“Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. . . . 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 sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another that you may be healed. The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much” (James 5:13-16).
Mrs. Baidya and her late husband were two of the original members of the Shikarpur congregation in Bangladesh, and had allowed the church to erect a small building on their property in which it met for over twenty years. Recently, when I was in the country, she sent word to me that she was ill and would like for me to come to visit and pray with her. I did so and enjoyed a very uplifting time with her, her family, and members of the church there. Such opportunities have helped me to a better appreciation of both the power of prayer and its value to Christians both individually and collectively.
It is clear from even a casual reading of the New Testament that prayer was a prominent and treasured part of life in Biblical times. Not only Jesus, but prophets, apostles, and many other believers spent hours and even days in prayer. Paul and Silas were praying and singing in prison at midnight (Acts 16:25). Prayer accompanied major decisions and events such as selecting a replacement for Judas (Acts 1:24); appointing men to supervise the feeding of the needy (Acts 6:6); sending men on evangelistic missions (Acts 13:3); and concluding a period of ministry in a particular area (Acts 20:36).
Prayer is certainly one form of “the fruit of our lips giving thanks to his name” which the Hebrew writer identifies as “the sacrifice of praise to God” (Hebrews 13:15) and exhorts his readers to “continually offer” such to God. James, who was an elder of the Jerusalem church, stresses prayer as a major factor in Christian fellowship.
When I received Mrs. Baidya’s request I understood that part of her invitation included the hope that I would be able to help her with the expenses of her illness. I went prepared to do that, knowing first that she is poor and would be in need of such help, and also that in her culture a request for my prayers necessarily includes any physical assistance that I can give.
Perhaps you have heard the story of the rural congregation who called a prayer meeting on behalf of a poor family. One of the men of the congregation did not attend that meeting. During the meeting, however, his son came in with the simple statement, “Pa’s prayers are out in the wagon.” “Pa” understood that simply saying “be warmed and filled,” is not enough when we are able to do more (James 2:15-16).
James’ instructions to both pray for the sick and anoint them with oil pose difficulties for many modern readers. One useful interpretation suggests that our prayers solicit God’s help while our anointing with oil represents what we may do for the afflicted person. This assumes that the oil has (or was believed to have) some medicinal value. That is consistent with the writer’s words referred to in the previous paragraph. Prayer asks for God’s help; it does not relieve us from responsibility. God may be trusted to hear and answer our prayers. Can he trust us to be available to be instruments of his help?