Is any among you suffering? If ever there was a rhetorical question, that certainly is it. Of course there is someone suffering. At any given time, in every Christian fellowship, someone is going to be having an awfully rough time of it. Suffering seems to be the universal lot of all human beings. Suffering happens to all of us. We don’t like it to be that way, we always wish it were otherwise, but in this broken and damaged world, we really ought to learn to expect it. Our Lord suffered, and part of our Christian experience is to follow him down the same paths of agony that he traveled. Jesus suffered, he died, he rose from the dead, and he is exalted in heaven. That’s our path: suffering, death, resurrection and exaltation. That’s our hope. Its a hope that Jesus promised us.
But before hope becomes reality, we need to be people of prayer. Prayer is one of the ways that we use to connect with God. Scripture reading is the other. Both are essential. I’m pretty sure I didn’t make this up, but we ought to read Scripture prayerfully and we ought to pray Scripturally. Both Scripture reading and prayer combine to make a supernatural communication with God that goes far beyond normal conversation. They both give us a sense of settled peace in our lives. They both force us into a more realistic, more godly understanding of ourselves. And, miraculously, they both eliminate whining and self pity, which we are prone to engage in when we find ourselves suffering.
Part the reason that James counsels prayer for those who are suffering, is so that he can catch the attention of those of us who are doing just fine. No one, in any Christian fellowship, should ever suffer alone or in silence. We’re all in this together, we are intimately connected to one another and to God. That’s why we call ourselves the children of God, and the brothers and sisters of one another. James is saying subtly, but very intentionally, that since we share this common, intimate bond with one another, that we ought to be caring for one another. When we know that someone among us is suffering, we ought to be willing to hold the hands of those who hurt, and to lift up in prayer all who are struggling. Like God, who does not abandon or forget anyone, we must let folks know that we will not abandon nor forget them, and that we truly hold them in our hearts. This is so that when we find ourselves in a place of difficulty, we can count on others to care for us and to pray for us. Its a mutual thing.
And so then, James asks another rhetorical question. Are any cheerful? Of course we are! Our Christian faith is a faith that is primarily characterized by joy. Lots of us are cheerful. Jesus is alive and so are we. Our futures are secured, God has blessed us abundantly, and that is always cause for joyous celebration. And James says, if you’re cheerful, kick it up! Enjoy it! Never be ashamed of it. Get together, join heartily with others and sing songs of praise. Be together in your cheerfulness, as well as in your suffering. There’s a powerful pattern here. Is any among you suffering? Then get together with your brothers and sisters in Christ. Is any among you cheerful? Then get together with your brothers and sisters in Christ. What is James saying? Get together. Be together no matter what. Be together under all circumstances.
I think sometimes, though, that deep down, we’re afraid to be cheerful. We’ve somehow come to believe that cheerfulness is misplaced in a world, and even in a church that is filled with suffering and pain. And so we tone down our joy. Maybe it is for fear that by being joyful that we are somehow mocking those who are suffering, and so if we’re joyful, we had best keep it to ourselves. That’s not at all what James is encouraging here. That’s human thinking, not godly thinking. We should never be ashamed of the joy that Jesus has put into our hearts! We should never hide our joy. James says share it, celebrate it, sing it out, get loud with it. Make a joyful noise unto the Lord. It is just as wrong to bury our joy, as it is to keep silent about our suffering. Besides, joy, Christian joy, serves as a healing balm to those who suffer. Joy is contagious. Suffering people need to be around people who are filled with joy. That’s why, in the Christian church, Jesus puts joyful people, and people who are suffering, together in the same place. There’s no accident here, Jesus does it on purpose, so that our joys and sorrows can be shared.
Now James tosses up a third rhetorical question. Are any among you sick? Yes, some of us are sick. We are sick in heart and we are sick in body. Some of us have illnesses that are going to lead to death. And while all of us want to live long, happy, healthy lives, not all of us will. All of us are going to die someday. But we are faithful people, and we must never fear death. Death, as frightening as it sometimes can be, is God’s best gift to us. It is how God ultimately heals us of all of our suffering and pain and sorrows. Without death, there can be no resurrection, and resurrection is our rock-solid hope. It is why we have given our lives to Jesus Christ.
Now sadly, this passage has sometimes been promoted as a magic cure for illness. But practical experience has shown us that it is not, and sometimes the words seem to be a mockery to us. In real life, these words have caused us grief, not joy. And sometimes these words have been used to beat us up with shame and guilt, especially when a cure is not effected. The troublesome verse is verse 15. James says that, “The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up.”
In a sense, I believe that James is speaking primarily about resurrection here, but also a cure. He certainly uses the language of resurrection. The problem comes, though, when the Lord doesn’t raise our loved ones up in this life. It suddenly becomes our fault. We didn’t have enough faith. We didn’t pray hard enough. If we had more faith, our loved ones would not have died. It all depended on us and on our ability to believe.
This cannot be what James intends for us to believe. I cannot imagine that James would be heaping a load of guilt and shame on us at a time when we are honestly and fervently connecting with our Lord. The healing of our loved ones cannot be all up to us. That’s quite presumptuous, actually. We are not the healers. We aren’t the ones who determine who gets well in this life and who does not. Jesus is the one who heals, not us. The decision is the Lord’s, not ours, and the Lord always does what is right.
And in that, there is strong comfort. I’m not sure that we would always make the right decision. Our wisdom is not always the Lord’s wisdom. The faith element here is learning to trust in God’s wisdom, and believing that God will always do the right thing. I think there’s tremendous relief in that, and no small amount of comfort, to boot. Our God is a loving and compassionate God, and learning to receive his love and compassion is a huge part of what our faith is all about. It may be that God’s love and compassion is best expressed to our loved one who is dying, and who is eagerly anticipating resurrection, than it is in our own need for them to remain alive. That’s a tough thought to get into our hearts.
So what do we do? We pray. And we pray with honest and yearning hearts. We earnestly entreat our Lord to heal us and our loved ones. We pray for wellness of hearts, for healing of minds, and for bodily cures. And we call upon the elders of the church to pray for us.
There’s something wonderful and powerful going on here, and again, it depends on our connection to one another, and to God. But there’s also an individual responsibility here. James counsels the suffering to pray. James counsels the cheerful to sing songs of praise, and he counsels the sick to call upon the elders of the church. The initiative and the responsibility for this rests upon the one who is seeking the cure. Effort is required of the person who is suffering to pray, effort is required of the person who is cheerful to sing, and effort is required of the person who is ill to seek out the elders of the church. This re-enforces our connections to one another.
When all is said and done, do I believe that some of us will be cured? Absolutely. Jesus lacks no power to abolish illness in our lives. Miracles in God’s kingdom still abound. We have witnessed them right here in this fellowship, and we can expect even more. And so we pray, and we pray without ceasing. And along the way, we will see the mighty things that God does in our midst.