The Local Church as a Means of Healing
We live in a day of rugged individualism. We read our Bibles and pray. We attend church and find strength for tomorrow through worship. Perhaps we learn something that will help us live our lives. We might even witness to others and do good deeds in the name of Christ through the week. All of this is good—except that if we are honest with ourselves we will acknowledge that we tend to see the church for its usefulness regarding our spiritual lives—how much it helps us get along. As one man once said to me, “I go to church to fill up,” comparing the local church to Standard Oil.
Previous generations understood themselves to live in a community, and their church was that place where they had entered into a covenant promising to pray for, encourage, and hold one another accountable. And here we find James beseeching his flock not only to pray but to confess their sins to one another—and all for the purpose of reconciliation and healing.
He begins by calling on those who suffer to pray, and for the cheerful to rejoice. And what of the one who is sick? He is to call for the elders of the church to come and pray over him and anoint him with oil. This may bring on a debate over whether or not oil should be used when praying over the sick. Oil was considered medicinal in the ancient world (Luke 10:34), and was perhaps viewed symbolically for healing. I cannot say that we are commanded here that oil must always accompany our prayers for the sick, but neither shall I gainsay those traditions which use it.
But there are two more important matters we must see in this passage: that the sins of the sick person will be forgiven “if he has committed sins,” and that we should all confess our sins to one another that we may be healed. We don’t like to admit it in our day but there is a most definite connection between sin and sickness in the Bible. This does not mean that a person is diagnosed with cancer because of a curse word he said the day before, as plainly indicated by, “if he has committed sins.” But we must also recognize that sickness and death are a result of our sinful condition (Genesis 2:17; 3:16-19)—oh, and that we do actually commit sins as well. But the good news is that our Lord came to heal and forgive; indeed, as Mark 2:1-12 teaches, to forgive is to heal and to heal is to forgive. And we don’t have to do this before a priest; we may confess to our brothers and sisters in Christ whom we know will keep our words to themselves and pray for us. The church isn’t just a place to fill up; it’s a hospital we all desperately need.