Passage – James 5:13-20

13 Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. 14 Is anyone 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. 15 And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. 16 Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. 17 Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. 18 Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit.

19 My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, 20 let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.

Commentary

This series was refined and adapted to be published by ABC.

Imagine you are writing a letter to a friend after a major hardship. Maybe it’s after a long recovery from a major injury or grief after the loss of a spouse after adultery. After you spoke to the specific challenges that your friend is facing, how would you conclude your letter? What would the last paragraph be about?

In these final verses, we get to see how James concludes his letter to his friends facing adversity. We’ve traced the journey of these friends from Jerusalem through persecution to becoming refugees to the hardships they have in their new city. We’ve eavesdropped on James’s pastoral care for them amid these hardships. Now, we’re coming to final words of care for them.

Prayer, Suffering, and Community (v. 13-15)

James begins with a trilogy of questions. First, “Is anyone among you suffering?” James entire letter has been about this question. But oddly, he doesn’t summarize his counsel to them. That’s what we expect from a conclusion: a summary. Instead, James simply says, “Pray.”

In this, we see that no action plan or accurate theology can replace an honest conversation with God. Amid suffering, God doesn’t primarily give us answers. Instead, God offers himself, a relationship, availability through prayer, and a reminder that we are never alone in hard times. As we care for another, need to remember that answers for suffering – to the degree they exist – are empty without relationship.

No action plan or accurate theology can replace an honest conversation with God. Amid suffering, God doesn’t primarily give us answers. Instead, God offers himself. Click To Tweet

Second, “Is anyone cheerful?” This question catches us off guard. Nothing about this book has been cheerful. James wrote this letter in the dull tones suffering, not the vibrant tones of joy. But this is an important reminder: suffering does not negate cheerfulness. As Christian we can be honest about hard times and still smile. Redemptive stories still have dark chapters.

The response of praise for God’s faithfulness amid the hardships of life is a form of rebellion against suffering. It declares, “Suffering doesn’t win! Suffering doesn’t own me!” These believers, rebuilding their lives in a new city they fled to escape persecution, could still give thanks for salvation, good friends, and each marker of their new life coming together.

Third, “Is anyone among you sick?” If cheerfulness caught us off guard, asking about their health may feel completely random. It’s not. James is familiar with human experience and realizes the exhaustion of prolonged suffering results in us getting sick more often. To endure suffering our body pulls energy from other “departments.” Our immune system is one of those departments. By asking, James shows God cares for our bodily weaknesses that get worse in hard times.

James’s response to this question is more developed than the first two. It has three points that echo earlier themes from his letter.

  1. “Let him call for the elders of the church,” reminds us not to suffer alone.
  2. “Let them pray over him,” reminds us that God cares, and we should talk to him.
  3. “Anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord,” reminds us to remain active against the impact of our suffering on our lives.

Then James develops a parallel between sickness and sin. It might be easy to mistake this to mean that a Christian who prays with faith will never get sick. Instead, James’s is saying that God cares for your suffering (sickness) as much as your sinfulness (salvation). Trusting God with our suffering reveals that we learning to entrust all our lives to God. Trusting God with our suffering doesn’t save us; instead, it reveals a relationship with God that is a fruit of salvation.

When you ask people who have walked away from their faith why they no longer believe, the answer is usually an experience of suffering: a diagnosis, divorce, death, or something comparable. James is saying that person who continues bringing these kinds of concerns to God is a person who is actively relying on God for everything.

Prayer, Sin, and Community (v. 16-18)

“Therefore,” in verse sixteen, pivots the focus of this passage from suffering to sin. After inviting his readers to be honest about their suffering, James invites his readers to be equally honest about their sin. As we care for one another, we need to be as “bilingual” as James; that is, comfortable talking about sin and suffering.

James builds off his previous subject, sickness, describing God’s response to our sin when we repent as “healing.” But this is more than poetic parallelism. James is communicating that God wants to do more than forgive our sin, he also wants to heal (in the sense of restore) the damage done by our sin. But for this healing to happen we must be honest about our sin, not just with God, but also with our fellow believers.

The leading reason sin “festers” is that its hidden; sin grows like mold in the dark. In this passage, James is inviting us, like the child who has a cut but covers it up, to allow confession with a Christian friend to be like a parent cleaning the cut. For the sin-cut to heal it must be exposed to the light of confession.

James is specific about the kind of person to whom we confide our sin: a righteous person who will pray for us. Both character and prayer are important. A righteous person will hold us to a standard of holiness instead of downplaying our sin. As our friend prays for us, they are reminding us that the hope for freedom from sin comes from taking that sin to God for forgiveness. There is “great power” in this example, support, accountability, and prayer. That great power is accessed by the simple question, “Can I tell you about something I’m struggling with?”

James illustrates this point with the life of Elijah and his response to a prolonged drought (I Kings 17-18). The first thing James notes is that Elijah has “a nature like ours” (v. 17). It is easy to treat Bible characters like comic book heroes who have superpowers. James says no, even people of great faith, like Elijah, get discouraged like we do.

Then James comments on the duration of the drought: three and a half years. Great faith, godly character, and strong prayers don’t equal short, brief, light problems. The duration of Elijah’s drought would feel comparable to how long these believers had been rebuilding their lives. James wants them to know that the duration of their struggle isn’t an indictment from God of the quality of their faith.

James concludes by saying, “Then he [Elijah] prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit” (v. 18, emphasis added). You can imagine that Elijah would smile if he read the word “again.” How many days of looking at a cloudless sky, dusty ground, dwindling pantry, and hungry family are captured in that word “again”?

If we’re going to read our Bibles in a way that cultivates hope, we can’t skim over that word “again” as if it simply means “one more time.” If we do, then we’ll think Elijah was a different sort of person then we are or that God loves Elijah more than us. For Elijah, “again” lasted 1277 days, three and a half years’ worth of days.

Each day Elijah woke up and asked, “Am I going to pray again? Am I going to believe that God still cares? Will I continue to hope?” The answer was yes, and that trust in God – not the volume of his voice, the eloquence of his words, or a unique favor with God – was what made his prayers powerful. The same is what makes our prayers powerful.

Seek Each Other Out Amid the Fog of Suffering (v. 19-20)

The first word of the last sentence in James’s letter is “brothers.” James knows he’s not writing to confused students, slacking direct reports, or disgruntled colleagues. James is writing to members of his spiritual family. Their pain matters to him.

When one of these people wanders off, they are wandering from a place that should be “home.” They are leaving what should be “family.” That is what should compel his readers to pursue those who wander. They are going after a sibling who is leaving home under false, but sympathetic, pretense.

James says that those who wander are “wandering from the truth” (v. 19). Suffering creates a context where we are prone to believe many lies. Suffering makes false things feel true. Suffering makes God feel far off, aloof, indifferent, powerless, or calloused. Suffering makes relationships feel pointless, dangerous, or like their too much work. Suffering makes hope feel foolish and naïve.

James says, when your fellow believer begins to wander into the fog of these lies, pursue them. Pursuit is as simple as saying, “I know life is hard right now. Can we talk about it?” Then listen. You’ll likely hear the themes that emerged throughout the book of James. As the conversation flows, balance compassion for suffering with affirming the power of their choices amid this hardship.

James says as we do this, we’ll be saving our friend from both death and multitude of sins. As we’ve said, suffering is the number one reason people turn their back on their faith and devolve into a multitude of destructive choices as life seems increasingly meaningless. An invitation to an honest conversation about the hard times is the best protection against these dangers.

Conclusion

When we come to the end of a book like James, we may be disappointed. We want our care and counsel for others to make their suffering “all better.” As caregivers, we can feel like failures when this doesn’t happen. But there is encouragement in this discouragement.

We see that even when the godliest care givers – the half brother of Jesus himself – gives counsel divinely inspired by the Holy Spirit, this doesn’t happen. The ultimate hope for suffering happens in heaven when Jesus will wipe away every tear (Rev. 21:4). As we care for one another amid our suffering, we offer temporal hope anchored in this ultimate hope.

We must be content offering the type of counsel the Bible offers: compassion for suffering, guidance on how to alleviate the impact of suffering, direction for finding meaning amid suffering through the gospel, reminders that choices and character still matter, and calls to remember that God is with us through it all. When we have done that, we have been a faithful ambassador of the Wonderful Counselor (Isa. 9:6-7). That is our calling.

Questions

  1. What is your reaction to the statement, “No action plan or accurate theology can replace an honest conversation with God”?
  2. When have you seen someone, maybe yourself, be cheerful amid hardship in a way that did not ignore or dismiss their suffering?
  3. Which are you more willing to talk about with your friends, your sin or your suffering?
  4. Where are you, like Elijah, weary for having to pray for the same thing “again”?
  5. Who do you need to pursue because they are beginning to wander, disoriented by the lies that their suffering make seem true?
  6. When have you been prone to feel like faithful care and counsel was failure because it didn’t make a hard situation “all better”? How has this study through James encouraged you about his?

* * * This article is part of a series entitled A Counseling Commentary on James.

* * * If you enjoyed this article, you may also be interested in my series A Counseling Commentary on Philippians.