When you look across the church, you’ll find some individuals getting healed and others who are sick and dying. Some are living in a time of great joy and celebration, and others deep grief. Every experience, James says, should cause us to pray.
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.
All right, this is the last week of James. We finished it in fifteen weeks. I hope you’ve enjoyed it. We’re in James 5:13–20. And as you’re finding your place, here’s my question for you. Get ready to fill in the blank. For those of you who graduated, welcome back to school. One little question, you’ve got to fill in the blank. “Our church is—.” Think about that for a second. “Our church is—.”
However you fill in that blank reveals your experience, and everybody fills it in differently. Let’s say for example, you showed up at the church and you met some wonderful people that became life long friends. You would say, “Our church is friendly.” You would showed up, nobody said hi to you, you were kind of ignored, you would say, “Our church is unfriendly.” Two people get healed in your Community Group—“Our church is experiencing revival.” Two people in your Community Group get diagnosed with cancer—“Our church is suffering.”
What tends to happen is we take our experiences and then we project those out on the whole church. So, if you pay attention to what’s going on across our whole church, you would say, “Our church is big.” But if you go to a Community Group and a small service at one of our locations, and that’s all you really pay attention to, you would say, “Our church is small.” And so everything is based upon our perception, and we tend to take our perception and then project that out.
I had a conversation recently with two different people that went to the same church, a Mars Hill location. And one said, “Boy, our church is really old,” and the other said, “Our church is very young.” And they just went to different services at the exact same location. In the morning, they’re old. Late at night, they’re young. And so it all depends on what your perception is, and you can project your perception on an entire church.
What we’re dealing with this week is that James knows this and he knows that everybody has a limited perspective in the church and on the church, their Community Group, their service, their ministry, their location, and as a result, they don’t see what’s going on across the whole church. But it’s a great privilege and honor. Sometimes the burden of the senior leaders, the pastors, is seeing what’s going on across the whole church. And they’ll find some people are getting healed and other people are sick and dying. Some people are really happy, and others are grieving deeply. Some people are getting married, and others are getting divorced. It’s all going on at the same time, and it’s a confluence of emotion and collision of lives together.
So James, being a pastor pastoring a church in Jerusalem, he’s trying to open the hearts, the minds, and the eyes of all of the people to see what’s going on across the whole church, to have a heart for the whole church, and to be praying for one another. And the big theme in verses 13–18 in chapter 5 is prayer. In those verses, he mentions prayer in every single verse. What that means is that the way that a church grows in love and unity is by being aware of the experiences of all people and praying across the entire church.
This is the pastor’s privilege, this is the pastor’s heart, and you can almost sense it in Pastor James where—“Are any of you sick? Are any of you joyful and glad?” I mean, he’s having to enter in emotionally to all of these various people, their experiences, their relationships, and their emotional states. And this is the life of someone who loves and leads a church.
He prayed so much for his church. Here’s what Eusebius—he’s a historian—says of James, Pastor James. “His knees grew hard like a camel’s because of his constant worship of God, kneeling and asking forgiveness for his people.” So, this is how Pastor James spent a lot of his time. “These people are sick. I need to pray for them.” “These people are suffering. I need to pray for them.” “These people are filled with joy. They got a job, they got a promotion, they got healed, they got engaged, they had a kid, the kid grew up and actually wasn’t a disaster. They’re so happy.” So he’s praying for them and his heart is for the people in the church and all of the experiences across the church.
You need to know that this is really where all of ministry begins. It begins with God’s heart for God’s people and God’s leaders entreating God’s heart for God’s people, and not just taking the experiences of some and projecting it across the whole church, but being aware of the entire church and praying specifically for the individuals and the needs. And that’s exactly what Pastor James demonstrates in his life, and that’s what he exhorts us to do as Christians and members of the church—to not project our experiences across the whole church, but to be aware that there’s a lot going on in the lives of so many people.
And so I’m going to ask you some questions, and what we’re going to try to figure out is what’s going on in your life and what’s going on in the lives of others so that we can be praying for one another. The first question is this: Are you suffering? He says this in James 5:13: “Is anyone among you suffering?” What’s the answer? Pray.
Here’s what’s great: He’s a pastor, and pastors love people. So at the end of the book, what’s on Pastor James’ heart and mind? People. People. You need to know this. We have buildings; it’s not about buildings. We have events; it’s not about events. We have classes; it’s not about classes. We have an org chart; it’s not about the org chart. We have resources; it’s not about the resources. Ultimately, if you boiled it all down, it’s about people. It’s really about people. And so what’s on his heart at the end of the letter is, “How are the people?”
The first question is, “Are any of you suffering?” The suffering here can be any kind. It can be emotional, physical, spiritual, financial, relational, any category of suffering, but suffering. It’s a hard season for you, it’s a difficult season for you, it’s a dark season for you. Is that you? Are you suffering? Are you suffering?
What can happen when you’re suffering is you assume that everybody’s suffering. But as you’ll see in a moment, not everybody’s suffering at the same time or in the same way. So what do you do when you’re suffering? Well, sometimes what we can do is respond in a lot of sinful ways. We can curse God, we can doubt God, we can wander or walk away from God. We can try to take matters into our own hands, be sovereign over our life, control our destiny, and whatever’s causing us to suffer, we try to conquer it, take it away, or make sure that it does not prevail over us.
James says one thing. What does he say? Pray. Pray. For those of you who want to grow in your understanding of this—and I’m not saying I’m varsity and have figured it out either—the Psalms are a great place to go. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Psalms, the Psalms are collection of songs, prayers, and journal entries, oftentimes from people who are suffering. They’re in very difficult, dark, devastating circumstances. They’re very heartfelt. They’re very emotional. They’re very passionate. They’re very earnest. They’re very honest.
James and his big brother Jesus would have spent a lot of time in the Psalms. They would have sung the Psalms together on Saturdays as they worshiped God together with God’s people. They would have had to memorize the Psalms as Jewish boys. They would have spent a lot of time invested in the Psalms. They lived in their heart, and they helped shape their understanding.
Here’s what you find in the Psalms: The number one category of psalms are psalms of lament. We’re a culture that doesn’t mourn well. We don’t really know what to do with suffering. It causes anxiety, so we study anxiety. It causes depression, so we’ll study depression. Some medicate, some self-medicate, but at the end of the day, we really don’t know what to do with suffering. We’re not a culture that suffers well, and we tend to suffer very personally, very painfully, very privately, and definitely not publicly.
The Psalms give us another category when we’re suffering, and that is mourning. And mourning can feel or look like depression. “Oh, they’re sad, they’re downcast. They must be depressed.” Maybe, or maybe they’re mourning. And mourning is a way of the heart acknowledging its suffering and releasing it to the Lord, and it can take a while. And as you read the Psalms, what you will see is, “Are any of you suffering? Pray.” You go to the Psalms and then you see examples of exactly what this looks like. People are suffering and they are praying, and through their praying, their pain is being released unto the Lord through their mourning.
I’ll give you another place that might be helpful for you to look. There’s a moment in Jesus’ life where he is under intense suffering, and it’s right before Judas betrays him, it’s right before the military arrests him, it’s right before the government crucifies him. Remember where he was? The Garden of Gethsemane. I’ve actually been there. It is a real place. It still exists.
What it says is that it was late at night and that Jesus was in anguish. He was suffering. He’s suffering emotionally, he’s suffering physically, he’s suffering spiritually, he’s suffering mentally, and he knows very quickly he’ll be suffering painfully.
And with the cross before him and atoning for the sin of the world, including yours and mine, the Bible is very clear that Jesus was suffering and that he was in great distress, such great distress that he was sweating drops of blood. And medical doctors will tell you this is only experienced by those who are under extreme distress and duress. This is suffering that, quite frankly, likely no one who’s hearing this sermon will have ever experienced that depth of suffering. They say physically, you’ll go from a panic attack. Well, beyond panic attack is sweating drops of blood. This is where the suffering is so intense, and the anxiety and the distress is so high that the mind, the heart, and the soul cannot bear it and the body starts to manifest it with literally sweating drops of blood.
What does Jesus do? He prays. He’s all by himself. He asked his friends to pray for him. They didn’t pray for him. Just so you know, sometimes when you’re suffering, your friends will fail you. And we’ve all been those failed friends. We’ve failed to pray for those who are suffering. Jesus’ friends failed him, and they didn’t pray for him, and he’s alone late at night in the garden while his friends are asleep, and he is praying. And it’s one of the most beautiful prayers. It’s an amazing prayer. It’s an insightful prayer. It’s my favorite prayer in the whole Bible. It tells us about this conversation between Jesus and the Father, which means Jesus must have taught it to his disciples because no one was there to hear it. So, he must have informed them of his prayer in the midst of his suffering.
What does he say? “Father, take this cup from me.” The first thing he’s asking is, “I’m asking you to take this away from me.” Is it OK, when you’re suffering, to say, “God, I want you to take this away from me,” yes or no? Yeah. A dear friend of ours recently was diagnosed with cancer and we pray for them, “Take it away. Take it away.” As soon as we heard, Grace started crying. So I hold my wife and the first thing we do is pray because our friend is suffering, and of course we’re not suffering like they’re suffering, but we’re suffering because we love them. You weep with those who weep; you rejoice with those who rejoice. And the first thing Grace prays is, “God, take this away from them.” That’s what Jesus is praying. “Take this away from me.”
Then what’s his second inclination? “But not my will”—what’s he say? “Your will be done.” He says, “I want you to take it away from me, and if you won’t take it away from me, give me the grace to endure it.” And I want you to know that that’s an honest prayer, OK? Some of you’ll think of God as only sovereign and not also good, and you’ll be like, “I don’t want to ask God to take it away because he’s in charge and he’s sovereign,” and you get all up in your head in your prayer life. It’s OK to be like, “It hurts. Make it stop. Now’s a good time.” That’s OK. And the Psalms have a lot of that.
God always answers prayer, and sometimes it’s yes, and sometimes it’s no, and sometimes it’s later, but he always answers. And then it’s OK to say, “You know what, Lord? If I got to continue to suffer, your will be done.”
Here’s what prayer does. Prayer gets you to agree with God. Oftentimes, when people are suffering, they think that prayer will make God change his mind. You’re a very bad theologian if you think that your goal is to get God to change his mind, OK? God can’t be persuaded. God does hear and answer prayer, but oftentimes prayer is not to get God to change his mind but get prayer to change your mind. Oftentimes in prayer, we’re thinking, “I need to get God into another location,” and God’s thinking, “I was thinking the same thing about you. I’m pretty much where I want to be, but you’re not alongside me. And in prayer, I’m going to get you alongside me.” And you know that prayer has done its job when you don’t get what you want, but God gets what he wants, and you’re glad for that. “Your will be done. Your will be done.” “Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray.”
Now, for those of you who are suffering, I need you to see that this is your responsibility. You can’t say, “Nobody prayed for me. Nobody loved me. Nobody called me. Nobody cared for me,” and immediately go into, you know, victim mode, put a big V on your chest, get a cape, and now it’s your identity, OK? You can pray for yourself, and before you ask others to pray for you, you need to be praying.
What also happens as you’re suffering and praying is, you become more aware and more empathetic toward those who are suffering, and it allows you to start to pray for them. So he says, “Are any of you suffering? Let him pray.” How many of you are suffering? There’s your answer: prayer. First category of people.
Second category of people, “Are you cheerful?” Now, here’s what happens. Let’s say you’re suffering or people you love are suffering. You can take your experience and say, “Everybody’s suffering. It’s a season of suffering.” Not for everybody. Somebody just got engaged to somebody they like, right? Now, we who are married know that suffering is on the horizon, but it’s not here yet, OK? Today, they’re cheerful, OK? “Is anyone cheerful?” How many of you are cheerful? You’re like, “You know what? Actually, there’s some good stuff going on in my life, and I’m pretty fired up, pretty excited, it’s pretty awesome.”
I’ll be honest with you today, I’m cheerful. Here’s why: I woke up. That’s a good start. And I woke up married to my very best friend. And it was sunny out, and I live in Seattle, so cheerful. And I got to hold Grace’s hand, and we went for a walk, and visited and prayed together. So, I’m cheerful, OK? Some of you are cheerful. You’re like, “You know what? It’s not a bad day for me. It’s a good day.” It’s now baseball season, which means I get to sit there and watch my boys play baseball. I like that. My daughter runs track. I get to watch my healthy daughter run track, and she’s really fast, faster than boys, for which I praise God. And I’m happy about that, right?
We had opening day for major league baseball season. Usually, I’m not really happy, but when it comes to baseball—but I got to go to opening day with my dad and my three sons, and there are three generations. We all love Jesus, and we get to go to opening day together. And they won, so we were cheerful! We’re cheerful. So, you know what? Yeah, life has moments of suffering, but also there are times you’re cheerful. You’re like, “You know what? There are things I’m really thankful for and grateful for, and maybe this isn’t a painful, horrible season for me.”
Let me say, in the history of Mars Hill Church, we’ve tended to do, “Is anyone among you suffering?” much better than “Are any of you cheerful?” because we started in Seattle, which really is a culture of darkness, you know, physically and spiritually. We’re the city that self-medicates with caffeine, that is into black-tar heroin, anarchy, punk rock, and suicide. We don’t do the cheerful thing well, OK? None of the great artists, from Jimi Hendrix, to Kurt Cobain, to Layne Staley—none of the cultural artistic expressions that have come out of Seattle—has ever said, “Cheerful!” Not at all. It’s angst-ridden, it’s devastated, it’s dark, it’s addictive, it’s suicidal. That’s Seattle.
But for those who know Jesus, it’s possible to be cheerful. It’s possible to be cheerful. What should you do if you’re cheerful? What does it say? “Let him sing praise.” OK, so when we’re done with the sermon, you’re going to do that. You’re going to sing praise.
I’ve got a daughter who is, by disposition, cheerful. She’s super happy. She’s ten. Blonde hair, blue eyes. I snuggled with her last night. I check in every day. She’s still very happy. You ask her, “How are you doing?” “Great!” Always great. Like, if she says, “Not great,” something horrible has happened on planet Earth. Something really bad has happened. She’s always cheerful. Do you know what she does all the time? All the time, my little girl sings. She sings. I love it. She’ll be in the house doing her homework, hanging out, or playing with the dog, and she’ll be singing. She’ll be outside on the swing, singing. We’re driving in the car, singing. It wasn’t long ago somebody asked, “Why do you always sing?” I was like, “Hey, hey, don’t make her self-conscious.” She loves the Lord, she’s happy, she’s singing. It could be worse. She could be me. I mean, you know? I tend to gravitate more toward dark; she’s light. I tend to get sad; she tends to get happy. I like having her around. I call her sunshine because that’s what she is in my life.
Sometimes what we can do, specifically those of us who are Calvinists that are in to punk rock and anarchy, is think that cheerful people are inauthentic people. We think, “Oh, look at them. They’re just fake religious people.” Or, they’re happy. We need to be very careful to say that just because someone is cheerful doesn’t mean that they’re genuine. And I think in the history of Mars Hill, that’s been—“Oh, you’re cheerful? It’s because you have bad theology, that’s why. If you knew how dark the world was.” No, maybe they’re—and they’re like, “Hey, Jesus is alive, and he’s coming back. It’s going to get better. And we’re pretty fired up about that. It’s a good day for us.”
Are you cheerful? You should sing. And when we sing, what we’re doing is we’re celebrating, we’re rejoicing, right? And what we’re doing is we’re thanking God for that which we’re cheerful for so that it doesn’t become for us just gratitude for our circumstances but gratitude in the grace of God in and through our circumstances. It’s not like, “I’m healed. I got a job. I got engaged. We’re pregnant. I’ve got some friends.” It’s, “Thank you, Lord, for your provision. Thank you, Lord, for teaching me even in the midst of my suffering.”
I would say this to you: I don’t think that the first group and the second group are mutually exclusive. I think you can be in a season of suffering and still, in the midst of it, be cheerful. And part of it is singing, and so for those who are cheerful, I invite you after the sermon to join us for a lot of singing. And for those of you who aren’t cheerful, start singing and see if you don’t start rejoicing.
Third category, “Are you sick?” Here, he’s talking about physical pain, suffering. It could be a chronic condition. It could be an injury. It could be an illness. It could be a disease. James 5:14–16, “Is anyone among you sick?” OK, just think about that for a moment. We all know somebody who’s sick, right? Like, immediately you think, “OK, I know somebody who’s sick.” I’ve got a long list of people I know that are sick right now. What do we do with sick people? “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.” We get Jesus involved. “And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up”—get him out of bed. “And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.” When he talks about the Lord, what he’s saying is, if somebody’s sick, don’t forget Jesus.
See, when Jesus was on the earth, what would happen is sick people would all go to Jesus because they might heal them. And even if the sick person couldn’t get to Jesus, there are stories where the friends and family would carry the sick person to Jesus to heal them. And now that Jesus is in heaven, sometimes we get sick, and we forget that Jesus still heals. He’s still alive, he’s still ruling and reigning, he still hears and answers prayer, and he still heals people.
You need to know this at Mars Hill: we absolutely, fundamentally believe that Jesus still heals people, and there are people in this church that Jesus has healed physically, OK, medically. He heals. Now, there are two errors: he has to heal everybody, and he can’t heal anybody. No, those are both errors. It’s not that everybody gets healed and nobody gets healed, but he decides who he heals. And he can heal; he does heal. He’s healed in the past, he’ll heal in the present, he’ll heal in the future.
What it says is, if you’re sick, you’ve got to invite people to pray for you. Now, be very careful because when we’re sick, when we’re suffering, when we’re hurting, we can immediately, again, go back in to victim identity. “Nobody called, nobody pursued me, nobody prayed for me, nobody loves me.” There’s a responsibility you have when you’re sick, and what is that? You call others, and you invite them to pray for you. Sometimes suffering people become selfish people and they think, “Well, I’m a victim, and nobody loves me, and this is a horrible church.” And it’s like, “No, no, no, no.”
You’re supposed to make the call. You’re supposed to invite others in to your sickness, suffering, and struggle and invite them to pray. “And let them pray over him.” Who? The elders of the church. Here, we’re talking about the church and the elders in the church. We’re a Bible-believing church, and the elders are also called pastors, and these are the senior leaders, and we believe in all of this.
Our church has elders, and part of the great privilege of the elders is to fulfill this command and to pray for the sick. And we do this, and just so you know, this is available after our services. The sick are invited to come forward and to be prayed for. We actually do this. Throughout the course of the week, our various elders—I think there are around seventy across all of our churches. Part of our job as pastors is to pray for people who are physically sick. And he says that we should do that by anointing in the name of the Lord, and this would have been olive oil.
This may have a medicinal element. We call it a naturopathic or a homeopathic remedy. The Bible’s not against medicine. The majority of the New Testament, insofar as length goes, Luke and Acts is written by a medical doctor. Luke was the personal physician to the Apostle Paul. So, it’s not saying prayer versus medicine. The Bible tends to say, you know, medicine and prayer. Call your physician, and call the Great Physician.
There may be a medicinal component to this, but there’s also a very spiritual component to the anointing with oil. There’s only one time I found—I think it was in the Gospel of Mark—where Jesus sends out his disciples to pray for the sick and commands them to anoint with oil. This doesn’t happen a lot. We don’t see any indication that Jesus ever anointed anyone with oil. He may have, but it’s not recorded in the Bible.
But here it’s very clear that what God wants for the leaders in the church is, when the sick invite them, they go to pray for them, and they anoint them with oil. And part of this may be medicinal but it’s most certainly spiritual, and that’s an anointing. An anointing is to remind us of the anointing of the Holy Spirit, that the person, the presence, and the power of the Holy Spirit is on, with, and through the believer. To anoint someone with oil is to say, “Just as you feel this and see this anointing on your body, the Holy Spirit has also anointed you. He set you apart to belong to God and he’ll do a work in you and through you. And if there is healing upon you, it’s because of the anointing of the person, presence, and power of the Holy Spirit.”
So what we’re doing is we’re saying, “In the name of the Lord, I’m inviting the Holy Spirit to medically heal the person that he created, he saved, he will raise up from the dead on the last day, and he will heal fully. And I’m inviting him to heal them presently.” And God heals some people in this life, and for the believer, God heals all of his people at the end of this life. So the question is not, “Will God heal me?” The question is, “When will God heal me? Will he heal me today so that I can have a longer life, or will my life come to an end and then I’ll experience the resurrection of the dead like Jesus, and I’ll receive full, eternal healing forever in his presence?”
The question, friend, is not, will you be healed? The question is, will you be healed temporarily now and/or will it simply be healed eternally in the end? But part of the guarantee of the gospel of Jesus Christ is not just the salvation of the soul but the healing of the body that God gave. In the kingdom of God, none of you will be sick. We won’t have antibiotics, we won’t have hospitals, we won’t have paramedics. We won’t be worried about our children and what might befall them. It won’t happen. There won’t be chemo, there won’t be radiation, there won’t be surgeons, not because any of those things are bad, but they’re all the result of death.
Death is the result of sin, and once sin is conquered and Jesus has returned, there will be no mourning, there will be no suffering, there will be no dying. And that’s the kingdom of God. And occasionally, the kingdom of God explodes and it unveils itself in the church to remind God’s people that the kingdom is coming and that, ultimately, everyone will be healed together forever. And then we are to ask some questions. The prayer of faith—do we have faith? And it’s not that faith heals, it’s that God heals, and our faith is in the healing power of God.
Here’s how you know if somebody has faith that prayer can heal. You want to know how you can tell if someone has faith that prayer can heal? They pray. I know that seems simple. I have—differently, I have faith that this stool can hold my weight, and so I use it. If you believe that prayer can heal, you’ll use it. You’ll just pray. For those who don’t pray for healing, they don’t have faith that God hears that prayer and can heal that person. The real test of whether or not you have faith in the healing power of prayer, that God hears and answers prayer, that the Holy Spirit hears and answers prayer for healing, is whether or not you pray. Whether or not you pray. And again, we can pray like Jesus prayed in Gethsemane. “I want you to get rid of it, but your will be done.”
“The prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed”—what? “Committed sins will be forgiven.” Sometimes people are sick because of sin. Not all the time. Sometimes it’s just the fallen world in which we live, sometimes Satan is opposing them, sometimes we just don’t know—it’s in the category of mystery. We don’t know. But sometimes spiritual sin leads to physical illness because we’re one person, OK? You’re not a mind, a body, and a soul. You’re a person with a mind, a body, and a soul.
What you think in your mind can affect your health. Have any of you been depressed or distressed? What’s happening in your body affects your mind. If you’re suffering and under chronic pain or you’re sleep deprived, it starts to affect the clarity of your thinking. Well, so it is with our spirit, with our soul. We’re one person, and these aspects of our being affect one another. They don’t live independently.
So, if you are living in open rebellion and sin against God, it could actually start to manifest itself with illness and sickness in your body. Not all the time. We need to be very careful that we don’t say, “You’re sick, where’s your sin?” It’s not always that way. There’s a guy in the Bible, you know who’s got this life condition of sickness and suffering, and they come along and they asked the Lord Jesus, “Well, who sinned? Did he sin or did his parents sin?” And the answer is, “Nobody sinned.” This guy is not in this condition because of sin, but some people are. Paul tells the Corinthians, “You’re in sin, and that’s why some of you are sick and dying.”
So, before we take on the posture of, “I’m sick, I must be a victim,” we have to first ask, “I’m sick, am I a sinner? Is there anything in my life that is, you know, a root of rebellion that has opened an opportunity for the sickness of sin to not only affect my soul but to affect my body?” And if so, we need to repent of it, we need to give it to Jesus. That’s why he died on the cross. We need to confess our sins to one another and pray for one another so that you may be healed. “You know what? There is this thing in my life. There is this rebellion, there’s this duplicity, there’s this other side of me that is very dark and very sick. And I need to bring it out in the light, and I need the people that I trust or the pastors that care for me to know this, and I need to go to Jesus and thank him for dying for it, and I need to put it to death,” because sin leads to what? Death. And it’s not just spiritual death; it also leads to physical death.
Let me say this: What we’re doing then is we’re inviting others into our sickness, and our suffering, and our struggle so that we’re not alone. And as we’re looking for sin, some of you are going to become too introspective. You’re going to become almost narcissistic where it’s just—you’re like an Old Testament, devout, religious person who’s looking for every speck in their home to make sure that there’s no leaven anywhere. You’re going to be looking in your life at every nook and—”What are my motives? Where’s my sin? Is there anything I did wrong? Was my intent—”
You’re not perfect, I’ll tell you that. And you’re never going to be, and if you want to spend your life looking for sin, you can waste your whole life looking at your sin and not your Savior. And I’m not talking about that propensity and proclivity, but what I am talking about is an earnesty. Saying, “You know what? There is some sin in my life. There are things that I’ve not surrendered to God. There are aspects of my being that just—they need to die because it’s killing me.”
Here’s what I would say: when he says, “Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, you may be healed,” you’re inviting other people in. I was having a conversation with Paul Tripp. Good, biblical counselor, a guy that we really like and appreciate here. And he said, “We know that sin causes spiritual blindness, and since we all have sin, we all have some blindness.” And one of the great myths that we all live under is that, “I see myself most clearly.” And then we say it like, “If you only knew me. You don’t understand me. You don’t see me clearly.”
The truth is, maybe they do, and maybe our sin has caused an element or an aspect of blindness to where we may see ourselves, but not in that area. We’ve got a blind spot. Think of it next time you’re driving your car. Every car’s got a blind spot, right? You’re like, “Wow, I didn’t see—I almost got in a wreck. There was a car there.” Your life is like that. Everybody’s got a blind spot. What do we do? We check our mirrors, we move our head, we—what the Bible says, spiritually, we ask our friends, “Is there anything I’m not seeing? Is there anything I’m not seeing?,” instead of getting defensive. “You don’t understand, you don’t see, you don’t—” they’re like, “Actually, we do and you don’t. And we love you, so let’s talk about this and pray for one another so that there can be healing.” You get that? This is where you’re inviting other people in.
Do you trust prayer? That’s the next question. James 5:16–18, “The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, for three years and six months, it did not rain on the earth.” Elijah lived in Phoenix. “Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit.”
Here’s the question: Do you trust prayer? Now, theologically, we would all say what? “Oh yes.” OK. And if you don’t pray, you actually don’t believe that God hears and answers prayer. If you believe that God hears and answers prayer, you pray.
Here’s the thing: God’s a Father. The key to prayer is always understanding God’s a Father, we’re his kids. If we believe that we have a good Dad who loves us, we’ll talk to him. Sitting at the Mariner’s opening game recently with my three sons, they kept asking for things. “Can I get popcorn?” What’s the answer? “Yes.” “Can I get licorice?” What’s the answer? “Yes.” “Can I get pizza?” What’s the answer? “Yes.” We ate a lot of junk. “Can I get nachos?” “Yes.” You know why they ask? They know that I’ll hear, they know that I’ll answer, and it’s probably yes, OK?
I won’t tell you which kid, but years ago we were at opening day. I shouldn’t tell you this story, but it’s a good one. One of my kids kept asking for hot chocolates—big hot—and kept drinking big hot chocolates. And finally, like, the third or the fourth—little kid—I was like, “Buddy, I think you’ve got enough hot chocolate.” He’s like, “No, no, I want more.” I’m said, “No, I don’t think—” He’s like, “Please?” I’m like, “OK.” Drank, like, four hot chocolates and then refilled every glass with the hot chocolate, OK? That’s what the girls in front of us did. All the teenage girls, running down the aisle, all right?
So, my point is, I’m a horrible father, but God is good Father. And sometimes God, when he hears your prayers, he says, “No.” You’re like, “I want that,” and he’s like, “Actually not a good idea.” If you believe that you got a good Dad who hears your requests and he loves you, and if he says no it’s because it’s for your good, but most of the time he wants to say yes as long as you’re asking for something that is within his will, then what you’ll do is you’ll talk to your Dad a lot and you’ll make a lot of requests. You’ll just invite him in. “Hey Dad, I want to talk to you about this. Dad, I need help with that. Dad, can I get this? Can I do that? Dad, what about this? What about that?”
Here’s oftentimes why people don’t pray. Here’s maybe why you don’t pray: as soon as I say “Pray,” you feel guilty. If I asked you right now, “On a one to ten, how would you rate your prayer life?” None of you would say ten. You’re like, “It’s amazing. I’m ready to teach a class, and the Pope and Billy Graham should sign up. I really pray good.” OK, none of us would say ten. When it comes to prayer, we always feel a little guilty. We’re like, “You know, I could pray better. I could pray more.”
One of the reasons why you struggle to pray is you don’t know that you’re righteous. You’re so aware of your sin that you’re not aware of your Savior. You’re so aware of all the bad things that you’ve done, you don’t really believe that he died for all those things. That you still believe fundamentally and religiously that if you were a good person, God would hear you, but you’re not a good person so he probably won’t, and so you don’t talk to him.
You forget that Jesus is your righteousness and mediator, and that your righteousness is in Christ and that you’re in the position of Christ and that the Father loves you as much as he loves the Son, and he hears you because you pray through the Son. He’s your righteousness. He’s your righteousness. And then he uses this great illustration of Elijah, OK. And in our day, it’s like Wolverine, Batman, Superman. In their day it was like Elijah. This is what—I mean, this is what little kids dressed up as if you’re Jewish, right? You dressed up as Elijah. Little Elijah action figures, right? I don’t know if they had Halloween, but if so, like, every other boy was dressed up as Elijah. Right, Elijah was like a superhero to God’s people in the Old Testament. Why? Elijah’s amazing, right? He’s a prophet, he opposes the prophets of Baal, fire comes down from heaven. Wow, nice. He’s out in the wilderness, angels visit him, and birds bring him food. What a guy! Like, I mean, you know, amazing, totally amazing. Batman’s like, “That guy’s amazing,” you know?
Then what happens is, Elijah says, “No rain,” and it doesn’t rain for three-and-a-half years. That’s—like, I live in Seattle. I’m like, “I’m praying that one all the time,” right? How does Elijah exit the earth? Do you remember that? God sends a chariot. Wow. Like, see, one day for prom, maybe your parents got you a limo, OK? And it was a big day. You’re like, “I’m getting in the limo. I’m going to prom.” Elijah’s like, “I’m getting in the chariot and going to Jesus.” And it wasn’t just a chariot, it was what kind of chariot? Flaming. See, you put flames on your car; he had flames from his car. That’s amazing, OK?
Now, here’s what he says about Elijah. “Elijah was a man with”—what’s it say? “A nature like yours.” Some of your translations say it this way: “Elijah was a man like you.” You’re like, “I don’t see that. I don’t—I feel like his résumé is better.” He was a sinner, saved by grace and loved by God. Here’s—OK, OK, all right, ready for your mind to explode? “He had a nature like ours and was righteous.” He’s just as sinful as you and righteous because of the grace of God. And as a result, he prayed, not according to his greatness, but the greatness of his God.
Prayer is really where you know the true theology that a person holds. The best way to know what someone truly believes about themselves and God is to eavesdrop on their prayer life. If they don’t talk to God, or all they talk to God about is their sin, or all they talked about to God was the things they were remorseful for—and we should pray those things, but if they’re not talking about their righteousness in Christ and their new identity, and God’s love for them, and his power, and his affection, and devotion as Father to hear and answer prayer, then our theology is erroneous.
Our theology is really manifested in prayer. If you want to get to know what someone really believes, eavesdrop on their prayer life. And he says, “Elijah knew who he was”—a sinner, made righteous by God, heard by God, could make big requests. And God would answer them, not because Elijah was amazing but because God’s amazing.
Then at the end of the book, and it’s a great book—who has wandered? I’ll tell you this: As a pastor, what we think about is people. Bible, absolutely, totally, completely, yes, for sure. But what a pastor thinks about as their head hits the pillow at night are people that they’re concerned for. What a pastor thinks about when their feet hit the floor in the morning are people they’re concerned about. And James, Jesus’ little brother here is a pastor. And at the very end of his letter, what’s on his heart are people he’s concerned for, OK? May people we’re concerned for always be in our heart. Not just people, but people who have wandered away. James 5:19–20, “My brothers, if anyone among you”—what? “Wanders from the truth and someone brings him back,” right? Some spiritual lifeguard swims out and gets them. “Let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and cover a multitude of sins.”
Any of you ever got lost as a kid? You wandered off? Remember what that felt like? Any of you, as a parent, a grandparent, an aunt, an uncle, a big brother or sister, had a kid wander off and you couldn’t find them? Opening day, I had this panic moment. It was just brief. No, I did not lose a kid, but I thought I did, OK? Gideon, my youngest, he’s eight. I mean, there are a lot of people, a crowd, you know? It’s opening day. He’s holding my hand, and I went to push the button on the elevator, and I looked down, and he was gone. And I mean, and so I’m doing this [looking around]. I’m looking, I’m looking, I’m looking, I’m looking, I’m looking, I’m looking. His two brothers who are taller, I’m like, “Where’s Gideon?” They’re like, “He’s behind you.” I looked right over him. He just went from here to here, but he’s short, and I’m dumb and so I didn’t look down. But for a moment, I mean, I felt like I was having a heart attack. Like, did my son wander away?
A pastor feels that way about everybody that wanders away. A true pastor feels that way about everybody who wanders away. And James’ heart, and his concern, and his fatherly affection is for the children of God who have wandered away from the truth. And it wasn’t because James was a bad pastor. It wasn’t because this was a bad church. It was because sometimes this is what happens.
There are three ways to wander. I want to share them with you very practically.
Some wander and their wandering is theological. All of a sudden, they’re like, “I’m not sure the Bible’s all true. I’m not sure Jesus is fully God, fully man. I’m not sure his death on the cross was for my sin. I’m not sure he rose from the dead. I’m not sure that certain things, maybe even sexually, are wrong. And I don’t know if anybody’s going to hell. I don’t know if you really need Jesus. I don’t know, you know?” They wander. They wander into just vague spirituality or false teaching.
Others will—they’ll wander morally. It’s like, “I know that’s what the Bible says, but that’s not what I want to do.” It wasn’t long ago I had a brief conversation with a young woman. She said, “Pastor Mark, I just want you to know I’m not going to be coming to Mars Hill anymore.” I feel like a dad who has a kid that just ran away from home, you know? “Why is that?” “I know you guys don’t want us to be living and sleeping with our boyfriends, and I really want to do that, so I’m not going to be at Mars Hill anymore.” “Oh sweetheart, don’t do that.”
The wandering is moral. “The Bible says no, and I say yes. I want to do that. It feels good. I enjoy it. I like it. I want to try it.” And they wander morally. And with those people, you say, “Don’t you know what the Bible says?” And they go, “I know what the Bible says, I just don’t like it. I just don’t like it.”
Others wander relationally. This is where they’re in Community, and then all of a sudden they wander away. And you’re like, “They don’t return our calls, they don’t come to Community Group, they don’t talk to us. We don’t know what’s going on.” They don’t want to be in relationship with God’s people anymore. They don’t want to be under any authority, they don’t want to be in any community, and the result is a vulnerability, OK? The Bible talks about Jesus is our chief shepherd, that pastors are like shepherds, and that people who are Christians are like what? Sheep. And a sheep that’s all by themselves is dead because wolves find them. That’s the story line of the Bible all over.
What I’m not talking about here is somebody wandering theologically, that they go from one Bible-believing church to another Bible-believing church. That’s not it. We’re talking about primary issues being violated, not secondary. Relationally, it’s not that they were fellowshipping with these people and now they’re fellowshipping with these people; they were part of this church, now they’re part of that church. That’s not wandering.
What we’re talking about here is not someone who is in community with godly people and under godly authority. We’re talking about somebody who literally just turns their back, and walks away, and says, “I don’t know where I’m going. I don’t know what I’m doing, but I’m willing to take the risk to see what happens to me now.”
You get this impression from James. It’s amazing, isn’t it? I mean, Jesus’ little brother wrote only one book, and what’s the most important thing that’s on his mind at the very end? The people who have wandered away. The people who have wandered away. That’s a pastor’s heart. So, what do you do with those people? Well, he’s been talking a lot about prayer, so you probably should pray for them.
But what he says is, “If you know them, go get them.” Imagine you’re at a public event or you’re at a mall, and there’s a mom and a dad, and they’re like, “We can’t find our daughter! We can’t find our daughter! We can’t find our—” eventually you’d be like, “You should look for her.” Like, just—you should be looking. What he’s saying is when people wander, those people who know them should go look for them. It’s like, “Hey, I’m going to call you. I’m going to text you. I’m going to go knock on your door. I’m going to show up.” And I’m not going to be rude, mean, or crude. I’m going to say, “What are you doing? Do you know—where are you going? Like, do you have a plan? What are you thinking? This is not good for you. I love you. This is not what God wants for you.”
What he says is that those who are wandering are the ones others should go searching for, and if we bring them back, there’s a great blessing. “Whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and cover a multitude of sins.” Two questions. Have you wandered? And secondly, who do you know that’s wandered? And what’s it look like for you to try and go get them? Like, “Please come back to Jesus. Please come back to your brothers and sisters. Please come back to the family of God. This is just not a good idea.” I’ll let you in on a secret. I wasn’t planning on telling you this: I shed a lot of tears for wandering people. I’ve been doing this eighteen years, and it doesn’t bother me when somebody goes from a Jesus-loving, Bible-teaching church to a Jesus-loving, Bible-teaching church because ultimately we’re all one big church and we’ll be together forever.
We could fight over the details, but that’s not so bad. What’s devastating is the fact that they’d been walking with Jesus and now they’re not walking with Jesus. They were walking with Jesus’ people and now they’re walking off a cliff all by themselves. And what devastates me as a pastor is when it’s a husband and a father, because sometimes even the wives and the children will follow the wanderer right off the cliff into disaster.
That’s James’ heart for people. That’s our heart for people. And why is James telling this to the whole church? Because he wants the whole church to have this heart. Not everyone in the church will be a pastor, but everyone in the church should have a pastor’s heart. Do you get that?
I can still remember early on in ministry, one of the most devastating moments pastorally: It was somebody that I knew very well, I loved very much, had spent a considerable amount of time, and effort, and energy in. And they knew the Bible really well. And they sat down and they said, “I’ve decided I don’t want to be a Christian anymore. I’ve decided I don’t want to be married anymore. I don’t want to walk with Jesus. I don’t want to play by the rules. I want to do whatever I want to do.” I remember I talked to him, I prayed with him, I reasoned with him, I met with him, I gave him books, I gave him Scripture, I was calling him.
He finally just said, “Stop talking to me. I have made my decision,” and they wandered away about fifteen years ago, OK? And I still pray for them every week, sometimes every day. And every once in a while, I contact him. I just throw the hook in the water. “You ready to come back? OK, just checking. Hey, it’s me again. Yes, I will bother you until I preach your funeral. I will keep calling you.” This is the last thing on the heart of Jesus’ little brother because this is the last thing on the heart of Jesus. He loves people. He loves people.
Let’s take a moment and pray silently in your seat for your suffering, for those who you know and love that may be sick, and for those that you know and love who may be wandering, OK? And then I’m going to pray, and then I’m going to tell you what we’re going to do next.
Holy Spirit, I didn’t know that this sermon was going to go this direction. I thought I’d have an opportunity to do a little theological work, and talk about Christians, non-Christians, those who are apostate, eternal security, and losing your salvation. But Holy Spirit, this seems like the right place to pause and not just have a sermon about prayer but to have a sermon of prayer.
Lord, we pray for those who are suffering emotionally, physically, spiritually, mentally, financially. We pray that you would take it from them or give them the grace to endure it and become like Jesus as a result. God, we pray for those who are sick. God, if it is in part or in full because of sin, we pray for them to repent of that sin, confess that sin, then hand that sin to Jesus. And because he died for it, that he would put its power to death, and liberate their soul, and heal their body in Jesus’ name.
God, I pray for our dear friend who is looking at a terminal illness as a mother with young children and a family that needs her very much. And God, as Grace and I have been praying for her, I pray for her and I pray for those like her, healing in Jesus’ name. And God, we rejoice and we thank you that, no matter what, there will be healing for all of your children. The lame will run, the blind will see, the deaf will hear, and the mute will sing the praises of our God.
Lord God, we pray for those who are early into the path of wandering, that they would come to their senses and come to their Savior, and turn around and return before the road gets darker, more dangerous, and desperate. God, we pray for those who have wandered so far they’ve actually run. They’ve run from the truth. And Lord God, we know that Satan is the father of lies. As Jesus says in John 8, all he does is lie. Lying is his native language. And one way that he gets sheep to wander from the truth is by convincing them of lies about you, about life.
Lord Jesus, we thank you that the truth will set us free, and I pray for those who have wandered that they would return to the truth that they know, that God is good, that the Bible is true, and that being in community, and under authority, and being with Jesus and his people is the only place. It’s the best place. It’s the safe place.
Lord God, I pray in particular for those parents that have children who have wandered. They’ve got children and grandchildren that know something of Jesus or have experienced something of church, and yet don’t have a heart to walk in the truth. They have a heart to wander from the truth, and I know that just pains and aches so many, Lord God, as we look at our family and our friends.
God, thank you for our broken hearts. That’s your heart. For those who know people, God, who have wandered, get us over our fear of man. Get us over our fear of conflict. Get us over our fear of rejection and get us to love them enough to pursue them so it’s about you and them and not us.
Lord God, I pray for the conversations that will come out of this sermon where certain sheep start to think like shepherds, and certain sheep start to act like shepherds, and certain sheep start to pursue lost sheep like good shepherds.
Lord Jesus, I thank you so much for your little brother James. Thank you for all the ways that you instructed him, were an example to him. Thank you for his faithfulness in serving you until he was ultimately put to death as a murdered pastor. Lord Jesus, I thank you that James is with you right now, that he’s with his big brother, that he is fully healed, that everything he wrote he is convinced is entirely true, and he knows that prayer works because as we pray, he sees his big brother going to work. Please remove the veil that is between us and your kingdom to see you in glory, to see that these are not things that are just for our instruction, but for our obedience and for our eternal life. Lord God, I thank you so much that your word is living and active. I thank you that in your providence, I get an opportunity to teach it. And I have no idea what the future might hold as we lay out a book of the Bible, but this timeless book is always so timely.
Lord Jesus, I thank you so much for the church, and I thank you for the people of the church, the leaders of the church, and those who have a heart for the church, and those who serve the church, and those who give to the church. And I thank you that the final word from Pastor James is about the church.
Lord, as we close our time together, as we prepare to partake of Communion, remembering the sacrifice of Jesus, and collect our tithes and offerings, Father God, we want to answer this question: Is any of you cheerful? Yes. We have a Jesus who hears us. We have a Jesus who loves us. We have a Jesus who heals us. We have a Jesus who has gone before us. We have a Jesus who endures with us. We have a Jesus who works out all things for good. We have a Jesus who overcomes every and any obstacle to bring the wayward home, to humble the proud, to serve the hurting, to bless the needy, to encourage the downcast.
Is any of you cheerful? Lord Jesus, the answer is yes, because you are our righteousness, you are our strength, and you are our cheer. Our joy is found in you. Lord Jesus, some of us are suffering, some of us are sick, and some of us are wayward, and for all of us, there’s an opportunity to be cheerful because you comfort the suffering, you heal the sick, and you welcome home the wayward.
So Lord Jesus, as we enter into our time of song, we answer Pastor James’ great question. Are any of you cheerful? And the answer is yes, and the response is, “Let them sing.” So Lord Jesus, we come to sing as cheerful people, people who find you, Lord Jesus, to be a great source of joy, encouragement, affection, perseverance, love, grace, and mercy. Lord Jesus, you are not just a theological concept but a living Lord. You didn’t just write a book for us to read, you sent the Spirit to make it sing in our heart.
As we come to sing, we come to sing to the Lord Jesus in whom together we find much cheer. Amen. As we collect our tithes and offerings, I’m going to invite Pastor Dustin to come and lead us in song. What’s the question? Are any of you cheerful? Then sing. Please stand.
Note: This sermon transcript has been edited for readability.