Praying For the Sick
May 7, 2000
Listen to this Sermon
If you have read the title, you know exactly what this sermon is about. Praying for the sick is something we are all asked to do from time to time. It is certainly something that all pastors do every week. That fact alone makes the subject important, especially when I consider that in four years of seminary, I learned Greek, Hebrew, exegesis, hermeneutics, theology, and church history, but less than an hour was spent on this topic.
My own interest in this subject goes back to the fact that I grew up in a doctor’s home. My father was a surgeon and my mother was an army nurse (they met while doing medical service in the army in World War II). My uncle was a surgeon and my three brothers are all medical doctors. I have two cousins who are medical doctors. Medicine is hanging from every branch of my family tree, which is part of the reason I find the topic of praying for the sick so fascinating. At what point do medicine and prayer intersect? How should they work together to provide healing?
Let me state up front what the question is not:
The question is not, Does God answer prayer? The answer is yes.
The question is not, Does God answer prayer for the sick? The answer is also yes.
The question is not, Does God sometimes answer in ways that seem miraculous? Again, the answer is yes. I am happy to stipulate that all those things are true.
Furthermore, the focus is not on what God can do. After all, we know that God can do anything he wants to do. Nothing is impossible with him.
Our focus in this message is on what the church can do. I believe James 5:13-16 tells us how a Bible-believing church responds to sickness in its midst. What should we do for the sick? The answer is simple and profound. The church should pray for the sick that God would raise them up.
To say it that way is to be faithful to the meaning of the text. However, it also raises a number of valid questions. In order to get the proper perspective, let’s start by considering a few preliminary facts.
I. A Place to Begin
The gospels record 41 separate healing miracles in the life of Christ. Matthew 4:23-24 tells us that people with various maladies were brought to Jesus from Galilee and Syria and he healed them all. Some were blind, others deaf, some were demonized, some paralyzed, and still others were sick with various diseases. He healed them all. There is no record of Jesus ever failing to heal anyone who was brought to him. This means that the total number of healing miracles must be far larger than the 41 specifically mentioned.
As we move into the Book of Acts the situation changes. Some miracles of healing are recorded, but not very many. We read about Peter and John and the lame man in Acts 3, signs and wonders in Acts 2 and 5, Peter and Dorcas in Acts 9, and Paul and Eutychus in Acts 20. In the epistles Paul mentions “gifts of healings” in 1 Corinthians 12:28. He also mentions that he left Trophimus sick at Miletus (2 Timothy 5:20), and he told Timothy to take some wine for his stomach’s sake (1 Timothy 5:23). Healing receives relatively little mention because the emphasis is on the spread of the gospel across the Roman Empire.
A brief survey of 2000 years of church history reveals that from the very beginning Christians have believed in ministering to the sick and the dying. No dichotomy ever existed between medicine and prayer. Christians have led the way in starting hospitals, clinics, sanitariums, rest homes, and hospice care. And that is why here in Chicago we have Rush Presbyterian-St. Luke’s Hospital, Christ Hospital, Lutheran General Hospital, Good Samaritan Hospital, Resurrection Hospital, to name just a few. Christians have always believed that part of our message involves offering help for the sick and dying in the name of Jesus Christ.
I should also mention that recent medical research backs up the relationship between medicine and prayer. In the last few years a whole host of studies has validated the fact that when people of faith pray for the sick, the sick get better. This isn’t speculation, it’s a fact confirmed over and over again by rigorous scientific studies. (See “Science Finds God” in Prayer, Faith and Healing, Rodale Press, 1999, pp. 3-17.)
And in recent years there has been a reemphasis on the importance of praying for the sick. In some churches this has become a major ministry involving healing services and teams of laypeople trained to pray for and minister to the sick. It’s also fair to say that in some circles there has been ambivalence on this subject. I think some people are frightened of the perceived excesses of others (I’m thinking of certain flamboyant practices of the “healing evangelists” on late-night Christian television). Perhaps we are embarrassed by the possibility of failure. Certainly we don’t want to raise false hopes. And we definitely don’t want to lose our focus on the gospel as our central message.
All these concerns are quite valid. And yet if you ask us, we all believe that God can and sometimes does work miracles in answer to prayer. And we all have a story to tell in this regard. My story goes back to the church I pastored in Garland, Texas. One day a woman named Libby Redwine asked if the elders would anoint her with oil and pray over her in accordance with James 5. No one had ever asked me to do that before and I didn’t know what to say. The elders didn’t have any experience in this area either but they agreed that we should do it. So I went to the grocery store and bought a jar of olive oil. It just seemed like the right thing to do. The next Sunday after the worship service, Libby and the elders gathered in my office. I read James 5:13-16 and asked her to tell us what we should pray for. Libby said that years earlier she had had one of the first open-heart surgeries in Texas. Evidently her arteries were in terrible shape because the doctor said they were like chalk and would snap if he tried to operate again. Tests showed that Libby had developed a life-threatening blockage in her lower abdomen. Surgery was scheduled for the following Tuesday.
After asking Libby if she had any sins she wished to confess, I dipped my finger in the oil and made the sign of the cross on her forehead. The elders laid their hands on her and one by one we prayed earnestly that God might heal her. As we began to pray, all of us were aware of the powerful presence of God in the room. When we finished, Libby had a big smile on her face and we all knew that God had met with us as we prayed. The next day she had pre-surgery tests. On Tuesday she called with an amazing report. The surgery had been canceled because the tests revealed that the blockage had disappeared. She was giddy with excitement when she told me the good news.
The surgery was never performed. And from that day on she and I and the elders believed that God had healed her in answer to our prayers.
II. A Four-Step Process
As we come to our text, we discover that it offers four steps in the process of praying for the sick.
Step #1: The sick person calls for the elders.
“Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him” (James 5:14). The process begins when the sick person calls for the elders to come to him. The word “sick” is very broad. It includes any serious physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, or relational problem that has become too heavy to bear. There are many kinds of sickness, and when a believer is overwhelmed, he should feel free to call the elders to come to him.
But why are the elders to come to him? First, because the sick person is too sick to come to the church so the church comes to him. Second, because he is too sick to pray for himself so the church comes to pray for him. A friend reminded me this week of the book written by Joseph Cardinal Bernardin during his struggle with cancer that finally took his life. Cardinal Bernardin laid great stress on the importance of praying for the sick because they are too weak to pray for themselves. Often the sick person will be mentally unable to sustain coherent thoughts. Chemotherapy or other drugs may have sapped all mental and physical energy and left him somewhat disoriented. The pain may be so great that prayer becomes a burden. The patient may be in a coma or may drift in and out of consciousness. Those who are healthy can perform a great service for the sick by praying for them. This is an example of the strong bearing the burdens of the weak.
Why call the elders? First, because the elders represent the church. The whole church can’t come but the elders can. Second, the elders are preeminently to be men of prayer. They are called because true elders know how to get in touch with God.
Step #2: The elders go to the sick person.
This step follows from the first. The elders go wherever the sick person is. They go together because there is strength in numbers. Praying in person makes their prayers much more fervent, heartfelt, and earnest. And their presence encourages the sick person with the message that “The church has not forgotten you.” And since elders lead by example, they show the whole congregation how to care for the sick in their midst.
I picture a scene where the person is too sick to sit up in bed so the elders gather round the bed, lifting up holy hands, and literally “praying over” the sick person, just as verse 14 says.
Step #3: The elders pray and anoint with oil.
“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). Prayer is the key. When the elders come to pray for the sick person, and as part of their visit, they anoint him with oil. The word literally means to “rub” oil on him, almost like a massage. The oil is not specifically identified but we may be sure it is not Pennzoil. Most likely the reference is to olive oil since that was widely used in the first century. But the precise kind of oil doesn’t matter. Some missionary friends asked their church in Nigeria to send the elders to pray over their son who was very sick, weak, and seemed to be getting worse. The elders and the pastor came over and asked the missionaries for some oil. The only thing they had was peanut oil so that is what the elders used. That very day their young son began to get better.
Oil in the Bible was often used as a symbol of health and vitality from the Lord. Kings were anointed with oil as a visible symbol of God’s presence and the need for his blessing. The same is true in James 5. The oil isn’t magic. There is no supernatural power in a few drops (or a few cups, for that matter) of oil-olive, peanut, or any other kind. The oil is a simple aid to faith. It is a humbling reminder that all healing must come from God. In this sense the oil is like the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper. It builds faith and says to the sick person, “God is here and He is able to heal you.”
Note that the anointing is to be done “in the name of the Lord.” This is all-important because it reminds us that God is the ultimate source of all blessing and all healing.
There is no power in the elders.
There is no power in the oil.
There is no power in the prayers.
But there is enormous power, omnipotent power, eternal power, in the name of the Lord. He alone can grant the needed healing.
Step #4: There is healing and forgiveness.
“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 5:15).
The fourth step is simply the expected result of steps 1-3: The sick person is healed and his sins are forgiven. James uses an unusual phrase to describe the prayer. He calls it “the prayer offered in faith.” This particular phrase is used nowhere else in the New Testament. In one sense every sincere prayer must be offered in faith or it can hardly be called prayer at all. When the elders pray, they are to come to God with an attitude of complete trust that he can and will do what is needed in every situation. But it is possible that the “prayer of faith” means something like the gift of faith mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12:9. Since faith itself is the gift of God (and not something worked up by our own enthusiasm), perhaps James means to say that when God wants to heal someone, he gives the elders the faith to pray that way with great confidence. Looking back on my experience praying for Libby Redwine, I and the other elders truly did sense the presence of God in a remarkable way.
The text says nothing about how the healing will come. Our text doesn’t demand a miraculous or instantaneous healing. Nor does the healing in view rule out the use of medical care. Whether quickly or slowly, by miracle or by medicine, or by some combination of the two, God is able to heal his children.
And it is certainly important to note the close relationship between the physical and the spiritual. The Greek construction of the “if” clause suggests that sin may indeed be involved in the sickness. Not all sickness is caused by a particular sin, but some illnesses stem directly from our sinful actions and attitudes. Until those things are confronted and confessed, it is pointless to pray for healing. Whenever I am asked to anoint the sick with oil, I always inquire as to their spiritual condition and I ask if they are conscious of any sin that is standing between them and God, blocking his healing power. Sometimes they make a confession, sometimes they don’t. But it is important to ask the question in every case. And in rare situations I may refuse to pray for healing or to anoint with oil if I sense the sick person has a hardened heart or a rebellious spirit. In that case to pray for healing might actually block God’s work of divine chastisement that is intended to bring the sick person to the place of deep personal repentance.
Our greatest problem with the entire passage comes in verse 15. It seems too confident and too dogmatic for us. James states without any qualification that the sick person will be healed. Period. No ifs, ands, or buts about it. We would prefer to read it as “the prayer of faith may save the sick.” After all, most of us have prayed for people who got worse instead of better. I recall that Len Hoppe (a former elder of our church) fervently believed that God was going to heal him of cancer as a testimony to the world of God’s power. Up until the very day of surgery he proclaimed his belief to everyone he met. And multitudes of people at Calvary poured their hearts out to God on his behalf. Two weeks after the surgery I officiated at his funeral service.
Aggressively, Fervently, Submissively
It is an undeniable fact that not everyone we pray for and not everyone we anoint is healed. There are various ways of dealing with this reality and none of them satisfy me completely. There is a mystery here that I cannot fully explain. I do think it helps to compare this passage with other statements about prayer in the New Testament where similar sweeping promises are made. Those statements are meant to encourage us about the boundless possibilities of prayer. They encourage us to believe that no situation is hopeless for God. Just because the doctors have given up doesn’t mean the Great Physician has given up.
How, then, should we pray for the sick? Three words come to mind. We should pray …
Aggressively because nothing is impossible with God.
Fervently because the fervent prayers of the righteous are powerful (verse 16).
Submissively because God’s understanding of the total situation is much greater than ours. Just because we think physical healing would be best doesn’t mean that God agrees with us. We should ask for what we want without telling God how to answer our prayers.
During my research for this sermon I came across a statement regarding healing that has been bouncing around in my mind ever since I read it. Most of us think of healing as “getting rid of the disease.” It’s like running the clock of life backwards and restoring the person to their previous state. But healing in the Bible is a very broad concept that involves coming into a right relationship with God first and foremost. Then it touches every part of life-body, soul, and spirit. It involves the healing of all broken relationships and brings us to a place where we can receive God’s blessings in a new and powerful way. That alone is a huge concept that goes far beyond “Pray for my son who broke his arm in football practice.” Here’s the quote that started me thinking in a new direction: “Healing in the Bible is not becoming what we were but becoming all that God intends us to be.” Selah. Think about that for a while. When we pray for healing, we dare not focus on the physical to the exclusion of the spiritual, emotional, and relational sides of life. We are not healed until we are made whole on every level of our existence.
Wanted: Godly Men of Prayer
As I survey this text in light of the whole Bible, the following two statements seem absolutely true to me:
It is not always God’s will to heal physically or no sick believer would ever die.
It is often God’s will to heal or else why is James 5:13-16 in the Bible?
Sometimes we focus on one statement to the exclusion of the other but both seem entirely true to me. Part of our problem is that is we have lost our faith in 1) God’s will to heal, and 2) the role of the elders in the healing process.
I believe God has made four Provisions for sick believers:
The caring community of faith-the church
Loving family and friends
Doctors, nurses, hospitals, and medicine
Godly elders who pray for the sick.
We have robbed the sick of that last provision. But it is still in the Bible. Sometimes we overlook the basic need of prayer. We send cards, flowers, and candy. We offer babysitting and we prepare meals for the sick. We are ready to run errands. This is all good and proper and a wonderful expression of our faith. But let us not forget that the sick need our prayers more than they need anything else. In our haste to help them, we must start with prayer and let everything else be added to it. We can say it this way:
All believers ought to pray for the sick.
Praying for the sick is the special duty and privilege of the elders of the church.
This tells us what kind of men the elders should be: Godly men of prayer. If they are not men of prayer away from the bedside, they will do little to help the sick and dying. In order for their prayers to make a difference, they must be men of vital, living faith, ready to pray even in desperate circumstances.
On a personal note, let me add that I thank God for our elders. They are all godly men of great faith. If I were sick, I would be delighted for any of them to pray for me.
III. Some Conclusions Based on God’s Character
As I study James 5, my overriding sense is that praying for the sick should be the normal work of the church. This is a noble ministry that should be recovered in our day. Perhaps we would see God’s power in a greater way if we dared to believe and obey his Word.
Here are seven conclusions that summarize my current understanding of how James 5:13-16 should be applied in the local church.
Since God is sovereign, we cannot know in advance what the outcome of our prayers will be. Therefore, we should pray with humility, not making promises we can’t keep. At the end of the day, God is God and we are not. We must keep this perspective before us while we pray for the sick.
Since God is omnipotent, we should expect that God will move from heaven in answer to our prayers, often in ways we cannot humanly explain. Therefore, we should pray boldly and ask God for the healing we seek. Sometimes when visiting the sick, we may feel almost intimidated by the gravity of the situation. But if we have our eyes upon God, we will not fear to ask him to heal his children.
Since everything God creates is good, we should view both prayer and medicine as gifts to help us when we are sick. This point seems obvious to me but it may be controversial to some people. God doesn’t ask us to choose between prayer and medicine. Pray, and take your pills to the glory of God. Seek the Lord when you are weak and ask for his help. And do not despise his help if it comes in the form of surgery or physical therapy.
Since God knows what is best, we must believe that when healing does not come, it is for our good and His glory. This is nothing more than a summary of what Romans 8:28 teaches. Sometime we will see this very clearly and others times we must choose to believe it by faith. But it is still true in every case whether we fully understand it or not.
Since faith is a gift from God, we understand that God will give the faith to believe when he wants to move in unusual power. In any case, our job is always to pray regardless of our own “feelings” one way or the other. Many times when I pray for the sick I am not certain how God intends to answer my prayers. But as I have said many times, I’m in sales, not administration, and I’m not responsible for the answers, only for the praying. I do believe that sometimes as we pray, we will sense God’s presence in an unusual way. If someone is healed in answer to our prayers, it is not our faith that did the healing. Faith is only an instrument for God’s power, and even faith itself is a gift from God.
Since sin may block God’s healing power, we are fully justified to inquire as to a person’s spiritual state before we pray for them. I would even say we should not pray for healing when we are aware that the sick person has unconfessed sin, persistent disobedience or wrong attitudes. I am not suggesting that we turn a prayer for healing into a confession of every possible sin. But I think that compassionate elders will know how to deal wisely with the sheep who are entrusted to their care. Certainly we need to ask, “Are you aware of anything in your life that may have brought this sickness upon you or is hindering God’s healing power?” When the answer is yes, we can then deal with that issue as part of the whole healing process.
Since God’s Word is true, we glorify him when we obey his Word, regardless of the outcome. This is a point John Armstrong brings home strongly in his article “Is Any Among You Sick?” Viewpoint, May-June, 2000. In December 1999 I joined a number of Chicago-area pastors in praying that God would heal John of a severe case of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. In his article based on that time of prayer, he notes that the pastors agreed that we didn’t fully understand James 5:13-16 and that we also agreed we didn’t have to understand it all to obey the part we did understand. “After all, worship and obedience always engage us in mystery, the mystery of who God is and what God reveals.” God doesn’t call us to understand every detail in advance. We are to obey what we do know and then leave the results with him.
Partial and Temporary
There is one final word that needs to be said. As important as healing is, we must remember that all healing in this life is partial and temporary. Ultimate healing will not come until the dead in Christ are raised when Jesus comes again (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18). This strikes me as a very important point. Sometimes we speak of believers who died after a long illness as having been healed in heaven. But the Bible doesn’t say it that way. It’s true that those who die in Christ are with him in heaven from the moment of their earthly death. And it’s also true that their sufferings in every sense are over forever. But as long as their physical bodies lie buried in the ground, we should not say that they have been truly healed. We won’t be completely healed until our mortal bodies put on immortality in the resurrection when Christ returns. Biblical salvation includes the redemption of the body, not just the redemption of the soul in heaven. If we deny or downplay the physical resurrection of believers, we are no better off than the followers of various Eastern religions who don’t believe in any sort of resurrection of the body.
I’m thinking as I write these words of my dear friend, Gary Olson, who died last November. I know that he is in heaven and I know that his suffering is over and I also know he is in a state of perfect heavenly joy. Is he in a better place? Yes. Has he been healed? Not completely. Not as long as his mortal remains are still on the earth. I will not be satisfied until I see him once again, hear his hearty laugh, and feel him put his arm on my shoulder and say with his distinctive deep voice, “Pastor Ray, how are you doing?” Dreams and visions are fine, and memories are sweet, but nothing can take the place of seeing our loved ones once again.
A Foretaste of Things to Come
If I think of it that way, then the question of physical healing comes into proper focus. Can God heal the sick? Yes. Does he? All the time. Does God sometimes move from heaven to deliver someone from desperate illness? Yes, and I think it happens more often than we expect. We should rejoice in every healing, no matter how large or small it seems to us. But let’s remember that everyone healed in this life will die eventually. Death still reigns on planet earth. It’s almost as if God is saying, “So you’re impressed with what I can do about cancer? Just wait till you see what I can do with a dead person.” All physical healing is like a tiny down payment, a deposit, a tantalizing foretaste, a guarantee of greater miracles to come when the dead in Christ are raised and transformed at the Second Coming. When I think of all those I have buried over the years and how much I miss them, I want to say, “Lord Jesus, come back today. Empty the graveyards, and let the celebration begin!”
Of the 41 who experienced miracles of healing in the gospels, all died eventually. And my friend Libby Redwine died several years ago. She lived 12 or 13 years after we prayed for her (for which I give thanks to God), but even she went the way of all flesh. As I will too unless I should live until the Rapture of the saints.
Why are some prayers for healing answered and some not? There is no one answer that can fully explain God’s purposes, but I am content with the words of Psalm 115:3, “Our God is in heaven; he does whatever pleases him.” I can state my own theology of prayer for healing in one sentence: We do the praying, and God does the healing, in his own time, in his own way, according to his own will. We are to pray earnestly, fervently, unitedly, repeatedly, obediently, and with all the faith God gives us. If we do our part, God cannot fail to do his.
I come to the end of this sermon with great joy in my heart even as I bow before the mystery of a God whose ways are far beyond my meager understanding. Through prayer we have the privilege of lifting the burden from our brothers and sisters. Through prayer we may become agents of healing to those who are sick. What an honor to be used of God in this way.
Here is my final exhortation. Let us pray boldly, confidently, humbly, in faith believing that as we pray for the sick and dying God hears, he cares, and he will do what is best in every situation. When we pray for the sick, we are doing the work of Jesus in the world. Fear not, keep believing, and keep on praying. Amen.