13 Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise. 14 Is anyone among you ill? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven. 16 Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.
The Greek word for sick – ασθενει – in this context is transliterated: Astheneo
Strong’s number: 770
It is used 33 times in the NT:
- Sick (19 times): Matthew 10:8, 25:36, 39; Mark 6:56; Luke 4:40; John 4:46, 5:3, 7, 11:1-3, 6; Acts 9:37, 19:12, 20:35; Phil. 2:26-27; 2 Timothy 4:20; James 5:14
- Weak (14 times): Romans 4:19, 8:3, 14:1-2; 1 Cor. 8:11-12; 2 Cor. 11:21, 29, 12:10, 13:3-4,9;
From the contexts in other passages it would appear that this word could as easily be translated “weak” as “sick”. In English these two words are quite related but our understanding of the microbes that cause sickness make us more inclined to separate the meanings than would have been the case for people in James’ time. If we use “weak” instead of “sick” in James 5:14 we have:
“Is anyone among you weak? Then he must call for the elders of the church and they are to pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord;”
When we take the overall context of James 5:13 -16 we can see there is a connection between being weak, or sick, and sin. The effect of the elders anointing is not just to make the person well physically but also spiritually – his sins will be forgiven. In verse 16 the key to healing is that you confess your sins to each other and pray for each other.
In verse 15 the word translated “sick” is actually a very different word (κάμνοντα) which is only used one other time, in Hebrews 12:3, and there it is translated “weary”. So if you feel weary confess your sins to each other and pray for each other and you will be healed.
Nowadays we are inclined to view disease and sickness differently from James. For us there is only a tenuous connection, if any, between our personal actions and sin. Sickness is caused often by viruses or bacteria which seem separated from our moral actions. As a Christian in the 21st Century the connection between sin and sickness is less personal, more related to the general fallen condition of the world than anything that we personally may have done. But if you think in terms of sickness being weakness and put yourself in the context of a 1st Century Christian who knows nothing about viruses and bacteria then you might see the connection between personal sin and weakness or sickness more easily. This also explains Paul’s warning about taking communion in an unworthy fashion (see Thoughts on Communion: Healing and The consequences of communion).
Things can come around though. The bible’s wisdom does not seem so archaic in this regard if you are into holistic medicine. Lifestyle and a tendency to sickness go together. If your lifestyle is one of abusing the body through excessive alcohol or smoking or immorality then it is easy to see how those sins can affect your health also. Other sins such as worry and anger also have physical effects causing illness or weakness or both.
In this passage though the emphasis is not on the sin causing the illness. The Lord is gracious and he heals first and, then, forgives your sins also. He doesn’t place the emphasis on the sin but rather on the healing of the sickness or weakness.
Which is just like Him, isn’t it?