The Hardest Question was an experiment in preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. All posting is finished, but the content will continue to live here in archive form. You can discover new content by former THQ curator Russell Rathbun at Question the Text.


If This is a Pep Talk, I Give It an “F”

What about all the people who are fervently prayed for and never healed?

by Danielle Shroyer

Epistle Reading:  James 5:13-20

For Sunday, Sept. 30, 2012: Year B—Ordinary 26

I don’t have any concrete evidence on this, but I think this passage may be in the running to win a “Most Negative Spiritual Baggage” award. I can personally count a rather alarming number of conversations I’ve had with faithful people who have felt that they’ve prayed their hearts out over people they’ve loved only to see them not be healed. I’ve also seen my fair share of really terrible theological conclusions and manipulations that are pinned on a few of these verses.

Discipleship in One Verse

The text starts off well. In fact, if you could somehow find a way to preach just from James 5:13, that would be some solid teaching. Are you suffering? You should pray. Are you cheerful? You should sing out in praise. This one verse covers the wisdom of the majority of the Christian life. The next verse, too: Are you sick? Gather the elders around to pray for you and anoint you. Steady as she goes, in good times and in bad, in sickness and in…oh wait.

Verse 15 makes things a bit more complicated.

A Planet Full  Of Dashed Hopes

“The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up.” “Save” here is the Greek word “sozo,” the same one used for being saved in the more spiritual sense. It does also mean saving in the sense of being physically healed. Many American Christians have tended to prefer the second almost completely to the exclusion of the first.

This is problematic because every single one of us knows someone who died before their time, died in a way that was painful and unfair, died despite the prayers and cries of the holy and the faithful. So the fact that this has been used to create some sort of guaranteed divine healing system stings like a slap in the face. Sickness and grief and death are pretty difficult without the added baggage.

If Elijah Could…

James doesn’t seem to help or clarify matters when he piles on the guilt by comparing all of us to Elijah immediately afterward. “Elijah was a human being like us!” he says, “And HE was able to pray so powerfully that there was no rain in the whole wide world for three and a half years!”

Never mind that Elijah was a prophet who also didn’t die because he was taken up into the heavens in a fiery chariot. He’s exactly like us. He is the most average human being ever there was. You should absolutely compare yourself to him, especially when someone you love is sick and your prayers aren’t magically working to fix them. Then you can feel guilty not only for your prayers clearly not being said/heard correctly, but also for not being ELIJAH.

If this is James’ idea of a pep talk, I frankly think he fails. There’s a veritable mine field of broken hopes and false expectations (and, dare I say it, lost faith) in this passage. Sometimes people are healed, and it is wonderful. Sometimes they do not get any better, and it is hard, even when you have resurrection hope, even when you have faith, even when you’re trying your best to pray your sorrows.

The Hardest Question

 Is James really that oblivious to reality, the human condition, even to the practice of compassion, or is he saying something more here?

Danielle Shroyer is the Pastor of Journey Church in Dallas, TX. She is the author of The Boundary-Breaking God: An Unfolding Story of Hope and Promise (Jossey-Bass, 2009) and blogs at Danielle lives with her husband, two children, and two wild and crazy dogs in Dallas.


  1. Marsha says:

    Can we get a clue?!?

  2. I have much of the same baggage about prayer and the observation that if I’m going for results, I have a long way to go on my Elijah training. But the even harder question for me is, if that’s the case, then why am I compelled to keep praying? Not by instructions from the Holy Book, but by a need to pray within myself.

  3. Hal Graham says:

    I think James is saying something important about being part of a Christian community. If we are dominated by our own “eartthy” ambition we will get drawn into conflict. It is only with divine help, “from above” that we see in a different way. (That was from last weeks reading in James 3) Now James says that we DO need to be involved in the life of our community in a risky way. We need to pray for the sick and also correct what has gone astray. These would usually be two different categories. We may evaluate the thought of “correcting” as arrogant but it could also be a gift to offer when done with an open mind.
    Healing and raising up may not be according to our expectations but James may be trying to point out the efficacy of prayer.

  4. Joe Clifford says:

    I’m with you, Danielle. This text drives me nuts, because it’s impossible to explain it away. I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s one of those passages I’ll never understand. And I’ll never be Elijah. Yet, I’m willing to stand under it and know the blessings of singing and praying as a community of faith with and for the sick and for one another in our own brokenness. And I know in those times I’ve experienced freedom- (salvation,) -and healing, (of spirit and even a couple of times of body,) and I hope those for whom we’ve prayed have experienced the same.

  5. Dawn says:

    All of your thoughts and more are why prayer seems so hard most of the time. I almost hate to set God up!! How crazy is that??!! And yet, we keep talking and begging and carrying, while hoping and praying that our God will at least walk the journey with us and most of the time that just has to be enough.

    Thank you for your honest reflection, We need more of that. The best part being that our God can handle our frustrations and fears and loneliness.

  6. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, all! Good luck preaching this very difficult text.

  7. Doug Henkel says:

    One thing that this text has done in my life is to help me to think about how prayer is powerful and effective when it is “not answered.” I think that there is great value in the faith community coming together and lending its support to all those who are having physical, emotional, and spiritual struggles. Help, support, patience, and love are sometimes God’s answers. I pray for eyes to see God at work within difficult situations. In pastoring those who have had difficult lives, I have concluded that God’s presence and grace is at least as helpful and powerful in those times when God’s answer to our prayer is not the miracle for which we hoped.


  1. […] [6] Danielle Shroyer, “The Hardest Question: If This is a Pep Talk, I Give It an ‘F,’” September 24, 2012, […]

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