As we’ve been working our way through James the last couple months, we’ve seen a consistent concern with our speech, both the ways we talk and the things we say. That concern is most clearly expressed in the first part of chapter 3, as James laments the damage our tongues can do and our inability to control them, but it finds its beginning in chapter 1 in his command that we are to be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to anger, and recurs throughout the letter as he issues commands against various forms of negative speech. His concern is well-founded, since the things we say can do great harm—but for most of the letter, there’s nothing positive to balance that concern. If you stopped the book with last week’s passage, you might come away thinking there’s nothing for it but to join the monks and take a vow of silence.
Here at the close, though, James winds up his letter by laying out a positive vision for our words and our speech. This section is usually read as a section on prayer, and certainly prayer figures largely in it, but his concern is broader than that. He’s talking more generally about our speech together as the people of God—and in the process, he highlights the fact that everything we say, we say in God’s presence; God is involved in everything we say, and thus our words are more significant than we tend to assume. In a sense, one of the subtle lessons of this passage is that prayer isn’t just specific things we say to God; we are standing in his presence every moment, and he’s involved in every conversation we have and every statement we make, and so we need to think and speak accordingly.
This, I believe, is the connection between verse 12 and the rest of this passage. At first glance, this verse doesn’t seem to connect to anything around it, until you stop and consider what oaths are. When you swear an oath, you call a power greater than yourself to witness that you’re telling the truth. People don’t do this seriously very much anymore—though our legal system and public ceremonies still require people to swear on the Bible, which is to call the word of God to witness to our truthfulness—but the remnants of it are all over our speech. That is, among other things, where the casual use of the names of God comes from, as people used to swear by God the Father or by Jesus Christ; the meaning has dropped out, but the pattern remains. In each case, whether the oath was sworn in the name of God, by some aspect of his creation, or even by one of the pagan gods of the old myths, the point was the same—to invoke some greater power than myself to support my own assertion that I’m telling the truth.
There are several problems with this. First, this kind of thing ultimately raises real questions about our credibility. As the New Testament scholar Luke Timothy Johnson puts it, using oaths to support our speech becomes, paradoxically, an admission that we can’t be trusted to tell the truth on our own; the harder we work to convince people, the stronger the language we use, the more suspect our own honesty becomes. Second, implicitly, oaths are a form of manipulation of God, as we try to use his name—or the name of something he has made—for our own purposes, to get people to believe what we’re trying to tell them. That, as James well knows and indeed as the whole Bible makes clear, is nothing God is going to tolerate.
And third, oaths and strong language are an attempt to manipulate our hearers as well, to try to force people to believe what we say or to go along with what we want them to do, not because they believe us or trust us, but on some other basis. Oaths are essentially persuasive language, but not in an honest or straightfoward way; rather than attempting to persuade people with facts and honest argument, they attempt to persuade people by impressing them in some other way. It’s the same sort of problem we see in our political advertising and argument, where our politicians are unwilling to come right out and tell you what they stand for and what they intend to do, much less to allow their opponents to do the same. They’re all trying to spin their own positions for maximum votes, while at the same time doing everything they can to convince you that the other candidate is a cannibal mass-murderer who apprenticed under the Wicked Witch. Truth is uncontrollable, and honest persuasion isn’t the most effective way to win—so if winning is your primary concern, you’re going to find another way to go about it.
By contrast, James calls us to plain, straightforward speech—to speak the truth, say what we mean, and mean what we say. As Christians, we shouldn’t need to add anything to our words to convince people of our honesty and sincerity; we should be known as truthful people whose word can be trusted and whose integrity is obvious. Others may not agree with us, but they should have no doubts that we’re being straight with them; nor should they have any doubt that we’re treating them with respect. We should not seek to manipulate others into doing things our way, nor to pressure or intimidate them into giving way for us; our practice should be to speak the truth plainly and openly—not that we have to say everything, but that we should not seek to misdirect others by what we say and don’t say, or by how we say it. As it is God who determines our success, we should devote ourselves to the truth and let him do as he will.
James continues by encouraging us to pray in all kinds of circumstances—for songs of praise are a form of prayer in their own right. If we’re in trouble, we should pray; but just as well, we should also pray when we’re happy and all seems right with the world, because God deserves the credit and thanks—and because we need to remind ourselves of that fact. And in cases of serious illness, James says, call the leaders of the church to pray for you. This is something that tends to be ignored outside Pentecostal and charismatic churches, which is too bad. Partly, this is an aspect of the pastoral responsibility of the leaders of the church—pastors, elders, and deacons alike—and partly it’s an indication of the kind of people church leaders ought to be: people of sufficient maturity and faith to lead such a prayer and seek God’s will in the faith that he can and will bring healing. As part of that prayer, James says they should anoint the sick one with oil, symbolizing that that person is being set apart for God’s special attention in the prayers of the church.
Now, James says, “the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well”; does that mean that he’s guaranteeing physical healing if we just pray hard enough and have enough faith? There are those who believe so, but this runs counter to the rest of the New Testament; such an understanding makes the work of God dependent on us rather than on his love and grace, and it turns prayer into just another attempt to manipulate God and make him do what we want. How then do we understand this promise, since we know that God does not in fact bring physical healing to everyone for whom we pray?
The answer is to be found, I think, in the fact that the Greek verb which the NIV translates “make . . . well,” sozō, doesn’t only mean “heal”—it’s also the standard New Testament word for “save.” Some, in fact, take this and try to give this passage a purely spiritual meaning, though that doesn’t really work here. It does, however, point us to an important reality: sometimes it isn’t physical healing that God is most concerned about in our lives. Everything he allows to happen to us, he allows for a purpose—and sometimes he allows illness or other physical problems so that he may demonstrate his power by healing them, and we need to believe that, and pray accordingly. But at other times, he has other purposes in our physical afflictions. He may use them to humble us, to teach us to rely on him rather than to trust in our own strength; he may allow them as a way to force us to deal with emotional or spiritual issues in our lives. Or, to take the case James highlights, he may send them to discipline us for our sin and push us to repentance; in which case, the primary problem is the sin, not the illness.
This is why he says, “Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.” It’s not that every sickness is the result of sin; but sin which we have not confessed or of which we refuse to repent blocks the healing work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. The obvious reason for this is that God does not honor disobedience or reward rebellion, but there’s more to it than that; sin is itself a sickness, a spiritual illness, a defect that blights the health and goodness of creation. If we would truly be healed, if we truly want to be whole, we need to confess our sin, lay it aside, and turn our back on it—whether our sin is the direct cause of any bad circumstances in our life or not. This isn’t a disconnected precondition God imposes on healing us, nor is it reason to complain that he has unreasonable expectations; it is, rather, something which is simply necessary for its own sake.
But if we will confess our sins to one another and lay them aside, if we will pray for one another in God-given faith, there’s no telling what may happen. The prayer of the righteous, James declares—and here, he’s not referring to super-saints, but to anyone who has found salvation in Jesus Christ and is not harboring unconfessed sin—the prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. That power isn’t inherent in us, nor is it anything magical about prayer; it is, rather, the power of God made available through us. When we seek God’s will, he guides us to pray according to his will, and his power goes to work through us to accomplish his purposes. To illustrate this, James offers the example of Elijah—a great prophet, yes, a worker of miracles, yes, a holy man of God, yes, but someone fundamentally different from us? No. At bottom, he was just another human being, really no different from us. He didn’t have some special magic power, he was simply a man of prayer who devoted his life to following and serving God; as a prophet, he was filled with the Holy Spirit, and as followers of Jesus Christ, so are we. There was no power available to him that isn’t also available to us, if we will walk by faith in God rather than by sight and our own strength.
Now, none of this comes easily, for we all struggle against the sin that’s rooted deep in our hearts; God is at work by his Spirit patiently rooting it out, but sometimes we don’t want it rooted out—sometimes we want to hang on to it. Sometimes our sinful desires distort our vision, and we come to mistake the evil for the good. And sometimes we just get tired, or distracted, and wander away from the truth. When that happens, sometimes we can put things right ourselves, but more often, we need help. We need each other, people to come alongside us and speak truth into our lives—the kind of truth Dr. Larry Crabb talks about in his book Real Church, that I hope you’ve been reading with us. We need people to tell us, gently and humbly, that we’re a mess, that we’re off the rails, that we really need to face up to the sin in our heart—and that however great our problems may be, however dark the darkness in our heart may be, the love of God is greater, and the grace of God shines brighter, and there is nothing wrong in us that he does not have the power and the desire to put right. There is no evil we can do out of which he cannot bring good, and no part of our lives that he cannot redeem. This is a great and profound truth; but it’s a truth we need to hear from others before we can tell it to ourselves.
This is why James tells his hearers, “Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way”—whoever sees someone wandering down a path that leads away from God, and corrects that person and brings them back to the true way—“will save a soul from death and cover over a multitude of sins.” Sin leads to death, sooner or later, as inevitably as falling leads to a sudden stop at the end, and believing things which are not true about God will inevitably result in doing things which are not true to his character; none of us gets everything right, of course, but a serious departure from the gospel of Jesus Christ has very serious consequences. When we see people going astray from the core truth of the gospel and the holiness of God, wandering into significant sin, it’s nothing less than an act of love to reach out to them gently and seek to correct them, to bring them back to the truth. They may not want to hear it, they may resist, they may not perceive it as loving—but it is; for in so doing, if they do ultimately respond, we prevent a great many sins they would otherwise have committed, and save them from making shipwreck of their lives. Such can be the power of godly speech, of speech that is filled with the power of God—for when God speaks, even when he speaks through us, his word never fails to accomplish the purpose for which he sent it.
And on that note, James concludes, leaving us with a word of hope. We cannot control the tongue, and in failing to do so we can do great damage; but God can, and as we speak to him and he speaks through us, we can also do great good with our words. The way of friendship with the world is what sets our tongue ablaze with the fire of Hell, but the way of friendship with God opens us up to the work of his Holy Spirit in our lives, which puts out that fire and fills our mouths instead with the word of the gospel of the love and grace of God in Jesus Christ, that we may speak words of life instead of death, blessing instead of cursing, peace instead of destruction.