Look Again at James 5:15
Apart from those who celebrate faith healing, the rest of us Christians don’t talk too much about our theology of sickness. It’s hard not to be uneasy when Jesus heals someone, saying, “your faith has made you well.” How many have blamed themselves or others for not being healed, thinking that they didn’t pray the right prayer, thinking that they just didn’t try hard enough? Deep diving into the language of this verse (and the historical context) gives a whole new perspective.
At our church, we did anointing services twice a year before the pandemic started. We preached a sermon about sickness and our need for healing, the reality that we don’t always get the outcomes we want, and the deeper reality that God is with us no matter what. Usually, these services feature some or all of James 5:13-16.
If you don’t quite know what to do with these verses, here are a few things you may find helpful. First, sickness was thought to be caused by demons or a punishment from God. Medical science was certainly not what it is now. Second, sickness in the Bible generally wasn’t specifically diagnosed illnesses. People didn’t know they had cancer or diabetes or asthma. They just knew something was wrong. So, the words for sickness described different symptoms that people were experiencing. For example, in James 5:14, the word “sick” is astheneo, which literally means, “not strong.” Any illness (or other situation) that you had that left you weak would fall under this category. There’s also malakia, which means weakness or disability, and arrostos, which is a chronic infirmity. Another interesting one is mastix, which refers literally to a Roman whip, but, when applied to disease, was a sickness with sharp pain. There are a few other words, but I suppose this is enough to give you the idea.
We read, “the prayer of faith will save the sick,” and it gives us pause even when we bring in historical context. Here, if we look closer at the words, we find a much different meaning than we first assume. The word for “prayer” is one that includes making a vow to God. It is not simply asking for help.
On top of that, faith in the Bible is something different than we presume. There are many different words for “faith” in the Old and New Testaments, but none of them have to do with reciting doctrines or claiming to know the mind of God and the order of the universe. Each of these words have to do with confidence and trust. They are more about faithfulness and loyalty. Faith, then, isn’t about what you know, it’s about how well you trust God and how that changes your life.
So, taken together, “the prayer of faith” isn’t any old prayer by a person who has some perfect degree of belief and understanding. It is someone who, through prayer, commits themselves to trusting God. This feels like more of an attainable goal than some unspoken level of perfect faith to me.
“Save” shares a root with the word “savior” in Greek. So, literally, it is about freeing someone from danger so that they are safe. Figuratively, we can be talking about salvation. Then, the word for “sick” is kamno. This word only appears twice in the New Testament, here and in Hebrews 12:3 (“consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart). This word is not about diagnosed illness. This word is not about diagnosed illness!! Kamno means being weary, tired, exhausted. It can specifically refer to someone who is worn out because they have been working too much.
So, if you take all of that Greek together, here’s what you come up with: “you who are running in circles, wearing yourself out with whatever work is before you – here is how you can be safe and rescued. Here is how you can be saved. Pray to your savior and make a personal vow – devote yourself to trusting in God. Live your life trying to trust God more and more every day.”
This is not faith healing. This is not a guarantee that your blindness will be healed or your limp will be miracled away. Instead, it is a promise that even those who are threadbare and sick and seem to be the worst off among us…even and especially they can grow in faith. They will be resurrected and restored by God and their sins will be forgiven.
We are all tired, friends, and I think this verse truly is the hope that we need right now.
Image credit: “Samuel + David” at the Castra Center in Haifa, Israel. Photo by Dr. Avishai Teicher, 2012.