Seminary Viewpoints

Above All, Pray!

Sam Horn | August 31, 2023
Theology Thursday

Throughout his epistle, James calls believers to live out a whole-hearted, single-minded, fully trusting faith in God and His Word. Yet James is also clear that believers who live this way will nevertheless experience relentless opposition, ruthless persecution and unexplained suffering.

Moreover, his fellow New Testament apostles agree that God uses our suffering not only to perfect our living faith (James 1:2–4) but also to:

  • • Mark obedient Christians (2 Tim. 3:12; 1 Pet. 4:14).
  • • Demonstrate our faith’s authenticity and value (1 Pet. 1:6–7).
  • • Advance the gospel in hard places and dark spaces (1 Pet. 2:12).

As he nears the end of his epistle, James has already identified responses God desires to withstand those trials and advance His purposes:

  • • Ask God for wisdom (1:5).
  • • Remember the promise of Christ’s soon and sure return (5:8).
  • • Patiently endure unexplained suffering (5:11).
  • • Graciously forbear those who persecute us unjustly (5:10).

Now, in his letter’s closing verses, James exhorts us to one final response to suffering that is so important, he introduces it with the words “above all” (5:12): “Let him (us) pray.”

As part of living faith-filled lives with undivided hearts, whatever our circumstances, James encourages equally faith-filled prayers, from undivided hearts, for God to sustain us.

Pray in Dependence

The apostle starts in 5:12 by forbidding the “anti-prayer”: oaths that demonstrate a divided heart and a “double mind” (1:8). We can’t sneak by making false promises to our persecutors or rash and foolish vows to bargain with God. Rather, we must depend fully on His faithfulness.

Pray During Suffering

In 5:13 James urges prayer by those “suffering” — the word κακοπαθεῖ used earlier to describe the persecution and affliction the prophets endured despite faithful service. When our lives and ministry blow up, we must persevere as they did, especially Job: patiently looking to our merciful Lord.

Pray with Courage

In the same breath, James commands, “Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise.” The term “cheerful” (εὐθυμεῖ) doesn’t mean emotional happiness when all is well. Rather, it’s used as in Acts 27:22, 25, when Paul, amid a horrific storm, exhorted terrified sailors and fellow passengers to “take courage” because God had assured him there would be no loss of life in an upcoming shipwreck.

Pray Through Weakness — Spiritual and Physical

The sick are not just to pray, but to engage the prayers of fellow believers, specifically church elders. But the word for “sick” is used in the New Testament to denote both physical illness and spiritual weakness (2 Cor. 11:29; 13:3). Whether we are experiencing a debilitating, long-lasting, life-threatening or life-altering illness, or feel overcome by temptation or crushed by pressure, we may find ourselves too weak to pray or even to stand, literally or figuratively, much longer. That’s when we ask our church to stand by us in “the prayer of faith.”

What of the anointing with oil that accompanies this prayer? Opinions differ as to its nature — medicinal versus spiritual. But elsewhere, anointing is associated with consecration to a particular ministry. For example:

  • • Aaron and his sons for the priesthood (Exod. 28:41).
  • • Saul (1 Sam. 10:1) and David (1 Sam. 16:13) for the kingship of Israel.
  • • Jesus with the Holy Spirit, empowering Him for His earthly work (Luke 4:18).

In that vein, the James 5 anointing could refer to consecration and enablement for the gospel ministry to which God had appointed a suffering saint, as Paul was called to experience when God three times denied his prayer to be delivered from a “thorn … in the flesh” (2 Cor. 12:8–9).

Pray for Forgiveness

James has not been shy in pointing out his charges’ relational conflicts, sinful speech, open hostility, spiritual adultery and selfishness. Now he offers hope and absolution through prayer and confession (5:15–16). In fact, the affliction to which he refers may be the consequence of willful, repeated sins, as seen in 1 Corinthians 11:27–32 (abusing the Lord’s table); Revelation 2:20–23 (immorality and idolatry); and 1 John 15:16–18 (an apparent pattern of wrongdoing). Yet if the “sick” person truly confesses, God will forgive and heal!

Pray Expecting Results

James closes his epistle as he began: promising that the “prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working” (5:16). Who is righteous? Again, the one who “asks in faith, without doubting,” to whom God “gives generously” (1:5–6), and “doers of the Word, and not hearers only” (1:22–25).

And again, he offers up an example from the prophets: Elijah, “a man with a (sin) nature like ours” who “prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth.” Then when he “prayed again” it rained and “the earth bore its fruit.”

If we pray through trials and suffering from a whole-hearted, single-focused, fully trusting faith, we can know that God will:

  • • Grant wisdom to the single-minded.
  • • Lift up the humble.
  • • Strengthen the fearful.
  • • Heal the sick physically and spiritually.
  • • Bear fruit in the form of forgiven sinners and saved souls.

So “above all,” “let (us) pray” — and watch God work!

As discussed by Sam Horn on The Steve Noble Show on August 31