“Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make them well; the Lord will raise them up…” (Today’s New International Version).
Recently I was asked by someone who, against all prognosis and expectations, was healed from cancer. As part of the journey from sickness to health, this person had the elders of the church anoint her with oil and pray over her for God’s healing. She asked me if I believe in the practice and teaching given to us in the above quoted passage from James and why Churches of Christ do not practice this “prayer of faith.”
While I cannot speak for others in the Churches of Christ, I did respond to her with my own thoughts about this passage. My thoughts were offered without consulting any commentaries or theological resources regarding this passage. Other than using my English and Greek Bible, I offered my thoughts based on my own experience dealing with the loss of a child, awareness of others experiences that involves both the continued course of suffering as well as the blessing of healing, and of course the awareness of my own theological journey (which has involved the study of scripture). So here is my thoughts:
I have come to accept and believe that sometimes God answers “yes” to our prayers like he did with Jairus’ daughter (Mk 5) and sometimes God answers “no” as he did with Paul (2 Cor 12). So what do we do with the statement made in James 5.15 ? First off, were are admonished to offer our prayers in faith. The promise is that such prayers will make us “well.” The word used for “well” is typically translated “to save.” Does the word “well” (to save) mean physical healing or spiritual healing (atonement)? Both of these are good possibilities and we should probably be open to the fact that it does not need to be an “either-or” but instead a “both-and” understanding.
I believe the key to this verse lies in the type of prayer offered and not in the results that follow (or specifically what we believe those results should look like). A prayer offered in faith aligns us with God’s will and trusts in God to do what is best even if we do not understand at what time and if what is best turns out to look completely different than what we expected the results to look like (e.g., my son dying). The prayer of faith saves not because it necessarily produces physical healing (though it certainly could) or because it is only limited to matters of atonement. The prayer of faith saves because it aligns us with God’s will and requires us to trust in God who promises to make all things new in his own time.
This is what is so crucial to understanding the often misused verse in Romans 8.28 “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him…” (TNIV). What is the “good”? In the context, in fact the entire message of Romans, God has been at work in Jesus Christ redeeming sinful people. Romans 8 begins with the promise of no condemnation (v. 1) to those in Christ and ends with the promise that those in Christ are “more than conquerors” (v. 37). It is Paul’s assurance that God had began this work of redemption in us and will see it to its complete goal if we will just keep our faith in Christ. So the good is not physical well-being, abundant happiness and material wealth, etc… as some would say. The good in v. 28 is our redemption. We can trust what God is doing is for our good – our redemption – even if we do not understand what all God is doing and why he seems to allow some awful bad things to happen in the mean time. When I came to realize this, it was a freeing moment and the beginning of a renewed faith for me because I no longer needed to understand everything about how God worked, I simply just began trusting that God work get it all right (redemption) in the end.
So should we teach the sick to come to the church for prayer and being anointed with oil or should we encourage them to pursue other medical treatments (conventional or not)? I believe both. I believe God can work through the various medical options in the world. However, who are we to say that God cannot work also through being anointed with oil? Further more, there is much symbolism involved in being anointed with oil as prayers (in faith) are offered – if churches would take the time to teach the significance of the symbol as they do with baptism, communion, and so on. The symbolism of being anointed with oil as prayers are offered remind us and call on us to be faithful unto God as we endure an illness, trusting in God that God will do what is best to effectuate the ultimate good for our life (redemption) whether what God does is experienced as we envisioned it or it turns out to be a “no” to the way we expected.
Well, I hope that answers your question as to what I believe and why I believe it in regards to this issue.
I should also let you know that this person is a fairly well read and in depth student of God’s word, which is why I took the time to at least attempt in giving a well and in depth answer.
What are your thoughts?