Reflections on Prayer (James 5)

Serving as an elder can be a challenge. As a group we try to serve this incredible community that we have the privilege and responsibility to oversee. Our goal is to provide an environment for people to grow and mature in Christ in a multicultural community. One of those challenges is helping others when they struggle. During these challenges, the elders are often asked to pray.

A passage that deals with this topic is found in James 5 (verses 13-15). In this passage those who are “sick” are told to call on the elders so that they may come and pray.

Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise.  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. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. (ESV)

This passage is difficult to interpret. What sickness is in view – physical or spiritual or both. Why should the sick person call on the elders? What is the prayer of faith? How much faith is needed? What type of salvation is being promised to the one who is sick when the elders come and pray in faith? In what way will the Lord raise up the sick person in response to the prayer of faith?

Reading the next set of verses only adds to the questions.

And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.

Why does James go on to mention sin and forgiveness? What healing is expected when one confesses sin and prays? Does that relate back to the sickness mentioned earlier? If it does then what about sickness that does not involve sin?

Most interpreters answer these questions within the context of physical sickness and healing. But that opens up a challenge. The passage says that the “prayer of faith” will save the sick.The verb translated “save” is in the indicative mood. The author is presenting information that is certain from their point of view. Yet most of us would have to admit that we have prayed for those who are physically sick and they did not get well. Did we not have enough faith?

A variety of experiences related to praying for healing are found in the Scriptures as well.

  • David prayed for his baby to be healed but that did not happen. (2 Sam 12:15-23)
  • Hezekiah prayed for his health and was healed. (2 Kings 20:1-7)
  • Paul’s thorn was not removed, despite his prayers. (2 Corinthians 12:7-10).
  • Epaphroditus was sick, near death and was healed (assuming prayer involved). (Philippians 2:25-30)
  • Timothy had frequent illnesses and was not healed (assuming prayer involved). (1 Timothy 5:23)

It would be a challenge to assert that Paul and David did not offer up their prayers in faith, yet these prayers were not answered. Many who see James as addressing “physical illness” add the qualifier “unless it is not God’s will to heal” to the statement regarding being saved by the prayer of faith. But that only invites the question why didn’t James explicitly add that condition in the letter?

This article at outlines some of the approaches taken when tackling these types of questions. It helped guide my thinking on this verse, however,I did adopt an interpretation that the author rejected.

Words have a range of meanings
Most, if not all translations in English, interpret the words in James 5 as relating to “physical illness”. This results in most readers assuming that this was James’ intent. However, James uses words that have a range of meaning. Examining the Greek words used by James along with the overall theme and context of the letter opens up additional possibilities regarding an interpretation that are easy to miss using an English translation.

Is anyone among you sick?
The word translated “sick” or “ill” is ἀσθενεῖ. The lexical form of this verb is ασθενω, which has the following range of meanings (according to BDAG):

  • to suffer a debilitating illness, be sick
  • to experience lack of material necessities, be in need
  • to experience some personal incapacity or limitation, to be weak
    • In Romans 14:1-2 the “weak in faith” are contrasted with those who are stronger.
    • 1 Corinthians 8:10-11 describes those who are weaker in conscience.
    • 2 Corinthians 13:3-4 describes Jesus as not being weak towards us
    • 1 Corinthians 11:30 describes the weak (adjective form of our verb) and the sick (a different word not used in James).

It is possible that James is referring to people who are weak due to the trials they are facing when he wrote this passage rather than people who are physically sick.

the one who is sick…
A few verses later, the word “sick” appears again. But here James uses a different Greek word. The lexical form of this verb is καμνω, which has the following range of meanings (according to BDAG):

We don’t have many examples of this word in use but it is possible that James means to address people who are tired and worn out due to the trials rather than those who are physically sick.

anoint him…
In addition to prayer, the elders are called to anoint the person with oil.There are two different words for anoint. The word James uses is ἀλειφω. BDAG gives the following definition: to anoint by applying a liquid such as oil or perfume.

  • It could refer to applying oil in a medicinal sense as in Mark 6:13. An example of this is also seen in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). The word anoint is not in the passage but it is an example of oil being used to help the wounded.
  • It is also possible that the oil is used refresh and enliven someone, as in Matthew 6:17 where the person is to avoid the appearance of fasting. Or for a guest that has come to visit as in Luke 7:46.

There is another word used for anointing ( χριω) that refers to God setting aside someone for special service and often involves receiving the Holy Spirit and power as in Acts 10:38.

The anointing that James refers to then could be either for medicinal purposes or to freshen and revive one who is weary and weak. In either case the elders are providing care and encouragement to the one who called upon them.

save him…
The word James used that is translated “save” is σώζω. This word is often used to refer to spiritual salvation. But the actual word means to rescue or restore in a general sense. What the person is rescued from is based on the context.

In reading James, there is an overall theme that addresses the trials of the original readers. They are urged to endure the trials and remember trials test their faith (James 1:2). They are to pray with faith for wisdom during trials (James 1:5), and during the trials they should persevere by focusing on Christ’s return (James 5:7-12). James never indicates that they should ask for nor expect the trials to be removed. It would seem out of context then for James to address physical illness and express certainty for this to be removed through prayers of faith especially when the prior verses ask the readers to endure hardship like Job and the prophets.

It is more likely that James is referring to the prayer, restoration, and encouragement that the elders provide to a struggling believer which is the means God uses to rescue them from their weakness and weariness. Perhaps the “prayer of faith” was to mirror many of the psalms that move from announcing personal struggles, to a holding onto the promises of the Lord, resulting in a renewed sense of faith in the Lord.

raise him up…
The word James used is ( ἐγειρω) often refers to being raised from the dead. BDAG lists 13 different nuances in meaning for this word. Here are a few:

  • to cause someone to wake up, to cease sleeping, wake up
    • Romans 13:11 uses the idea of waking up to encourage and spur one on to active faith.
  • to cause to stand up, help to rise, to move to a standing position
  • to cause to come into existence
  • to cause to return to life
  • to raise up from sickness, restore to health
    • this is how our word in James in usually translated.
  • to change to a previous good state, restore

It would be difficult to see James referring to a person being raised from the dead unless the death of the sick person was imminent. It seems more likely that while James shows us the prayer, faith, oil, wisdom, and fellowship of the elders are an encouragement for the weak person to stay strong during the trials, it is the Lord who will actually restore their strength and spur them on to endure the trials through these means.

A rough translation
While this passage may refer to physical healing, those who interpret the passage this way deal with the challenge of people not being healed by appealing to God’s will. I agree that prayers for healing are often answered with a no because that was not God’s will. However, James does not qualify his statement – you will be physically healed – with – unless it is against God’s will. We can add this caveat to James letter but we need to remember that it is not in the text before us.

After looking at the range of meanings for certain Greek words, the themes in James, and other interpretative possibilities offered by scholars (see John MacArthur’s article agreeing with this approach) I humbly offer this rough translation (changes from ESV in bracketed italics) which represents how I currently understand this very difficult passage.

Is anyone among you suffering [due to the trials and persecution]? Let him pray, [as I instructed you earlier in the letter]. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. Is anyone among you [weak]? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, [refreshing and encouraging him] in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will [restore] the one who is [weary], and the Lord will [stir him up].

Here the emphasis is on encouraging a fellow Christian during hard times rather than praying for healing or even the removal of the trial. Throughout the letter James does not mention having the hard times removed. He is focused on people persevering in faith and doing good works during hard times. This interpretation seems more consistent with that overall theme. And James ends on the idea that stronger believers should be helping those who are struggling to remain faithful (James 5:19-20).

This interpretation does not mean we should not also pray for physical healing or the removal of trials. We should. In fact James says we don’t have if we don’t ask (James 4:2). However, other verses provide the proper guidance that we can ask with confidence, and that we will receive what we ask for if it is within God’s will (1 John 3:21-23; 5:14-15).

What do you think?

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