It happened shortly after I had moved to a new district. A member of my church called and requested an anointing service. Klaus1 was an active member in the church. He was a father of two teenage daughters, and he was sick. His cancer had already spread to different parts of his body, and his bones were literally riddled with holes, as could be seen in his X-ray and CT scans. The medical doctors at the university hospital in a nearby city had scheduled an important checkup with him to see how his cancer was progressing so that they could determine the next steps. His situation was serious. Medically speaking, there was no hope for him to live much longer. Klaus knew about the urgency of his situation and wanted a special prayer for the sick, as is described in James 5:13-16.
A Humbling Experience
I informed the elder of the church, and together with the head deacon and a few committed members from our church we headed to Klaus’ home to perform the anointing service. It was a humble meeting. Nothing spectacular. In sincere faith we recommitted Klaus’ life into God’s hands, trusting that He knew him best, trusting that He can heal, trusting that Klaus would be safe with God no matter the outcome. When Klaus had his next checkup examination at the hospital a few days later, the cancer was gone. The holes in his bones had disappeared. He was healed. The medical professionals at the public hospital, who were not Christians, could not believe their eyes. According to them this was nothing short of a miracle. This experience taught me that God is still alive, that miracles do happen even in our times, and that a humble act of faith can give God the opportunity to do remarkable things for us.
Now fast-forward a couple of years. This time a committed woman in her mid-40s, a mother of three teenage boys, was diagnosed with cancer. She also was very active in the church and exemplary in her trust in God. She too battled an aggressive cancer that was threatening her life. She was my wife. At the beginning of her sickness, she requested an anointing service. We asked the pastor of our church to conduct her anointing, and together with the elders of the church and a few faithful friends we met in our living room to pray and to anoint her. Our faith was sincere. Toward the end of her ordeal, when, humanly speaking, things did not look very promising anymore, she requested a second anointing. Again we met in earnest faith. It was a moving meeting in which we recommitted her life to God. We prayed in earnest. We fully trusted God and knew that He can heal. She entrusted her life into God’s hands. We knew that God heard our prayers; we knew that He cared and loved us and that she was safe in His hands. A couple weeks later my wife died!2
After anointing services I have seen people miraculously healed, and I have seen people with great faith die. The anointing service obviously is not the silver bullet that brings physical healing all the time. It seems we often look at this ceremony through the eyes of church tradition. The sacrament of anointing a sick person is one of the seven holy sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church that are seen as mystical channels of divine grace, and it is usually conducted as “a last rite” when the death of a person is imminent. Hence in the Catholic tradition the anointing of the sick is also called “Extreme Unction.” The biblical account in James 5:13-16, however, presents a different picture.
Back to the Bible
James describes the anointing for the sick as not only for the terminally ill. The Greek word that is used in James 5:13 for the English word “suffering” is kakopathei. It not only describes physical sickness but also includes experiencing harm or emotional pain and is used to describe suffering misfortune and bearing hardship patiently. In other passages in the New Testament the same or related words describe mental and psychological suffering (2 Tim. 1:8; 2:3, 9; 4:5; James 5:13). This is supported in James 5:14, where the Greek word for “sick” is asthenei. It is a broad term that describes sickness but also being weak or being in need. In the context of this passage James mentions Job (verse 11) and Elijah (verse 17). Job was physically sick, and Elijah fell into a depression after God’s mighty acts at Mount Carmel. The prayer for the sick is for all who suffer sickness and are weak and in need.
The Bible tells us that the prayer that is offered in faith (verse 15) will save the sick. The Greek word to “save” not only is used for physical healing but also is the same word that expresses our salvation in Christ. The Lord will raise the person up. God promises to awaken and lift up the person in need and place him or her in an upright position. This can include physical healing, but it also encompasses other connotations, as the reference to the forgiveness of sins in this verse indicates. When we desire healing from God, we must learn to understand that while God sincerely desires to heal all of us, we also have a responsibility to live in harmony with the principles of God’s Word. We also must keep in mind that there is something even more important to God in the cosmic conflict between good and evil than our physical health and healing: it is our spiritual health and our faithfulness to Him. We do not know whether the blessings we desire will be best for us. But God knows everything, even things that we human beings with our limited perspective are not aware of. Therefore, we do well not to command God to do things according to our restricted perspective, but rather trust Him and His leading.3 God knows what is best for us, no matter whether He heals us physically or whether He restores us spiritually and forgives our sins so that we have inner peace with Him.
1 I have changed the name to protect the privacy of his family.
2 A short story of my experience of significant loss can be found in Frank M. Hasel, “Dealing With Suffering and Loss,” Ministry, December 2018, pp. 11, 12.
3 An insightful and balanced perspective on the prayer for the sick is found in Ellen G. White, The Ministry of Healing (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1905), pp. 225-233.