Our reading from the epistle of James today is one that, in its misapplication, has caused a great deal of heartache over the years. It plunges us into the mystery of prayer, and the hope of the miraculous; but read lightly it also seems to offer a simple, formulaic picture of prayer, and in particular, of prayer for healing.
“This prayer made in faith will heal the sick; the Lord will restore them to health” … “confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, so that you will be healed”
We read those words, and it seems a simple promise. Are you sick? Confess your sins and pray with faith and you will be healed.
But I guess life experience has taught most of us that it really isn’t always quite that simple. Where, then, do we go, when prayer – and in particular, prayer for healing – seems to go unanswered?
One possible response – and this is where I believe great harm has been done – is to take hold of the two conditions found in the text, and assert that if healing does not take place, it must be either because of a lack of faith – for it is “the prayer made in faith” that will heal the sick, or that there must be unconfessed sin, for does it not say “confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, so that you will be healed”?
So if you pray for healing and you are not healed, either you lack faith, or there is unconfessed sin in your life. Simple. But, as American journalist H. Mencken said in the 1920’s “There is always an easy solution to every human problem – neat, plausible, and wrong.”
But why wrong? Did James believe that healing was conditional only on faith and confession? Didn’t his life experience say that it was more complicated than that?
How are we to make sense of what he wrote?
Now I’m generally loath to start dissecting passages and talking about the original languages – partly because I think it rapidly leads to very dull sermons, but mostly because my knowledge of the Biblical languages is so much less than that of the translators that it seems unlikely I can do a better job than they have. But here I think we do need to ask some questions about the language used – a need which is perhaps hinted at by the fact that different translations of the Bible give us a very different picture of this passage.
So there are three words or phrases in the passage that allude to healing that really need a closer look.
Firstly, “the prayer made in faith will heal the sick”. The word used here is “sozo” – and almost everywhere else where it is found in the Bible it is translated as “save”, not heal. It’s the root word for “saviour” and “salvation”, and while it can refer to physical healing (in the sense of “being saved from the sickness”) that really isn’t it’s most natural meaning.
And the same sentence continues “the Lord will restore them to health”. Except that this is even worse as a translation: the word (“egeiro”) means “to raise up”, “lift up”, “awaken” – nowhere else in the Bible does it get translated as “restore to health”.
So, for instance, look at the same verse in another translation you find “The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven.”
Suddenly it takes on a very different sense. Not a promise for physical healing at all; instead, it reads as words for the one who fears that their sickness may be terminal; a reassurance that you will be saved, raised up, forgiven.
The whole passage somehow looks more like the Catholic last rights; calling on the elders to anoint the sick with oil in faith that they will be forgiven, saved, and raised up to life with God.
And then there’s one more: “anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. So confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, so that you will be healed”. And here the word (iaomai) really does mean “healed”.
The difficulty here is not with “healed” but with “will be”. For those who are into the details of language, the word translated “will be forgiven” is in what’s called the indicative mood – it means will, definitely, be.
But the word translated “will be healed” is in the subjunctive mood, which, according to Wikipedia, is “typically used to express various states of unreality such as wish, emotion, possibility”. In other words, not so much “will be” as “may be healed”.
Confess your sins and pray for one another, James seems to be saying; for you have certainty of salvation, certainty of being raised up; and you also create the possibility of physical healing. You will be saved, you may be healed.
I’ve kind of gone on about this a bit because I think one of the biggest disincentives to prayer is the creation of false expectations about it. I guess for me it is most clear when I think about what we say about prayer to children: we can tell them, as James appeared to (before we dug a bit into his language), that if they pray with faith God will heal them; and they will believe us. But then if they pray and there is not healing, they are left either to conclude they don’t have “proper” faith, or that prayer simply doesn’t perform as advertised.
In either case, the incentive to pray is gutted by unrealistic expectations; nothing breeds cynicism as rapidly as over promising and under delivering…
And that is the outcome of much teaching of this passage and of a theology of prayer that emerges from it; a simple mechanical slot-machine description of prayer which fails to live up to its promise and leads to a disillusionment with prayer because it isn’t what it was never meant to be. Which ultimately leads to many of us simply not praying.
Which is ironic since the whole point of James writing was to encourage prayer. Are you suffering? Pray. Celebrating? Pray. Sick? Pray.
Pray, not because there is some sort of magic automatic reward, a mechanistic result of prayer, not because you know what will happen when you pray – in fact, quite the opposite. Pray precisely because you don’t know what will happen.
Perhaps your prayer will be like that of Elijah – powerfully shifting the story, challenging the injustice of rulers, leading people back to God, to faith, to compassion, to justice. Or perhaps it won’t. Perhaps you’ll see how the world is made better by your prayer and action, perhaps you won’t.
Prayer (of this sort) is, to return to our grammar lesson, in the subjunctive mood; it expresses something which is not, to create the possibility that it might be.
Prayer brings with it certainties – of forgiveness, of reconciliation with God. But more than that, prayer opens the door to the possibility of something else. You may never see prayer miraculously answered; but if you don’t pray, you certainly won’t.
So let us pray for one another; for we will be raised up, and that we might be healed.