Oil For Sickies?

I peruse Sharper Iron frequently and though the articles are sometimes a bit outside my radar range or above my level of understanding, this one stands out.

James 5:14-15 is the source of a practice that has long struck me as somewhat odd. It doesn’t drive me nuts or linger in my mind, but I’ve heard it taught and seen it in practice occasionally. Never really jived but I didn’t give it much thought at any point, either.

Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. 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. 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. 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. 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. Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit. — James 5:13-18

Enter a gentleman named Ted Bigelow and his article called “Weakness or Sickness?”

Instead of translating the verb in James 5:14 as “sickness,” perhaps we should translate it as “weakness.” After all, this is how this verb is translated twelve of the fifteen times it appears in the NT letters to the churches.1 That’s reason enough to make it a solid choice in translation. But the idea of sickness in James 5:14 has a long and venerable history, even if it is pretty much universally ignored!2

He works out a rather clarifying answer to the issue. It drove me to take a bigger look at James in general as well as the specific passage of James 5. Really refreshing. Reading in context, it does seem out of place to read a bit of medicine amongst a call to faithful dealing with spiritual problems, praise and forgiveness as well as in the greater context of James, including faith, various sinful states and works and all that. I sure wouldn’t say praying over sick people is out, nor even the (in my opinion) purely aesthetic application of oil. We pray for the sick and injured constantly in the church and in our private lives. But it kinda is a sore-thumb and poorly written if James just stuck that lesson on personal health at the end of his letter.

I mean, sickness is just what we should pray about, but how much more of a promise arises when we see that our weakness is saved by prayers of faith and that the Lord will raise us up? I battle with that weakness all the time. Pressures from every angle seem to wear me down and leave me feeling like a beat-up battlefield. I get tired and lose resolution all too easily. And prayer is a huge part of making the comeback as well as preventing relapses. Scripture, prayer, corporate prayer, fellowship, all those things make for strong Christians, right? It fits in so well with what James is saying throughout his letter. Just 7 verses earlier, he’s talking about patience and steadfastness. The flow is uninterrupted when sickness is translated as weakness.

Maybe this passage, properly in place as a discussion of weakness, should shine a light on those faith-healer types out there and clarify that we’re not in the business of basting spiritual turkeys and thereby causing them to walk again. Yeah, I’m sorta not interested in that movement, to the point of disrespect directed toward anti-faith-healer types. So that’s that.

I appreciate very much the scholarship of faithful brothers and sisters in Christ. I hope to one day contribute to the cloud of good words that point to glorifying God through faith, good works and love. I’m not a great thinker or writer (except maybe that I’m long-winded, which probably isn’t a good quality) but I’d like to be. Either way, I’m confident that there will always be great workmen producing lessons and insights from the Bible and I’ll never run out of such things to help me grow.


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