Monday, January 06, 2014

Avoid Both Ditches

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.
James 5:13-15
Whenever we interpret Scripture and/or do theology, we must always be aware of the danger of the two ditches.  The task of interpreting Scripture and theologizing is like walking a narrow path with a ditch both on your right and on your left.  And neither ditch is safer than the other.  The end result of falling into either ditch--if you remain there--is death.  It's that serious.  Looking at the text above as an example, let's consider two ditches (in no particular order) we must avoid at all costs while doing the work of interpretation and application.

Ditch #1

The most conservative scholars assert that the text above has nothing to do with physical sickness and healing.  John MacArthur is perhaps the most well-known proponent of this position.  His essential argument is that when we look at the context in which the book of James was written, it was written to believers during a time when they were experiencing intense opposition and persecution for their faith.  And, over the course of time, such intense opposition has a way of wearing down a believer to the point where he/she becomes spiritually weak.  MacArthur shows that the words that have been translated as "sick" are often used elsewhere in Scripture to refer to spiritual sickness or weakness.  So what James is saying is that believers who become so worn down by persecution that they find themselves spiritually weak can look to the leaders of the church to pray for them so that their spiritual vitality might be restored.

I must be honest.  That's a very attractive interpretation to me.  And I have so much respect and admiration for MacArthur as a steward of Scripture.  But upon closer examination, I just can't figure out what to do--according to that interpretation--with the second half of verse 15: And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.

If this text is primarily about those who are suffering because they are being sinned against at the hands of insolent persecutors, then why in the world is James suggesting that the people who are suffering are themselves the ones who might have committed sin?  That seems totally out of place based on the suggested context.

The existence of the second half of verse 15 seems to imply that the sickness of a Christian either could be related to his/her sin or it could have nothing to do with his/her sin.  We see an example of the former in 1 Corinthians 11:27-30.  We see an example of the latter in John 9:1-3.

This renders the entirely spiritual reading of the text above--at least from my perspective--very suspicious and unconvincing if we take the whole into account.

Ditch #2

Those who embrace prosperity theology will very easily camp out on the first half of verse 15: And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up.

"See," they say, "the word of God tells us that when we pray in faith, those who are physically sick will be healed.  So, if you are physically sick and you aren't healed by prayer, you or those who are praying for you don't have enough faith.  You just need more faith."  And in the worst forms of this kind of theologizing, believers can very easily be manipulated by wolves in sheep's clothing to do whatever they're told as a way of proving the strength of their faith.

But we must understand the type of literature that the book of James belongs to.  James falls under the genre of wisdom literature, like the Proverbs.  And the words of wisdom literature aren't to be taken as truth without exception.  They're truths that often stand as a general rule as proven by observation of the world we live in, but aren't without exception, especially in the era of the new covenant where Jesus has inaugurated a seemingly upside-down kingdom.  For example, consider the following proverb:
The Lord does not let the righteous go hungry, but he thwarts the craving of the wicked.
Proverbs 10:3
But what are we to make of the apostle Paul who multiple times makes mention of hunger and thirst (1 Corinthians 4:11, 2 Corinthians 11:27, Romans 8:35, Philippians 4:12) as though they were frequent trials he faced?  Must Paul, therefore, be unrighteous if he's experiencing hunger?  Of course not!  The will of God isn't that simple.  It's deeply complex.

The existence of the first half of verse 15 seems to imply that God means for us to pray in faith for physical healing when believers are sick.  But prayers of the greatest faith oftentimes won't result in healing, for reasons that God might sometimes reveal (2 Corinthians 12:7-10)--and sometimes not.


So how do we understand the text above without falling into the ditch on either side?  There's no doubt the text is talking about the physical sickness of believers.  Sometimes that sickness is the result of sin, but sometimes it's not.  And we should pray in faith for God to heal the believer who is sick.  But we must do so always humbly submitting ourselves to the sovereign God of all wisdom who on this side of eternity sometimes chooses not to heal because He has greater purposes to accomplish by withholding healing than by granting it--whether He clearly reveals those purposes to us or not.

The ditches abound in Christianity.  Whether it's the sovereignty of God vs. the responsibility of man, the continuation of spiritual gifts vs. the cessation of spiritual gifts, the deity of Jesus vs. His humanity, justification vs. sanctification, God's desire for all people to be saved vs. His election of only some to salvation, the already of the kingdom of God vs. the not yet, each of these and many more debates throughout church history has revealed the practical consequences in daily life of focusing on one truth to the exclusion of another.  But, as J.I Packer says, "a half-truth masquerading as the whole truth becomes a complete untruth."

Almost every step we take as we navigate the world of interpreting and applying Scripture, we're in danger of falling into a ditch on one side or the other.  May the Holy Spirit help us to see and avoid both ditches.

Note: I'm indebted to the work of Nathan Wells for much of the development of my thought behind this post.

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