All of the Christian life is grounded in two important theological truths: God is good; and, God acts powerfully in the world for good. Prayer is based in the conviction that God is concerned to hear us; and, that he is able to respond and answer. Prayer might be something that we can engage in at any time, but real God-focused, God-honoring prayer has a price. It will cost us time, effort, vulnerability, and following through with action. Biblical prayer is not just throwing up some private requests, but is an activity that requires something of us as a community of believers in Jesus (James 5:13-20).
The entire church is to pray – all of us, the happy and the suffering, the healthy and unhealthy. More specifically, the New Testament letter of James tells us that the leaders/elders of the church are to pray for those who are “sick” (James 5:14). The word James used refers not just to a physical illness, but also to those who are weak and weary, those who are completely worn down because of their life circumstances.
James provides a clear chain of responsibility. The onus is on the sick person to contact the elders of the church. James clearly puts the need for communicating the situation on the person who is undergoing the trouble. For many people, this is humbling and difficult, so they do not do it. But prayer has a price – it will cost us some openness.
When the needy person communicates the trouble, then the elders are to anoint the person in the name of the Lord and offer a prayer of faith on his/her behalf. It is the leadership’s job to pray. In the Bible, anointing with oil was a deeply symbolic act of encouragement in which a tangible thing was being done in order to lift the person from the trouble. Physical ailments of bodily sickness; sinful problems of anger or bitterness; spiritual struggles of doubt; emotional challenges of depression; anything and everything that would cause a lack of health could be prayed over and people could be anointed and encouraged.
Prayer for James was not a strictly private affair; it was a communal activity. I want us to entertain the notion that if we are not experiencing healing, wholeness, and health whether it is physical, relational, or spiritual, then maybe God is calling you and I to not only personal private prayer, but corporate prayer offered by the elders of the church. It is not just the prayer offered by one solitary individual that makes the sick person well – it is the collective faith prayer of the church’s leadership on the troubled person.
The goal of prayer is healing in its complete form: physical, mental, emotional, relational, and, of course, spiritual. Effective prayer results in reconciliation with others, and a restoration to the community of faith. To bring those who wander from the truth back – to realize a return of a prodigal – will result because of prayer (James 5:19-20).
In the past ten years, the American church has experienced a pronounced slide of people out the door. According to Christian pollster, George Barna, 25% of the U.S. population now identifies themselves in the religious category of “none.” They have no religious affiliation. Many of them have left churches. You already know this. You know it because this is not a statistic to you. You know some of the “nones” personally.
What will you do about it? Wish it were different? Lament it? Complain about it? Or will you and your church pray with heartfelt, earnest, passionate, deliberate, sustained, and believing prayers so that prodigals will return and those who have wandered far from God will experience the grace of Jesus Christ? Bring them back. Do it with prayer.