There is a “theology of blame” that has hurt many. One woman stated that after her mother had died, a friend told her that if she had prayed with more faith, she wouldn’t have died. The woman was devastated!
Where did this “theology of blame” come from? James is often cited:
- 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. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. (James 5:14-15)
Through James, the Lord has promised to heal the sick through this “prayer offered in faith.” What happens if he is not healed? Well, God cannot be at fault. This means that the fault lies with us! The culprit is often understood as a lack of faith.
Are we interpreting James correctly? Does he give us a guarantee that, by following this this procedure, every disease will be healed? I don’t think so.
A few verses down, James issues another one of God’s promises:
- My brothers, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring him back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins. (James 5:19-20)
While it is clear that we have a responsibility to correct those who “wander from the truth,” we do not have the power to save anyone “from death.” This power resides only with the Savior!
Is James mistaken? No! He clearly believes that it is God who saves us “from death”:
- He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created. (James 1:18)
- Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you. (James 1:21)
Does he not believe in what Jesus had accomplished for us on the Cross? Of course, he does (James 2:1)! Then how can he claim that we can save the wanderer “from death, and cover a multitude of sins?”
We need to learn to correctly interpret (2 Tim. 2:15). We should not expect that whenever a law or principle is mentioned, every exception must be mentioned along with it.
Let’s take an easy example from the Ten Commandments: “Thou shalt not kill!” Are there exceptions to this rule within the Hebrew Scriptures? Many! These same Scriptures also authorized capital punishment, self-defense, and even warfare.
Do these exceptions contradict the principle of not killing? No! These are merely refinements, and all laws require refinements or qualifications. Any lawyer who wants to do a thorough job will not look merely at the law as stated in the Criminal Codebook. He also must examine the many interpretations, exceptions, and applications of the law, and they are not all found in one place.
This also holds true for anyone who wants to rightly interpret Scripture (or any book). To do this, it is not enough to merely examine the one verse in question. Instead, all of the verses touching on the subject in question must be examined. It starts with the immediate context and then to the context and purpose of the book itself. However, even this doesn’t exhaust the task of interpretation. The entirety of the Bible is relevant.
When we understand this, we also understand that we cannot conclude from these two final verses in the Book of James that we have the power of salvation. Instead, James is telling us that our responsibility is one important element in salvation – proclaiming the truth - and not the entire story.
Now to apply this understanding to the “prayer of faith” for the sick (James 5:15)! While prayer alone can heal no one, prayer is one important element in the healing chain. However, there are also other agents involved in this chain. Of course, the chief Link is God, and we have to believe that He is able to heal. However, in the same context, James mentions another critical aspect of healing – the confession of sins.
- Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective. (James 5:16)
The elders can pray with all the fervency in the world, but if there is a refusal to confess sins, healing might not take place. We also have to confess our sins to “each other.”
There are also other conditions that are not contained in this immediate context. According to James, the sick could not be a friend of the world. This would make them an enemy of God (James 4:4). They would also have to be humble, because the proud will be abased and not healed (James 4:6). They would have to come near to God so that God would healingly come near to them (James 4:8).
Most importantly, healing depends on the will of God, and no amount of faith, positive assertions, or faith confessions can impact this:
- Now listen, you who say, "Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money." Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, "If it is the Lord's will, we will live and do this or that." As it is, you boast and brag. All such boasting is evil. (James 4:13-16)
Our words and prayers have to conform to the will of God. Claiming otherwise is arrogance and self-deception. Instead, our lives carry no more authority or power than the “mist.” Therefore, we must acknowledge God’s power and authority: "If it is the Lord's will, we will live and do this or that." To go beyond what God has explicitly promised is to boast, and this is evil!
Meanwhile, faith preachers teach that we have the same authority as God. In order to prove this unbiblical claim, they invoke a verse that only applies to God:
- As it is written: "I have made you [Abraham] a father of many nations." He is our father in the sight of God, in whom he believed-- the God who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were. (Romans 4:17)
God can call things into existence. However, this verse does not say that we have this ability, as the faith preacher claims. Instead, we are a mist. We can do nothing without Him (John 15:5) and to claim otherwise is nothing short of evil boasting.
Now let’s apply this to the “prayer of faith.” Do we have the authority to claim that a sick man will be healed? No! It might be the will of God to take him now (Psalm 139). Instead, James cautions us to say, “If it is the Lord’s will” instead of, “This man will be healed.”
Besides, it is even illogical to claim that a certain man will be healed. After all, we all die, and this might be our time. Why then does James claim that “the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well?” If we are to understand this promise in the context of the rest of the book, we understand the promise this way: “the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well if it is the Lord’s will!”
But doesn’t James also say “The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective,” (James 5:16)? James then uses Elijah as an example of this:
- Elijah was a man just like us. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. (James 5:17)
From this, the faith preacher teaches that God’s answer depends upon the fervency and forcefulness of our praying. If we are fervent or earnest, our prayers will be answered; if not, our prayers will not be answered.
But from where did Elijah’s fervency come? From the will of God as directly expressed to him through the Word of God:
- Now Elijah the Tishbite, from Tishbe in Gilead, said to Ahab, "As the LORD, the God of Israel, lives, whom I serve, there will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years except at my word." (1 Kings 17:1)
This boldness and confidence did not come from the will of Elijah but the will of God. God had revealed it to Elijah, who was merely communicating the Word of God.
From the account, we find that the Lord was directing Elijah throughout. According to the Lord’s will and timing, He sent Elijah back to King Ahab:
- After a long time, in the third year, the word of the LORD came to Elijah: "Go and present yourself to Ahab, and I will send rain on the land." So Elijah went to present himself to Ahab. Now the famine was severe in Samaria. (1 Kings 18:1-2)
The Lord now had the attention of Israel. Elijah challenged the priests of Baal to call upon Baal to consume with fire an offering, if he could:
- “Then you call on the name of your god, and I will call on the name of the LORD. The god who answers by fire--he is God… Choose one of the bulls and prepare it first, since there are so many of you. Call on the name of your god, but do not light the fire." So they took the bull given them and prepared it. Then they called on the name of Baal from morning till noon. "O Baal, answer us!" they shouted. But there was no response; no one answered. And they danced around the altar they had made. At noon Elijah began to taunt them. "Shout louder!" he said. "Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or traveling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened." So they shouted louder and slashed themselves with swords and spears, as was their custom, until their blood flowed. Midday passed, and they continued their frantic prophesying until the time for the evening sacrifice. But there was no response, no one answered, no one paid attention. (1 Kings 18:24-29)
Yet when Elijah prayed, the bull was immediately incinerated. Why was Elijah bold? He knew that he was operating according to the will and Word of his God and not his own:
- At the time of sacrifice, the prophet Elijah stepped forward and prayed: "O LORD, God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant and have done all these things at your command. (1 Kings 18:36)
His confidence did not stem from his faith in prayer or faith in his own faith but rather a faith in the God whom he served. He knew God’s Word, and that was what he banked on. He did not accomplish the destruction of the priests of Baal through a formless “prayer of faith” but through a belief in the very words and will of God.
Consequently, when I pray that He will make me more Christ-like or that He will build His church, I pray with confidence, because this is what He promised to do. However, when I pray for a healing, I am confident that He is able, but I am not confident that He will heal in this particular circumstance.
Elijah too was only confident when he had a clear command from his God. Ironically, following this great victory, he fled in fear from Jezebel.
Please don’t think that I wish to minimize prayer. Instead, I want to restore it to its proper glory alongside the will of God. In 1976, the Christian historian, J. Edwin Orr, preached about the importance of prayer:
Dr A. T. Pierson once said, ‘There has never been a spiritual awakening in any country or locality that did not begin in united prayer.’ Let me recount what God has done through concerted, united, sustained prayer.
Not many people realize that in the wake of the American Revolution there was a moral slump. Drunkenness became epidemic. Out of a population of five million, 300,000 were confirmed drunkards; they were burying fifteen thousand of them each year. Profanity was of the most shocking kind. For the first time in the history of the American settlement, women were afraid to go out at night for fear of assault. Bank robberies were a daily occurrence.
What about the churches? The Methodists were losing more members than they were gaining. The Baptists said that they had their most wintry season. The Presbyterians in general assembly deplored the nation’s ungodliness. In a typical Congregational church, the Rev. Samuel Shepherd of Lennos, Massachusetts, in sixteen years had not taken one young person into fellowship. The Lutherans were so languishing that they discussed uniting with Episcopalians who were even worse off. The Protestant Episcopal Bishop of New York, Bishop Samuel Provost, quit functioning; he had confirmed no one for so long that he decided he was out of work, so he took up other employment.
The Chief Justice of the United States, John Marshall, wrote to the Bishop of Virginia, James Madison, that the Church ‘was too far gone ever to be redeemed.’ Voltaire averred and Tom Paine echoed, ‘Christianity will be forgotten in thirty years.
Take the liberal arts colleges at that time. A poll taken at Harvard had discovered not one believer in the whole student body. They took a poll at Princeton, a much more evangelical place, where they discovered only two believers in the student body, and only five that did not belong to the filthy speech movement of that day. Students rioted. They held a mock communion at Williams College, and they put on antiChristian plays at Dartmouth. They burned down the Nassau Hall at Princeton. They forced the resignation of the president of Harvard. They took a Bible out of a local Presbyterian church in New Jersey, and they burnt it in a public bonfire. Christians were so few on campus in the 1790’s that they met in secret, like a communist cell, and kept their minutes in code so that no one would know.
How did the situation change? It came through a concert of prayer.
What came? The Second Great Revival that transformed this nation! Orr concluded that these prayers were only effectual because they were consistent with the will and providence of God. Let us pray accordingly!