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. 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. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. 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. Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit.
James 5:13-18 can be a very difficult passage to understand. There are a number of questions that arise as we read through the passage. However, the main point of the passage is very clear. James is emphasizing the importance of prayer; he mentions it in every verse. As we make our way through this passage we will see 1) the importance of individual prayer, 2) the importance of community prayer, and finally 3) we will see the effectiveness of prayer.
I. The Importance of Individual Prayer (v. 13)
a. If you are suffering then pray.
James begins this section on prayer by highlighting the importance of individual prayer. James asks, “Is anyone among you suffering?” The implied answer is yes. Throughout this entire letter we see suffering, and trials. There were people in the churches to whom James wrote that were suffering. (And what makes this passage so applicable is that people are still suffering. I am sure that there are people reading this blog who are suffering.) When James asked this question he was referring specifically to the inner experience of enduring difficult situations. In other words the frustration, the disappointment, the fear, the loneliness, or whatever you may struggle with when you are trying to endure. We have all been there, so we can relate first hand to what James is talking about. But what can we do about this suffering? James provides that answer when he says, “then he must pray.” Prayer is the answer. You have all been there. Your first reaction when something goes wrong is probably either anger or self-pity (neither of which accomplishes anything). But James is calling us to fight this initial urge by turning to God in prayer. When we are struggling with frustrations, or having a “woe-is-me” attitude we must trust that God is in control, and turn to Him in prayer.
But what should we pray for? James does not tell us that specifically, but I think that we can make some assumptions. In 1:2-4 James tells us to consider a trial an occasion for joy because it builds up endurance within us. Thus, I think that we can safely assume that the prayer that James is talking about here is that we would be comforted by God in the midst of trials, and be able to see God’s work in the midst of trials. We can pray for God to change our situation, but it would be better if we prayed for the wisdom to understand how God was working through trials so that we could have joy in all situations. James talked specifically about this prayer for wisdom in 1:5:
But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives generously and without reproach and it will be given to him.
b. If you are cheerful then sing.
James wants his readers to know that God is in control of all situations, good as well as bad. As we already saw when things are bad we are to pray. And as James continues we see that we are to sing praises when things are good. James writes, “Is anyone cheerful? He is to sing praises.” This word translated as cheerful describes someone who is full of joy, not necessarily someone who is physically doing well. So in the first part of v. 13 we saw that we are to pray for comfort and joy in the midst of difficult situations. Here in the second part of v. 13 we see that when we have comfort and joy we are to sing praises to God for them. These songs of praise are a form of prayer. So whether it is in the midst of suffering or in times of joy we are to seek God out in prayer.
Let me warn you of a practical matter with respect to James’ command. It will be easier to seek God out for comfort in midst of a difficult situation than it will be to praise God for giving you comfort. When things in our life are easy we tend to forget that God has made them that way for our good. James is reminding us that our joy is the result of God’s work in our life and we must praise God for that work.
It is clear from v. 13 that we as individuals need to be people who are given to prayer. In the middle of your day you can bow before the Almighty Living God and pray to Him for encouragement. We must take advantage of this. In our everyday lives, in everyday situations, we need to be going to God in prayer. As Jesus said in Matthew 6:6 you must “go into your inner room, close the door and pray to your Father…”