The Prayer of Faith During Sickness
1, 2. What shows whether James 5:13-15 speaks about spiritual sickness?
THE disciple James speaks about the prayer of faith for the sick. Does he not contradict what has been said above? Let us examine his words on this: “Is there anyone suffering evil among you? Let him carry on prayer. Is there anyone in good spirits? Let him sing psalms. Is there anyone sick among you? Let him call the older men of the congregation to him, and let them pray over him, rubbing him with oil in the name of Jehovah. And the prayer of faith will make the indisposed one well, and Jehovah will raise him up. Also if he has committed sins, it will be forgiven him.”—Jas. 5:13-15, NW.
2 The context makes it clear that James is here talking, not of physical, but of spiritual sickness. He first mentions suffering evil. That refers to “suffering evil for the good news according to the power of God”. It means enduring some hardships for serving as a Christian witness of God and keeping one’s integrity toward God. (2 Tim. 1:8, NW) So, if one is suffering thus, let him carry on prayer so as to be helped to continue faithful, advises James. But, James, what if anyone is in good spirits? “Let him sing psalms.” Doing so, he edifies himself and those hearing him. But what if anyone is not in good spirits? In other words, what if one is sick spiritually? The fact that James contrasts being sick with being in good spirits plainly indicates he is dealing with spiritual and not physical sickness. The course of treatment he now recommends also argues it is spiritual sickness. The older men of the congregation, who are full-grown in the faith and full of wisdom from above and acquainted with God’s instructions, are the proper ones for the spiritually sick one to call in. If he were ailing physically, he would call in a doctor, if he could afford it, or would resort to some medicinal remedy.
3. Why were the older brothers to pray over the sick?
3 What are the older men of the congregation to do with the one sick spiritually? They are to pray over him, so that he can hear what they pray and can show he agrees, with his “Amen!” He has fallen into such a spiritual state that he cannot properly pray on his own accord any more. Not able to ask in faith and with an unwavering mind, he has no confidence in his own prayer. (Jas. 1:6, 7) Something has brought on this spiritual illness. The older men must ascertain what this is. Paul, too, refers to this kind of sickness and tells one cause, the improper celebration of the Lord’s evening meal or Memorial supper. “For he that eats and drinks eats and drinks judgment against himself if he does not discern the body. That is why many among you are weak and sickly and quite a few are sleeping in death. But if we would discern what we ourselves are, we would not be judged.” (1 Cor. 11:29-31, NW) Those in this condition were not keeping unity with the Christian congregation, the body of Christ. So Paul as an older brother wrote them for their help and spiritual cure.
4. In what way is it that they rub the sick with oil?
4 The older men of the congregation are not merely to pray with the spiritually sick. They must also rub him with oil in the name of Jehovah. Not literal oil, like the so-called “extreme unction” of Catholics, or like that described at Mark 6:13. The “oil” here is the soothing word of instruction from the Holy Scriptures and it restores the spiritually sick one to unity with the Christian congregation which is in God’s favor. As it is written: “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity! It is like the precious oil upon the head, that ran down upon the beard, even Aaron’s beard; that came down upon the skirt of his garments.” (Ps. 133:1, 2, AS) Speaking of oil to symbolize refreshment and soothing, Psalm 23:5 (Mo) says: “Thou hast poured oil upon my head, my cup is brimming over.” The healthful effect of God’s message is described at Proverbs 15:30 in this way: “Good tidings make the bones fat.” (AS) And the correction which leads to spiritual health is described as soothing and curative by the psalmist when he says: “Let the righteous smite me, it shall be a kindness; and let him reprove me, it shall be as oil upon the head; let not my head refuse it.” (Ps. 141:5, AS) And that it denotes a means of healing is shown when the good Samaritan poured oil along with wine into the wounds of the man waylaid by robbers. (Luke 10:34) So the older men of the congregation are to rub the spiritually sick one with oil in the sense of stimulating him with the soothing, healing, comforting, corrective Word of God.
5. How do they do this “in the name of Jehovah”? And with what effect?
5 In the name of Jehovah they are to do this. That is to say, in faithfulness to Jehovah God and according to his purpose, so as to aid the spiritually ill one to recover and have a part anew in vindicating God’s name and proving the Devil a false god and liar. Those older men must pray in faith, believing that God’s Word is right and has power to help the sick one to see the error of his way and to recognize the right way. Such a united prayer of faith, together with the invigorating application of God’s Word, will make the spiritually indisposed person well. It will build up his confidence in God’s promise and in the rightness of God’s Word and way, and will restore him to that way. Thus “Jehovah will raise him up”, giving him strength to go in the way of truth and righteousness, and lifting him up out of his despondency and a feeling of being abandoned by God. His spiritual illness may have been due to getting into the bad habit of neglecting to meet with God’s people or due to failing to feed regularly on God’s Word and active service. Or he may have committed some serious sins for which he has been put out of favorable relationship with God and his organization. But now if he responds to the prayer offered unitedly by older men of faith and to their healthful stimulation of reproof, correction and exhortation from God’s Word, and turns around and resumes the right way, what sins he has committed will then be forgiven him. This forgiveness is not on the basis of any self-righteousness in him, but is on the basis of Jesus’ righteous sacrifice for sins.—1 John 1:7 to 2:2.
6. To whom may we then confess our sins? Is prayer of value then?
6 Hence, in direct contrast with the secret confessional carried on by some religious systems, James instructs us: “Therefore openly confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may get healed. A righteous man’s supplication when it is at work has much force.” (Jas. 5:16, NW) Since the illness is connected with sins, it is apparent that the unhealth is spiritual, not physical. Otherwise, the sinners against God would all be in states of serious bodily disease or sickness. But such is not the case. Oftentimes worldly sinners are in far better physical health than faithful servants and witnesses of Jehovah God. To illustrate the powerfulness of prayers by the righteous man, not a sin-sick man, James calls to mind Elijah’s prayer: “Elijah was a man with feelings like ours, and yet in prayer he prayed for it not to rain, and it did not rain upon the land for three years and six months. And he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain and the land put forth its fruit.” (Jas. 5:17, 18, NW) The land of Israel was smitten with drought and famine because the nation was spiritually sick and out of harmony with Jehovah God. Elijah called for the fire test to demonstrate that Jehovah is God, and when the people at Mount Carmel acknowledged this and shouted, “Jehovah, he is God,” and then turned the demonized prophets of Baal over to be executed, Elijah prayed for rain upon their land. It came. In unshakable faith he prayed seven times for this miracle of rain. Prayer works.
7. By such prayer how are those confessing sins healed? What does this restoration save misled ones from?
7 So by praying for those who are spiritually sick and who plain-spokenly confess their sins to us and seek our spiritual aid they “may get healed”, spiritually so. This saves them from lapsing into spiritual death which would end up in their destruction from all future life. In their case Almighty God would destroy “both soul and body in Gehenna”. (Matt. 10:28, NW) To encourage us to thus help brothers who are spiritually ailing and in danger of fearful consequences, James ends up his letter with this powerful reminder: “My brothers, if anyone among you is misled from the truth [this resulting in spiritual illness] and another turns him back, know that he who turns a sinner back from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.” (Jas. 5:19, 20, NW) Those sins which the spiritually sick person confessed and from which you prayed for him to be healed will be covered over. God will remember them no more, but will renew his peaceful relations with the returned sinner. It is by the sin-canceling blood of Jesus that the sins are thus covered over, but your prayer helped to move the divine arrangement of things to such a result. For such a privilege of lifesaving service you can be very thankful.
“A THORN IN THE FLESH”
8, 9. May we pray about our physical sickness? How did Paul go about it?
8 But are we not also privileged to pray to God in our physical sickness and speak to him about it? Yes, we are. But we are not to pray for divine healing. The day for that is past. That gift of the spirit passed away with the decease of the apostles and their immediate associates. Furthermore, this miraculous healing was to be a sign to outsiders and to be performed upon them. It was not to be used for the selfish comfort of the faithful believers. True Christians, the servants of Jehovah God, do get physically sick. His own Word testifies to that. The apostle Paul had some physical affliction, which he likened to a “thorn in the flesh”. Did he pray about it? Or, so highly gifted as he was, did he miraculously pluck this thorn out of his flesh himself, or did God do it for him with divine power? Hear Paul’s own testimony:
9 “No one should put to my credit more than what he sees I am or he hears from me, just because of the excess of the revelations. Therefore, that I might not be overly exalted, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, an angel of Satan, to keep striking me, that I might not be overly exalted. In this behalf I three times entreated the Lord that it might depart from me; and yet he really said to me: ‘My undeserved kindness is sufficient for you; for my power is being made perfect in weakness.’ Most gladly, therefore, will I rather boast as respects my weaknesses, that the power of the Christ may like a tent remain over me. Therefore I take pleasure in weaknesses, in insults, in cases of need, in persecutions and difficulties, for Christ. For when I am weak, then I am powerful.”—2 Cor. 12:6-10, NW.
10, 11. What may have been Paul’s “thorn”, according to some indications?
10 What was Paul’s thorn in the flesh? Some think it may have been poor eyesight or a pussy affliction of the eye. This may have been a hang-over from the three days of blindness with which Jesus struck him down when, as Saul of Tarsus, he was on his way to Damascus to extend his violent persecution to Christians there. To stop Saul abruptly and to convince him instantly that Christ was resurrected to heavenly glory and that it was the followers of the living, glorified Christ whom Saul of Tarsus was persecuting, Jesus miraculously appeared to him in the way to Damascus. But while not being killed by the vision or having his eyes burnt out of their sockets, he had to pay dearly for it. It was only by another miracle that his eyesight was restored. But likely to only a limited degree.—Acts 9:1-19.
11 Paul seems to refer to dim eyesight when he writes the Galatians: “I bear you witness that, if it had been possible, you would have gouged out your eyes and given them to me.” This, too, may be why he added this line to them: “See with what large letters I have written you with my own hand.” (Gal. 4:15; 6:11, NW) For that reason, too, it may be that he dictated most of his letters. Poor eyesight seems to be betrayed when in the Jewish court he looked intently at the Sanhedrin and spoke back sharply to the high priest and then apologized, saying: “Brothers, I did not know he was high priest. For it is written, ‘You must not speak injuriously of a ruler of your people.’” (Acts 23:1-5, NW) At any rate, a pussy, weak pair of eyes in those days without spectacles could have been quite a handicap and hindrance to Paul at work and study. It could have irked him, making him long for its correction, and making him pray about it. An American Translation renders “thorn in the flesh” loosely as “a bitter physical affliction”.
12. To what else may the thorn in Paul’s flesh correspond?
12 But Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” may correspond with something that plagued the Israelites after they had entered the land of milk and honey. On the plains of Moab, across the Jordan river from the Promised Land, Moses said this warning to them: “But if ye will not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you, then shall those that ye let remain of them be as pricks in your eyes, and as thorns in your sides, and they shall vex you in the land wherein ye dwell.” And Moses’ successor, Joshua, repeated this warning before he died. (Num. 33:55; Josh. 23:11-13, AS) The Israelites failed to heed these warnings and did not push the campaign of ridding the land of the pagan, demon-worshiping peoples, and so Jehovah sent his angel and said to them: “Ye have not hearkened unto my voice: why have ye done this? Wherefore I also said, I will not drive them out from before you; but they shall be as thorns in your sides, and their gods shall be a snare unto you.” (Judg. 2:2, 3, AS) So the apostle Paul may have had some such thorn in the flesh like those pagan, demon worshipers of Canaan who plagued with their presence those Israelites who were trying to go straight according to Jehovah’s law. If so, what do the Scriptures allow for such “thorn” in Paul’s side to be?
13, 14. So who do the Scriptures allow for such “thorn” to be?
13 Since Paul was here writing a letter to the Corinthians to follow up his first letter in which he deplored the disunity that had crept in among them, and the sectarian spirit that led them to follow human leaders, the “thorn” may have been their “superfine apostles”. These were not in harmony with Paul’s teaching, and they denied Paul’s apostleship. So Paul said to the congregation: “I consider that I have not in a single thing proved inferior to your superfine apostles. But even if I am unskilled in speech, I certainly am not in knowledge, but in every way we manifested it to you in all things. Now what I am doing I will still do, that I may cut off the pretext from those who are wanting a pretext for being found equal to us in the office of which they boast. For such men are false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for Satan himself keeps transforming himself into an angel of light. It is therefore nothing great if his ministers also keep transforming themselves into ministers of righteousness. But their end shall be according to their works.”—2 Cor. 11:5, 6, 12-15, NW.
14 He also mentioned to the congregation in Galatia those men who were gnawing away at Paul’s work and threatening it with ruin among them. So he said: “I marvel that you are being so quickly removed from the One who called you with Christ’s undeserved kindness over to another sort of good news. But it is not another; only there are certain ones who are disturbing you and wanting to pervert the good news about the Christ. . . . As we have said above, I also now say again, Whoever it is that is declaring to you as good news something beyond what you accepted, let him be accursed.” “I wish the men who are trying to overturn you would even get themselves emasculated.” “Henceforth let no one be bothering me, for I am bearing on my body the brand-marks of a slave of Jesus.”—Gal. 1:6-9; 5:12; 6:17, NW.
15, 16. (a) How was the thorn an “angel of Satan”? (b) So what did Paul pray, and how did the Lord respond and Paul take it?
15 Paul calls the “thorn in the flesh” an “angel of Satan, to keep striking me, that I might not be overly exalted”. And such these false apostles and disturbers and assailants of Paul’s apostleship and work would be, to keep him from getting too elated over his ministry. On the other hand, if the “thorn” was an irremovable affliction of his eyes or other part of his body, it could serve as an angel of Satan to prick him with pessimism or an inferiority complex and a consequent discouragement. Whatever the thorn’s nature, Paul prayed three times for its removal. Another thing, he prayed at a time when the gift of the spirit for healing was still bestowed and operated. The thorn, Satan’s angel, weakened Paul. He would have been glad to be rid of it.
16 But the Lord did not answer his triple prayer. Instead, he fortified him with these words: “My undeserved kindness is sufficient for you; for my power is being made perfect in weakness.” Because Paul was left weak by the unextracted thorn, it gave the Lord the opportunity to give Paul a strength to do things which was not his own. So the Lord could demonstrate what he could do with a faithful servant who was hampered with a sore weakness. This gave evidence that the power of Christ was overshadowing his apostle. Realization of this changed the mental view of things for Paul. Instead of being further grieved over his imbedded weakness, Paul said: “Most gladly, therefore, will I rather boast as respects my weaknesses, that the power of the Christ may like a tent remain over me. Therefore I take pleasure in weaknesses, in insults, in cases of need, in persecutions and difficulties, for Christ.” Why so, Paul? “For when I am weak, then I am powerful.” Since he was physically weak in himself, he had to be powerful by the power of Christ which sheltered him like a tent.
ACCOMPLISHMENTS DESPITE AFFLICTION
17. Yet how did Paul labor, and what do his case and his attitude show us?
17 Paul failed to get divine healing in this respect, but not because he lacked faith. Nevertheless, he labored far in excess of any of the rest of the apostles. His case shows that we do not have to have divine healing of our physical infirmities and sicknesses in order to accomplish something in active service as a witness of the Most High God. Paul illustrated what God through Christ can make out of a man afflicted with a thorn in the flesh which constituted a weakness for him. Like Paul, we can be happy over what the Lord accomplishes through us in spite of our ailments, disabilities or weaknesses which divine healing fails to remove from us today. If we accomplish anything in spite of these, we are bound to conclude it was the Lord who accomplished it through us, and not we ourselves. This keeps us from growing elated and swell-headed. It reminds us we are powerful to do anything only by his power which tents over us. It allows God’s power through Christ to be made perfect in operation through us, in the face of our admitted debility. For this reason the glory for our accomplishments deserves to go to God through Christ. Our ministry as his servants and witnesses is a glorious treasure, and we can now appreciate why this treasure is committed to creatures of earth who are like earthen vessels. Paul explains: “We have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the power beyond what is normal may be God’s and not that out of ourselves.”—2 Cor. 4:1, 7, NW.
18. To correspond with this, what do 1951 service reports show?
18 The service reports of modern days show that God is accomplishing a mighty work through men and women and children who are fully devoted to him but who are handicapped with some physical impairment. They have enough truth so as not to pray and wait upon God to perform the miracle of divine healing and relieve them of what ails or hampers their bodies, before they try to get something done in his service. They do not have to have the power of divine healing remove their natural infirmities and defects in order to be convinced themselves or to convince others that they have the truth and are witnesses of Jehovah. Just as they are they try to serve as ministers of the good news of His kingdom which must now be preached world-wide. So today invalids and cripples on their wheel chairs or beds testify to the incoming Kingdom by whatever means and to whomever their limited conditions allow. They speak to all who come in touch with them, they write letters, mail out or pass out literature, telephone, use sign language, etc. These are reporting the time they thus devote to witnessing, and they are listed among the more than 375,000 active witnesses whom the Almighty has raised up in this year 1951.
19. Besides such confined ones, what are other handicapped ones doing, and thereby what do they demonstrate?
19 These confined ones should not be neglected. We should care for them, cooperate with them, supply their service needs, furnish them spiritual food by personal visitation and other means. Besides persons in hospitals, sickrooms, and other places of confinement who are letting the light of Kingdom truth shine out, there are others who are blind, who are deaf and dumb, who are crippled or otherwise handicapped and afflicted. These are nevertheless going out into the field and proclaiming the Kingdom and accomplishing a mighty witness, all in demonstration of God’s power amid weakness. So none of suchlike should be disheartened. Let them carry forward their splendid efforts and put the power of God to the proof. By this they have part in demonstrating that it is as Zechariah 4:6 states: “Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, saith Jehovah of hosts.”—AS.
20. What about further questions on sickness and divine healing?
20 However, the questions on sickness and divine healing are more than we can consider in this Watchtower issue. Are you interested to have these discussed in our next issue? We believe so. So your questions as yet unanswered in the above are very likely to be satisfied in what we have yet to say.