Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit.
My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins. (James 5:13-20)
This may be one of the most misinterpreted sections of the Bible today. I say today, because as today's Christianity corrupts into self-worship, this passage becomes almost completely self-focused instead of God-focused. Historically, this passage has been interpreted in the larger scope of salvation, everlasting life, and being healed from sin (forgiveness), as we will see below, but now the interpretation is very narrow, immediate, and selfish. Let's break down the passage to glean its true interpretation:
1. When we suffer, we pray to God.
2. When we are happy in life, we praise God.
Both of these are God-directed. This shouldn't need to be said, but the whole passage here is in the same vein. We don't suddenly switch from God-focused to self-focused and back again. This is all God-focused.
3. Here is the big one: if we are sick, we call the elders of the church, or our pastors, our mentors, our ministers to pray over us, and the prayer is to God. The prayer is not suddenly a magical incantation that heals us directly. The prayer is an appeal to the God who heals.
4. When we anoint someone with oil in the name of the Lord, we are symbolically applying the messiah ("anointed one") to the sick person. Oil was the primary healing substance in those days, but not for just any ailment. Applying oil symbolically to encourage faith in the anointed one is applicable in any situation and is more accurate here.
5. The prayer of faith will save the one who is sick. This is the crucial sentence. The prayer is to God. The prayer in this case is that of the sick person. The prayer is in faith, because, remember our religion is based on faith alone in Christ alone. So the prayer is of faith on the part of the sick person, and the result is salvation. The prayer of faith will SAVE the one who is sick. Here is where we get to the traditional understanding of this passage, and for this we must go to the Book of Common Prayer and the Visitation of the Sick order.
The order was never intended to be a healing order, as in physically healing the sick person, but praying for God's will to be done. If we read through the order, we see that in the midst of the prayers is a rehearsal of the Articles of Faith, the Apostles Creed, for the sick one to respond to. This rehearsal is to invoke a prayer of faith on the part of the sick person, not to immediately heal the person from his or her physical ailments but to ensure that the sick one would be saved if the sickness led to death, which it did much more often then than it does now. In other words, the pastor or elders would visit a sick person, who had a greater chance of death in the end, and make sure that the person was saved by invoking a prayer of faith. Today, our ailments mainly do not lead to death, and we want immediate recovery from them, so we can get on with living our worldly lives. See the difference?
The rehearsal is followed by an examination by the minister, who asks questions regarding repentance, charity, forgiveness, making amends, and repaying debts. Finally, the sick one is allowed to pray a heart-felt prayer of repentance to God in the presence of the minister.
6. Along with salvation, we have the promise that the Lord will physically resurrect this person on the last day, based on faith alone.
7. Along with salvation and resurrection, the sick person's sins are forgiven. We see this in the BCP order when the pastor or elder declares the forgiveness of the sick person's sins, because God has promised to forgive all sinners who truly repent and believe in Christ.
8. Verse 16 is not suddenly shifting to physical healing, either. James exhorts his hearers to confess their sins to each other so that they may be healed (from sin, which leads to everlasting death). The physical death of a believer does not lead to everlasting soul death but everlasting life. Remember, God may heal the sick person physically, but also he may not. This is why the focus of visitation to the sick is on salvation (big picture) and not necessarily the physical comfort and recovering of the person in this life. If God wills to do that, he will. The key is to put Christ first, the anointed one symbolically applied, in order to make sure the sick one's soul is saved alive.
9. The righteous person is not the sick one, nor is it the minister, but Christ himself. His prayers are the ones that save his flock. Elijah is a type and shadow of Christ, and so James' description of the prophet is not to exhort us to be like Elijah (which we should try and fail at) but to turn to Christ, who is able to stop the rain and start it up again, because he is God.
10. The final sentence of James' letter restates all of the passage above it. Because this is not a passage about physically healing people, but instead it is about bringing back into the flock sinners who wander from the truth, are on the road to eternal death, due to the disease of sin, and saving their souls from death. The passage is so much more than we want it to be today. It is not about having your best life now but having your sins covered by the blood of Christ--all of your sins--past, present, and future--and gaining everlasting life. The prayer of faith in Christ is the gospel message here. Only the anointed one can save you. When you are sick, reaffirm your faith, repent afresh of your sins, for God has saved your soul from death. He has brought you back from the precipice over the abyss of darkness and has restored you to everlasting life. He has truly healed you.