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21. Praying in All Seasons of Life (James 5:13-16)

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Is anyone among you suffering? He should pray. Is anyone in good spirits? He should sing praises. Is anyone among you ill? He should summon the elders of the church, and they should pray for him and anoint 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. So confess your sins to one another and pray for one another so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great effectiveness.

James 5:13-16 (NET)

How should believers pray in all seasons of life?

After encouraging oppressed believers to endure their sufferings patiently as they wait on Christ’s return (Jam 5:7-12), James challenges them to pray in all circumstances. The word “prayer” occurs seven times in James 5:13-18 in either the noun or verb form. In verse 13, he calls individual believers to pray. In verses 14-15, he calls elders to pray for sick believers, and in verse 16, he calls church members to pray for one another. In verses 17-18, he mentions prayer twice, giving Elijah as an example of effective praying. Like Paul challenging the Thessalonians to “pray continually” or “without ceasing” (1 Thess 5:17), James does the same. Believers should pray in every circumstance and season of life because prayer is powerful (Jam 5:16).

Each of James’ challenges to pray are actually imperatives in the original language—commands. This implies that these believers weren’t praying as they should and, therefore, were lacking power to overcome trials in their lives and church communities. Certainly, this is true for most believers and church communities today as well, as they struggle with consistency in prayer—both individually and corporately.

James was not one to command something he wasn’t practicing himself. James, Jesus’ brother, was known as James the Just because of his righteous lifestyle and devotion to prayer. John MacArthur said this about James:

This was a command that James personally lived out as evidenced by his own body, for the ancient historian Eusebius testified that “his knees grew hard like a camel’s because of his constant worship of God, kneeling and asking forgiveness for the people.” Just as a laborer’s hands testify to his occupation, or a runner’s feet to his training, James’ callused knees testified to a life of serious prayer. So we ought to listen to what he says, not only because he is the Lord’s earthly brother, and not only because his writing is Scripture, but because he “walked his talk”—on his knees.1

Therefore, in this text, we will learn about how to pray in the various seasons of life. As we study these, the hope is that we will become more devoted and consistent in prayer to build God’s kingdom in our lives, the church, and the world.

Big Question: According to James 5:13-16, how should believers pray in the various seasons of life?

When Suffering, Believers Should Continually Pray

Is anyone among you suffering? He should pray.

James 5:13

James says when “suffering” or “in trouble” (NIV), believers should pray. He commands prayer because, usually, it is not our first response. Sometimes, instead of praying, we try to fix the situation on our own, apart from God. Other times, instead of praying, we worry, complain, get angry at God or others, get depressed, and sometimes even seek revenge. All of these are wrong responses. James says, when suffering, we should pray.

The word “pray” is in the present tense and can actually be translated, “let him keep on praying.”2 Continual prayer is the antidote for a suffering believer. It reminds us that we are not in control and that God is. It also brings God’s resources into our circumstances. In Philippians 4:6-7, God promises his peace to those who continually pray. The text says,

Do not be anxious about anything. Instead, in every situation, through prayer and petition with thanksgiving, tell your requests to God. And the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

Instead of being anxious, we should, in every situation, pray, give thanks, and make our requests known to God, and he will give us supernatural peace. Often, we will have to fight for this peace. When worry, anger, or doubt creeps in, we should pray more and give thanks more in order to help us trust God more. In 2 Corinthians 1:3-4, God is called “the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles.” God comforts his followers. In 1 Peter 5:7, Peter says, “casting all your cares on him because he cares for you.” “To cast” means to throw something fully onto someone or something else.3 We should put our burdens on God and leave them there—he can handle them. That doesn’t mean we don’t plan or prepare; it just means we do so apart from anxiety and worry. We do this because we are fully trusting God with that care or concern. It’s been said that we should “work as though it all depends on us, but also, pray as though it all depends on God.” Therefore, when suffering, we should continually pray.

Application Question: What should we pray when suffering?

(1) When suffering, we should ask for God to remove the trial if it is his will. Paul asked for God to remove his thorn in the flesh (2 Cor 12:7-10). Christ asked for his cup of suffering to be taken from him (Lk 22:42). Sometimes, God will remove the cause of the suffering. However, often, it is his will for us to persevere through the trial so we can grow. This is what James taught in the beginning of his letter. In James 1:2-4, he said,

My brothers and sisters, consider it nothing but joy when you fall into all sorts of trials, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect effect, so that you will be perfect and complete, not deficient in anything.

(2) Sometimes in response to prayer, God removes the trial; however, when it’s not his will or not his will yet, we should pray for wisdom and grace to persevere. In the context of persevering through trials, James 1:5 says, “But if anyone is deficient in wisdom, he should ask God, who gives to all generously and without reprimand, and it will be given to him.” Often the ability to persevere will be spending greater time in God’s Word and prayer. It may be getting counseling or mutual edification from someone in the body of Christ. When we ask God, he gives us wisdom to persevere. First Corinthians 10:13 says,

No trial has overtaken you that is not faced by others. And God is faithful: He will not let you be tried beyond what you are able to bear, but with the trial will also provide a way out so that you may be able to endure it.

If we are suffering, we should continually pray: Do we pray when in conflict with a friend, co-worker, or spouse? Do we pray when worried or anxious about the future? Do we pray when suffering with some health issue? When suffering, we should continually pray.

Application Question: What are common negative responses to suffering? What negative response are you most prone to? Why is prayer so important when going through a trial? How has continued prayer helped you when going through trials?

When Happy, Believers Should Pray through Singing Praises to God

Is anyone in good spirits? He should sing praises.

James 5:13b

James says when a person is in “good spirits,” which can also be translated “happy” (NIV), or “cheerful” (ESV), he should sing praises. Praise is a form of prayer where we thank God for his goodness, his characteristics, and in context, even thanking him for the joy he has given us. No doubt, the reason James commands us to worship God when happy is because it is so uncommon. It is actually when we are happy and in an undisturbed situation that we are most prone to forget God. In fact, in Deuteronomy 6:10-12, Moses warned Israel about forgetting God before they entered the promised land. He said,

Then when the LORD your God brings you to the land he promised your ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to give you—a land with large, fine cities you did not build, houses filled with choice things you did not accumulate, hewn out cisterns you did not dig, and vineyards and olive groves you did not plant—and you eat your fill, be careful not to forget the LORD who brought you out of Egypt, that place of slavery.

When things are going well, we are prone to be less diligent in our prayer time, our time in God’s Word, and sometimes even prone to neglect gathering with the saints. David was aware of this tendency in his own heart. Therefore, in Psalm 103:2, he prayed, “Praise the LORD, O my soul! Do not forget all his kind deeds!” He commanded his soul to praise God, implying that he did not feel like praising God; then, he commanded his soul to not forget all of God’s blessings. How commonly do we forget the many blessings God has provided—how he provided an open door when we needed one, a job, friendships, and family? Yet, we have a tendency to forget his blessings and focus on the bad things he allowed or the things he has not given us. Even Eve, who didn’t yet have a sin nature, forgot how everything in the world was hers and focused on the one thing she didn’t have—the forbidden fruit. We are prone to do this as well. Therefore, like David, we must, at times, wrestle with ourselves to worship God and remember his blessings.

Application Question: How should we practice singing to God when happy? What are some helpful tips?

(1) A helpful practice is owning a hymn book and singing the songs that resonate in our heart and help us worship God. It is possible to purchase Bibles with hymnbooks inside them which are very convenient for personal devotions. (2) Sometimes it is good to memorize a particular song that encourages us and helps draw us into God’s presence. (3) Another helpful practice is simply putting on a praise CD and singing along at home, while driving, or working. Praise music is a way to express the thanksgiving in our heart for God. It is also a way to remind us of God’s goodness when things are bad. Praise is fitting in bad times and good times.

The Normal Christian Life

James’ commands to pray when suffering and sing when happy reminds us that it is normal and expected for Christians to have moments and seasons of both sorrow and cheerfulness. Sometimes, it is directly or indirectly taught that Christians should always be smiling and happy, and if they are not, something is wrong with their faith. That is incorrect. Christians should also commonly mourn and lament. We lament at our own sin, the sins of the world, and the sufferings of others. Jesus wept and cried and so do we. Matthew 5:4 says, “Blessed are those who mourn.” An implication of James’ commands is that both suffering and joy are normal, even for Christians.

With that said, in considering James’ command to sing, we must ask ourselves: How often do we take time to sing praises to the Lord outside of corporate worship? In Ephesians 5:18-19, Paul said that when we are filled with the Spirit, we will be identified by individual and corporate worship. He said, “be filled by the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing and making music in your hearts to the Lord.” Worship is a characteristic of somebody being filled and empowered by God. Believers should sing when things are bad, like Paul singing in prison, but they should also sing when things are good, in thanksgiving to our gracious Father.

Are we remembering our blessings and, as a result, singing to our gracious God—the giver of every good and perfect gift? James commands us to sing when happy because we’re so prone to forget God when things are good.

Application Question: How have you experienced the tendency to forget God when things are good?

Why is it important for believers to practice the discipline of singing praises to God, not only corporately but individually? How have you practiced this spiritual discipline and how is God calling you to grow in it?

When Seriously Ill, Believers Should Receive Prayer from Their Spiritual Leaders

Is anyone among you ill? He should summon the elders of the church, and they should pray for him and anoint 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.

James 5:14-15

James moves from the need for believers to pray individually, when suffering and when happy (v. 13), to the need for believers to, at times, receive prayers from their elders (v. 14-15). Later, he will challenge believers to at times receive prayer from other church members (v. 16). This reminds us that the church is the body of Christ, and in order to function as a body, we need to bear the burdens of others and allow others to bear our burdens. In Galatians 6:2, Paul said, “Carry one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”

Specifically, in verses 14 and 15, James says when a person is ill, he should call for the elders. The word “ill” literally means “to be weak”4 or “without strength.”5 It is used to refer to physical sickness and, at times, to refer to “spiritual, ethical, emotional, or moral weakness.”6 In verse 14, most commentators believe “ill” refers to physical sickness. However, since the surrounding context has to do with believers being oppressed by their rich landowners (Jam 5:1-6) and the context of the book is Jewish Christians being scattered because of persecution for the faith (Jam 1:1), some commentators believe this passage is not referring to physical sickness at all. They think “ill” should be translated “weak,” in referring to believers who are depressed, anxious, weary, or even compromising morally because of their trials. When believers are spiritually and emotionally worn out from their trials and feel like giving up, they should call the spiritual leaders of their church for prayer, and the prayer of faith will restore them. What makes the second view attractive is the fact that verse 15 seems to promise healing, which often doesn’t happen when prayer is made for somebody who is physically sick.

With that said, there is nothing in the text that explicitly prohibits “ill” from referring to physical sickness or spiritual weakness. It is probably best to consider the word as being intentionally ambiguous—that James meant the word to be interpreted broadly.7 A believer who is especially weak whether physically, emotionally, or spiritually should seek prayer from their spiritual leadership, so God can restore them.

Anointing with Oil

After the sick person calls for the elders, the elders should pray for the sick person and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord (v. 14). “Pray” can be literally translated “pray over him,” as in the ESV, which may picture elders gathering around this person—putting their hands on him as they pray. As they pray over him, the elders will anoint him with oil.

Interpretation Question: What does the anointing with oil refer to?

There are differing views on what anointing with oil refers to. The word “anointing” is at times used medicinally. It literally means “to rub” or “massage.” In the ancient world, oils were commonly used to help bring healing. In fact, in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, the Samaritan poured oil on the wounds of the wounded person to help heal him (Lk 10:34). Therefore, some believe James is referring to the elders using both spiritual and medicinal means to bring healing to the ailing person. If the person is sick, he should seek prayer and, at the same time, take the best medicine. If he is discouraged emotionally, the anointing with oil would be used to refresh him.

However, most likely, the oil is meant to be symbolic of the Holy Spirit, and God’s setting that person apart for special ministry. In the Old Testament, it was common for prophets to anoint the priests and the king (cf. 1 Sam 16:12-13)—symbolizing them being set apart by God for a special work. After they were anointed, often the Spirit of God would come upon them so they could accomplish whatever work God called them to. Likewise, in this time of prayer, the elders should distinguish the ailing person as set apart for God’s ministry by anointing them with oil. The apostles also at times anointed the sick with oil as they prayed for healing over them. Mark 6:13 says, “They cast out many demons and anointed many sick people with oil and healed them.” With all that said, prayer is the primary vehicle of healing—not the symbolic anointing of oil. When people are healed in the New Testament, often oil is not used at all (cf. Acts 3:6-7). God moves through his people as they pray in his name which represents God’s authority and power.

Prayer of Faith

In verse 15, James says, “And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick and the Lord will raise him up.” What makes this difficult to understand is that James seems to say that when the prayer of faith is offered, the sick person will always be healed. However, as many of us have experienced, healing doesn’t always happen when we pray for people. This nuance makes the passage difficult to interpret.

Interpretation Question: What is the prayer of faith and why are people not always healed when people are prayed for, as verse 15 says?

There are different views on this:

1. Some believe the promise of the prayer of faith bringing healing is probably a general principle or promise, which doesn’t always happen.8

Proverbs often gives general principles like this, which are commonly true but not always true. For example, Proverbs 15:1 says, “A gentle response turns away anger.” This is generally true; however, sometimes we may speak gently, and the other person still gets mad. In fact, the book of James is often compared to Proverbs because of all the wisdom in the book. Maybe, James is stating a general principle—as the elders pray in faith, the sick person will commonly be healed, but not always.

2. Some believe the promise of the prayer of faith bringing healing will always come true as long as the elders have enough faith.

Certainly, it must be said that our faith or lack of faith can affect what we receive from God. In James 1:5, the believers undergoing trials are called to pray for wisdom, without doubting, because if they doubted, they wouldn’t receive anything from God. Also, Jesus said that if we had the faith of a mustard seed, we could move mountains (Matt 17:20)—probably referring to the removal of trials, not a specific piece of geography.

However, with that said, it is clear both from Scripture and experience that regardless of our faith, it is not always God’s will to heal. In 2 Corinthians 12:7-10, Paul sought for God to remove his “thorn in the flesh,” which seems to refer to some type of physical ailment (possibly an eye disease; cf. Gal 4:13-15); however, God told Paul “no” because the disease had a greater purpose in his life—to make him weak so he could experience God’s empowering grace. Also, Paul, who clearly had the gift of healing, could not heal Timothy or Trophimus, who both suffered from diseases. In 1 Timothy 5:23, Paul said this to Timothy, “(Stop drinking just water but use a little wine for your digestion and your frequent illnesses.)” In 2 Timothy 4:20, Paul said this, “Erastus stayed in Corinth. Trophimus I left ill in Miletus.” In addition, Hebrews 9:27 says that every person is appointed to die and then experience the judgment. If it was always God’s will for people to be healed, some would never die. And those who did, it would simply mean they didn’t have enough faith. However, Scripture doesn’t teach this. This view, which is common in prosperity gospel churches, has an over-realized understanding of God’s kingdom (the already present but not yet fully here paradox) and eschatology in general. It is only when God’s kingdom fully comes, at the resurrection when Christ returns, that we will have perfect health, including new bodies, no sickness, and no death (Rev 21:4). At Christ’s first coming in the Gospels, he brought a spiritual kingdom and introduced it by demonstrating aspects of the future kingdom—as people experienced deliverance from sin and demons, healings, and resurrections. But, the kingdom will not be fully realized until Christ returns to establish his eternal rule on the earth. Certainly, God still heals, but it is not always his will to heal, even if we have faith for it.

3. Others believe the prayer of faith bringing healing refers to special times when God makes his desire to heal someone absolutely clear and the elders pray in accordance with God’s revealed will.

In general, our faith should always be in God and his clearly revealed Word. We should not put our faith in our prayers or in our faith to receive our petitions. First John 5:14-15 says,

And this is the confidence that we have before him: that whenever we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in regard to whatever we ask, then we know that we have the requests that we have asked from him.

However, when it comes to healing, most times we won’t know if it’s God’s will to heal a specific person. Therefore, we put our faith in the fact that God is good and gracious, and that his sovereign will is perfect. We pray for healing while trusting that God will do what is best, even if it means allowing prolonged sickness (like with Paul) or taking the person home (like with John the Baptist). But, there may be times when God makes it abundantly clear that it is his will to heal a sick person, and in that situation, we must pray according to his revealed will. For example, with Job’s friends, God was going to judge them for their harsh treatment of Job and their misrepresentation of God. However, God told them to go to Job and that he would intercede for them, so they would be forgiven (Job 42:8). Likewise, God may make it clear prophetically, through a dream, or his control of events that it is his will to heal somebody. In those rare cases, the elders should pray in faith according to God’s revealed will. Again, this is rare. Most times, we will pray in faith simply trusting that if it’s God’s will to heal, then he will. It may even be appropriate to pray, “if it be your will,” as we petition God. Christ demonstrated this when he asked for his cup of suffering to be removed but, at the same time, he prayed, “Yet not my will but yours be done” (Lk 22:42).

The final view is best, but it should be remembered that all prayers should be offered in faith—trusting that God is good and that he will do what is best. Douglas Moo aptly describes the prayer of faith this way:

The faith exercised in prayer is faith in the God who sovereignly accomplishes his will. When we pray, our faith recognizes, explicitly or implicitly, the overruling providential purposes of God. We may at times be given insight into that will, enabling us to pray with absolute confidence in God’s plan to answer as we ask. But surely these cases are rare—more rare even than our subjective, emotional desires would lead us to suspect. A prayer for healing, then, must usually be qualified by a recognition that God’s will in the matter is supreme.9

Neglected Ministry

With all this said, the elders praying over ill people is a largely neglected ministry in the church for many reasons. (1) Often sick or struggling members are unwilling to approach leadership—maybe out of shame, discouragement from the devil, or not knowing about this promise. There are probably many in the flock whose healing tarries simply because of unwillingness to submit themselves to the shepherds God has given them. In this text, James commands ailing church members to take the initiative in seeking prayer from the elders. (2) Sometimes this ministry is neglected by the elders—possibly because they lack faith, as they feel helpless and unable to help struggling people. Consequently, they outsource struggling sheep with depression, anxiety, or long-term disease to professionals outside of the church, without ever encouraging them to receive prayer from the leadership. Certainly, professionals should at times be consulted but not to the neglect of elders doing their God-given duty. No doubt, this is why James commands the elders to pray, just as he commands the members to seek prayer. Ultimately, lack of faith on behalf of congregants and spiritual leaders often accounts for this ministry being neglected, and therefore, people in the church continue in a state of being spiritually or physically crippled.

God will ultimately heal all believers at the resurrection, but in this life, it is not always God’s will to fully heal. Sometimes, ailments teach us lessons, make us lean on God more, and empower us to be a blessing to others (cf. Rom 5:3-4, 2 Cor 1:3-6, 12:7-10), which is why God allowed Job, Paul, and even Christ to suffer. However, often, it is God’s will to heal, even with diseases that medical professionals struggle with curing, and God gives us a procedure for healing in James 5:13-18 which we must follow.

Procedure

Application Question: What steps should a suffering church member take to get anointed and prayed for by the elders?

A very simple procedure can be derived from this text:

1. The suffering member should first discern whether he should seek the elders for prayer. Not all situations should be brought before the elders. The fact that the elders must be summoned to go to the sick person probably implies that this sick person is immobile (v. 14). Consequently, the situation should be relatively serious or chronic. If it is handicapping a believer spiritually, emotionally, or physically, then he should probably call for the elders in obedience to this text. Therefore, an ailing member should first ask the Lord about the ailment to discern whether he should approach the elders about it.

As an encouragement to seek the elders, it should be known that, in general, elders love the church, feel commissioned by God to care for it, and will be held accountable for doing so (Heb 13:17). If we are questioning whether we should contact them, most times, they would rather that we do so than not.

2. The suffering member should confess any sins that might be contributing to their physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual struggles. This is an implication from the fact that James says, “and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven” (5:15). James realized that unrepented sin can commonly lead to physical sickness (cf. Ps 32:3-5). In 1 Corinthians 11:30, some were sick and depressed because they were mistaking the Lord’s Supper, and God had judged them. Some even died because of their sin. Likewise, in Matthew 18:23-35, in the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant, God warned believers of the importance of forgiving others, lest they be handed over to torturers (v. 34-35). No doubt, there are many in the church struggling with physical and emotional diseases because of not forgiving somebody who hurt them, and therefore, God has handed them over to torturers—referring to Satan and demons (cf. 1 Cor 5:5).

Believers should confess any known sin before contacting the elders, and the elders may sometimes question the sick person about unconfessed sin in the process of ministering to them. In John 5:14, Christ said this to a man he healed, “Don’t sin any more, lest anything worse happen to you.” What good is it to be healed but then be sick again soon after because of unconfessed sin? Therefore, the ill person should confess his sins prior to contacting the elders, and the elders may need to inquire about any potential unconfessed sins when meeting with that person.

2. The elders will meet with the suffering member to anoint him with oil and pray over him in the name of the Lord. This time together may include counseling, especially if it is discerned that sin might be contributing to the physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual sickness that the person is experiencing.

After encouraging the church members to continually pray individually when suffering and when happy, James calls them to seek the prayers of their shepherds when going through a season of especially difficult illness. We should do the same. God has called and especially equipped the elders of local congregations to care for their flocks. We must, at times, reach out to them in obedience to God to receive his healing grace.

Application Question: Why do you think the ministry of seeking the elders for anointing and prayer is so commonly neglected in churches? How have you seen (or experienced) this ministry in the past? Why is this ministry so important?

When Struggling with Sin, Believers Should, at Times, Confess to Others and Receive Prayer for Healing from Them

So confess your sins to one another and pray for one another so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great effectiveness.

James 5:16

In verse 16, James continues the thought of how prayer can lead to healing but applies it to the whole congregation. By connecting verse 16 to 15 with the word “So,” James is essentially saying, “Because praying for those struggling is such an effective ministry, everybody should take part in confessing and praying for one another!” Proverbs 28:13 says, “The one who covers his transgressions will not prosper, but whoever confesses them and forsakes them will find mercy.”

When a person is struggling with sin, it often manifests in isolating oneself from God—the person stops praying and reading the Bible or only does them inconsistently. Then, that person turns away from God’s people—they stop coming to church and small group or do those inconsistently. As the struggling believer separates from God and his people, the enemy, Satan, isolates that person to himself, whether by addictions, unhealthy relationships, idols, or other sinful things. Satan’s ultimate plan is always to steal, kill, and destroy (John 10:10), and those always begin with isolating a person from the source of good—which is God and his people. Since that is the common pathway sin leads us on, instead of hiding from other believers and living in shame, we should find accountability partners with whom we can openly share and confess.

With that said, it must be noted this verse is often used in Catholic theology to support penance, where believers confess their sins to a priest, and the priest forgives them. (1) First of all, this is not talking about one-way confession but mutual confession and prayer for one another. (2) Also, this text does not describe any person in the church forgiving sins, not even the elders. Though not clearly stated in this text, God is the one who both forgives and ultimately heals, as the rest of Scripture attests (cf. 1 John 1:9).

When mutual confession and prayer are happening in a congregation, it protects the members from the consequences of sin which can be addictions, depression, discord, divorce, sickness, and even death (cf. 1 Cor 11:30-32). It helps the church stay healthy in a general sense—spiritually, physically, and socially. In fact, throughout history, confession of sin has been a distinguishing feature of major revivals, including ones in the early church. In Acts 19:17-20, confession was a characteristic of a revival in Ephesus. It says,

…fear came over them all, and the name of the Lord Jesus was praised. Many of those who had believed came forward, confessing and making their deeds known. Large numbers of those who had practiced magic collected their books and burned them up in the presence of everyone. When the value of the books was added up, it was found to total fifty thousand silver coins. In this way the word of the Lord continued to grow in power and to prevail.

Revival individually and corporately happens when church members are prioritizing mutual confession and prayer with other members. With churches that are not transparent—acting as if everything is always OK—they often start to erode and eventually die.

General Principles for Practicing Confession

Application Question: What are some general principles for practicing confession?

1. When confessing, our confession should always ultimately be offered to God (1 Tim 2:5-6), but we should also confess our sins to others we have sinned against. In Matthew 5:23-24, Christ said that if we go to the altar to offer a gift to God and realize that somebody has something against us, we should leave the gift, go and reconcile with that person, and then offer the gift to God. Discord with others hinders our relationship with God (cf. Matt 6:15, 18:23-35, 1 John 4:20). Because of this, we should always seek reconciliation with those whom we have hurt or have hurt us, which will commonly include confession.

2. When confessing personal struggles, we should prayerfully discern who to share with. (1) We shouldn’t share with someone who is prone to gossip—sharing secrets with everybody. (2) Also, as a general principle, it may be prudent to share with somebody of the same gender—guys with guys and girls with girls, especially if the accountability relationship will be long term. (3) In addition, if we need wise counsel and not just prayer, it is prudent to find somebody more spiritually mature who can help guide us (cf. Gal 6:1). (4) Finally, a person who models transparency with their own struggles will often be a good person to share with. When confessing personal struggles, we should prayerfully discern the right person to do so with.

3. When confessing, we should be discreet in how much we share. Only share what is necessary for a person to understand the struggle—too vivid of a picture can often be detrimental and tempt the other person. Ephesians 5:12 says, “For the things they do in secret are shameful even to mention.” This especially applies to sexual sin, as it can stir up lust in the person hearing the details. Sometimes, it might be prudent to just ask for prayer over a certain struggle generally: For example, “Please pray for me, I’ve been struggling with lust lately in my surfing the Internet,” or “My wife and I have been struggling with miscommunication and conflict lately, please pray for us.” All the details are not necessarily needed, but humility, transparency, and a desire for accountability and God’s healing are needed.

By wisely confessing our struggles, we help others become more comfortable with confessing theirs—leading to more transparency, intimacy, and healing within our churches. Unfortunately, when church members are not transparent with one another, people struggling tend to put on a facade or isolate themselves—feeling as though something is wrong with them. Many of them ultimately leave the church. By practicing wise confession and vulnerability, we help the church receive God’s grace and therefore maintain corporate health.

In Mark 9, Christ cast a demon out of a young boy whom the disciples failed to deliver. When they asked Christ why they couldn’t cast him out, he replied in Mark 9:29 by saying, “This kind can come out only by prayer.” Certainly that is true of many situations in the church: How many marriages are struggling and soon to end in divorce because there is no transparent confession within the body of Christ and therefore no prayers for healing? How many are struggling with pornography addiction, anxiety disorders, or other things because they are not regularly meeting with a member of the body for prayer and confession? Many of our church members are cutting themselves off from God’s means of healing. Some struggles are only healed by continual, corporate intercession for weeks, months, and sometimes years.

General Principles for Those Hearing Confessions

Application Question: How should those who are hearing someone’s confession respond?

1. Those hearing a confession should prayerfully and patiently listen (Jam 1:19). As we listen, we should ask clarifying questions so we can better understand and minister to the person. It is good at times to repeat what he or she is saying in a concise manner and ask if it is correct to make sure that we understood everything correctly.

2. Those hearing a confession should offer words of wisdom from God’s Word if at all possible. If we don’t know the right verses to offer encouragement or counsel with, we can always ask somebody more knowledgeable or look the verses up and share with the person later. We should be very careful about sharing our opinions which are not backed by God’s Word. People need to hear God’s Word, not ours. If we don’t feel led to share, then it is certainly fine to just listen and affirm them—many times that is best.

3. Those hearing a confession should offer prayer for that person in obedience to Scripture, trusting that God desires to bring healing and deliverance (Jam 5:16-17).

4. Those hearing a confession should, if they feel led, share something they are struggling with and ask for prayer as well. James says we should confess our sins to one another and pray for one another. This spiritual discipline is not the same as standard practice for professional counselors who aim to keep a professional distance from a counselee. In Scripture, the church is called a body and a family (cf. 1 Cor 12:12, Gal 6:10, 1 Tim 5:1-2)—both extremely intimate metaphors of our relationships with one another. We need to be transparent with one another for mutual edification and healing. Therefore, we should prayerfully open up to relate with the person and to receive from him or her.

5. Those hearing a confession should also discern if it would be appropriate to direct this person to somebody more mature who can help him more effectively than us. We are not the body—we are part of the body. We should still continue to meet up with the person, support him, and pray for him, but, at the same time, we must make sure he gets the extra support needed.

As we consider the need for mutual confession and prayer for the church’s general health, we must ask ourselves these questions: Are we willing to bear one another’s burdens, so God can bring healing through us? Are we willing to be transparent with others, so we can receive God’s healing grace through them? Finally, who are our accountability partners who we go to for mutual confession, prayer, and healing?

Application Question: Why is this ministry of mutual confession and prayer commonly neglected? What principles about confession or responding to confession stood out most to you and why? Who do you commonly meet up with to confess sins and receive prayer from?

Conclusion

As James is about to close his letter, he, as a man known for prayer, encourages these saints to pray. They should pray when suffering, when glad, when sick, and when struggling with sin. They should pray in all seasons of life—including seeking prayer. Likewise, we must faithfully pray and seek prayer as well.

  1. When Suffering, Believers Should Continually Pray
  2. When Happy, Believers Should Pray through Singing Praises to God
  3. When Seriously Ill, Believers Should Receive Prayer from Their Spiritual Leaders
  4. When Struggling with Sin, Believers Should, at Times, Confess to Others and Receive Prayer for Healing from Them

Application Question: How is God calling you to grow in your prayer life and in the discipline of seeking prayer from others in this season?

Prayer Prompts

  • Pray for grace to grow in the discipline of prayer in all seasons of life—when suffering, happy, sick, and when struggling with sin and its consequences.
  • Pray for those struggling with physical, emotional, or spiritual sickness (including sin) that they may be healed, set free, encouraged, and drawn to God.
  • Pray for our elders that God may protect, encourage, and empower them to lead and equip the church.
  • Pray for our church (and churches) to grow in the discipline of mutual confession and prayer for one another—pray that God would help us cultivate transparent, healing relationships.

Copyright © 2021 Gregory Brown

Unless otherwise noted, the primary Scriptures used are taken from the NET Bible ® copyright © 1996-2016 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. All rights reserved.

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1 Hughes, R. K. (1991). James: faith that works (p. 254). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

2 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1998). James (p. 275). Chicago: Moody Press.

3 John MacArthur, 1 Peter. MacArthur New Testament Commentary, (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2004), 240.

4 Moo, D. J. (2000). The letter of James (p. 236). Grand Rapids, MI; Leicester, England: Eerdmans; Apollos.

5 Utley, R. J. D. (2000). Jesus’ Half-Brothers Speak: James and Jude (Vol. Volume 11, p. 70). Marshall, TX: Bible Lessons International.

6 Hart, J. F. (2014). James. In M. A. Rydelnik & M. Vanlaningham (Eds.), The moody bible commentary (p. 1955). Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers.

7 Guzik, D. (2013). James (Jas 5:13–14). Santa Barbara, CA: David Guzik.

8 Hart, J. F. (2014). James. In M. A. Rydelnik & M. Vanlaningham (Eds.), The moody bible commentary (p. 1956). Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers.

9 Moo, D. J. (2000). The letter of James (p. 244). Grand Rapids, MI; Leicester, England: Eerdmans; Apollos.

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