Try praying it rather than saying it

prayerPraying is hard and I need all the encouragement I can get to pray. This week I’m making another concerted effort to get some regularity and structure and focus to my prayers. I find it too easy to skip over praying as though it’s somehow less useful or strategic than other things. But then, what a strange way to describe prayer… strategic or useful! I wouldn’t get far evaluating my communication with my wife in those terms! “I didn’t speak with Fiona today, because I didn’t think it was that important or strategic.”
Oops! It probably would become very strategic and very important very quickly!

God knows that we find it hard to pray and we don’t earn brownie points with God by praying. But it’s something we are urged to make a priority, even though it’s difficult. The Apostle Paul regularly reminds his readers that he continually prays for them and what he is praying for them. Epaphras also serves as an example to us:

Epaphras, who is one of you and a servant of Christ Jesus, sends greetings. He is always wrestling in prayer for you, that you may stand firm in all the will of God, mature and fully assured.  (Colossians 4:12)

So, what do I mean ‘pray it, don’t say it’? Certainly, let’s make the time, privately and publically, to speak with our heavenly Father. Bring our requests and petitions to God often, as he urges us to do. This is the basic meaning of the word ‘pray’. It means to ask or beseech or implore God for something. God’s word both invites and commands us to pray, and Jesus models the important matters to bring to God in what we know as the Lord’s Prayer. We can bring any need or worry to God, but we are especially encouraged to seek first the matters of God’s Kingdom.

But as we pray, let’s stop saying the word ‘pray’. Or at least, let’s not say it so often. I find myself doing it, and I hear others doing it, and it’s really quite strange. Recently I listened to someone who was praying at church begin nearly every sentence with the words “We pray for…” I’ve done this too. Sometimes children simply say things like “And we pray for Bob and Mavis and Aunty Jean” and we have no idea what they are actually asking for them. To keep saying “we pray” to God is like saying “we ask”, “we ask”, “we ask”. There’s nothing wrong with saying “we ask”, but why don’t we simply ask without mentioning the fact that we’re asking.

Compare the difference…

Heavenly Father, we pray that you will send rain to ease the drought. (Sounds formal and religious.)

Heavenly Father, we ask that you will send rain to ease the drought. (Still sounds formal.)

Heavenly Father, please send rain to ease the drought. (A more normal and natural and direct way to speak.)

As I look through the Scriptures there are many encouragements to pray. There are many examples of prayers we can follow. What is conspicuously absent from most prayers is the word “pray” and especially the phrase “we (or I) pray for…”. It’s not entirely absent. There are some examples, including:

“Lord Almighty, God of Israel, you have revealed this to your servant, saying, ‘I will build a house for you.’ So your servant has found courage to pray this prayer to you.  (2 Samuel 7:27)

Here, David is referring to what he is doing. It’s not the beginning of a sentence, “We pray…”.

There are many references to “pray” and “prayer” in Solomon’s prayer following the dedication of the temple:

28 Yet give attention to your servant’s prayer and his plea for mercy, Lord my God. Hear the cry and the prayer that your servant is praying in your presence this day. 29 May your eyes be open toward this temple night and day, this place of which you said, ‘My Name shall be there,’ so that you will hear the prayer your servant prays toward this place. 30 Hear the supplication of your servant and of your people Israel when they pray toward this place. Hear from heaven, your dwelling place, and when you hear, forgive.  (1 Kings 8:28-30)

Again, this is referential. Solomon is asking God to respond to his and his people’s prayers. And there are more examples like this.

Some of the prayer psalms include references to the speaker’s prayer or to him praying:

Answer me when I call to you,
my righteous God.
Give me relief from my distress;
have mercy on me and hear my prayer.  (Psalm 4:1)

Listen to my words, Lord,
consider my lament.
Hear my cry for help,
my King and my God,
for to you I pray.  (Psalm 5:1-2)

Most prayers recorded in Scripture are respectfully clear and direct. They’re not subjunctive or vague “We pray that you might…” or “We pray for the church and our missionaries.” Perhaps the clearest expression of this is Jesus’ own prayer:

“This, then, is how you should pray:

“‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
10 your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
11 Give us today our daily bread.
12 And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13 And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.’  (Matthew 6:9-13)

Next time you are invited to lead in prayer at church, try writing out your prayers in full. Aim to speak normally and respectfully and directly to God. See how it sounds without even using the word ‘pray’. I suspect for some of us the word ‘pray’ in our prayers has become something, like, you know, a verbal tic. But at the end of the day, what’s most important is that we pray, not exactly how. God, in his grace, will keep listening to our verbal foibles and he’s pleased to hear from us. Thank you God.

Prayer in growth groups

swiss_army_knifeOnce upon a time I used to be part of a Bible study group. We’d spend most of our time studying the Bible together. The problem was we often spent so long looking at the Bible and talking together that we rarely allowed much time to pray. So we changed the name to Prayer and Bible groups. And you know what? Prayer was still frequently edged out by everything else. I wonder if your experience has been much the same.

We want our growth groups to be relational communities. People connecting with each other, getting to know each other, taking an interest in what’s going on in each other’s lives. However, the primary relationships aren’t those that we share with each other, but the relationships we share with God. We gather because we belong to God. We’ve been adopted into his family and God is our Father. Jesus has given us access to his Father, so that we can relate to him as our Father. This is a wonderful privilege. We can come before our Father in heaven at any time and in any place, through the mediating work of Jesus. For this reason we desire to express our dependence upon God and our fellowship together in growth groups through prayer.

I want you to imagine a different scenario with me for a minute.

You are part of a company think tank, gathered in a boardroom to come up with plans and changes for moving the company forward, helping each person in the company to improve their contribution, and using the vast resources of the company to bring these things about. The name of the company is Microsoft (assume you are happy with this!) and Bill Gates has agreed to come to every think tank meeting, and authorise the use of his resources to enable every venture that will improve the company. You meet together, read over the company documents, talk things over, come up with some astounding ideas, realise you’ve used nearly all your time, forget that Bill is in the room, ask him for nothing, and head off to try and do everything yourselves.

What a mistake! Forgetting the most important person in the room! Failing to speak with him, ask for his help, draw on his resources… even when he’s promised to give you more than you could ever imagine! It doesn’t make sense, does it? And yet, isn’t that what we do with God our Father, every time we meet and fail to pray. It seems to me that the key to praying in our growth groups is to remember who God is, and to take seriously his invitation, in fact his command, to pray.

We will spend some time in this paper, looking at the Bible, seeking to understand our God, because it is God himself who invites us to pray. You could use these Scriptures as a guide for your growth group in approaching God in prayer together.

The God to whom we pray

The Holy God

The Bible reveals God to be a Holy God who will not tolerate evil. We cannot come into the presence of God without fear for our lives. It is no simple thing to come before God to pray.

Isaiah shows us the problem when he is brought into the presence of God, presumably in a vision…

 In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphim, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty;
the whole earth is full of his glory.”

At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke.

“Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.”  (Isaiah 6:1-5)

Habbakuk knows the dilemma of sinful people seeking to be heard by a righteous and holy God…

How long, Lord, must I call for help,
but you do not listen?
Or cry out to you, “Violence!”
but you do not save?

13 Your eyes are too pure to look on evil;
you cannot tolerate wrongdoing.  (Habakkuk 1:2, 13)

God, himself, says through Isaiah to the people of Israel…

15 When you spread out your hands in prayer,
I hide my eyes from you;
even when you offer many prayers,
I am not listening.
Your hands are full of blood!  (Isaiah 1:15)

And Isaiah speaks to the people about God…

1 Surely the arm of the Lord is not too short to save,
nor his ear too dull to hear.
But your iniquities have separated
you from your God;
your sins have hidden his face from you,
so that he will not hear.  (Isaiah 59:1-2)

So what hope do we have? Our lives are tainted by sin and selfishness. How can we presume to come before God in prayer?

On the basis of God’s grace and mercy, love and forgiveness. This is how! And it’s the only way. God enables us to pray. It’s not something we can do for ourselves. We need a saviour.

Our Saviour

God, in his kindness, has made it possible to come into a relationship with him. He has dealt with our sin, and invites us to trust him, submit to him, depend upon him, and speak with him.

God made it possible for Isaiah to stand before him…

Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it he touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.”  (Isaiah 1:6-7)

God makes it possible through the death of his Son, Jesus Christ, for each of us to be made clean, to have our sins forgiven, God’s judgment lifted, and to gain access to God.

Looking ahead to Jesus, God spoke through Isaiah announcing…

Surely he took up our pain
and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
stricken by him, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to our own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.  (Isaiah 53:4-6)

Because God is the Saviour, like the Psalmist, we should delight to call on him…

I love the Lord, for he heard my voice;
he heard my cry for mercy.
Because he turned his ear to me,
I will call on him as long as I live.  (Psalm 116:1-2)

Jesus has given us access into the throne room of God. His saving work enables us to boldly approach God with confidence and ask him to help us in our weakness and need…

14 Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. 16 Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.

Permission to pray is a wonderful gift from God. God invites us to enjoy a new relationship with him. And this is a special, personal, and familial relationship. We’re granted the privilege of relating to the Holy God as our Father.

Our Father

Before Jesus leaves his disciples he prepares them for the relationship they are to have with his Father in heaven…

23 In that day you will no longer ask me anything. Very truly I tell you, my Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. 24 Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete. 25 “Though I have been speaking figuratively, a time is coming when I will no longer use this kind of language but will tell you plainly about my Father. 26 In that day you will ask in my name. I am not saying that I will ask the Father on your behalf. 27 No, the Father himself loves you because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God. 28 I came from the Father and entered the world; now I am leaving the world and going back to the Father.”  (John 16:23-28)

17 Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”  (John 20:17, my emphasis)

Paul reminds us that by God’s Spirit we are able to relate to God as our Father…

15 The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” 16 The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. 17 Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.  (Romans 8:15-17)

As God’s dearly loved and adopted children, we have the privilege of coming to him in prayer. Jesus gave this model for prayer…

And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

“This, then, is how you should pray:

“‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
10 your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
11 Give us today our daily bread.
12 And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13 And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.’

Jesus asks us to remember the all-surpassing goodness and generosity of our Father, and so to bring our needs before Him…

“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.

“Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? 10 Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? 11 If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!

Through Jesus Christ, and the work of God’s Spirit, we are brought into a relationship with God as our heavenly Father. He calls us to speak with Him, to bring our needs before him, knowing that he will shower his good gifts upon us. God is both willing and able to answer our prayers according to his perfect will. He has our absolute best interests at heart. There is nothing that can thwart his good plans and purposes. So why wouldn’t we pray?!

What to pray

When Jesus was asked how to pray, he responded by telling his disciples what to pray. The Lord’s prayer, as it has become known, gives us a template to pray, as Jesus instructed. We approach God as Father, we desire his honour in all things, we seek his will to be done, we ask him to shape our priorities, enable us to live lives that honour him and reflect him in this world. In other words, the first thing we discover about how to pray, is to have our prayers shaped by God’s own agenda.

According to God’s will

As we seek to pray as Jesus instructed, we desire to have our prayers shaped according to God’s revealed will in the Scriptures. Jesus, himself, submitted his will to the Father as he prayed…

42 “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.”  (Luke 22:42)

How can we know the will of God? By reading it! We should allow Scripture shape our prayers. The Bible reveals God’s plans and priorities. It reveals God’s wonderful promises. Scripture shows us how to live and speak and think in according to God’s revealed will. The Bible also contains many prayers, that give us an insight into what matters matter to God and his people. We can even pray the content of Scripture as we ask God to make it live in our hearts and minds.

As we study the Bible in our groups, allow the passage you have been examining to shape the prayers that follow. We don’t want to be mere listeners to the word, but people who put into practice what we’ve learned. Let’s ask God to transform us in the light of what we’ve just read.

Bring our needs before God

We’re invited to bring our anxieties and worries and requests to God. Even though God knows what we need before we ask, he calls us to open up to him…

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.  (Philippians 4:6)

16 Rejoice always, 17 pray continually, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.  (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)

Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.  (1 Peter 5:6-7)

If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.  (1 John 1:8-9)

Nothing is too big or too small to bring to God. Whatever burden is on our heart, God invites us to hand it over to him. Whatever we need, God wants us to ask him for it. And God’s word equips us to ask in accordance with God will. The more we grow in our knowledge and love of God, the more we will understand how and what to pray for things.

These verses above give guidance about the attitude we should have as we pray. First, we should trust God rather than clinging to our worries. God is the one most able to resolve our worries, so leave them to him. There’s no point you and God doubling up! Secondly, we’re called to humble ourselves before God. He alone is God. He is the Holy and Righteous One. He is the Judge and the Saviour. He is the Creator and we are the creature. He is the Sovereign Lord over all creation. He is our Father in heaven. Our Father! Humility, requires first and foremost that we acknowledge our sin before him and seek forgiveness. Thirdly, we’re urged to be thankful as we pray. With all that we know of God, and what he has done and will do, we have great reasons for thanksgiving. So let’s ask God, with gratitude in our hearts.

Sometimes our needs are deeply troubling. Sometimes we just don’t know what to pray. Sometimes we’re unable to pray in our frailty and weakness. It’s a wonderful comfort to know that God will help us in these times, so don’t stress…

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.  (Romans 8:26-27)

And what awesome promises follow these words…

28 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.  (Romans 8:28)

35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? 36 As it is written:

“For your sake we face death all day long;
we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”

37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.  (Romans 8:35-37)

In our groups

As we focus on the will of God in bringing our requests to God, how should we actually pray in our groups? Here are some suggestions…

  1. Allow sufficient time to pray each week. This means limiting the time in the Bible, or chatting, or sharing prayer points, so that we actually pray. Sometimes we may wish to begin the time together with prayer, so as to give it priority. Some weeks we may set aside the majority of the time to focus on prayer for an extended period.
  2. Let our understanding of the Bible shape our prayers. Draw points for prayer from the passage we’ve been studying together.
  3. Show care for each other by inviting people to share their needs with the group, so that we can pray together for these matters. It can be helpful to write things into a prayer diary or leave them on the whiteboard for the following week. This way we can follow up on how God has been answering our prayers.
  4. Tune in to how comfortable people are with praying out loud in a group. Some may be unfamiliar or uncomfortable with doing this. It’s important not to put people under pressure. Going round the circle can make things awkward for people, so it might be better to seek volunteers to pray. Breaking into twos and threes can help our prayers to be more personal, and make it easier for the shy members of the group to contribute.
  5. Pray for needs outside the group; such as current events and issues, our communities, our governments, our churches, our pastors, link missionaries, and more.
  6. Pray for people to hear the truth about Jesus. Let’s ask God to change the hearts of our friends.
  7. Help people to understand we are talking to God, not seeking to impress each other.

Set an example

Prayer is unlikely to be a priority for the group if it’s not a priority for the leader. Let’s come before God ourselves, thanking him, confessing our sins, and bringing our needs before him. Let’s do this regularly and wholeheartedly. Pray for the members of our groups and, like the Apostle Paul, let them know we’ve been praying for them and what we’ve been praying.

Further reading

Karen and Rod Morris, Leading Better Bible Studies, chapter 5
Colin Marshall, Growth Groups, chapter 8

Don Carson, A Call to Spiritual Reformation
Richard Coekin, Our Father
Graeme Goldsworthy, Prayer and the Knowledge of God
Phillip Jensen and Tony Payne, Prayer and the Voice of God

Diagnosing James chapter 5

James5Over the past 12 months I’ve been pointed numerous times to a passage in James chapter 5. This is an important and puzzling part of the Bible. It seems to make bold promises and yet, so often, doesn’t seem to deliver upon them. Is this because we’ve misunderstood the text? Is it because we’ve misapplied the text?

This part of the Bible has had me curious for many years. I’m not sure I’ve ever been completely satisfied with any of the commentary explanations. Is it a prescription for healing today? Should we follow the advice to apply oil, call the elders, confess sins and pray for healing? Should we have the faith that the sick person will be healed? Is this a promise of healing to the person who has repented of their sin?

My cancer has given me cause to reflect more seriously on these words of God. Over the years I’ve been called on a few times to pray for a seriously ill Christian and anoint them with oil. Earlier this year some of our pastors and elders prayed over me and anointed me with oil. Does this mean that I should expect to be healed from my cancer? Others have had similar experiences and haven’t been healed. What do we make of this?

A pastor friend took me to this passage while I was still in hospital last year and asked me to consider if there might be any sin that is causing my sickness. The truth is I can think of so many sins! But how would I know what sins might be serious enough to lead to serious sickness. And I trust God that he has accepted payment for all my sin in Christ. And I don’t think there is anything for which I remain unrepentant.

But it’s also the exegesis of this passage that puzzles me. So many commentaries see little or no links in the immediate and wider context, and this bothers me because it seems unlikely that James would drop a new and unrelated exhortation at the end of his letter. I wish to explore the meaning of these verses further and to ask whether it is possible to see a coherent argument from 5:7-20. So here are some of my thoughts for consideration.

The ESV translation of James 5:14-15 is as follows:

14 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. 15 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. 

In these verses, one English word ‘sick’ is used to translate two different Greek words: astheneo (5:14) and kamnonta (5:15).

While astheneo in its various forms throughout the gospels seems to always refer to sickness, it is used more widely in the letters of the New Testament to mean weakness. Weakness can include physical sickness, or be caused by physical sickness, but it can also include a broader range of issues, such as the ill-informed conscience, spiritual struggle, and more. Hebrews 4:15 gives a good example of spiritual struggle:

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet was without sin.

The second word translated as sick (5:15) is kamnonta. This word is more easily pinned down. Its only other appearance is in Hebrews 12:3:

Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted.

The same word appears in Revelation 2:3 in the Textus Receptus, where it also carries the meaning of weary in a similar context. The word kamnonta is also used in Job 10:1 (LXX) where Job is weary in his soul. This is particularly interesting, given the mention of Job in James 5:11. If kamnonta in James is being used in a similar way to its use in Hebrews 12, then it seems reasonable to adopt the broader translation of astheneo as ‘weak’ in verse 14. On this understanding, we could offer the following translation:

14 Is anyone among you weak? 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. 15 And the prayer of faith will save the one who is weary, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.

Of course, there are other issues to be determined in these verses. How is ‘save’ (Gk. sozo in 5:15) being used? The NIV translates this word as ‘make well’, whereas the ESV translates as ‘save’. Does it refer to salvation from illness and death? Or is it speaking of salvation from God’s judgement? James uses this word on four other occasions and each time it refers to spiritual salvation.

Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.  (1:21)

What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?  (2:14)

There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbour?  (4:14)

…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.  (5:20)

Most telling, is the proximity of 5:20, which I would argue is a continuation of the same discussion by James. Thus, James could be saying that the prayer will restore the weak and weary person so that they will be saved from the judgement of God.

The reference to healing (Gk. iaomai in 5:16) could then be understood to be functioning metaphorically, as it does in Isaiah 53:5.

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.  (5:16)

That is, the person is healed from their sin. Interestingly, in Hebrews 12:13 this word is used for ‘the healing of drooping hands and weak knees’. This is a picture of restoring the person who has grown weary and faint-hearted (Hebrews 12:3) in their struggle against sin. The same idea could well be on view in James 5.

This interpretation fits well with the context and helps us to see the development of James’ argument. In 5:7-11 James writes about the attitude his brothers and sisters should have toward suffering. They are exhorted to be patient and to persevere. They are to find encouragement in the example of the prophets (Job is noted) and the merciful character of God. This has an eschatological focus in the return of Christ and the final judgment.

Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and the late rains. You also, be patientEstablish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand. Do not grumble against one another, brothers, so that you may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing at the door. 10 As an example of suffering and patience, brothers, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. 11 Behold, we consider those blessed who remained steadfast. You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful.

James 5:12 is harder to understand in the flow of James’ argument and is usually explained as an isolated saying. However, it’s possible that James is returning to his warnings about double-mindedness and his encouragement to his brothers and sisters to remain steadfast.

But above all, my brothers, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your “yes” be yes and your “no” be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation.  (5:12)

5:13 continues the matter of remaining godward in the face of suffering and trials, by encouraging the suffering person to pray. If the praise is also godward, then he encourages people to speak with God in good and bad circumstances.

Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise.  (5:13)

But what of the weak person, the spiritually weary, the one who may be unable to pray in faith? Let him call the elders to pray so that he may be restored. Indeed, prayer is not limited to the elders. Prayer is something we should offer for one another, especially when they need help in overcoming sin. This whole argument is nicely concluded and summarised in 5:19-20 where we see that the heart of the matter is saving the sinner from his sin that leads to the death of his soul.

19 My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, 20 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.

But what of Elijah in the midst of all this?

17 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. 18 Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit.  (5:17-18)

Again, the reference to Elijah points to the continuity of argument, because the example of the prophets has already been raised in 5:10. Elijah serves as an example of a righteous pray-er. His ministry occurs during the time of drought and he is introduced in these terms in 1 Kings 17:1. For three and a half years the people have to wait, and the cause of the crisis is the sinfulness of the people of God. In particular, it is their double-mindedness as they flirt with other gods and fail to trust God’s covenant promises. This fits well with the introduction to this section of James, where in verse 7 the farmer waits for the rains, which are the coming of the Lord. 1 and 2 Kings reveals that Elijah was a man who prayed, but the prayers recorded are interesting. He prays for a little boy to be saved from death to life – and he was. A powerful prayer for healing, but James does not mention this. So, I understand the connection to be humble faith in God, as we wait patiently for him to bring the rain, or in the case of James – the return of Jesus.

This still leaves the puzzling reference to ‘anointing with oil’. The New Testament only mentions the practice of anointing with oil in relation to healing the sick in Mark 6:13. (There is also the reference to pouring oil and wine on the bandages of the good Samaritan in Luke 10:34.) So, it could be that a connection with healing prompts the mention of anointing with oil. This, on my view, could be a symbolic demonstration of God’s spiritual healing of the individual.

This ‘restoration of the weak and weary’ view fits well with the overall message of James. People become weak and weary when they fail to submit humbly to God’s word. Rather than strengthening their hearts (5:8), they become faint-hearted and weary of struggling against sin. They become double-minded, being tempted by the world’s ways rather than patiently trusting in the goodness of God.

James began his letter by calling upon people to remain steadfast under trial. They are to persevere patiently because God has promised a crown of life. James concludes his letter by returning to where he started. His big concern is that people live out their faith and not fall by the way, distracted by the pretence of the world. They are to keep trusting in God, come what may, and if anyone starts to stray, then their brothers and sisters should pray and do all they can to bring them back.

I recognise that this interpretation is not watertight and there have been various arguments against it. Commentators point to the calling of the elders as indicating the incapacity of the sick person to go themselves to the elders. The strong connections with Jesus’ teaching are seen as a pointer to the sickness/healing/saving theme of the gospels being repeated here. Further, the place of anointing with oil in a context other than healing is hard to explain.

I have weighed these arguments (and will continue to do so) and it seems to me that in the context of James’ letter ‘restoring the weary’ is a more likely interpretation than healing the sick. If I am wrong, then it is still likely that James explores a link between the weakness/sickness of individuals and the potential of sin having brought this about. Thus the prayer and concern for the sick person will be concerned with more than their physical healing. It will be concerned with the forgiveness and salvation made possible through Christ.

My recent experience of serious sickness has reminded me of the strong connections that can exist between physical sickness and spiritual struggle. Someone who is very ill and facing their own mortality may experience doubt and a struggle to maintain their faith in Christ. In such circumstances the prayers of the elders and encouragement of God’s people will be particularly important.

In all of this, I continue to pray fervently for others to be healed of their sicknesses and that God will strengthen their faith in him for salvation. I deeply appreciate the thousands of prayers that people have offered for my healing. Please don’t stop! Let’s pray to God, let’s pray for one another, especially for the sick and weary and weak and struggling, that God will raise them up. When things are especially tough, the prayers of our brothers and sisters are so important.

These reflections are a work in progress. I have grappled with this text over a number of years (preceding my illness) and recent events have pushed me to explore their application again. My prayer is that we will read them humbly and faithfully, leading us to trust God in whatever circumstances we are facing. I welcome your thoughts and prayers!

Please don’t stop praying

Having cancer isn’t much fun. From time to time I follow a forum where people share their stories of having cancer, or of caring for those who do. Some of these stories are heartbreaking. The pain, the fear, the loneliness, the hopelessness, the cruel and depersonalising invasion of cancer through the body. Once active, strong, happy individuals, being reduced to feeble shadows of their former selves.

What has both surprised and encouraged me, is how often people are asking others to pray. “I have scans tomorrow – please pray.” “My husband has developed pneumonia – please pray that it will clear up so he can continue his treatment.” “I’m so afraid of the prospect of losing her – please pray that I will be strong.” “My kids are really feeling it – please pray for them” “It’s spread into the brain. I’m so terrified – please pray for me.” “There doesn’t seem to anything left we can do – please pray.”

It’s not just the requests for prayer. It’s also the offers to pray. People will share their struggles and sometimes others reply, saying that they will pray for them. Sometimes people share that they’ve been praying for someone. Sometimes they even share what they’ve been praying.

NTE_prayer_2011I’ve been overwhelmed by how many people have been praying for me. Many of these I know about. Friends, family, people at church. I’ve been amazed to discover that I’ve got a spot in people’s prayer diaries. Some people have told me they pray everyday without fail – and I believe them. Others have said they pray every now and then, when they think of it. Some pray when they get news or when they read this blog. I was remembering tonight, as I visited the NTE conference with around 2000 other people, that 1500 or so students had gathered in small groups to pray for me at the same event last year.

Over this weekend I’ve met four strangers who, upon being introduced to me, said that they (and sometimes their churches) had been praying for me all year. A couple of months back I sat beside visitors at church who, when they discovered who I was, said it was so good to put a face to the name because they’d been praying for me for some time. These serendipitous experiences have been happening all year. What a blow out! So many people have been praying. People I’ve never met, who’ve never met me, but who’ve been moved to speak to God on my behalf. I’ve felt so privileged and have been so encouraged by this news.

Over the years, and even now, our family has also been praying for others with cancer and serious illnesses. We’ve prayed for my dad, Bronwyn, Peter, David, Judy, Nanette, David, Ed, Jenny, Eleanor and others. Some of these people are in remission, others are still fighting, and some have lost their lives. We also remember their families in our prayers. Sometimes I offer to pray for people I’ve met through forums, facebook, or the blog. I try to pray immediately after I make the offer, so that I don’t forget!

Our Heavenly Father is the one who holds our lives in his hands, so it makes enormous sense to speak to him about such life and death issues as cancer. I ask God to heal people, I ask him to heal me, and I ask others to pray for my healing. But I also ask God to work within my heart and mind, to change the way I think and feel about things. I want him to help me trust him, to rely upon his goodness, to treat others with love and kindness, and to hope for eternity in him. God may choose to heal me, and I hope he does, but whatever happens I pray that he will be honoured in my life and others.

So please pray and please keep on praying. Not just for me, but for yourselves, for others, for those with cancer, for their families and friends. And don’t limit your prayers to matters like cancer, even if your whole life is consumed by it. God says we can approach him on any matter. Nothing is too big or too small. So let’s pray, not as a last resort, but because God is more willing to do good in our lives than we are to ask him.

“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened. “Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? 10 Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? 11 If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!  (Matthew 7:7-11)

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.  (Philippians 4:6)

Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.  (Hebrews 4:16)

Clearly God is inviting us to pray, but how long should we keep on praying? If we’ve prayed a few times and it hasn’t been answered, do we continue? Jesus prayed three times that God would take the cup from him. Paul prayed three times for the thorn to be removed from his flesh. Does this suggest three strikes and you’re out? Is it unreasonable for me to pray for the same things day after day after day? Is it wrong for me to request your continued prayers if you’ve been praying for a year already?

Doesn’t Jesus say we won’t be heard for our many words? It is true that Jesus said:

And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.  (Matthew 6:7-8)

It’s not the amount, or the frequency, or the specific words we pray that guarantee a hearing from God. He already knows our needs and invites us to humble ourselves before him. We are to come before God as his dependent children, trusting in his goodness, and seeking his will, as we present our requests. With this attitude, Jesus invites us to persist in our prayers:

Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up.  (Luke 18:1)

In fact, we could do a lot worse than to follow the example of Ephaphras, who kept working hard to pray for others:

He is always wrestling in prayer for you, that you may stand firm in all the will of God, mature and fully assured.  (Colossians 4:12)

And the Apostle Paul’s faithful persistence in prayer:

For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you and asking God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding. 10 And we pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, 11 being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and joyfully 12 giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light. 13 For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, 14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.  (Colossians 1:9-14)

But did you also notice what these guys were praying about? As huge as cancer is, there are bigger matters still. These are prayers that God will make our lives count, that we will persevere, stand firm, and bear good fruit in our lives. As much as I want you to keep praying for healing for people, including me, who have cancer, I’d ask you to pray for these things even more.

Thank you so much for praying, and please don’t stop!

Please God

Please God
I just want to be well
Is that too much to ask
The pain in my chest and side and back
It worries me
I long for health
I hope for the future
I mourn too soon
Scans today
A look inside
Frightening and illuminating
There’s a fight going on
Chemo versus cancer
Short odds on the cancer
But I’m not a betting man
Please God
Draw me close
Lift my heart to you
Deepen my trust
Strengthen my spirit
Guide me in wisdom
Show me again the riches of your love
May your love change me
And those around me
Please God