James’ focus on spiritual issues does not mean that people get sick because they’ve sinned. They do sometimes: IV drug use and sexual immorality do, for instance, lead to AIDS on occasion. People do reap in sickness what they sow in sin. But made into a universal rule, that idea is mere superstition. Remember Job’s heartless counselors.

God meets us in sickness, and we experience new dynamics through that meeting. Sickness can force us to stop and face ourselves, to stop and find the Lord. We discover sins we’ve been too busy to notice: neglectfulness, irritability, indifference, self-indulgence, unbelief, joylessness, worries, complaining, drivenness in work, trust in our own health and ability. As our need for Jesus’ mercies is quickened, our delight in God deepens. We will develop fruit of the Spirit that can develop no other way than by suffering well: endurance of faith, hope and joy that transcend circumstances, mature character, richer knowledge of the love of God, living for God not self, the humility of weakness, the ability to help others who suffer. (See Jam. 1:3; Rom. 5:3-5; 1 Pet. 1:6-8, 4:1-3; 2 Cor. 12:9f.)

And sickness, like any weakness or trouble, is itself a temptation. Whether you face life-threatening disease or just feel lousy for a couple days, it is amazing what that experience can bring out of your heart. Some people complain and grumble, getting grouchiest with the people who care most. Others get angry—at God, at themselves, at others, at the inconvenience. Others pretend nothing is wrong, denying reality. Others pretend they’re sicker than they are, seeking an excuse to avoid the responsibilities of job, school, or family. Some invest vast hopes, time, and money in pursuing doctor after doctor, book after book, drug after drug, diet after diet, quack after quack. Still others keep pressing on with life, doing, doing, doing—when God really intends that they stop and learn the lessons of weakness. Others become deeply fearful—“perhaps this is the big one”—imagining the worst, And others get depressed. Feeling lousy physically becomes an occasion to question the meaning and value of their entire existence. Some are too proud or embarrassed to ask for help. Others manipulate everyone within reach to serve their every need. Some brood that God must be out to get them, becoming morbidly introspective about every real or imaginary failing.

Sickness provides one of the richest opportunities imaginable for spiritual growth and pastoral counseling, as James 5 makes clear. Is God interested in healing any particular illness? Sometimes, sometimes not. But is He always interested in making us wise, holy, trusting, and loving, even in the context of our pain, disability, and dying? Yes, yes again, and amen.

People learn to pray beyond the “sick list” when they realize what God is really all about.

Longing for Christ’s Kingdom

Consider the vast biblical teaching on prayer. How many of Scripture’s prayers focus on sickness? A significant few, giving good warrant to plead passionately with God for healing. In Isaiah 38, Hezekiah pleads for restoration of health, and he is healed. In 2 Corinthians 12, Paul prays earnestly three times to be delivered from a painful affliction—but this time God says no. Psalm 35:12-14 mentions heartfelt prayer for the restoration of the sick, and portrays this as a natural expression of loving concern. Both Elijah and Elisha passionately plead with God on behalf of only sons whose sicknesses end in death, devastating their mothers (1 Kings 17; 2 Kings 4). In both cases God mercifully restores them. Coming at the issue from the opposite direction, the Bible’s last word on Asa is negative because “his disease was severe, yet even in his disease he did not seek the LORD, but the physicians” (2 Chronicles 16:12). He is chided for failing to pray through sickness. Prayer has varying degrees of intensity, with supplication and outcry being the strongest. It is striking how passionate and blunt the prayers for healing are. These passages vividly challenge the perfunctory and medicine-centric prayers that often are said, even by people preoccupied with praying for the sick. When you pray for the sick, and as you teach the sick to seek God for themselves, it ought to be a fiercely thoughtful firestorm.