A community of prayer (part 1)

Prayer. As an ongoing conversation with God, it is central to the Christian life. Believers know this. But that doesn’t mean we don’t struggle with it. The Bible assumes that we are a praying people, but doesn’t give us a detailed how-to or instruction manual of when or how to pray our way through life.

Piles of books and mountains of advice try to fill the void. Much of this may be helpful to some people but not to others or not in all circumstances. And in the end, we generally have to find our own way, as we do in any relationship. Principles help point us in the right direction, but the most fitting application of them can take a bit of trial and error, along with a healthy serving of openness and humility.

The letter of James ends with an emphasis on prayer. He writes of what could be read as four occasions for prayer:

Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up, and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. (James 5:13-16a, NRSVUE)

First, we pray in the midst of suffering. No surprise there. The word translated as “suffering” doesn’t necessarily mean physical suffering. In essence, it means to endure hardship of any kind. The second occasion is a counterpoint to the first: we sing our praises when we’re cheerful or in good spirits. It’s possible that James has the Psalms in mind as he writes, that collection of ancient poems and songs that span the whole spectrum from the deepest lament to the highest praise. If so, then James is not so much describing discrete moments in life as life as a whole, in all its emotional variety. Whether we’re down in the dumps or on top of the mountain, we should be in conversation with God.

Third, there is the prayer for the sick. The word James uses here is the same one that Paul uses to talk about his so-called thorn in the flesh as an abiding “weakness.” As we saw in the previous post, Paul prayed repeatedly for God to take the thorn away, but had to make peace with the fact that God’s strength would be demonstrated through his weakness.

Similarly, James seems to be describing a serious situation: one doesn’t call for the elders to anoint someone who’s suffering from a head cold. Nor is James guaranteeing that prayers for healing will always be answered (as has often been said, “We all gotta die sometime”). The person James is describing is likely to die, and is being committed to the God who saves, who raises up through resurrection, who forgives sins. God may indeed raise the person from their sickbed, whether to live another day or another decade. But the prayer for the sick is not focused merely on uncertain and time-limited physical outcomes; it envisions the certain and eternal destiny of the faithful.

Fourth, there is the confession of sins to one another. Here, James seems to be echoing the idea that sickness is, at least partially, the result of sin. We see this in the question Jesus’ disciples asked when they encountered a man who had been blind from birth: ““Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2). Jesus’ answer must have surprised them: ““Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him” (vs. 3).

I doubt, though, that what James is doing is giving his readers a sure-fire technique for being healed from sickness, as if he were saying, “If anyone is sick, all they need to do is figure out what sin they haven’t confessed yet, confess it to God, and then everything will be okay.” Rather, James is describing how mutual confession and prayer serves the health of the entire believing community. I think Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase is on point: “Make this your common practice: Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you can live together whole and healed.”

We cannot approach such texts mechanically, as if James was handing his readers a self-help manual or step-by-step instruction book: here’s when you anoint with oil; here’s when you confess sin. Rather, against the background of all the problems and difficulties he’s addressed in the letter, he is painting his readers a picture of a community that is consistently at prayer, going to God together in good times and bad.

If we turn the text into an instruction manual instead of a social and spiritual vision, we may get ourselves in trouble. How? We’ll explore that a bit in the next post.