There is a lot of confusion about the relationship between prayer and healing. The Bible teaches us that all illnesses are a result of sin, but some sicknesses are purposeful. Sometimes the purpose is discipline (1 Corinthians 11:27-32), and sometimes the purpose is to reveal God’s glory (John 9:1–3; 11:4). There is nothing terribly complicated about this, but Christians have developed very opposing attitudes about healing:
Some cite Jesus’s words (“ask and you shall receive”) and conclude prayer obligates God to give us what we want.
Others are convinced that divine healing was operational only during apostolic times and is no longer happening.
And some of us can’t find support in the Bible for either of these positions. We recognize two facts: fact #1 is God still heals people today, but fact #2 is that not everyone gets healed.
James helps us sort through the confusion, and he says the key lies in our relationships:
Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will make the sick well, and the Lord will raise them up. And anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.
James’s prescription is relational: we are to pray for ourselves, we are to pray for one another, and we are to call on our spiritual leaders to help. Verse 14 encourages us to enlist the elders of the church–not televangelists who claim to have healing power and not traveling faith healers–we are to call the pastors of the church we attend (“elder” and “pastor” are synonymous terms that refer to different aspects of the office).
Bible scholars disagree about the purpose of the oil. Some point to its medicinal use and conclude God wants us to use both prayer and medicine when we are ill. Others point to oil’s figurative meaning and understand the anointing to be sacramental and/or symbolic. Theologians disagree about the function of the oil, but one thing is certain in the text: ultimately, it is “the prayer of faith” that is the remedy, and this is not something that happens in a vacuum. We need people around us to facilitate the healing. This is why James encourages us to confess our sins.
It is good and necessary to confess our sins to God, but it is also necessary to confess our sins to others. As a pastor, I have counseled many troubled souls, and I am always happy to hear, “I want to tell you something I’ve never told anyone.” I get excited because I know they are near a breakthrough. When we find the courage to tell others about our sin, we will often find release.
But what does it mean to confess my sin? Should I start blabbing to everyone I meet? No. Who you admit your sin to will depend on the circumstances. I once heard a principle called “The Circle of Confession” that helps me decide who to talk to–I should only confess to the people involved:
When my sin is against God alone, then I just need to admit my sin to him.
When my sin is against another person, I need to confess both to God and to the person I sinned against.
When my sin is public knowledge, I need to confess to God, the church, and everyone involved.
The brief instruction in James 5 about the relationship between prayer and healing answers some, but not all, of our questions. One often-asked question is not addressed directly by James. Perhaps you have asked it: “If God can heal any illness, why are there faithful, God-fearing folks who pray but remain unhealed?”
I don’t have a complete answer to that question, but a passage in 2 Corinthians has given me a partial reply. God taught Paul some amazing truths, but he also allowed the apostle to suffer physically. Paul, reflecting on his ailments, came to the conclusion that while it is always within God’s power to heal, it is not always within his purpose. Paul explains:
To keep me from becoming conceited because of the wonderful revelations I received from God, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger from Satan to torment me and keep me from becoming proud. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me. That’s why I take pleasure in my weaknesses, and in the insults, hardships, persecutions, and troubles that I suffer for Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
2 Corinthians 12:7-10
When someone asks me why a loved one has not been healed, the best answer I can come up with is, “Sometimes God has a greater purpose in view than our physical healing.” I realize that is a woefully inadequate response, but in times like these, all I can pray is, “Heavenly Father, heal your child if that is your will. And if it isn’t, give me the grace to accept your decision, even when I can’t understand what you are doing.”
Next: how to pray effectively.