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Prayer and healing (2)

This brings us to another significant matter. James states unequivocally that "the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well, the Lord will raise him up," (v. 16). There isn’t anything conditional in regard to the sick person being healed. In fact, James assures his readers twice of this --- the second time specifically mentioning the Lord’s role.

When we put this in the overall context of the New Testament’s teaching, we know that sick people weren’t always healed (i.e., Paul’s thorn in the flesh, Timothy’s stomach issues, Trophimus, etc.). How do we reconcile what James says here with what we find in the rest of the NT?

Some understand the healing in a cessationist sense --- that James is speaking of something miraculous that applied only in the first century. There doesn’t seem to be anything in the text to justify this approach. Furthermore, if we go in the direction that this is unique to the people who initially received the letter, what do with do with, "Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each so that you may be healed," (v. 16). Do we lose that as well since James spins this principle from the healing that is promised? And what of the following statement, "The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective?" The cessationist view raises more issues than it solves.

Others view James’ statement as a generalization that applies most of the time (like many of the proverbs). I think this is possible but problematic, especially in light of James’ next statement that "if he has sinned, he will be forgiven." Since there’s nothing uncertain in regard to the forgiveness, it only seems consistent to understand the healing in the same way.

There might be another way of approaching this though. It goes back to the three groups James addresses: those in trouble, those happy, and those sick. Those in trouble/suffering clearly refers back to the situation he was addressing in v. 10. (In fact, he uses the same word in v. 13 and v. 10). Those suffering from the abuse of the wealthy landowners are to entrust themselves to God in prayer (see 1 Peter 2:20-23 for something similar). The happy/cheerful group has perhaps not been affected as those in v. 10. Still, both groups are to turn to God --- one in prayer and the other in praise.

The last group is the sick/weak. Could this be a subset of the first group? After all, they are to do the same thing as the first group (pray), though the severity of their situation requires that they have some aid in doing this. Is it possible that the sick James speaks to refers to are people who have been ground down by oppression until their health (physical or emotional), has been affected? If this is the case, then what is being promised is not unlimited healing for illness of any kind, but restoration ( NAS), from the condition of being wearied and overwhelmed (see Hebrews 12:3). 

A look at the two words James uses for sickness seems to confirm this. The word used translated "sick" in v. 14 is from the astheneo word family. According to the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, it is the word most often used in the NT for sickness. It is used the of Lazarus (John 11:2,3,6), and others (Matthew 25:36; Luke 7:10; John 4:46).

But there’s more. Astheneo is formed by adding the negative particle (a) to the word stheneo (strength). This makes the word have the opposite meaning (just as in our language adding an "a" to theist makes it atheist). Since stheneo means "strength," astheneo literally means "without strength." You can find the two words used together in contrast in 1 Corinthians 1:27,4:10; and 2 Corinthians 12:10). Christ used astheneo when He spoke of the spirit being willing but the flesh/body being weak (Matthew 26:41). What we see from these passages then is that in addition to being used for sickness, astheneo can also refer to a weakened, wearied condition ("without strength").

The other word translated "sick" in v. 15 is kamno. Though it originally meant "to work," over time it came to be used for the effect of constant work --- fatigue. It used in only one other place in the NT (Hebrews 12:3). There it is translated "weary."

So when we put all of this together --- what does it mean? I think that both the context and the words James uses lend themselves to understanding the sickness he speaks of not as illness in general, but an emotional/physical exhaustion brought on by their sufferings.  As in the garden, their spirits were willing but their bodies were weak.  As in the garden, prayer was what was needed. What no medicine could cure, the prayers of community (in the form of its elders) could.
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