Turning to God in All Circumstances (James 5:10-11, 13-20)

James 5:10–11, 13–20

Turning to God in All Circumstances

Laura Miguélez Quay

Linebrook Church

October 14, 2018

I sat under a pastor who would occasionally observe that if you preach about suffering, you’ll never lack an audience. I think he was right for even those whose lives may seem outwardly idyllic nonetheless have not been spared from suffering. We simply can’t know what a particular individual or family has been through unless they tell us. Now in highlighting portions of the book of James we’ve seen how at least some of the suffering these believers experienced was of their own doing—last week alone we saw James having to correct their envy, ambition, fights, quarrels, killing, and coveting to name but a few of the destructive behaviors evident in the lives of some within Christ’s family. But in the final chapter of his letter, James discusses suffering understood more broadly and he further provides some general admonitions about how followers of Jesus Christ are called to live.

Beginning with suffering, we read in verse 10, “10 Brothers and sisters, as an example of patience in the face of suffering, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. 11 As you know, we count as blessed those who have persevered.” When faced with suffering, we’re called to be patient, and we’re called to persevere. The dictionary defines “patient” as “able to accept or tolerate delays, problems, or suffering without becoming annoyed or anxious.” Similarly to persevere means to “continue in a course of action even in the face of difficulty or with little or no prospect of success.” If nothing else, the Bible is a realistic book. It opens with an awesome display of God who, after creating all that exists, concludes that all he has made is “very good.”[1] Yet a mere two chapters later in Genesis chapter 3 the Bible tells about the disobedience of the human part of God’s creation—made in his image, made for himself—whose disobedience results in a rupture of Adam and Eve’s relationship with God, each other, and the created order. This disobedience, this Fall, is the source of human suffering for from that point onward we see God’s people and creation itself undergoing the consequences of that disobedience time and again—and again—and again. But God didn’t give up on his disobedient children but gave them his Word that they might be enabled to live their lives with patience and perseverance in spite of their adverse circumstances.

And James points the believers to whom he’s writing to Scripture that they, too, might benefit and learn from its teaching and examples of those who exemplified “patience in the face of suffering.” Specifically James singles out “the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord” (verse 10). Now though it may seem counter-intuitive that those who were called to serve and speak for God should suffer, this is precisely what we see throughout Scripture—not to mention in our own lives. What we expect and would like to be the case is that knowing and loving and living for God would spare us suffering. But what we find is that to be a follower of the God disclosed in Scripture—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—is not to be spared the effects of the Fall but to have to undergo those effects albeit under the presence and care of the God who made us and with the help of those whom he’s brought into our lives. James is making the same point that the author of Hebrews does in that well-known eleventh chapter of faith:

32 And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson and Jephthah, about David and Samuel and the prophets, 33 who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, 34 quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies. 35 Women received back their dead, raised to life again. There were others who were tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection. 36 Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. 37 They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated—38 the world was not worthy of them….[2]

The world was not worthy of those who suffered for the sake of God.

Now after observing how “we count as blessed those who have persevered,” James turns to Job who, of all of those who spoke on God’s behalf in the Old Testament, could no doubt win the very unpopular contest of “who suffered most?” As James notes in verse 11, “You have heard of Job’s perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about”—and on a side note, for those who would like a refresher course on Job, next week we’ll begin a brief series highlighting parts of that marvelous, yet often troublesome book. But for now suffice it to say that Job was one who, despite fearing God in word and deed as James calls all believers to do, nonetheless had everything stripped away from him: family, possessions, and even his health. And yet he persevered. As one commentator wryly observes, contrary to how we usually perceive him to be, “Job was not patient…, but he persevered.”[3] Although personally I think he was both if we judge him by the earlier definitions for Job tolerated his suffering by viewing his life through the eyes of providence, not knowing what God was doing but being certain that he wasn’t being punished for any wrong-doing. And Job also persevered. He hung in there, not knowing if or when his suffering would ever come to an end. And in the end the Lord vindicated and restored him. As James—and Job himself—conclude, “The Lord is full of compassion and mercy.” God is not unmoved by our suffering but has compassion for us; he suffers with us; he extends his mercy; he seeks to relieve our suffering.

Next James turns his attention back to these believers. Beginning in verse 13 he presents a number of hypothetical situations along with appropriate responses to them:

13 Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray.

Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise.

14 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.

So let’s take these in order. “Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray.” Prayer should be the first recourse when we find ourselves in trouble. The primary means God has provided for us to communicate with him is prayer, that is, the freedom and privilege we have of talking with him whether silently or out loud; whether alone or with other believers. As we also discussed in Alpha this past week, talking with others is how we form and deepen relationships and the God who made us for himself wants us to pray to him. He wants us to talk with him. About big things and small things; about things that cause us distress or those that cause us joy. For though our gracious heavenly Father know all things, he nonetheless has designed us for relationship with him and he wants to hear from us. So if we want to form and deepen our relationship with God, we need to talk with him; we need to share our lives with him; we need to invite him into our presence. And this is perhaps especially true when we find ourselves in trouble and feeling isolated and alone. Praying, talking with God, will help us know we’re not alone but are ever in the presence of a heavenly Father who loves and cares for us at all times.

Next James asks, “Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise.” In Ron’s adult ed class we’ve been discussing the power of music and song. And expressing our joy is certainly one of the reasons we sing. Music, along with prayer, is yet another avenue for expressing our gratitude and praise to God. And though I’m admittedly not an inspired author of Scripture, I would humbly add to what James is saying:

Is anyone sad? Let them sing songs of lament;

Is anyone troubled? Let them sing songs of sadness;

Is anyone enjoying life? Let them sing songs of joy.

Music is an outlet for expressing our feelings. It’s a means of bearing our hearts and souls to God and each other. So let us sing to ourselves; let us sing to God our Maker and Redeemer; let us sing to one another. Let us ever sing songs of praise!

James continues on in verse 14: “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.” Now though Dr. Stuart’s understanding was that the senior pastor was the church’s elder and the deacons were members of the congregation to serve with the pastor, I would one day like to see us move towards having both an elder and deacon board for a plurality of elders is clearly assumed here. But regardless, James’ point stands. In cases of sickness, God calls us to come together that we might pray for and anoint one another as the family we are. Now in the ancient world olive oil was commonly used medicinally[4] and this may be what James has in mind here. But additionally the oil here may also refer symbolically to God’s healing power. In any case, when someone is sick, it’s good and right for servant leaders from the congregation to gather together “to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord.” Now those who are familiar with the Catholic branch of Christianity may recognize here the source of the practice of last rites, or extreme unction, in which oil is placed upon one who is dying. But I think this passage is dealing more broadly with any sickness. When anyone is sick and in need of family coming to them, it’s important that their brothers and sisters in Christ go to them, pray with and for them, and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. The power lies in the Lord, not in the prayers or the oil. Then, as is the case with all of our prayers, should the Lord grant healing, well and good; and should he not, well and good as well. As we sang earlier, whatever our lot, he has taught us to say, “It is well; it is well with my soul.”

Now we need to be careful as to how we interpret verse 15: “And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven.” The reason for caution is because we shouldn’t take this verse to mean that the burden for healing lies upon the faith of the one who is sick for it is the elders who have been called to pray for them. Neither should we take this verse to mean that all who are prayed for will be healed from their sickness for this isn’t always the case. Though healing may, of course, occur many people who have been prayed for throughout the years have died from their illnesses. Too, the word used for healing is one often translated as saving[5] so it’s possible that a spiritual healing may be mind. But perhaps the key lies with what follows, namely that “the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven.” We know that all who belong to God in Christ will be raised on the last day for they have had all of their sins forgiven through Jesus’s obedience to death on the cross and subsequent resurrection, ascension to heaven, and sending of his Holy Spirit. So I think that a better interpretation is that we are called to pray in faith for those who are sick and commend them into God’s hands knowing that he is worthy, faithful, and true to his promise that even death will not separate us from the love he’s provided in Christ Jesus, his Son and our Lord.[6] The promise of the resurrection is for those who live and for those who die. All are to be commended to the Lord. All will be raised. All will have their sins forgiven through Christ.

Next James tells these believers in verse 16, “Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.” We were created for fellowship with our heavenly Father and for fellowship with one another. So we shouldn’t just confess our sins to God but also to one another. Though by and large sickness and death, as noted earlier, are the result of a fallen world, some sickness may be tied to a particular sin committed.[7] But we should be careful about looking for a “cause and effect” for our health or sickness. We simply may not know why the Lord has allowed us to be afflicted with a particular illness or trial. Think of the blind man whom Jesus healed. When asked, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus replied, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned…but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.”[8] It’s mind-boggling to think that some of our sickness and trials may occur so that God might be glorified. Again, in the Alpha video we watched this past week[9] a miner told of being trapped in a mine with 32 others and over the weeks they spent together, 22 of those men came to a saving faith and knowledge in Jesus Christ. The Lord used their suffering to draw these men to himself. So whether in sickness or in the midst of trials, let us turn to him knowing he may use our suffering to draw others to himself.

As brothers and sisters in Christ we are called to confess our sins to each other and to pray with and for one other, bringing each other’s needs before our loving and heavenly Father who hears all our prayers. As James states, “The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective” and we are all righteous not because of any inherent goodness or ability to obey on our part but because, as we noted a few weeks ago,[10] our righteousness has been imputed to us, it’s been credited to us through Jesus Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf. And prayer is a key means through which we’re able to have our eyes opened to the power and wonder of who God is and what he is doing in our lives.

James next turns starting in verse 17 to the prophet Elijah as an example of one who trusted God with his prayers. Though he “was a human being, even as we are,” nonetheless “He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. 18 Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops.” The importance of noting that Elijah was but a human being is that he didn’t cause the rains to cease or to begin. No, he trusted his LORD and Maker and was thus able to give him all the glory and praise. In fact, we’re told in 1 Kings that Elijah prayed at God’s behest for “After a long time, in the third year, the word of the Lord came to Elijah: ‘Go and present yourself to Ahab, and I will send rain on the land.’”[11] And if we should ever be disheartened and feel as though we could never learn to pray with Elijah’s confidence or that God isn’t hearing our prayers, we should remember that Scripture teaches that both his Son and the Holy Spirit he sent are ever praying for us[12]—and we can be certain that those prayers are ever in accord with God’s will for they come from God himself! So take heart for as our advocate, we can rest assured that God is ever on our side![13]

And to these believers, so many of whom have been struggling with living in accordance to the standards of the Scriptures they profess, James ends his letter by offering these closing admonitions starting in verse 19: “My brothers and sisters, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring that person back, 20 remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins.” James has put into practice what he is preaching, hasn’t he? For, over five chapters he, by his writing, has sought to bring his wandering brothers and sisters back to the truth of who they are. For five chapters he has called them not only to profess their faith, but to live it out; to put their faith in action; to let their deeds be evidence of the faith that they profess. And he is exhorting these believers to do the same for a brother or sister who is living in a sinful manner for, again, verse 20, “Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins.” Now James may have in mind a statement akin to this found in Proverb 10:12: “Hatred stirs up conflict, but love covers over all wrongs.” Given the context of quarrels and dissensions he has had to address, James may well be exhorting his brothers and sisters in the Lord to act in a loving, not hateful manner, towards one another.

But important also to keep in mind is that the death and resurrection of Jesus covers not only our past sin; not only our present sin; not only our future sin, but all of our sin. Jesus’ death covers a multitude of sins. So if we know—or are ourselves—a prodigal, a child of our heavenly Father who has strayed away, we need but return home, seek our gracious God’s forgiveness,[14] and know that “there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.”[15] Forgiveness is good for the body; it’s good for the soul; it’s good for the entire person. And we find the language of sin being covered in the Old Testament in the psalms, among other places: “Blessed is the one whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered.”[16] Or again, “You forgave the iniquity of your people and covered all their sins.”[17]Yet with the coming of Christ, as Richie recently reminded us during an Alpha discussion, our sins are not merely covered by his blood, but they’re completely taken away. As John the Baptist testified when he saw Jesus coming, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”[18]

Brothers and sisters, the ever practical James, brother of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, understood well the challenge of living faithfully as God’s children. And I hope we’re able to take his admonitions to heart knowing that Christ came that we might be like him. And we should take heart in knowing that he died and rose for us that our suffering might only be for the earthly part of our lives.

So let us be patient in our trials.

Let us persevere in hardship.

Let us turn to him in all circumstances.

Let us ask him for forgiveness.

Let us ask each other for forgiveness.

Let us forgive one another.

Let us pray when we are in trouble.

Let us sing when we are happy.

Let us turn to our gracious and loving Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in all circumstances knowing that he is not unmoved by our suffering but he cares for us,[19] he has compassion on us, he has come to relieve our suffering both now and forevermore through Jesus Christ, our Lord.

Let us pray.

 

 

 

[1] Genesis 1:31a: God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.

[2] See also: Matthew 5:11–12: 11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.; Acts 7:51–53 (just prior to Stephen’s stoning, he said): 51 “You stiff-necked people! Your hearts and ears are still uncircumcised. You are just like your ancestors: You always resist the Holy Spirit! 52 Was there ever a prophet your ancestors did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him— 53 you who have received the law that was given through angels but have not obeyed it.”

[3] Zondervan NIV Study Bible. Job 3; 12:1–3; 16:1–3; 21:4 are provided as examples of Job’s lack of patience. Conversely Job 1:20–22, 2:9–10; 13:15 are provided as examples of Job’s persevering. Also noted is the fact that this is the only passage in the NT that names Job thought 1 Corinthians 3:19 quotes Job 5:13.

[4] See for example Mark 6:13 (They drove out many demons and anointed many sick people with oil and healed them.) referring to Jesus sending out the twelve disciples; Luke 10:34 (He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine.) from the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

 

[5] καὶ ἡ εὐχὴ τῆς πίστεως σώσει τὸν κάμνοντα,

[6] Romans 8:38–39: 38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

[7] See, for example, 1 Corinthians 11:27–32: 27 So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. 28 Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. 29 For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves. 30 That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. 31 But if we were more discerning with regard to ourselves, we would not come under such judgment. 32 Nevertheless, when we are judged in this way by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be finally condemned with the world.

[8] John 9:2–3.

[9] Why and How Do I Pray?

[10] Sermon preached on September 30, 2018, Taming the Tongue, on James 3:1-12.

[11] 1 Kings 18:1.

[12] Regarding Jesus’ prayers, see; Hebrews 7:24–25: 24 but because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood. 25 Therefore he is able to save completel those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them.; Romans 8:34: Regarding the Holy Spirit’s prayers for us, see Romans 8:26–27: 26 In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. 27 And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.

[13] Regarding Jesus, see 1 John 2:1: My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One.; Regarding the Holy Spirit, see John 14:26: But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.

[14] See Luke 15:11–31, the Parable of the Prodigal Son.

[15] Luke 15:7—the Parable of the Lost Sheep. A similar statement may be found in the Parable of the Lost Coin (Luke 15:10: there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents).

[16] Psalm 32:1.

[17] Psalm 85:2.

[18] John 1:29.

[19] 1 Peter 5:7: Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.

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