Children can be bundles of emotion. Right from the start, we have the challenge of reading — as accurately as possible! — what our babies are trying to tell us through their body language. It’s a lot easier when they learn to speak and can tell us what they want or need.
So as soon as possible, we want them to use their words instead of throwing a fit: “Mother. Father. I need you to understand that I find broccoli distasteful. I would prefer not to partake of it at this time. Thank you for listening.”
Yeah. Well, you get the idea.
As we’ve seen, so much of the book of James is about how grownups use their words. Even in the church, between people who should act as brothers and sisters in Christ, people’s selfish desires and competitive attitudes were coming out as hurtful, hypocritical, or deceptive speech. Over and over, James holds up a mirror to them, showing them what they’re doing, and urging them to stop.
And now, as James begins to draw the letter to a close, he comes back full circle to a theme with which the letter began: prayer.
It’s a better way to use our words.
James opened the letter with the theme of endurance in the face of trials, urging his readers to pray for the wisdom they needed (1:2-5). Later, he addressed the poor who were suffering mistreatment at the hands of the rich, encouraging them to endure as well (5:7-11). As he begins to wrap up the letter, he turns once again to the entire company of believers, to all who are suffering, and counsels them to blanket their lives and congregations in prayer:
If any of you are suffering, they should pray. If any of you are happy, they should sing. If any of you are sick, they should call for the elders of the church, and the elders should pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. Prayer that comes from faith will heal the sick, for the Lord will restore them to health. And if they have sinned, they will be forgiven. For this reason, confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous person is powerful in what it can achieve. (James 5:13-16, CEB)
In general, James is pointing to four occasions in the church’s life that should be bathed with prayer. They should pray when people are (a) suffering, (b) happy, or (c) sick, and (d) they should make a habit of confessing their sins to one another. Together, these four cast a wide net indeed. But James isn’t trying to make a comprehensive list of all the times prayer might be appropriate. He is giving examples of how prayer suffuses the life of the church, in contradistinction to all the ways in which believers were using their words to hurt, manipulate, and deceive.
The first two — suffering and happiness — should remind us of the Psalms. In their songs and poetry, the psalmists show us both the anguish of lament and the giddiest and most grateful of praise. Some psalms begin with lament and end in praise, as if God answered the psalmist’s cry for help before he finished the composition. Some ping-pong back and forth between “This is terrible” and “God is good,” with the praise being tentative but hopeful. And some leave the lament open-ended: the psalmist cries out in despair to a God who supposedly hears, but God’s side of the conversation remains silent.
James brings that rich tradition with him to the writing of the letter; it shapes his spiritual imagination, just as it had for Jesus. Suffering trouble of any kind is an occasion for prayer, but so is happiness. The word translated here as “happy” doesn’t suggest a temporary uptick in positive emotions, but a deeper kind of contentment and joy. We can and should lament; we can and should praise. And as the very existence of the Psalter suggests, we should do it together.
One note, however. Remember that James opens the letter with the theme of suffering and endurance, and addresses that theme again in the passage immediately before this one. The opening phrase above, “If any of you are suffering,” doesn’t just come out of the blue; it’s as if to say, “I’ve told the poor who are suffering the importance of endurance — now let me talk to the rest of you.” Endurance in the face of suffering, in other words, is still the context to his words on prayer.
Don’t get me wrong: there’s nothing wrong with asking God to take the trouble away. Certainly the psalmist prays that and more, including asking God to punish those responsible! But whatever the answer to that prayer might be, James is more interested in the process than the outcome, in the growth of our endurance than the end of our difficulties.
And if anybody understood that endurance personally, it was the apostle Paul. We’ll dip into his story in the next post.