones who are ill or troubled. Many have physical illnesses while others need the Lord’s guidance and strength for the challenges they face. The results of these prayers have been astounding.1 This is not a report from some kooky church on the fringe of reality, but from the very respectable First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood.
Many Christians are confused over the issue of prayer and healing. Many churches will not offer the opportunity that this Presbyterian church does. But the questions remain: Is God there when sickness enters our lives? Do miracles of healing still happen — or do we just read about them in the Bible?
Some insist that miracles and healings should always be the order of the day. They sometimes compound the suffering of those struggling with illness by claiming, “It’s never God’s will for Christians to suffer.” The victim is blamed for his infirmity and accused of sin or a lack of faith.
Prayer is the theme uniting verses James 5:13-18. This section teaches that vital relationships with God grow out of intimacy with Him in prayer. We are invited to share all life’s experiences with Him. Whether glad or grieving, troubled or triumphant, we are to pray. I received a note while writing this from a pastor whose wife died after a lingering bout with cancer. Now, while grieving for her, his own cancer — in remission for years — has returned. James speaks to situations like this in James 5:14. One source of Christian trouble is sickness. If prayer is appropriate for any context of life, it is certainly relevant in times of physical affliction.
We often pray the “why” question: “Why is this happening to me?” “What” is the more appropriate prayer: “Lord, what are you saying to me through these difficulties?” Or, “Father, what do you want me to learn, or what do you wish for me to do?”
I. What Causes Sickness?
Violations of God’s Natural Laws. Many are sick because they disregard basic health principles. Sanitation, hygiene, diet, exercise, and rest are neglected, with illness the natural result.
A well-balanced diet is essential to good health. God was Israel’s healer, but He was also their dietitian. We are not bound by all the restrictions of Old Testament law, but God established laws of hygiene and diet then that are still helpful in maintaining health today. God established a day of rest and a sabbatical year. Proper rest remains an important factor in good health. We violate these laws to our physical detriment.
Violations of God’s Moral Laws. The Bible leaves no doubt that God sometimes uses physical infirmity to punish sin and chasten His children. We are reminded of this at the Communion Table when we consider 1 Corinthians 11:29-32. Paul said, “For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. But if we judged ourselves, we would not come under judgment. When we are judged by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be condemned with the world.” Some were sick and others died because of sinful attitudes at the table of the Lord. Such sickness was not to be accepted passively; they were expected to stop sinning and be healed. The sickness was a strong encouragement to change their sinful behavior.
Brought by Satan and Allowed by God. Satan sometimes brings sickness (though it is permitted by God). Job and the apostle Paul are examples. Paul repeatedly asked God to deliver him from his “thorn in the flesh” which he described as “a messenger of Satan.” To display His power in Paul’s affliction, God allowed the affliction.
One writer says, “Let’s mark the conclusion in red letters. The disasters of the world do not have their origin in the will of God. The evil one is the author of adversity.”2
For God’s Glory and Our Good. Sickness is sometimes allowed for our growth and for God’s glory. The Psalmist knew this when he wrote, “It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees” (Psalms 119:71). Joni Eareckson Tada testifies from her wheelchair that God uses her infirmity to minister His love to many. She says, “Satan schemed that a 17-year-old girl named Joni would break her neck, hoping to ruin her life; God sent the broken neck in answer to her prayer for a closer walk with Him and uses her wheelchair as a platform to display His sustaining grace.”3
Not all sickness can be blamed on personal sin. Jesus made that very clear in His encounter with the blind man of John 9. In an ultimate sense, all sickness is related to sin, because there was no sickness before the fall.
II. What Cures Sickness?
Healing with Medicine. Some suggest that the use of doctors and medicines indicates a “lack of faith.” This claim disregards the testimony of the Bible as well as that of personal experience. Medicine is a gift from God. When King Hezekiah was ill, Isaiah offered a medical prescription and said, “apply it to the boil, and he will recover” (Isaiah 38:21). Because of Timothy’s stomach ailment and an impure water supply, Paul prescribed the medicinal use of wine in 1 Timothy 5:23. God is surely not limited in His miraculous power, but He usually chooses to use human agencies. We should praise Him for trained, dedicated medical personnel.
Healing through Rest and Change. We may often experience healing through a change of pace and thorough rest. Even our Lord needed times of withdrawal from people and times of refreshing with the Father. Referring to restful recuperation, evangelist Vance Havner used to say, “If you don’t come apart a while, you’ll soon come apart.”
Healing through Divine Intervention. Christians populate hospital wards, asylums, and cancer hospices just as non-Christians do. They roll in wheelchairs, face silent worlds with unhearing ears, and experience enfeeblement in about the same measure as the rest of the population. They are haunted by the question, “Why doesn’t God intervene miraculously and heal my sickness?” Many have prayed for healing or attended healing services where they felt a sudden rush of hope, but they are still unhealed. They desperately need the support of their church, but too often are taunted that they must not measure up spiritually any more than they do physically.
Yet the New Testament is full of instances when Jesus and His followers healed men, women, and children. James counsels that healing is still to be expected today.
III. What Brings Healing?
The Sick Should Call. “Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord” (James 5:14). Clearly, the initial step is to be taken by the sick person. Confined to bed, this person or a representative should summon the church leaders. When seriously ill, with a body racked by pain, it is not easy to pray effectively for ourselves; then it is important to remember that we belong to a body and are not alone. We can call for the prayer support of stronger members. The elders are called because they should be persons of faith who believe that God can heal. The Lord may not heal in every case, but these elders are convinced that He is a healing God and that He can make sick persons whole.
The leaders are invited to the sick person’s home when he is not well enough to come to the assembly. Actually, effective prayer can be offered any time the church gathers, but while miserable and lonely, the sick one feels especially loved as Christian friends gather in his or her home to pray. Even so, they come in response to his call. Someone has well said, “It is not the business of the elders of the church to go scouting for the sick.”
Elders Should Pray. As the leaders of the local church the elders are called because they should be spiritually mature and experienced in intercessory prayer. Another title describing their function is “overseers.” They are responsible for pastoral oversight and spiritual direction. They are “to pray over him.” Prayer is their main ministry on behalf of the sick person. “Pray” is the main verb, while “anoint” is a participle. The anointing with oil was completely subsidiary to the praying.
The anointing is to be done in the name of the Lord, calling on divine authority for the results. But what is the purpose of this anointing with oil? Oil was a very common medicine in biblical times. James seems to be prescribing prayer along with medicine, suggesting that we should avail ourselves of both spiritual and natural resources. Someone has said, “I have found the best combination for healing is a healthy blend of penicillin and prayer.” Charismatic leader Jack Hayford says, “We should always be people who know the receiving of medical help is not a rejection of divine healing.”4
My wife and I discovered this when our oldest daughter was only eight months old. One day her neck was limp and she was unable to hold up her head. She was admitted to Children’s Hospital in Fort Worth, Texas, where she was placed in traction and hospitalized for two weeks. Excellent orthopedic surgeons examined Tammy’s x-rays and concluded that nothing could be done for her. We took Tammy home with the knowledge that she might remain in a neck-brace the rest of her life. It was then that our impassioned prayers touched the throne of God and our daughter was immediately healed by the power of the Lord.
Some teach that healing power was confined to the apostolic age. God has imposed no such limits upon Himself. James recommends that regular church officers, not apostles, should carry out the practice. This implies that the ministry to the sick is not limited to apostles, or even to those with gifts of healing as mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12:30. James’ counsel has permanent validity in the church. However, this is the only mention of anointing a sick person in the New Testament letters. Since many were healed without anointing, it is apparent that anointing is not required for healing prayer to be effective.
The Lord Will Heal. It is God’s power that heals. The prayer, anointing, and the calling on Jesus’ name is not a magical rite. It is an opening for God’s power to intervene. Alec Motyer speaks of the advance of medical knowledge, and writes, “the discovery of medicines and the perfecting of surgical techniques are without doubt examples of the providential goodness of God. We must be careful lest we over-value the marvelous and the miraculous at the expense of the mundane and the providential.”5
Acknowledging God’s sovereign hand in bad times and good, our eyes should be on the Lord even when we go to the doctor. If an aspirin works, it is God who makes it work. When a broken bone is set and mended, it is the Lord who causes the healing. Every good gift is from above!
Genuine prayer is always a commitment to the will of God, and it is best expressed in patience as we wait to see what He will do. The unqualified statement that the prayer of faith will save the sick stands alongside many similar affirmations regarding prayer. The Bible makes its prayer promises without qualifications. Jesus said, “I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven” (Matthew 18:19). He also promised His disciples, “I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father” (John 14:13).
These promises are given to increase our confidence in the place of prayer. They tell of an omnipotent God who can do all things, who is so generous that He will not withhold good from us, and who hears every plea. The promises do not allow us to come with a stubborn insistence that we’ve got it right and our will must be done. We are not to try to whip up a believing spirit or pretend to have it when we do not.
Prayers for healing are qualified by the recognition that God’s will is supreme. In the New Testament, for one reason or another, God did not always heal even great people of faith. Paul’s thorn in the flesh and the sickness of some of his friends are examples. Our faith must always be in the God whose will is supreme and best. To pray “in Jesus’ name” is not an incantation but a submission to His will and authority.
We should pray for the sick with confidence that God will answer that prayer and bring healing. Such faith cannot be manufactured no matter how gifted, insistent, or righteous we are. Our responsibility is to pray and to leave the results with God.
Jesus Christ has placed in the hands of the church the keys of the kingdom (Matthew 16:19). One of these keys will set men and women free from the power and authority of Satan. We need to use this key wisely but resolutely. It will not fit every lock. But the locks it does fit will spring open at the name of Jesus Christ. The authority Jesus had to deliver people from satanic powers has been bequeathed to the church. It may be used wherever and whenever it is appropriate.6
Some have abused and sensationalized healing ministries. Others have abandoned them altogether. Our responsibility is to be faithful to the teaching of God’s Word.
1. Lloyd John Ogilvie, Praying with Power (Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 1983), p. 98.
2. Robert L. Wise, When There is No Miracle (Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 1977), p. 128.
3. Joni Eareckson Tada and Steve Estes, A Step Further (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1978), p. 140.
4. Jack Hay ford, “Healing for Today,” Charisma (September, 1984), p. 43.
5. Alec Motyer, The Message of James (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1985), p. 192.
6. Michael Harper, The Healings of Jesus (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1986), p. 51.