"Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. 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. Therefore, confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective." (James 5:14-16)
This scripture almost sounds like James is addressing ‘weak faith’ (ask the elders to pray for you) as well as sin as a possible culprit (confess your sins…be healed). So, how does this scripture relate to someone dealing with mental health difficulties or disorders?
This is a great question someone recently asked me. They were trying to better understand how to serve those who were, unfortunately, taught anxiety and/or depression are related to sin or weak faith. I don’t claim to have all the answers, but let me provide a helpful lens that might help bring some perspective.
Here are six reasons I think depression and anxiety are not a result of weak faith or sin:
1. Suffering and sickness are not the same thing.
In verse 13, James encourages anyone experiencing hardship, trials, or suffering that they should pray. However, if someone is sick, they are to inform, send word, or call to the elders to come provide ministry -- healing. The context suggests that the individual is immobilized by their sickness (i.e., life function and faith). Thus, the proper response is to have the elders come to the individual “to pray over” them and the Lord to “raise him up” (i.e., to be raised up out of the immobilized state).
The scripture does not clarify what type of “sickness, infirmity, or disease” is associated with this -- it only clarifies a sickness that is immobilizing the individual. And we all know how immobilizing depression, anxiety, and other similar challenges can be!
We are to go to them, not make them come to us for ministry!
2. Healing is in the context of community.
The Apostle Paul encourages us that the Body of Christ has been given various gifts to work together for the common good (1 Corinthians 12:4-7). This includes the plural of “gifts of healing” to serve one another. This passage in James displays the elders (leaders) working together, not relying on one person’s special spiritual gift.
Thus, it is the community of leaders -- the church -- working together: “and the prayer of faith will restore the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up" (their prayer and gifts working together, in relation to Christ, for healing)!
3. Grace or medicine? Immediate or progressive healing?
Throughout the Bible, medicinal agents, like oil and wine, are used for their healing properties or to manage sickness (cf. Isaiah 61; Luke 10:33-34). In 1 Timothy 5:23, Paul encourages Timothy to take a little wine for his stomach and for being frequently sick. Maybe they had prayed for Timothy and he wasn't seeing full healing?
Oil was used symbolically for blessing and healing. The disciples often used anointing oil as part of their ministry since oil represented the Lord's blessing of divine healing and grace (Mark 6:13). However, oil is not always used in the ministry situations involving healing.
As we see in 1 Timothy, his healing was not immediate and he needed medicine of the day to help his condition. In this passage of James, the healing is assumed to be immediate, but it is not stated. So, does it leave room for that healing to be progressive? Does it leave room for medicine (including therapy)?
In my experience, whether it be life-threatening illness or some factor of debilitating mental and emotional distress, I have seen God use all of the above!
4. Faith for healing is in relation to the leaders, not the "sick."
I remember one person telling me they were going to fast and pray their mental distress away. His fasting and pressure to "faith fight" was increasing his anxiety. I simply reminded him that when people were down and out, it was usually the disciples and leaders doing “all the work” for those in need, not those in need! He then said, "Oh ... um well, okay I'll go eat."
In this specific passage, notice the faith for healing is not a failure of the sick; the faith for healing is in relation to the leadership and the faithfulness of the Lord to raise him up. The failure of faith is not addressed with the one who is "sick," it is all about healing and restoration of their life ... to empower them!
This brings up the question (and the next point), what if there is sin that's a part of the problem?
5. The focus is about healing. Oh, and if sin is part of the problem, that gets reminded as well.
If you take the time to listen to someone's story, you will see different factors that may have caused their ongoing depression or anxiety … even seeing a biological, genetic history. It’s not their fault! I think Jesus sees the story beyond it being just a “sin issue.”
Now, is there sin that can cause sickness? Sure! Many people with anxiety, depression, or other challenges will often self-medicate or have poor coping (trying to survive through the pain) and it can lead to physical illnesses (e.g., smoking damaging lungs and blood vessels, excessive alcohol and liver damage, etc). However, in my opinion, to associate this scripture to all mental health difficulties as the result of previous sins and suffering from God's punishment is a far-stretching assumption and a wrong use of the scripture.
It simply says, “If there are sins committed." And if there are sins compounding the sickness (e.g., drug abuse), healing will still be applied AND those sins will be forgiven! If sins were not committed, then healing is still the agenda.
6. Healing is co-laboring with Christ, not a super-power to achieve.
"... and the prayer of faith will restore the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up." (James 5:15)
Yes, the Lord wants to partner with us to restore the created! It doesn’t say it’s a super power or some higher level of faith you have to reach. It’s simply praying in faith! Faith is not only to "trust in," but also to "participate in" our fellowship, in and with Jesus, to see His love to do the impossible. We simply trust and participate in asking, seeking and knocking to restore, and He is LOVE to raise them up.
What if I pray and don’t see healing? Well, then you're left with the ultimate message of all … "God loves you and cares -- let’s see where this journey goes together. I'll be back tomorrow!" Presence and belonging!
Concluding thoughts to ponder:
Community and co-laboring faithfulness
The theme and contextual flow of James’ letter is all about “Faith.” This is about working, partnering, together in community and in Christ for fully caring for the sick, no matter if sin is a culprit or not.
Healing is about wholeness.
This is about first, the healing of the body, and second, the healing of the heart! This is a whole-health or holistic approach of faith, hope, and love. In other words, let’s work to address the full care of someone’s depression, anxiety, etc. (i.e., sickness) for the working of healing, as immediate or progressive as it may be! AND if there are “sins” compounding the issue, let us minister grace and provide the assurance of the forgiveness of sins (not judgmental fear ... "there is no fear in love, perfect love cast of out fear, because fear has to do with punishment ..." 1 John 4:18).
Community for the healing journey and always being there to hold each other up.
This passage signifies that we should not let anyone sick be isolated from the love and healing care of the body. Thus, vs. 16 is the encouragement to be in ongoing community for ongoing healing when we falter. This is why Jesus encouraged a collective community experience of faith in Matthew 18:20 -- where two or more gather, we can experience Jesus in the context of faith and prayer to see change.
We saw many incredible and wonderful people wrestling through depression and anxiety and, unfortunately because of how they were taught or counseled, they were seeing their challenges as the result of their sin and weak faith. That's why we created our resources and Grace Groups. Resources and community groups to realize depression, anxiety, and related challenges are not because of weak faith or sin! In fact, you want to know what strong faith and faithfulness looks like … we could learn a lot from those living with these challenges! Thus, we aim to provide simple and innovative tools to help families, marriages, and individuals have a helpful lens of grace, greater hope, and an understanding community experience!
What do you think about this topic? Do you have other interesting thoughts and ideas to encourage people?