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James 5, Prayer, and Physical Healing

Mark Olson has posted on James 5 and it’s relationship to healing. He notes that he “had been” in conversation with me on health care. I have been a bit too occupied with other matters, but I do intend to write some more in that conversation. Right now, I’m interested in his comments on James 5 and the instruction to call the elders of the church, anoint, and pray for someone who is sick.

He says:

From reading this, and the prayers attached to the rest of that section of the service, it seems fairly clear that based on the liturgical prayer and the attached reading above that he prayers and annointing of the sick first and foremost are intended to deal with the afflicted one’s relationship to the Lord. If one takes seriously, as one should if one is of the faithful, that salvation is assured … then this is the right attitude.

Just so. I would note that there is a special point here in calling for the elders and then doing this together–the element of community. Too much of prayer for healing in the modern American church is a very individual thing with the primary point being to get the physical healing one desires. I have been asked whether calling for the elders of the church and having a kind of service of anointing would be “more effective” than some other form of prayer. What about finding someone who is claims and/or is identified as having the gift of healing?

The problem here is that we identify the primary purpose of prayer, and in this case of a form of worship service or at least an act of worship, as getting something physical for ourselves. The perennial question is whether prayer “works.” Experiments are set up to determine the effects of prayer.

I have no interest in those experiments, because they would rely on the idea that the primary purpose of prayer is to produce a particular result. If, as many Christians seem to believe, that is the actual purpose, then such scientific tests would be valid, and prayer would be a scientific process. We could measure the dosage, determine how many people need to pray for someone, and what sort of people. Do we get more points for a minister or priest? Do elders count for more than ordinary church members?

But I think that misses the point of prayer. It’s not about getting stuff. It’s about communion with God. And God, as Mrs. Beaver noted of Aslan, is not a tame God. We Christians are often guilty of being pushed into a corner on this point. If we don’t claim any physical benefit from prayer, then we’re asked what good it is, and if we do, we’re making a testable claim for something that has not proven testable in the past. Personally I don’t worry about it. I pray because I want to commune with God. I pray with my community because I am a part of it and am called to be in communion with God and with one another. I don’t pray because I can get things and I don’t stop because I don’t.

Through this conversation Mark has been making good theological points while I have been telling stories. I do have a couple of notes here. My father was the recipient of anointing when the elders were called. We were overseas and it was questionable whether he would live. The mission board wanted to send him home and my parents refused. Our doctor said he would never work again and would be dead in no more than 10 years. My parents called for the elders and they anointed him and prayed over him. I was very disappointed. I was 14 years old and expected something spectacular to happen. What did happen was that he returned to work two weeks later and lived another 35 years. Miracle? I have no idea. My guess is that he was on a mission from God, so to speak!

In the case of our son, I have been repeatedly complimented on my “strength of faith” to continue believing through that experience. But the problem with that is that I had never expected Christianity to provide me and my family with immunity to cancer or to death from it.

I would bring this back to my earlier post on the fear. Fear is the great problem. We can go with peace and joy, as befits those who are citizens of God’s eternal kingdom, or we can live in fear. The focus on the physical result of prayer keeps our focus on the wrong issue. Paul was uncertain whether to go and be with God or to stick around, but I feel under the surface that if it was just for him, he was ready to go (Philippians 1:19-26). But none of that sounds like fear!

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  1. Kievas Fargo says:

    Great post…I think there’s a lot of expectation of physical results from prayer, to the point where we forget its true purpose.

  2. Liza says:

    I’m writing a book on prayer. Your blog came up in a Google alert. KUDOS! This is a good perspective to ponder and cradle in the heart for a season. Expectations are not wrong, however, if they are based on the Word of God and come with promise. However, we often make “healing” an idol in an of itself. Certainly, that is not a fruitful endeavor. Part of my journey unfolds at my post about the “Quiet Places” at http://heyliza.blogspot.com/search?q=quiet+places or “Stand Alone” post at my silent mornings blog: http://silentmornings.blogspot.com/search?q=stand+alone

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