Wednesday, November 23, 2011

What would you choose?

If you could have one vexing biblical verse or passage explained and clarified, which would it be?

I would choose James' passage on the effectiveness of prayer:
13 Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise. 14 Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven. 16 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 5:13-16) 
I have heard and read many discussions of this passage from admired pastors and respected theologians. None of them satisfy. The plain reading of the text is that prayer can make the sick well. This is, quite frankly, neither demonstrable or logical. Not demonstrable because we pray for sick people all the time--and they sometimes recover and sometimes not, at normal rates. Not logical because it is our destiny to have our three score and ten and then, to first order, get sick and die.

No, I wouldn't choose having creation, or the end-times, or infant vs. believer's baptism, or the problem of evil, or anything else-- given one opportunity to have my eyes opened on one item--I would use it on the question of prayer. This passage in James bothers me so much I confess I sometimes wonder if James is really canonical. I will continue to go on the assumption it is, given I know that for the most part I'm an idiot. But I will probably never understand its straightforward teaching on the tangible effectiveness of prayer.


  1. I wonder if Prof. Heddle has ever read C.S. Lewis's "Petitionary Prayer: A Problem Without an Answer"? As best I can recall, Lewis covers the same ground as this question, though I don't remember if he quotes this particular passage from James.

  2. Maybe from the context this is only meant to be about sickness which is the result of sinning. Perhaps the recovery then is only meant to be the sign that the sin also has been forgiven --- which is much much more important than simply "getting well". But, we don't think that way . do we ? Because we are so influenced by the health, wealth and prosperity "gospel". However, seen in true perspective sin is a much much more serious and eternal problem than temporal well being, isn't it ?

  3. Celal, I have heard that explanation before. I think it's plausible given the surrounding context.

    This has crossed my mind before. In the specific case of being sick, there is a difference in the instructions given by James. In this case, they are told to get the elders of the church. Not just pray by themselves, and not just anyone from the church. A case can be made from scripture that the prayers of some are more effective than others. I would assume these elders that James is referring to are quite holy men. The result could be outside our usual observations on the efficacy of prayer on illness.

  4. "And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up"

    The explanation I've heard is that God always heals you - either now, or via the resurrection!