Yesterday I wrote that it is more like God to give us faith and righteousness than to heal us of our physical ailments. Does this mean we shouldn't pray for God to heal us of our sicknesses? And what about James chapter 5, which says "And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick"?
First of all, we should certainly pray for the sick. How can we not pray for the sick? If we love and care for people as we should, praying for their sicknesses should be something we can't help ourselves from doing. But I would say that, rather than pray for a miraculous healing, we should be praying that we find the right treatment, find skillful doctors, pray for those doctors who treating our loved ones, pray about the emotional endurance of those who are sick... there are all kinds of things we can pray in regards to sickness. But as I mentioned in yesterday's post, taking away our sicknesses and diseases is not God's plan for this time; the removal of these physical ailments is what we long for when Christ returns. And if it were a reality in this life, where would be our longing? The Bible uses the term "hope" rather than "longing", but it's not "hope" in the sense that we typically use the word "hope" where we often mean "wishful thinking", which is why I use the word "longing". But Romans 8 says this...
For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. (Romans 8:22-25)
So "hope", in this sense, is a longing for the things we "wait eagerly" for, and for what we "wait for with patience". Things like sickness are supposed to be a present reality, keeping that longing alive. And of course, this comes just after Paul has said "For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us." We are, in fact, supposed to suffer in this life; and God's purpose for that is for us to maintain faith in the promises of His Word.
But what does James intend when he tells us "the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick"? The first thing we need to recognize is that sometimes God uses sickness as a disciplinary measure. That is to say that sometimes, if we are disobedient towards God, He may cause us to become ill. We have an example of this in 1 Corinthians 11...
Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. (1 Corinthians 11:28-30)
In the Corinthian's case, they were not behaving as they ought in regards to the Communion. Not all sickness is a result of sin, though. In John 9 the disciples ask Jesus about a blind man, asking who's sin caused this man to be born blind. But Jesus essentially tells them that the man's blindness was not the result of anyone's specific sin at all. But in the case of James chapter 5, I believe he is speaking of those who are sick because they're being disciplined by God. James is calling his readers to sincere repentance. James has been speaking to them throughout the book of their various sinful ways, and his assumption, then, is that some of them will be sick as a result of their sinful ways. James is saying that it's time to repent, and that sickness which God has given them in order to bring them to repentance, will be taken away. Let's look at the passage in this light...
And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit. My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins. (James 5:15-20)
We can see here that James is speaking more about confession of sins ("that you may be healed") than simply about healing of any kind of sickness at all. James also uses the illustration of Elijah where, in 1 Kings 17-18, God (through Elijah) brings a drought upon Israel as judgment for their sin of idolatry. After the idolaters are dealt with, God (through Elijah) takes away the drought. So likewise, God does sometimes inflict us with sickness because of our sins. But if we deal with that sin through repentance, the sickness can be taken away. Is this a common thing? That, I don't know. But examining ourselves to see whether there's sinfulness in our lives is something we should be doing continually, regardless.
But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world. (1 Corinthians 11:31-32)