A Counseling Commentary on James: Prayer Between Believers Amid Suffering

A Counseling Commentary on James: Prayer Between Believers Amid Suffering

We see that even when the godliest care givers – the half brother of Jesus himself – gives counsel divinely inspired by the Holy Spirit, this doesn’t happen. The ultimate hope for suffering happens in heaven when Jesus will wipe away every tear (Rev. 21:4). As we care for one another amid our suffering, we offer temporal hope anchored in this ultimate hope.

Passage – James 5:13-20

13 Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. 14 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. 15 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. 16 Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. 17 Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. 18 Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit.

19 My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, 20 let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.


Imagine you are writing a letter to a friend after a major hardship. Maybe it’s after a long recovery from a major injury or grief after the loss of a spouse after adultery. After you spoke to the specific challenges that your friend is facing, how would you conclude your letter? What would the last paragraph be about?

In these final verses, we get to see how James concludes his letter to his friends facing adversity. We’ve traced the journey of these friends from Jerusalem through persecution to becoming refugees to the hardships they have in their new city. We’ve eavesdropped on James’s pastoral care for them amid these hardships. Now, we’re coming to final words of care for them.

Prayer, Suffering, and Community (v. 13-15)

James begins with a trilogy of questions. First, “Is anyone among you suffering?” James entire letter has been about this question. But oddly, he doesn’t summarize his counsel to them. That’s what we expect from a conclusion: a summary. Instead, James simply says, “Pray.”

In this, we see that no action plan or accurate theology can replace an honest conversation with God. Amid suffering, God doesn’t primarily give us answers. Instead, God offers himself, a relationship, availability through prayer, and a reminder that we are never alone in hard times. As we care for another, need to remember that answers for suffering – to the degree they exist – are empty without relationship.

Second, “Is anyone cheerful?” This question catches us off guard. Nothing about this book has been cheerful. James wrote this letter in the dull tones suffering, not the vibrant tones of joy. But this is an important reminder: suffering does not negate cheerfulness. As Christian we can be honest about hard times and still smile. Redemptive stories still have dark chapters.

The response of praise for God’s faithfulness amid the hardships of life is a form of rebellion against suffering. It declares, “Suffering doesn’t win! Suffering doesn’t own me!” These believers, rebuilding their lives in a new city they fled to escape persecution, could still give thanks for salvation, good friends, and each marker of their new life coming together.

Third, “Is anyone among you sick?” If cheerfulness caught us off guard, asking about their health may feel completely random. It’s not. James is familiar with human experience and realizes the exhaustion of prolonged suffering results in us getting sick more often. To endure suffering our body pulls energy from other “departments.” Our immune system is one of those departments. By asking, James shows God cares for our bodily weaknesses that get worse in hard times.

James’s response to this question is more developed than the first two. It has three points that echo earlier themes from his letter.

  1. “Let him call for the elders of the church,” reminds us not to suffer alone.
  2. “Let them pray over him,” reminds us that God cares, and we should talk to him.
  3. “Anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord,” reminds us to remain active against the impact of our suffering on our lives.

Then James develops a parallel between sickness and sin. It might be easy to mistake this to mean that a Christian who prays with faith will never get sick. Instead, James’s is saying that God cares for your suffering (sickness) as much as your sinfulness (salvation). Trusting God with our suffering reveals that we learning to entrust all our lives to God.

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