Today our men's group wrapped up our study of the book of James (see Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4) with a look at the end of Chapter five. These passages cover a wealth of material - patience, not grumbling or judging, standing up under suffering, prayer and healing, forgiveness, and confrontation. That was quite a bit to cover over a coffee session!
We noted that although several of the verses seem at first glance disconnected from one another, there are some strong tie-ins between them. Throughout this chapter James continues exhorting the practice of a faith that overflows into action, and that allows us to stand firm and patience even in the face of suffering, affliction or persecution. In describing the expectant hope of compassion and deliverance from suffering, he brings the book full circle to how it was opening - asking these persecuted Christians to remain joyful under their suffering.
Some were unclear about the warning against swearing. As usual, context is important. James is specifically addressing the common practice of swearing an oath when you really are telling the truth or when you really mean it that you will keep a promise or contract. James is calling this nonsense, that a man's word should be his bond. Between this encouragement to be a promise-keeper, and to be one who is patient under suffering, one of the guys said with discernment: "You know, we can summarize this whole chapter as James telling us: Guys, man up!"
The most challenging section of this chapter, and perhaps all of James, is the statement in verses 14-15 that when you pray over the sick in the name of the Lord that "the prayer offered in faith will make them well." Obviously, we've all prayed for people who did not get better. People die, despite the prayers of many well meaning and faithful friends. Logically, if someone prayed for like this dies, we either simply did not have "enough" faith, or... we are misunderstanding this passage. I think that here, as with other passages in James, if you don't allow for the fact that this is wisdom literature, and that the author is making a case in as strong terms as possible to make a point and to call us to action, you can get tied up in knots being too literal. (We saw this earlier in James talking about being justified through works vs faith.)
First, there's a command. Are you sick? Get together with faithful friends, confess sins, and pray for healing. Period. Do it. Do it in faith. Second, the likelihood of God choosing to heal (which He is always able to do) without prayer, without submission, while clinging to a sinful life-style, is not that great. Rather that would mock God. Third, James is saying that God absolutely has the power to heal, and that He has often done so in the past, both to bless His children and to display His power (as with Elijah). Finally, we made an analogy. If I make a statement "Carry out proper maintenance on your car, change your oil regularly, and your car will run fine and last long" I don't expect you come back when your car broke down and say "You promised! I changed my oil every 2500 miles and it still collapsed. Your statement was a lie." Well, no, my use of the phrase "will run well" wasn't ever intended as a guarantee, but a wise statement. The chance of a car running well with proper maintenance compared to never changing your oil is far higher. My point in making such a sentence isn't to give a magic bullet to long-life for the car, it's to encourage you to do the right thing. Praying when in trouble, singing praise when happy, confessing sins and seeking forgiveness, and coming together with brothers and sisters before the Lord when facing major illness - this is just what we do as Christians! How much more do these behaviors reflect our joy in Christ and our doing-faith compared to judging, grumbling, and sitting in our armchairs arguing over doctrines while the poor need our help!?
And that, my friends, is the message of James.