“Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up.” (James 5:13-14)
James brings us full circle back to 1:2-3, where he opened the book with the radical command to consider it all joy when we encounter various trials. The only way that we can do that is to view every difficulty through a God-ward perspective and to depend on God through prayer.
We have to do this first on an individual level, of course. We must mentally process everything that happens to us, from the trivial to the significant, through the grid of God’s sovereign love toward us in Christ. That is James’ point in verse 13. But then verse 14 takes on a strong community focus. We are not on individual, isolated spiritual journeys, where we only cross paths with one another here and there. Rather, we are pilgrims together with other saints. Thus James is saying here that… All of life should be lived with a God-ward, God-dependent focus, shared together with God’s people.
James fires off two short questions (a third follows in 5:14), with crisp, short answers. These two questions run the gamut of life’s experiences: “Is anyone among you suffering? Then he must pray. Is anyone cheerful? He is to sing praises” (5:13). All suffering and all blessings come from God for His glory and our ultimate good. So in every situation, we must learn to live with a God-ward, God-dependent focus.
When you encounter difficulties, is prayer your first response? It’s certainly not the automatic response. If left to the flesh, the automatic response to suffering is to grumble or complain or to throw a pity party. Or, we question God: “Why is this happening to me?” But James counters all this with the single word: “Pray!”
In a recent devotion I read, I found much better questions to ask God instead of “why me?”.
- What can God do with this (situation)?
- What can I learn?
- What is God calling me to be and do at this time?
We often pray as the last resort, after we’ve done everything that we can do to try to fix the problem. We scheme, we plan, we work hard, and then maybe we remember to pray, “God, bless my efforts.” God won’t bless our efforts if they are not in His will and for His glory. You can do more than pray after you’ve prayed, but you shouldn’t do anything until you’ve prayed. Prayer acknowledges that you are totally dependent on God. Prayer admits, “Lord, I can’t even draw my next breath without You. If You don’t work for Your purpose and glory, my most competent efforts will fail!”
So, when you or someone you love encounters a trial,
- Pray for wisdom (James 1:5 in context)
- Pray for the ability to endure with joy (Romans 5:3-5)
- Pray for a godly attitude through the pain (Romans 8:18)
- Pray that the works of God may be displayed in this trial (John 9:3)
- Pray that God would use this crisis for His purpose and glory (John 11:4)
- Pray that the fruit of the Spirit would grow in the lives of everyone involved (Gal. 5:22-23)
Suffering should drive us to prayer. Then James goes to the other extreme. “Is anyone cheerful?” Again, James shoots a one-word (in Greek) answer: “Sing!” You may think that singing when things are going well is easier than the command to pray when you encounter suffering, but it’s not. The response of the flesh is to forget God when things go well. That’s why David talks to himself in Psalm 103:2, “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget none of His benefits.” And for the same reason, the church is exhorted to remember the Lord’s death through frequent observance of the Lord’s Supper. The natural response to sufficiency is to forget the Lord and all His benefits. So James says, “When things are going well, when your soul is satisfied with God’s sufficiency, sing praises to Him!”
The two extremes of James 5:13 show that God does not expect us always to be bouncy, cheerful, and upbeat. James allows that sometimes you will be down because of suffering. His directive: Pray! But when you’re cheerful, sing! I would echo John Piper, though, in saying that when you’re down, you’ve got to fight for joy. One way that you do that is through prayer. Sometimes when you’re down, the way out of it is to sing.
God is exalted when we praise him in song. He even inspires sacred music to help us and gave us an entire songbook in the Bible – Psalms of David. The Psalms (sacred songs, spiritual poems or hymns) teaches us that praise and worship music stirs the soul, causes your spirit to be uplifted and helps you to enter into throne room of God. This can promote holistic healing! The Apostle Paul helps us to understand the benefit of sacred music in his teachings to the early church at Ephesus: “speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord,” (Ephesians 5:19).
“Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up.” (James 5:15a). James is directing those who are “sick,” meaning weakened by their suffering, to call for the elders of the church for strength, support, and prayer. The initiative lies with the sick person in sending for the elders who are the officers of the church (see 1 Tim. 3:1–7; Titus 1:5–9) and whose faith the sick person is trusting to release healing. Their qualifications characterize them as men and women of personal uprightness and spiritual maturity, having special ability, particularly in the area of discernment. As overseers they hold positions of authority and presumably are people of faith and prayer. Anointing . . . with oil does not refer to a medicinal act (see Mark 6:13) or to a magic potion, but is symbolic of the consecration of the sick person and the joyous presence of the Holy Spirit, in this case to bring healing in response to the obedience and faith of the elders. James stresses God’s healing power through prayer that accompanies the anointing. The assurance is given that prayer “will make the sick person well.” In the final analysis, this is what effects the healing. In answer to “the prayer offered in faith,” God uses the medicine to cure the malady. “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” (Matthew 18:20)
We are called to pray when we have trouble, when we are happy, and when we are sick or suffering. All of life should be lived with a God-ward, God-dependent focus, shared together with God’s people. “When I am afraid, I will put my trust in You. In God, whose word I praise, In God I have put my trust; I shall not be afraid What can mere man do to me?” (Psalm 56:3-4)
- My notes from Bible Study “Faith: A Bible Study on James for Women“
- Life Application Study Bible (NIV)
- The God-Dependent Community
- Christian Music As Therapy, A Biblical Perspective