“Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.” — James 5:16
Teachers: Scroll down for teaching materials.
How often do you pray – really? We bow our heads in church while others pray, and may say a perfunctory blessing at the table. We may breathe a quick “God help me” before tackling some uncomfortable or daunting task, but how many of us spend extended time in prayer? Do we need to?
Fortunately, the benefits of prayer are not measured by the time we spend at it, but the attitude and spirit we bring to it. As James came to the end of his letter to Jewish Christians scattered throughout the world, he returned to a subject that began the letter (1:5-8) and focused his closing words on prayer.
Praying in sorrow and joy(v. 13)
James knew that everyone experiences ups and downs in life, and encouraged believers to be faithful in prayer through every season. But James also knew there are right and wrong ways to pray, prayers that are effective and prayers that are mere noise.
Has your prayer life changed through the years? The innocent, trusting prayers of our childhood often give way to more manipulative and self-focused prayers as we grow older. When we don’t get what we ask for, the disappointment may lead us to stop praying altogether, or to reduce our prayers to an empty formality. Perhaps there were persons in James’s audience who had given up on prayer.
James’s first bit of prayer advice speaks to those who are facing difficulties: “Are any among you suffering? They should pray” (v. 13a). What options do we have in times of trial? We can be stoic or in denial. We can cry. We can complain. We can call attention to ourselves with a big pity party. Or, we can pray.
Note that James offers no instruction as to what to pray for. He does not tell us to pray that the suffering will be over, or for acceptance in the midst of suffering, or for those who have caused the suffering. Any of those prayers might be appropriate, and James apparently trusts the reader to know. The important thing is not what we pray, but that we pray. In times of suffering, the presence of God is especially needful.
Suffering is real, but so is joy, and that is also a time for prayer. “Are any cheerful?” James asked: “They should sing songs of praise” (v. 13b). And we should, too. But how often do we mark happy days by spending extra time in prayer? Sorrow often drives us to our knees with empty hearts or darkened spirits, but joy can leave us so full of good feelings that prayer may be the last thing that comes to mind.
Praying in sickness(vv. 14-15a)
James’s readers lived in a time when good medicine was virtually non-existent. Poor people had no access to such physicians as there were. They were left to rely on magical charms, medicinal oils, or visits to a shrine of Asclepius in search of healing. James urges his readers to put their trust in God rather than in superstition.
How are we to understand this text, which seems to offer a blanket promise that God will heal those who call on the elders of the church to anoint them with oil and to pray for them? Some believers have taken James’s words so literally that they limit their medical care to the realm of prayer. Christian bookstores often carry small bottles of olive oil from Israel for use in anointing the sick as they follow James’s advice.
Nevertheless, we know that people often remain sick, suffer, and die despite the most earnest of prayers being offered in their behalf.
Was James wrong, or do we fail to understand him? If James means to say that the prayer of faith will save the sick, and the people for whom we pray do not recover, does that mean our faith is faulty? Many persons have suffered from well-meaning advisors who suggested that healing would have come if they had prayed with greater faith.
It can be helpful to take a closer look at James’s terminology. Notice what he says: The prayer of faith will save the sick, and “the Lord will raise them up.” The Greek words can speak of renewed physical health, but they are also typical vocabulary choices to speak of eternal salvation and the promise of resurrection at the last day – which James had discussed in the verses leading up to today’s text (5:7-11).
It may be that James is not promising a guarantee of physical healing after all, but the assurance of eternal life for those who give themselves into God’s care. Note that James connects this statement with a promise that such prayer leads to the forgiveness of sin. Both sickness and sin lead to isolation. A prayerful visit from the elders would bring balm to the sick. Salvation is the most potent healing of all.
Praying in sin(vv. 15b-18)
When James speaks of praying for the sick, he promises that they will be saved, that they will be raised up, and that their sins will be forgiven. This implies that the sick person who has called for the elders is praying, too: the scriptures do not teach that the prayers of one person can save another. James appears to be speaking of corporate prayer when he says: “Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed” (v. 16a).
The greatest healing we can experience is the healing of our wounded spirits. God may not always heal our broken bodies, but will always heal the broken souls of those who seek him. As the author of 1 John reminds us: “If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1:9).
The prayers of the righteous make a difference, James insists: they are “powerful and effective.” However, those who think prayer is about getting what we want must not overlook the word “righteous.” The prayers of the righteous are powerful and effective. In this context, being righteous is not defined by pure living alone, but by devotion to the will of God. Earlier, James had noted that the elders should anoint persons “in the name of the Lord” (v. 14).
Prayers of the truly faithful are always offered in the context of God’s will (cf. 4:15), not our own. James closes the section by calling on the prophet Elijah as both illustration and inspiration regarding the power of prayer. Elijah once prayed that it would not rain, and there was no rain for three and a half years – until Elijah changed his prayer and asked for the drought to be broken (cf. 1 Kings 17-18). The reader should remember, however, that, as a prophet, Elijah acted on God’s instructions rather than his own initiative, and the vocal prayer was designed as a public affirmation that God was with Elijah (cf. 1 Kg. 18:1).
James has warned against presumption throughout his letter, and he certainly would not have Christians presume that they can tell God what to do or whom to heal. If we cannot make assumptions about our own life (4:13-15), we can hardly presume to know God’s will for others. Still, it is always appropriate to pray for one another. In doing so, we assist each other in our spiritual growth and sense of “connectedness” with God, so that we experience forgiveness. In the mutual confession of sins and in the shared prayers of the church, there is great power indeed.
Praying together(vv. 19-20)
James closes this section by reminding believers that we should not only be patient in our own attitudes and faithful in our prayer life, but that we should also look out for others. James seems particularly concerned about those who grow tired of waiting for Christ’s return and leave the church. He urges believers to care enough about their wandering brothers and sisters to go after them: “My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another, you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins” (vv. 19-20).
Could it be true that “the church that prays together stays together”? James believes that the conscientious church will not just stand by when one of its members wanders from God. Rather, members will take notice when fellow believers are missing. They will pray for them. And, they will go after them and try to bring them back into the supportive fellowship of the church.
We must be careful not to wrongly interpret v. 20 as a promise that the one who reclaims a wandering brother obtains bonus forgiveness points, like a bounty paid to cowboys who retrieve lost cattle. It is the errant brother or sister who finds renewed forgiveness and thus is saved from spiritual death. In a sense, this is what James is attempting to do with his entire letter. He sees the churches wandering away from their faithfulness to God, and seeks by his loving advice to lead them toward repentance and restoration, to forgiveness and faith.
As the plainspoken apostle comes to the end of his letter, he leaves believers with a call to get serious about their faith, because following Jesus is serious business. If James had spoken our modern vernacular, he might have said “Put up or shut up.”
| © Nurturing Faith Bible Studies are copyrighted by Baptists Today. DO NOT PHOTOCOPY. Order at: baptiststoday.org
Adult Teaching Resources
Download the PDF for September 27, 2015 teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide, Digging Deeper, and Hardest Question pages.
Read Scripture online: James 5:13-20
Teacher Prep | Youth & This Session
Our faith is a personal choice and lived out individually but that does not mean that it is to be lived out in isolation. The students we serve with need community to hold them up when they are down and to celebrate with them when they succeed. They need community that is more than the connection that social media allows. Building community is important within your group. If it isn’t there they will find somewhere else to find community.
Teaching Resources | Download
Download the PDF for youth teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide for this lesson.
Encourage youth to check out this video ahead of the lesson.
“Pray for Shrimp” from Forrest Gump
Read Scripture online: James 5:13-20