The struggle of praying for the sick and suffering…

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(Kinda long, but stay with me. I have a strong sense this message is for someone in particular.)

James 5:13 Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. 14 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. 15 The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. 16 Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.

This passage related to prayer and healing seems to be fairly straight forward. When people are sick or suffering we should:

  1. Confess our sins to one another, thus receiving absolution
  2. Pray for those in need, anoint them with oil in Jesus’ name
  3. Expect healing

Healing in three easy steps. So what does it mean when the steps don’t work, when we don’t see the desired result? Did the praying person mess up? Did the sick person mess up? Did God mess up? Some combination of the three?

The trouble with formulaic teachings like this one comes when we follow the formula but don’t see the desired results. 

More often than not when I’ve prayed for someone’s healing I’ve not seen any immediate results. The sick person is still sick. If you’re a Christian you probably know what that’s like. At the very least it can be frustrating. At worst it can lead us to where we’re done with prayer. Because it doesn’t work. From the perspective of one who is usually the praying person in this scenario, it’s easy to come to the conclusion I am deficient in some way. The problem is me. I’m not “righteous” enough because, if I were, this passage says my prayers would be effective. Maybe you can relate.

But there have been times when my prayers HAVE been effective.

As I was reading our passage for today my mind went back to a time when I leading a team of people on an evangelism tour in Africa. When we arrived in the city which was our starting point we were advised that the wife of one of our host pastors had been involved in a very serious bus accident. She was in a local hospital and not doing well. Would we go and pray for her before starting on our tour?

I remember the eagerness of the local pastors to have us Americans pray for this woman. Mind you, these were some very faithful and spiritually mature Christian leaders – far more so than we were. Why in the world did they think our prayers would be more effective than theirs? But they were persistent. Would we please just spend a short time praying for her at the hospital?

So we went to the woman’s bedside. It was a “hospital” but in truth it was little more than a sick ward. There was no medical machinery to speak of or skilled medical practitioners close by. It reminded me of an army barracks with beds lined up in rows. We circled the woman’s bed and began to pray. And as we prayed I began to weep. I didn’t want to, but I couldn’t help it. Why? Because I felt so powerless. I was the leader of this delegation (“from America!”) but I was sure we would simply disappoint everyone. All I could think of were my shortcomings as a spiritual leader – about to be exposed. My shallow faith revealed for all to see. But standing by the bed I had no choice but to pray, to plead, to beg for God to act on this woman’s behalf.

After about 45 minutes or so of prayer I thought we were done. Not so. Apparently while praying for this woman, every other sick person on the floor asked if we would pray for them as well. OMG. Really? I told the orderly to advise the others we were Christians. They were Muslims. Surely they would refuse our prayers once they knew. Nope. So we stayed and prayed for everyone on the floor – for another hour. Again, I wasn’t praying the “prayer of the righteous”, but more like the “prayer of the desperate”. It was an awful feeling. Powerless. Impotent. Fraudulent.

Well, some days later we got word from the hospital. The pastor’s wife walked out of the hospital under her own power. It was astounding. Not only that, everyone we prayed for that day converted to Christianity. Every. Single. One. I couldn’t believe it! When I heard the news I wept. Again.

“The prayer of faith will save the sick…”

When I read verses like this I tend to think such prayers are spoken by people who are paragons of faithfulness and spiritual maturity. Exemplary Christians. But today I’m not sure that’s right. Maybe the prayer of faith really is more like a prayer of desperation. It’s the prayer we offer when we have no other options. When apart from the Lord there is no hope. I’m reminded of words from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians:

“…for power is made perfect in weakness. So I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.” (2 Corinthians 12:9)

Lord Jesus, you know all of my shortcomings and failings as a Christian and as a leader. They are many. And yet you call me and others to pray for the sick and suffering. Give us grace to acknowledge our powerlessness apart from you – that your power might dwell in us for the sake of others. We pray this in your holy name. Amen.

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