A Few Observations Upon........
When Christians Become Sick.
How Should Christians Best Understand The 'Anointing For Sickness' In James 5:14-15?
I have occasionally prayed for Christians (and non-Christians) to be healed of various sicknesses and have sometimes noted a sudden dramatic intervention of God – but at other times I have noted no dramatic intervention, and yet – in some of those cases – those people did regain good health with time, so I would still consider those as answered prayers. At other times again, some of these people have died. I do not worry unduly that a lack of faith somewhere along the line (by myself or others) might have been the problem since I firmly believe that the Lord's will was simply being done and our expessed wish that the will of the Lord should stand should be the strongest part of any prayer for healing!
Recently a man I have known for rather a long time made a comment which deeply disturbed me. He said,
'I have decided that, from now on, I will visit no doctors at all but just wholly rely on God for healing!'
Now, this might initially sound great but I'm afraid it represents a theology of healing which is ultimately unbiblical and is highly influenced by the perverted 'Word-faith' ('health, wealth and prosperity') teaching.
Some Christians always seem to want supernatural intervention and action for their sicknesses, but there are two very realistic and highly pertinent questions to ask here:
Since sickness of the body is quite obviously physical does it not make more sense – at least initially – to look for physical explanations and remedies?
Can we ever deny that doctors have extensive experience in recognizing and diagnosing various illnesses? Isn't it just exercising wisdom to 'tap into this' where we can?
When every chart and graph only confirms that a patient is sick!
If I should say, 'The next time my car develops a problem I am not going to a garage but I will simply pray for the problem to be resolved!', people would rightly think me barmy! They would say, 'Well, first get the problem correctly diagnosed. It might be easily treatable/repairable, but if it is very expensive or seemingly impossible, that might be the time to pray.' But some believers appear to believe that the Holy Bible is just full of dramatic and miraculous healings and since they have now become believers, they too should expect such miraculous healings. But, in fact, the Bible is not full of such healings at all - In the vast majority of cases of people becoming sick within the Word of God there were no dramatic healings. Indeed, it has often been noted that the miraculous within the Bible is mainly clustered around certain important events and ministries – most notably, perhaps, the ministries of Elijah and Elishah (clear types of John the Baptist and Jesus), the ministry of Jesus, and finally the ministry of the Apostles. If we take those three ministries out of the picture we would have to search very hard indeed to find the sick receiving miraculous healing within the Bible! The reason we find such miraculous healings in these three ministries is that it is being revealed to us that Jesus has the power – granted by God alone – to forgive sins upon the earth! See Matthew 11:2-6; John 5:36; 10:37-38, but especially Mark 2:9-11.
But since so many modern Christians are woefully weak on doctrine (and therefore often easy prey for false teachers!), they just look at the physical healings and get very excited about that – for some inexplicable reason they get far less excited about the spiritual lesson of those healings, i.e., the fact that through Jesus all our sins can be wiped out – the slate wiped completely clean – and this will lead to Eternal Life in the joyous company of God – Wow! Now, that really is quite something!! But, oddly, some don't find that quite so exciting!
Now, of course, God will still occasionally dramatically intervene and heal, and I myself have noted several examples of it – but this is usually when medical science itself has no further remedy for such people. I have no doubt whatsoever that God expects us to seek whatever help is available from physicians. After all, if we break an arm or a leg we won't usually go to a minister for prayers but simply to a physician to get the arm or leg splinted or plastered and reset. Yet if we encounter some other sudden – and still certainly physical – illness we sometimes seem to panic and want a divine miracle without doing any investigation or considering any prescribed remedy - Let me ask the question: does this make any sense? Let me quote from my article, 'Sorcery in the Bible, Pharmakeia and Modern Medicine; Any Connection?',
“We must understand that on several occasions the Bible backs up the principle that sick people should look around for remedies for their sickness. This is a very clear biblical principle! Lets look at some examples:
When Job was afflicted by boils he seemed to be aware of the principle that the draining sores needed to dry out so he sat in ashes (Job 2:7-8).
Jeremiah refers to the balm of Gilead which was evidently deemed to have medicinal qualities (Jeremiah 8:22; 46:11).
When Hezekiah was seriously ill, Isaiah told him to put some figs to boil, although we cannot be sure in what way this may have been medicinal (2 Kings 20:7).
The therapeutic affect of happiness of mind upon one's health comes out several times (Proverbs 17:22, for instance).
The medicinal use of wine is mentioned in Scripture several times (including 1 Timothy 5:23). Indeed, today pharmacologists recognise how good a small amount of wine is for the digestive system, backing up Paul's advice to Timothy!
The good Samaritan treated the wounds of the injured man with wine and oil (Luke 10:34). Wine is an antiseptic and will tend to coagulate blood, thereby assisting healing. Oil soothes and forms a coating.
The Church at Laodicea is admonished to use their locally-produced eye salve because of their lack of spiritual vision (Revelation 3:18).
Even way back in Genesis it is obvious that the Israelite midwives had developed obstetrical care to a high standard (Genesis 35:17). It has been said that the procedure of Genesis 38:27-30, for instance, would even be very challenging for modern obstetricians!
Mark 5:26 shows that physicians were certainly available within Israel and we also know that Luke was a physician. According to the Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, the rabbis ordained that every town should have at least one physician (Vol 3, page 1430, 1997 printing).
So we see it well established that those becoming sick or injured were expected to seek medical help! Indeed Jesus Himself shows acceptance of this principle when He said:
'.....They that are whole need not a physician; but they that are sick.' (Luke 5:31)”
I recently solved a long-term mystery illness which had afflicted me – off and on – for quite a long while. I had prayed about this, of course, but, finally, the Lord clearly pointed me to a physical solution for a physical illness (does this not make sense?). One day, when I became quite depressed and despondent about the increasing intensity of my ever-more regularly recurring illness, I found a powerful thought suddenly placed in my mind: 'Cut out milk, cheese and butter!' I did so and the effect was dramatic. A few months later and my health appears to be back to where it was ten years ago!! Of course, prayers made a difference here and many were praying for me – but the Lord pointed me to a physical remedy – something I could do!! At the very same time the Lord appeared to point me to an anti-histamine drug which could finally deliver me from years of difficulty with hay-fever – it worked!
Yet some Christians would be offended at the suggestion that a drug from a pharmacist could be part of an answer to prayer – even when they themselves could not wait to rush to a medic when they broke their arm or leg and willingly accepted their full scope of treatment including prescribed painkillers at such a time !! Is this position not contradictory?
I have before me numerous examples of the hypocrisy of extremist 'faith teachers' who actually sought and received medical help for their illnesses even when they were telling their sadly deluded followers that they should never go to doctors or take drugs. I could put a list of names right here which would shock hundreds of people – but I am not prepared to do that because it is just not my style. If extremist 'word-faith' teachers yell at you (why do they always seem to yell?) that medical science is evil please DO NOT assume that they themselves have not occasionally received such help from that form of medicine because they frequently have done so and then attempted to conceal this information from their followers!
After carefully considering this matter of divine healing for something like the last 25 years, I have come to the conclusion that God will only rarely intervene with a miraculous answer to a purely physical health problem and genuinely wants us to seek whatever help is available. Only when doctors say there is nothing more they can do does our Lord sometimes dramatically act (but not in every single case – His will shall be done!)
It is spiritually irresponsible when “faith teachers” tell packed audiences of sick people that they can all be healed if they have faith – it demonstrates a lamentable lack of understanding of what the Bible tells us about faith or about healing or about God's divine jurisdiction in these matters. Especially unforgivable when even the apostle Paul, in a very clear Scripture, tells us that God – in His infinite wisdom – witheld healing from him.
What About James 5:14-16?
Okay. How then should Christians approach this Scripture in James which some tell us is a cast-iron promise of healing if we have sufficient faith?
The first thing to point out here is that James, I am sure, was not intending to post a comprehensive theology of Christian healing in this chapter, as so many seem to assume! He made just a very few comments based on the need to pray for the sick among Christians - I think he just makes these comments in passing; I tend to think that James himself might be astonished if he knew how a few have turned this into a sort of comprehensive healing theology! Some just focus on this one Scripture, yet it has always been a paramount axiom of good biblical interpretation to consider every single Scripture on any given biblical topic before attempting to arrive at any conclusion! I think that I am correct in saying that the Roman Catholic Church get the practise of the 'last rites' (extreme unction) from here (by assuming that the said sick person will die). So let us look at this:
'Is any sick among you? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord.' (Verse 14 – NIV throughout)
'And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven.' (Verse 15)
'Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.' (Verse 16).
This verse needs little comment - this is what we might have expected James to say – pray for the sick! The oil is symbolic of seeking the authority of the Lord and bringing this healing request directly before the eyes of the Eternal for His consideration! Nevertheless, it is interesting that most New Testament healings don't seem to make any mention of oil whatsoever, so perhaps the use of this oil was to aid weak faith, to bring it to the attention of the sick person that the leaders of the church were now requesting the direct involvement of God in this matter. By the way, it is obvious here that none of this can be applied to minor – and easily treatable – ailments. This plainly appears to speak of major and probably life-threatening illnesses! I can only mention that where I have prayed for sick people and the Lord has dramatically intervened with a miraculous healing (which I have seen several times), I did not use any oil. However, if somebody were to say to me, 'Can you please come to my home and anoint me with oil for healing from serious illness , according to James 5?', I would comply with that request (although I could not do so if a great distance were involved but I would still pray). The oil is, perhaps, only symbolic, something which will assist those who are less mature in the faith.
In seeing this as the 'Last Rites' procedure, the Church of Rome sees the 'raising up' purely spiritually, and they would say that the 'sins being forgiven' part confirms this. However, the whole context of these verses is physical healing rather than salvation so this casts doubt on their approach; nevertheless, the Protestant approach does make one wonder why 'sins being forgiven' makes an appearance in verses which are talking about physical healing! But there is, I think, a perfectly good explanation: if sin has led to the illness and the prayers offered cover this area of possibility too, then those sins can be forgiven. No, this does not back up the concept of so-called “physical sin” - the Bible only reveals spiritual sin – yet some sinful behaviour can lead to illness. It is, for example, inappropriate for Christians to smoke since they are defiling the temple of their bodies and smoking can plainly lead to all manner of illness. Again, it is perfectly fine for a Christian to enjoy an occasional glass of wine or mug of beer but immoderate and over-drinking can also lead to illness – as well as being very poor behaviour to witness in a believer. However, I think the Roman version of verse 15 is not entirely incorrect to the degree that verse 15 does apparently contain an element of eternal consideration. In other words, that sick Christian will still rise ('The Lord will raise him up') at the time of the resurrection even if he or she should die now and that sick person's sins will indeed 'be forgiven'.
But what about the first part of this verse, '...The prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well...' is this not a promise? The plain lesson of Christian history is that this is not a promise – moreover, we must consider every single Scripture on healing, don't forget, and if we insist that this is a promise that would make certain other Scriptures at least dubious if not actually erroneous - don't forget that Paul was not healed of his 'thorn in the flesh' (2 Corinthians 12:7-10)– neither was Timothy granted divine healing of his regular illnesses (1 Timothy 5:23), neither was Trophimus apparently healed (2 Timothy 4:20). So, the best way to understand the first part of James 5:15 is to say, 'The prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well (that is, in the case of those sick people who are subsequently healed).'
In like manner, in speaking of the LORD, Psalm 103:3 says,
'Who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases.'
Yes, God is the forgiver of sins and the Great Healer! So when we are healed of any illness the healer is God alone. But this does not give any promise that God will forgive all sin and all disease in any particular individual case, but is simply telling us that when sin is forgiven and sickness healed the forgiver and healer is God alone. And how might God heal?
By the mechanism already built into our bodies which means that most people who get sick will get better given a few days or weeks – this is the body's own God-ordained healing system.
By the use of remedies/potions etc to help overcome some major illnesses. Don't forget that this still makes God alone our healer since it is God alone who allows healing – if it is God's will that a person should die no amount of drugs will make any difference! Some 'Word-faith' people will scoff at the inclusion of this point but if a serious illness is controlled by medication that is effectively a healing to the degree that that person can then lead a normal life. By the way, it is known that one well-known 'health, wealth and prosperity' man has been on such long-term medication for years but never speaks of it.
By divine intervention in some serious cases. This is the kind of healing which most all charismatic and Word-faith believers will be looking for – yet God does not allow this form of healing to occur in the vast majority of cases.
By the ultimate healing which every true Christian will experience after the point of death, at which point their souls travel to heaven to be comforted - completely free of any pain - in the company of God and the holy angels. Don't forget that verse 15 of James 5 definitely contains a small element of duality: healing now for many, but ultimate healing certainly beyond this life. So physical healing in this life obviously cannot be a promise for all (for very obvious reasons if one should take time out to meditate on this) yet ultimate full healing is a promise for those in Christ.
Okay, I think that this adequately explains verse 15.
This verse is simply stressing the need to pray and assures us that God listens to prayers, therefore in the face of any adversity, including serious illness, we must be prepared to pray and to petition God. We are told that the prayers of the righteous are 'powerful and effective.' This verse also encourages us to 'confess your sins to each other' – why is this point included? Because this is the very opposite of self-righteousness and the tendency to justify sin and one's shortcomings which are ever present dangers for a Christian. We should remain humble and meek, not swaggering or boastful. This verse makes it plain that God is more ready to listens to the petitions of such faithful and humble people! Indeed, as I seem to have written before, humility before God appears to be a vital key to answered prayer. Note Isaiah 57:15; 66:2; Daniel 10:12; Matthew 18:4; Matthew 23:12; James 4:6; 4:10; 1 Peter 5:5-6.
In conclusion to this whole matter, we should also consider that our bodies are going to grow old and will increasingly break down when under stress or pressure as we do so. In fact, the fact that our physical bodies are decaying day by day should encourage us to look forward to the all-powerful bodies of the resurrection which will be with us for eternity! To quote from my 2002 article, Is Physical Healing Included in the Atonement?,
'Sickness is always regrettable but probably inevitable at some stage for all of us, since the Bible also shows that our bodies - apparently like the universe - are slowly 'running down' during our lives. Isn't this what we all experience? Notice 1 Corinthians 15: 42-44 and 2 Corinthians 4: 16. Paul said that 'our outer man is decaying'. Only in the resurrected state will be completely free from illness and pain. For the meantime I think that God often has a purpose in allowing illness. Don't forget that we are promised trials in this life...'
What I Am NOT Saying...
I am not saying that the edifice of 'modern medical science' is without fault! I just want believers not to be hypocritical nor naive in their biblical interpretation. Much within modern medicine is sometimes scandalous especially its control by the wealthy pharmaceutical industry. Sometimes highly worthy forms of alternative treatment for cancer, for instance, have been discredited without mercy - even though there has been real evidence of their efficacy. The drug industry wants the cancer sufferer to only use their treatments/products even though the two they most rely on are based on putting poisons into the body in the hope that the poisons might also kill the cancer!
I hope that my comments in this article have been helpful and will assist us to understand a little more about sickness in the Christian life.
Robin A. Brace, 2005.
Here are some other articles which might also prove helpful:
Is Physical Healing Included in the Atonement?
Sorcery in the Bible, Pharmakeia and Modern Medicine
All About Faith - What Is Faith? What ISN'T Faith?
(It is vital to correctly understand exactly what biblical faith entails – what it covers, but also what it does not cover!)
The Prosperity Gospel
(A complete page of links exposing and refuting the unbiblical 'health, wealth and prosperity gospel')
How God Uses All A Christian's Trials For Good
Understanding the Vulnerability of Godly Prayer
If God Is Just and Loving Why Does He Allow Suffering in the World?
Signs and Wonders - Don't Believe Every Claim!