Paradise is lost beyond recovery as far as man is concerned. There will be weeds in your garden, pain in your body, and distress in your mind until the Lord returns, not all the time and in the same measure perhaps; but frustrating conditions will come and go in everyone’s experience, those who have faith and those who have none. James recognizes this and gives us appropriate advice for the ups and downs in the life of Christians. “Is any one among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing psalms” (Jas. 5:13). These are two vents provided for our relief by our compassionate Lord (Jas. 5:11). Woe to friends who suggest their use in an inappropriate way (Prov. 25:20) or who, like Job’s companions, see severe suffering as inevitably being the outcome of secret sin!
But physical suffering may be visited on believers persisting in evil conduct, “for this cause many are weak and sickly among you and many sleep” (1 Cor. 11:30). A suffering saint, finding no help in the hospital or from specialists, may naturally begin to wonder if this is the case with him or her. God begins to be seen in a different light and far away, prayer becomes difficult, and the growing mental and spiritual distress now render it less likely for physical healing to occur. Who can help in such a situation? James says, “…let him call for the elders of the church.” They will not come as substitutes for whatever medical help is at hand but with the healing of the soul in mind, something beyond the reach of the prescribed medication. This is the context in which we are exhorted to “pray for one another.”
Physical illness or spiritual weakness?
To the author of this article, it seems as though James is using that phrase “pray for one another that you may be healed” in a way that goes beyond the minor distresses of life, a healing that is required not for the body only but for the inner man. He raises the possibility that, in some cases, not all, confession will be in order, for he says, “if he has sinned.” In any case, it is a situation calling for serious attention by the local church where he fellowships and more especially its elders. (Warning! If you are not identified in a special way with one assembly, don’t expect any churches to which you are only loosely attached to be enthusiastic about responding to a call for help. Church elders are shepherds of one flock, and the Lord will not call them to give account for those not accepting their regular counsel and care.)
The word healed in this context may not refer to physical healing but to moral or spiritual restoration as in Hebrews 12:13 where it refers to those turned out of the way, stumbled, and become lame; they need to be lifted up, supported and so “healed.” This may not fit the usual view but it should not be lightly dismissed. W. E.Vine in his Expository Dictionary shows that the same noun is used for weakness as well as sickness, and J. Ronald Blue expands on the former meaning, pointing out that, “The word asthenei literally means ‘to be weak.’ Though it is used in the Gospels for physical maladies it is generally used in Acts and the Epistles to refer to a weak faith or a weak conscience…”1
A Time to Confess
There is so much confusion over the role of confession! Some churches teach that it must be done in the presence of a priest, while others seem to believe we should confess on a weekly basis to all in the church. Still others think that confession is only to God when we are alone. Its value is also misunderstood. Some think that, on confession, all our sins are forgiven up to the time we are saved, but, afterwards, we have to keep confessing each sin we commit or be lost. Because of there being so many variations on this theme, it is not possible to unravel such tangled threads in this short article.
Let it be enough to say it is spoken of with a slightly different emphasis by the human authors of the Scriptures but never so as to result in such contradictions. For example, in 1 John 1, we learn that just as it is the hallmark of unbelievers to deny their sins, so it is characteristic of believers to confess them—not at any special time or place or to any special person, but wherever and whenever sin is under review. And they do so because they have been (past tense) forgiven, not in order to obtain that great blessing.
On the other hand, James is dealing with a special situation. He does not have anything like extreme unction in view in which the totality of our sins are supposedly being dealt with by a priest. Confession is in order, not to one individual, but to the elders of the local church. The sufferer is the one who has called them to his bedside.
His conscience is troubling him. We cannot say why, but in the light of the fact that, generally, and on a human level, confession of sin need only be made to those who have been affected by it, we would suggest the local fellowship’s testimony has been hurt or hindered in some way. Or perhaps his conscience is weak (see 1 Cor. 8 for this) and he conceives it to be the case? The elders would be able to confirm or lift that burden and, in faith, pray for his healing. The Lord raises him up and, if he has committed sins, they shall be forgiven.
In the comfort of the Scriptures, those who believe that “the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 Jn. 1:7) will find they are encouraged to speak to God alone about private sins as they may occur. But when they are still troubled by an uneasy conscience, they are counseled to seek the help of those who have a special charge to care for them—and all in the local assembly–spiritual men who can restore those overtaken in any trespass in a spirit of gentleness, who will consider themselves lest they also be tempted (Gal. 6:1). This is why James says we need to “pray for one another.” Do the elders frequently pray with the aid of a list of those under their care? Am I constantly upholding them in prayer?
Think gently of the erring; oh, do not thou forget,
However darkly stained by sin, he is thy brother yet;
Heir of the self-same heritage, child of the self-same God,
He has but stumbled in the path thou hast in weakness trod.—J.A. Fletcher
1 J. Ronald Blue, The Bible Knowledge Commentary, (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1984).