Series > James: The Wisdom of Faith
The Wisdom of Talking With God
Zach Pummill // March 10, 2019
scripture Passage // James 5:13–20 (ESV)
“13 Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. 14 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. 15 And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. 16 Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. 17 Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. 18 Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit.
19 My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, 20 let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.”
This morning I'd like to start with a question: do you consider yourself a spiritual person? It's kind of an odd question, isn't it? Part of us feels like we should say yes, because we're supposed to. Because we're Christians. But then if we do say yes, then we also have to be willing to answer a little bit more which is what does a spiritual person value? What does a spiritual person do? What does a spiritual person act like and look like? It's good for us to consider what it means to be a spiritual person because the bible asks us to weigh spiritual realities over against earthly realities all the time.
For instance, do you spend more time laying up treasures on earth? Or treasures in heaven? Do you spend more time worrying about your physical health or your spiritual health? Do you spend more time worrying about your children's education or about your salvation? More time thinking about politics and earthly kingdoms or thinking about a kingdom that's not of this world? Do you spend more time thinking about how you appear in front of others or more time about how you appear before your heavenly father who sees all things?
In light of those questions, I think the biggest reasons that we find ourselves stagnant in our faith and one of the reasons we find ourselves not growing and not maturing is because we focus far more on the material realities of life than the spiritual. We don't think about these spiritual realities that are at work in our lives that the scriptures would ask us to recognize are more important and take priority. As we've been considering the book of James, this is really been his goal all along. That we would be spiritual people and his letter is just an expression of what spirituality really is. It's a constant mindfulness of the relevance of God and every circumstance and every situation.
Living a spiritual life is recognizing there's no area of your life that remains untouched by the gospel. It imposes its will upon everything. It touches every aspect of life and bleeds into every corner which is why James talks so practically about how the gospel effects even down to the words that you use and tone. The way that you think about tomorrow and the future. The culture that you create among your friends and your family. The way that you suffer. Today as we close out our series in James, he ends by asking three questions, that will, again, challenge us to be a spiritually minded people.
He asks, "Is anyone among you suffering? Is anyone among you cheerful? Is anyone among you sick?" Those are three very basic questions, right? But as we take a look at James' answers to these questions and what he prescribes, we need to consider what he has already written in his letter so that we actually understand what it is that he wants us to do. But we can say this about his answers right up front, is that the spiritual life that he encourages, that we step into, the spiritual life that he invites us into is not possible unless you learn to talk with God. A relationship can only go so far if there is no communication. You have to learn to talk with God, which means that we have the question of what do we talk about?
James asks his first question in verse 13. He says, "Is anyone among you suffering? Let them pray." Is anyone among you suffering? Let them pray. Pray for what? First thing that might come to mind is relief. It's because when we're suffering, it's the first thing that comes to our mind is relief. We would do anything and the thing that we want most is for our suffering to end. We want our circumstances to change. We want it to go away and we want to be out of that situation that is causing suffering. There's nothing wrong with praying for relief and we should pray for relief, but we have to also recognize if we're going to approach suffering spiritually, is that relief from suffering is always a secondary goal for every single writer of the new testament, including James.
So James, when he says, you need to pray in your suffering, if he's not talking about relief, then what is he talking about? We have to remember, how does James start his letter? What has he already written about suffering? We see it in James, chapter one, verses 2 through 4. He says, "Count it all joy in my brothers. When you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness or endurance and let steadfastness have it's full effect that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing." James' goal is that you would engage your suffering spiritually. That you would look at it with spiritual eyes and recognize that God isn't wasting it and God is actually using it to create and produce something in you.
Through that testing, he's producing a type of precious endurance that he wants to give to you. A steadfastness. An endurance of faith. When you're suffering, sometimes that does not sound like the most appealing thing to receive is endurance. But think about a runner for a second. Think about somebody who says, "I'm out of shape, I want to get in shape, I want to start running." When they first start running, it feels terrible. It feels awful. Why? Because your threshold and your tolerance for the physical exertion is just so low. But if you stick with it, you'll remain steadfast, you'll remain committed to it. What happens? Your body changes. It adapts. It learns to operate in a new way.
In such a new way that what used to be painful now actually begins to feel good. Talk with a runner. After a good run what do they do? They feel energized. It makes them feel alive. Or take Alex Honnold for a second. To understand maybe what this type of endurance looks like. Alex Honnold, Ricky brought up earlier this morning in the confession. He's the world's best climber. He does everything without any ropes. He'll just climb a wall. Just in street clothes. I watch it, it's terrifying to watch him. I watched his documentary one time, it's a different one than when he mentioned, but they put cameras every hundred feet up this thousand foot cliff.
He's climbing this cliff and they have this heart monitor on him and they check the camera at 700 feet in the air and he's sitting there looking around, in this camera, and he's whistling. They check his heart rate. He has a resting heart rate. At 700 feet in the air. That is crazy to me. That is exactly what James is telling you God wants to give you. That if you approach your suffering spiritually and you engage it in a way where he is producing something in you and you remain steadfast, he will produce that type of spiritual endurance that when life gets difficult, you don't fall apart. When life gets hard, there's a solidness and a calm and a resting heart rate's of life so you don't feel like it's falling apart. Where things can be chaotic on the outside, but yes, on the inside there's a solidness and you're able to whistle through some of the hardest circumstances of life. Why?
Because you have been given a joy that's untouchable by worldly circumstances because it's an otherworldly kind of joy. Now, how is any of that possible in suffering unless you pray? That is not, that type of endurance and that type of joy are not things you stumble across one day. You're not going to wake up and you feel it. You're not going to find it in a book. Not even a book on suffering. James says the only way that you trace that kind of endurance and that kind of joy is when you pursue your suffering in a spiritual manner. You see it with spiritual eyes and trust that God is at work within you and you open your mouth and you start to talk with God.
Because the alternative of approaching it spiritually is that you just approach it materialistically. Which just means that you try and solve your suffering. You try and fix it using your own resources. There's two outcomes to that. One is that you miss out on what God does want to give you, but the alternative is that it also produces the things in your life and in your heart that you don't actually want. More anxiety. More fear, more frustration, more worry. Why? Because you're always trying to find something that works. In a trajectory of the materialistic approach to suffering is that you try to find something that works, you don't find something that works so then you start to just move to try and find something that helps you escape. Then when that doesn't work, you can't find anything that really helps you escape, you just feel alone.
That is not how God wants his people to feel in suffering. Instead, he wants them to feel something completely different. So this morning, are you suffering? Pray. Talk with God. Tell him about your suffering. Tell him about what is going on in your life. Tell him that you desire that type of endurance. Ask that he would help you to trust him and ask for that type of joy, that only that kind of endurance can know. One that's not touched by worldly circumstances.
The second question James asks, “Is anyone cheerful?” When he says cheerful, all he really is asking is anyone in a good place in life? Do you find yourself in a good season? Are things going well? If so, James says, "Well let him sing praise." I think one of the best ways that you can actually evaluate your spiritual life and you can evaluate your relationship with God is to consider how often it is that you offer him your gratitude and your thanksgiving. Because if you look at the scriptures, all throughout the scriptures, one of the most common things, probably if not the most common thing that someone talks with God about is what? Thanksgiving.
It's thanking him in gratitude for what he has done and what he has given to us. That's why these things can actually be a litmus test for the quality of our faith and again, remember what James has already written about what it means when we experience blessing and goodness. James 1:17, he says, "Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the father of lights." James would say, if you're in a good season, then you have plenty to talk with God about. That goodness that you're experiencing and the circumstances that you're in that feel good and are a blessing only come from one place. He's saying you have a song of gratitude to sing to God. He's not speaking about actually physically singing on a Sunday morning during worship. This is a song of the heart. This is a melody of the mind that is constantly coming forth from your lips and recognizing that behind these physical realities that you're experiencing that are a blessing, you understand the real cause of it.
You see the spiritual reality that it is God alone who has blessed you because he is good. Living spiritually minded is this constant posture towards God that recognizes him as the source of all good in your life. That sounds really easy, doesn't it? But it's really not, because again, it's an issue of faith and gratitude and thanks to God and being called to do that actually challenges some of the conceptions that we actually have about God. For instance, giving praise and thanks to God, I believe challenge for some. It challenges their fear. Because they're afraid of God. What do I mean by that? I've known plenty of Christians over the years and plenty of people, people that I would consider not weak Christians, that still struggle with thanksgiving and giving gratitude to God. Why? Because they're afraid that once they begin to thank God for all that he has given to them, he is going to take it away.
But as soon as they begin to identify the things in their life that are good and a blessing, their health, their marriage, their kids, their home, their job, all of these things that are good, God's going to take it away to humble them. To teach them a lesson. To make sure they don't love it too much. So they're always afraid of what? That the other shoe is going to drop and that God's real desire is to bring tragedy into your life. James would say, already has said that, that's not who God is. If you looked at the rest of verse 17, what does he say? He says, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” What's he saying? He's saying, he's reminding us what? God is not like the moon where he has this brilliant, bright beautiful side but behind that, he has this incredibly dark side that's malevolent, angry, and unpredictable.
He's saying God is not a Jekyll and Hyde. On your good days, he's not Bruce Banner and then you really need to worry because tomorrow he might turn green and start smashing everything in your life that you hold dear. He's saying to recognize that God is good and to see him with his spiritual mindset, you have to ready to break radio silence with God and talk to him. Be willing to be persuaded that he is actually far better and he is as good as he says he is and you don't have to be afraid of him. But you have to be willing to talk with him. I think also then that giving praise and thanks to God challenges our arrogance. A challenge is the one that says you know, God got me started off with some blessings in life. But, it was really up to me to make the most of it so I have what I have in my life and my life is in a good season because of what I've accomplished.
Quite frankly, that's about one of the most dangerous places that you can be in from a scriptural perspective. It's a very dangerous place to be where you feel like you are the source of all goodness in your life. Because that posture just goes through life completely unspiritually. Why? Because you actually are living in a way that says I don't need God. One of the one places where God actually calls someone a fool is in the parable of the rich fool. He actually, the rich fool looks back and sees everything that he's accumulated for himself, all that he's accomplished, all that he's stored up. Instead of giving praise to God, he praises himself and God just says, "You fool. Don't you know that somehow your very life will be required of you?" James has already spoken of this when he says, "The arrogant person forgets that life is a mist. The arrogant person feels and pretends as though they have control over their future." The fool doesn't thank God for his goodness because the fool doesn't think that they need to. The fool doesn't think that they need God.
If we're honest for a second, I get it. You may not go through life with that level of arrogance and boasting about all that you've accomplished and you do live with a sense of God has blessed you with what you have. But, James is urging us into something more. He's urging us to live spiritually minded, which means that he's asking far more than that. He wants you, which essentially means that if you aren't regularly praising God and thanking him for what he has given to you, then you do in the end have to ask, what's the difference between you and the rich fool? Because in the end, neither of you are talking to God. And neither of you are giving the praise where it's due. Neither of you are thanking God for his goodness.
With all of that, James would say, "Are you in a good place? You have so much to talk with God about." It's an expression of his love towards you. Would you be willing to talk with him and experience his goodness in a different way?
Lastly, the question that James asks is in verse 14. He says, "Is anyone among you sick?" The sickness here is referring to someone who most likely is on their death bed. Someone who's gravely ill. Someone who's struggling with chronic disease or a disorder and their life is threatened. Essentially, it's someone that needs an absolute miracle for them to be healed. James says, "Let them call for the elders of the church and let them pray over him. Anointing him with oil, in the name of the Lord.” Now, contrary to what late-night Christian television will tell you, this is not magic. Okay? This is not the superpowers of super spiritual elders being called upon nor do we have a treasure trove of this special oil that you can just access and we can just bust out whenever you give 20 bucks online. That's not what this is talking about.
See this oil is a spiritual symbolic reality. Quite frankly it's pretty mysterious as to why James would call for it, but if we gather some other ideas from scripture, we can essentially gather this, is that what this oil represents is that it's setting something apart for a special work and blessing from God. Think of the old testament priests. What would they do? They would consecrate themselves by anointing themselves with oil before they would go into the temple. Why? Because they're setting themselves apart and consecrating themselves for a special work and act of God upon their duties on behalf of Israel. You're David. Being anointed king, what's happening? He's being set apart and consecrated for the special work and blessing that goes with his calling.
This anointing with oil is simply asking and requesting God for his special work and blessing upon the one who is sick. But notice what's different about this than the other two questions that James has. Here, the act of faith for the sick person is to call on the elders and ask them to talk with God with them and on their behalf. Again, it's not because they have spiritual powers. It's because the elders are shepherd's of God's people. They represent the entire body and calling upon the elders is about the solidarity of the entire body with the one who is weak and sick and suffering. It's surely spiritual reality at work that is honestly mysterious, but think of it this way, think of Mark 2. Mostly likely know the story. Jesus is preaching in a packed out house. Shoulder to shoulder, standing room only and all of a sudden the slats on the roof begin to be removed and some men lower their crippled friend down to Jesus, desperate for him to heal this person they love and care about. This profoundly moving picture of their desperation for Jesus to heal him. We're going to come back to this story in a second.
But what do we see happen? Jesus doesn't look at the crippled man first and say, "You're healed." What happens is he looks and sees the faith of his friends and because of their faith, he moves and acts on behalf of the crippled man. In short, what is James saying? He's saying that Jesus is moved by the collective faith of his people on behalf of those who are sick and hurting.
If you are sick, please come. I invite you. Please come and let us pray for you. Let us be solidly one, as we ask God to heal you and to intervene in a special way. We invite you to do that.
But then we get to verse 15. This is where this passage gets really, really hard. I'll admit, this verse and just the passage as a whole is one of the harder ones I've had to deal with in a while and we start to see it when we get to verse 15.
Let's read it. "And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick. So if someone is sick, let them call on the elders of the church, anoint them with oil and pray in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the one who is sick and the Lord will raise them up." Now, at first glance, if you're honest, how does that verse read? It reads as though if you have enough faith, God will heal them. God will raise them up. The prayer of faith will save the one who is sick and the Lord will raise him up. Sounds as though if you simply have enough faith in God, we'll move. I know many of you have been sold and many of you told me over the years how much you've been sold that lie in your Christian experience and in the past that God will move if you have faith which means that if he's not moving, if he's not doing what you want, if he's not answering your prayers or bringing you healing, it's because you don't have enough faith.
It's your fault. God only moves only on behalf of better Christians than you. That is complete garbage. Millions have been stolen from people, based on that lie. What is true is what James is really talking about. That yes, there is something that goes on in this prayer, but it would still challenge us to recognize that he does speak in these very concrete ways. I would imagine that some of you still to a degree are praying for healing, either for yourself or for someone that you love and are desperate for. You want it and maybe in the back of your mind when healing doesn't come you think to yourself, "Maybe I don't have enough faith. Maybe I'm not doing something right."
The truth is, is that is not what James is saying. God is moved by prayers for another, but it doesn't mean that when we pray for others that God always moves. Yet, it seems that is what James is saying, but we know that's what he's not saying. So how can we understand what he really is trying to tell us? We have to take a closer look at the language that he uses. If you look at the rest of verse 15, it says, "And if he is committed sins, he will be forgiven." Right there, James adds in this additional layer. Seems like he's talking now about two things at the exact same time. Both a physical healing and a spiritual healing through the forgiveness of sins.
Part of what I think is going on here is James is giving us a window into how the early church approached healing. What does a normal church do that's not run by an apostle that regularly does miracles? That regularly healed the sick? What if your church is run by Ryan and Zach? Where you don't have the special dispensation of the Spirit to do those things? What he's telling us here, what he is prescribing for the church to do, is that they would go together in solidarity on behalf of the one who is sick. This is how they would go about their prayers, their healing ministry. But, with that prayer for healing for the sick person, they also included I think a prayer for recognizing the need for spiritual healing and renewal as well. Why? Because why would you pray for someone to be healed and then not also pray for their soul to be healed? Why would you just pray for temporal realities and not also the eternal realities?
They both, in what James is talking about, there's both this physical and spiritual duality that he has in his language. They would pray for physical healing, but they also probably gave the opportunity for the sick person to confess that they're a sinner. To re-confess that they need the forgiveness of Christ upon them for their spiritual healing. But still, we're still at a place where James uses this concrete language that the Lord will raise him up.
If you look at that little phrase, "will raise him up," it kind of adds to the problem because the Scriptures will use, well, that phrase, "Will raise him up," is actually resurrection language. The Scriptures will actually use both the physical and spiritual sense. It will use it and say, "The Lord will raise him up," or it will say, "It was raised up in reference to somebody being physically healed. It also uses the phrase, "Will raise him up," when it talks about the final resurrection at the end of all things when someone is raised to eternal life. When he says raise him up, which is it? Well, I think it's both. I think he's intentionally referring to both. James is saying, “Yes, God responds to the prayer of faith and brings physical healing, and yes, God responds to the prayer of faith and brings spiritual healing through the forgiveness of sins and will raise them up on the last day.”
Our question still isn't answered because why would he still speak in such concrete terms whenever James knows that God does not always heal someone. In fact, he heals someone less physically in those moments than he does. Why would he speak so concretely that the Lord will raise him up? And how do we harmonize both his physical and spiritual reality that is in his language? I think the only way that we can do it is to consider what James is after when he says, "The prayer faith." Elijah is used later in this passage as an example, but it's really used in a sense of that Elijah had a nature like ours. He wasn't special contrary to what people think. Well, it's Elijah, he was really powerful. No. He was a man just like us, but he prayed consistently. He's an example of patient, persistent prayer. But that doesn't necessarily tell us what the prayer of faith is that James is talking about here. What is the actual prayer of faith? What does it look like?
James, when he says prayer of faith, this is the only time that occurs in the entire scriptures, all throughout the Scriptures, whether Old Testament or the New. I think that James is referring to something special here. Honestly, the best I can come up with I think he's referring to the prayer of faith. Whenever Jesus prayed it in Gethsemane whenever he had to weigh the priority between physical and spiritual realities. Where he had to weigh the reality of the things of this world or the things of the world to come. He says, "Father, if it's possible, let this cup pass for me. Yet not as I will, but as you will." That's what the prayer of faith looks like. Where Jesus says, "Father if it's possible, I know that it's possible for you to take this away, but even if you don't, I trust it in the end. You will raise me up." I trust you. That's the prayer of faith because it's the prayer of God, the son. If we apply that to what James is talking about here, then it's the prayer of someone who would say, "Father if it's possible, I know it's possible that you can heal me. But even if you don't, you are worthy of my trust because I know that you have forgiven my sins and you will heal me when you raise me up on the last day and you raise me up from death."
That's the type of prayer that God responds to. That's the type of prayer that yes, God will bring physical healing, but James knows that he doesn't always bring physical healing, but one who prays that kind of prayer, the Lord will raise him up and they will be healed into eternity. Because within their heart, the far greater healing has happened.
Which in the end puts that person to a question. Which is more important? The spiritual realities or the material realities of this world? Honestly, I think we sometimes, we want something more. It doesn't feel like it's enough. It's easy to, "Hey, it will all work out in the end," but I think there's a part of us that says I want healing now. I'm not worried about eternity. I want healing now. But the problem is that sometimes we want that because we want God to come with puppet strings attached, but that isn't how it works. All you can do in that moment is to ask and to trust.
But if you come to God and you say the only way I'm willing to trust you is if you heal me, that's not faith at all. It's just a request. Jesus himself would encourage us in his own ministry to consider which is more important; a physical healing or a spiritual healing because in his ministry he showed which was more important to him and we see it if we look at the end of what happened in Mark 2. What happened to that man who was lowered from the roof? What happened when he saw the faith of that man's friends? Jesus turns to the crippled man and he says, "Your sins are forgiven," and then he goes on. He doesn't heal him. He just continues on, but then the scribes and the pharisees start to grumble and they say, "Only God can forgive sins. Only God has the authority to forgive sins and do that kind of healing. Only God can do that. You're blaspheming." Jesus turns to them and kind of gives a master class which this is another example why you don't argue with Jesus because he's better at it than you are. He turns to them and he asks them a question.
He says, "Which is easier to say? To say your sins are forgiven or to say rise, take up your bed and walk?" What he's doing is that he's addressing the fact that in their mind, yeah, it's a lot easier to say, your sins are forgiven. Why? Because how would you know if it happened? The other thing is, it's a lot harder to say, "Rise, take up your bed and walk." Why? Because you find out really quick if it worked. So what are they doing? Jesus is addressing the fact that they think he's a complete fraud by forging sins. So Jesus looks at him and he says, "Just so you know that I have the authority to forgive sins and do the greater healing that only God can do," he looked at the crippled man. He says, "Rise, take up your bed and walk." And he was healed. James and Jesus both would challenge us in our faith.
What do we really value? What do we really want? Is it just the material? Is it the spiritual? Do we value spiritual healing more or do we just simply want material healing? Are we truly spiritual people? This story confronts us all with a question because in the end, we are all going to get sick. It challenges us with the question that yes, Jesus can bring healing and do both, but if you had to choose, which would you rather have Jesus say to you?
Jesus, we thank you that you are our great Healer and we thank you that you in the end, we trust that you have performed the greater healing when you died on the cross and you rose again and for all time you've eradicated Satan, sin, and death from being able to have any power or effect over those that you have brought to eternal life. This morning we pause and we just remember that our salvation is one that is the greatest healing of all where you resurrected our souls from death and brought new life. We will spend eternity with you. There's no more infections. There's no more brokenness. There's no more limping. There's no more hurt. Sometimes we forget that. Sometimes we forget that we will spend eternity in bodies that can know no pain because of what you have given to us. But we ask this morning that you would remind us as we come to your table, that you have performed the greatest healing of all. We ask that you also be with those who are suffering and those who are hurting and those who are sick.
We ask that you be with Patty Swearingen, Louie Corwin, Meredith Anthony, Shelly Carvan, Lanetta Smith. We ask you be with those also who have not told others of their suffering and their sickness and suffer alone or those that suffer in a non-public way. You see it, you know it. You're the God who's acquainted with grief and nearer to those who suffer. So we ask in the power of Jesus' name that you would bring healing to them and in the end you would receive all the glory and it would be something that we could offer our praise, our honor, and all glory to you. But even if you don't, you're still worthy of those things anyways. We come to your table and we ask that you would meet us at it. It's in your name we pray. Amen.