Therefore, confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective. James 5:16 (NIV)
You may know that James, the author of the letter from which this verse is taken, was Jesus’ brother and one of the leaders of the church in Jerusalem.
The book of James is short and, if you read it later, you will see that it has some great practical guidance about how believers should live. There are also some parts that are hard to understand. I chalk that up to the challenges of translating a letter written almost 2,000 years ago in another language to another culture. In this verse, for example, I have never been sure if James is saying that physical healing depends on both confessing our sins to each other and praying for each other, or if he is encouraging two separate things that are unrelated. Either way, we run into the problem from last week, we don’t like talking about sin in general much less confessing our sins to other people.
I agree that the idea of confessing all of our sins to others seems weird. Except in relationships where we have a deep level of trust, we don’t share with someone all the times we have sinned throughout the day and I don’t believe that is what James is telling us to do. But, I can confess my sin to someone when my sin has hurt them and I can ask for their forgiveness. Just as confessing sin and receiving forgiveness is essential to our relationship with God, it is also essential to our relationship with others. Simple confessions like “I am sorry I lost my temper, please forgive me,” “What I did was selfish, please forgive me,” and, “I’m sorry I was wrong,” can have a profound effect in a relationship.
Many smart people have written about the link between confession and physical healing and I will leave the theological discussions to them. What I do know is that there is a link between confession, forgiveness and healing in relationships. Confession and forgiveness will mend broken relationships and make good relationships stronger.
Now, let’s talk about the other admonition in this verse, praying for each other. Prayer is communicating with God. Most of the time, I take for granted how remarkable it is that the creator of the universe wants to have a relationship with me. When I pray, He assures me that I am not in this fight alone and He responds to my requests and concerns. This is so much more than some people imagine is possible. Take, for example, the idea of praying for healing. For some, maybe for you, prayer for healing is a mystic process that we use to transmit our positivity to someone who is sick. We send “healthy thoughts” or good wishes for healing. That’s not what James is talking about. He is telling us that we can go directly to God and ask Him to heal someone. Not only that but he tells us, “the prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.” Not powerful and effective in a magical kind of way, but powerful and effective because God hears us and responds.
Just as many people have talked about a link between confession and healing, many more have talked about the link between prayer and healing. Again, I am not an expert on the topic, but I can share some things I have learned:
- God may not heal someone in the way I ask. He has a bigger view of the situation. As I shared a few weeks ago, He has understanding beyond my ability to fathom. You may have heard of Joni Earecksen Tada. She was injured in a diving accident in 1967, when she was 17 years old, that left her a quadriplegic in a wheel chair. God did not heal her physical injuries, but used her physical “weakness” as a powerful platform from which she has shared her message of faith and trust.
- God may heal someone though medicine or the normal healing process. Just before this verse, James tells the sick people to call for the Elders in the church to anoint them with oil and pray for them. Today, we have spiritualized this process and it usually takes the form of dabbing a little oil on someone’s forehead. But, in James’ time “anointing” was pouring the oil over the affected area. While there may have been a spiritual effect or symbolism, the oil also helped in the natural healing process.
- God may heal someone in a way that defies explanation. You have heard the stories of, and maybe even experienced, situations where tumors disappeared or long-time ailments went away after someone has prayed.
We can’t control God’s response to our prayers for healing and we may not always understand it. But, we can pray and trust that God will work in the situation.
This week practice James’ direction to confess and pray. Experience for yourself the relational and physical healing that will result.