I have recently just completed teaching an online study of the book of James, and as you can imagine we came across several areas of discussion that are just as valid today as they were when James wrote the letter almost two thousand years ago. Though he was writing to a mainly Jewish audience that had been dispersed through the region of Palestine and beyond, we can take what he wrote and apply it to our lives today. I could do an entire blog series on what I learned from James as I taught it, and I may, but for now I will focus on one of the last sections of James, James 5:16.
Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed. The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much. (NASB)
Just like any scripture there can be many interpretations and observations based on past experiences and worldviews. I will provide mine based on what I know at this time, and it may change some day, just like much of scripture has I have continued to study it.
There was concern in the time of James that people became sick or incapacitated based on something they had done in the past. There are people who still believe this, and that is fine. However, I don’t agree and it seems that James does not either. Neither did Jesus, at least in one instance he did not, see John 9:1-5.
In this section of James, he is providing some structure to the early church on how to live with others in the community and within the church itself. We see in verse 16 that he is focused on more than just illness. He is focused on healing the divisiveness that has already come into the church. James writes what he sees and experiences throughout this letter and it seems he has been witnessing divisiveness and a lack of unity in the church. This leads to a lack of unity in the community and strife within both communities. Just like today people who were not part of the church community observe how those within the community interact with each other. James did not like what was going on, so he called for confession and prayer from those who were considered to be righteous within the community of believers.
In his viewpoint, the only way to heal the community was through righteous and faithful prayer. The prayers of a righteous person, either man or woman preferably both, leads to healing within a community. James wanted them to fulfill their role as a priesthood of believers praying for and interceding for each other.
I dug a little deeper into the end of this verse and realized that there may be a different way to approach the end of verse 16 that would help those of us in the 21st century better understand what James wrote. The “effective prayer of a righteous man”, can also be written as, “the working prayer of a righteous person accomplishes much”. The key being working, not works, but working, or better said active or ongoing prayer. In James’ view, it takes continuous prayer to keep a community of believers healthy and focused on loving all people, as stated in the Royal Law found in Matthew 22:36-40. Much like Paul wrote in 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18, it is a life of prayer. Continually walking in the will of Christ. Never ceasing. This is hard, but I have found that it becomes easier over time if we allow ourselves to loosen our grip on things we have no control over. As with anything practice helps us become more competent. I encourage you through the practice of everyday prayer, through the centering of prayer, and the practice of contemplation, you can begin to sense what it is to be someone with an active life of prayer. We can continue to expand the practice by identifying and living with the rhythm of the world God has placed us in. The rhythm of our own lives, the rhythm of our own breath reminding us that it is God who is in charge, not us. It is God’s will to be done, not ours. It is God who we can trust.
Through this practice we can be people who unify and not divide. Who look at the beauty of the world and the people around us and not the faults. To use God’s wisdom to use words of wisdom that edify and encourage all people. I pray daily that our church community is a community that unifies, and through this honoring and glorifying God.