Trials: Responsibilities in Sickness


Diseases or injuries can be some of the most severe trials of one’s life. Because the suffering of such trials can be so great, it is important for all concerned to understand the proper and wise course of action to take in the face of such trials.

In this article we will examine the responsibilities of the sick person, the church, and the ministry of the church. And then we will conclude the subject of healing with a summary statement.

Taking personal responsibility

In any trial — the trial of sickness included — the primary responsibility for decisions and actions rests on the sick person or on a responsible adult who, because of the youth or the disability of the sick person, has been given such a responsibility.

A person’s responsibilities for health arise long before illness or injury strikes. God has given each of us a body, and by so doing he charges us with the responsibility to take reasonable steps to ensure our health. These steps include, among other things, proper rest, exercise, a balanced diet and avoidance of accident, injury, and poisons. In addition, a prudent person will make sure that he or she is able to shoulder the potentially heavy financial burden that could potentially be forced upon a family by a severe illness. This responsibility may be met through an insurance plan or some other means.

Much can and has been written about the proper attitude and approach toward caring for one’s body. It is beyond the scope of this article to prescribe details of diet, etc., that can be found in general educational material on the subject. However, the approach one takes toward a health crisis is highly important and relevant to the church and will be discussed here. Even a person who has taken all reasonable steps to ensure good health will probably get sick one or more times. It is at such times that critical decisions loom as to what course of action should be taken for recovery.

Calling for the elders of the church

One of the earliest steps a Christian should take is to call the elders of the church for prayer, according to the directive in James 5:14. This assumes the sickness or injury is not an emergency. In an emergency, the person should do whatever is necessary to meet the crisis of the moment, and then call the elders for prayer whenever possible. Even though the person cannot be anointed right away, there can and should be prayers for God’s guidance and intervention.

Contrary to the belief of some, for one to call a doctor first and the minister second in a health crisis is often wise, and does not show more faith in humans than in God. It merely displays common sense when faced with an emergency. Humans take longer to react than God does; they need to be called first. Administer first aid if necessary, and then call an elder. Treat life-threatening symptoms (such as a high fever) first, and then call an elder. Taking self-help or medical steps is not an act that, by itself, shows a lack of faith in God.

James 5:14 deserves more explanation, because this verse has been at times somewhat misunderstood. As explained in an earlier chapter, this scripture does not promise that every person who calls for prayer by the elders will be healed every time, although it does say that all should call for prayer.

Symbolism of the oil

The keys to understanding James 5:14 are to understand the symbolism of the oil used in the anointing by the elders, and to study the verse in its context.

The Bible and history show that olive oil was used as a food, as a fuel, and as an offering. It was sometimes applied to the skin to mollify and enhance its appearance, or applied to the hair. It was also used in medicinal applications, as Luke 10:34 shows. “As oil is in use in many cases in modern medicine, it is not surprising that it should have been much used among the Jews and other nations of antiquity for medicinal purposes” (Unger’s Bible Dictionary).

Since it was a valuable commodity, olive oil was symbolic of abundance. Olive oil also had spiritual symbolism. The healthful qualities of oil as a food and the mollifying properties it has as an ointment form positive images and make it a fitting symbol of God’s Holy Spirit, which is spiritually healthful and mollifying.

By seeing olive oil as a first-century person would have seen it — that is, by looking at it in its broad scope and not only as a symbol of God’s Spirit — we can begin to understand the reason why elders of the church were to anoint the sick person. Such anointing would show that the elder was symbolically lending support on both the physical and spiritual planes.

In a physical sense, applying the oil shows that the church — represented by the minister — outpours its love and concern as would a nurse who would bind and dress the wound of a patient, pouring medicine on it, perhaps oil and wine.

This symbolism is somewhat lost on us today, because our medicines come from colorful pills, and our ointments often come from painted tubes. But a sick person of the first century would see in the anointing with oil a symbolic extending of physical aid from the church through the minister to the sick member.

When this is understood, the anointing process is seen to encourage the proper use of self-help and medicinal techniques, for it finds the minister applying a token amount of traditional medicine to the sick person. At any rate, it certainly does not dictate against medicine. (This in no way implies the minister was or should be a medicine man, nor practice medicine without a license nor give medicinal advice. The act issymbolic.)

This symbolism is supported by the context. James 5:16 encourages a person to share health problems with the church. Once someone has shared a health crisis with the church by calling the elders, the subsequent anointing by the elder shows the church’s helping response.

In 1 Corinthians 11:20-30 Paul upbraided members for ignoring their sick friends, and said further that their selfishness proved they didn’t understand the full implications of the Lord’s Supper in the Christian life. If they had understood, then they would have seen that by taking the bread they expressed love for the church. Their love should have been demonstrated by their action of caring for one another. Instead, they had been “despising the church of God” by shaming the poorer members in not waiting for one another (verses 22, 33-34).

Like the Corinthians, we also need to “discern the Lord’s body” (1 Cor. 11:29). We need to see that when an elder of the church anoints a sick person, the church’s loving concern is being expressed. The members of the church should also express their love in whatever ways are appropriate for the circumstances — such as physical assistance, get-well cards, and hospital visits.

What has been said up till now shows the physical symbolism associated with anointing. Spiritually, the oil of anointing symbolizes being softened by God’s Spirit. God’s Spirit strengthens us in trials, heals us in sickness and raises us to life from death.

In summary, the anointing process shows God’s love through the application of the Holy Spirit, and the church’s love through the offer of physical help as appropriate.

Should you seek aid?

Throughout this series of articles we have dealt with the question of whether it is a sin or a lack of faith to seek professional aid. The clear answer is no, it is not a sin nor a lack of faith. But when one is sick, should one seek medical aid? Put another way, to be a responsible Christian, must a person do so?

The answer is that God gave you a body and it is your responsibility to take care of it with all reasonable means at your disposal. Since seeking medical aid is not a sin and may help a person, under many circumstances a person indeed should seek professional help. Not doing so could be spiritually negligent. But — and here is the key — sick persons are held responsible before God for their own decisions, and they and they alone must decide whether the means at their disposal are reasonable.

It must be recognized that circumstances can arise where applying medical technology will just prolong suffering and rob a person — especially the elderly — of dignity. In such a case, the obligation one has to safeguard life and health may be outweighed by other factors equally or more important. Christians must make their own decisions in these matters.

The question just answered — whether a Christian should seek medical aid — is logical if taken at face value. But those who ask such a question may be asking for the wrong reason, because in the heart they may feel using medicine is wrong and they are really wondering if they should go ahead and use medicines even against their beliefs.

The answer in the case of an adult is given by the apostle Paul in Romans 14:23: “Whatsoever is not of faith is sin.” The answer for an ill child isdifferent. The adult responsible in such a case has no biblical grounds, and therefore no church support, for withholding proper treatment from the child based on the adult’s misunderstanding of Scripture.

Those who labor under the notion that any use of doctors and medicines is wrong labor under a fallacy. They should reorder their conscience based on the truth, and not continue to rely on their sincere but erroneous ideas. When they have done so, they will not ask whether they mustseek help, but will ask the right question, which is, “Will seeking medical aid help or not?” They will proceed only when the answer is affirmative.

Seek God’s wisdom

One purpose of this article has been to show that using medical aid is not a spiritual issue and is not wrong. But this is not to say that every decision one makes in regard to health care is as wise as any other decision. The opposite is the case — decisions about health care are often physically critical ones, which can mean suffering or recovery, life or death, financial stability or financial disaster.

As an earlier chapter pointed out, health trials are like all other trials in that they are ways in which God teaches us lessons of wisdom. Because of this, Christians who find themselves facing trials should diligently seek God’s wisdom and guidance through earnest and heartfelt prayer. The book of Proverbs advises, “In all your ways acknowledge Him, and he will direct your paths” (Prov. 3:6).

While the Bible in no way disparages doctors, neither does it endorse every chemical that is called medicine, nor does it extol everyone who claims to be a health practitioner, nor does it praise the practice of filling the human system with every drug on the pharmaceutical shelf. All decisions about any therapy program involve risks — sometimes very high risks. These decisions are serious and must not be made naively, but with open eyes.

For example, sooner or later, almost everyone is confronted with the question of whether to use medicines or seek “natural” means of healing. This question is a good one, but the decision must rest on physical and not spiritual grounds. A “natural” remedy may or may not be superior to a “medical” one, but the reason for superiority or inferiority is that one works better or has fewer side affects, not because one is somehow more righteous than the other.

One may be more “natural” than the other, but one is not physical and the other spiritual. Special diets or supplements are just as physical as surgery, radiation or chemotherapy — although one may have more side affects than the others, and one may have a greater success rate than the others.

Is it more “natural” to fill the body with 1,000 times the normal amount of vitamin C than to take a dose of antibiotic? Hardly!

Further, the wise person will do some research when picking any type of therapy or practitioner. There are, unquestionably, abuses among medical and nonmedical practitioners. As in any realm of human endeavor, some people, even some professionals, are dishonest, incompetent, irresponsible or unconcerned.

A person should pick a therapy that is scientifically sound and well-tested. It is not a sign of faith to seek obscure, second-class health treatment when competent, first-class health care is available. All health-maintenance systems and special treatment should be the finest available.

One should pick a physician with care. The doctor should have good credentials. One should be able to communicate freely with the doctor and ask all the questions on one’s mind. One should seek a second or even a third opinion whenever appropriate.

Other questions must also be considered when seeking care, such as how risky a particular procedure is, how costly, what approach has fewer side affects, which approach will more likely succeed, and which method may be more intrusive and thus more disruptive to the body. All these things and more go into such a decision.

These are complex matters that require wisdom. Therefore, Christians would be well advised to address these questions during a period of health so that they and their loved ones know what to do in time of illness, when emotions run high and time is of the essence.

The obligations of the sick person are many. But healthy friends and relatives also have responsibilities. Essentially, their role is one of spiritual and physical support and comfort. Such positive aid will go a long way to speeding the loved one toward recovery.

But, conversely, friends and relatives of the sick person must not cross the line from helper to hindrance. Under no circumstances should a Christian believer ever stand in vocal or even silent judgment of a sick friend’s faith, righteousness or decisions about therapy. We must not second-guess other believers, nor in any way try to persuade sick friends to accept or follow pet theories or ideas, no matter how well-intentioned. No one should impose on another unsolicited suggestions, or consider one health approach to be the best or most spiritual and then try to force it on others. This must not be done.

The elder’s role

The principles spoken of thus far apply to the sick person, the friends or relatives. But what type of advice can a sick person expect to receive from a pastor or elder?

The answer is that the ministry of the church will give prayer, encouragement and counsel about spiritual matters. A minister will not give health advice beyond that of directing the sick person to seek medically sound information already available to the public.

The pastor is schooled in the Bible and church doctrine and is not qualified to offer health advice; therefore the pastor will not do so. Even in those rare cases where church leaders may have valid health credentials, they are not authorized by the church to offer such advice as part of their capacity as an elder, even though they may give such advice in their properly credentialed health capacity. The church cannot authorize one of its elders — even one with proper credentials — to act beyond the capacity of the church itself.

When asked to do so by a sick person, the minister will anoint the person and pray over him or her (Jas. 5:14). The command to call the “elders” (plural) in James 5:14 does not imply that at least two ministers must do the anointing. Other verses make plain one minister is enough (Acts 28:8; 19:11-12). The word elders in James 5:14 is used to denote the category of persons to be called, not the number of persons.

Since a minister is not a physician and cannot know when a seemingly trivial illness is not really a deeply serious matter, the minister will honor requests for anointing. An illness that may not appear to be life-threatening may turn out to be cancer or meningitis or pneumonia. An exception might occur when a party wishes to be anointed multiple times for the (seemingly) same illness, or when the minister’s experience with the person requesting prayer shows the person misunderstands the purpose and nature of anointing.

The minister who anoints the sick person will pray a brief prayer and dab a small amount of olive oil on a finger, then lay hands gently on the person (usually on the person’s head) during the prayer.

The prayer will be relatively brief. There is no set wording for the prayer, but, depending on individual circumstances, it might include some of the following: A mention of thanks to God; an acknowledgement of God as healer; a mention of the concern of the church and the members; a request for comfort, encouragement and faith; a statement affirming the sick person’s obedience and faith; a request for healing on behalf of the sick party; a statement requesting forgiveness in case sin was involved in causing the sickness (Jas. 5:15); and a recognition of the preeminence of God’s will. The prayer will often include an acknowledgment of thanks for the suffering and sacrifice of Christ that make possible the Christian’s access to the Father and the redemption of all creation.

The prayer of faith is not a demand that God fulfill an unconditional promise to heal right now, but a faithful request that God look at the person’s situation and extend his mercy and compassion, in his great wisdom, to relieve the person’s suffering through divine healing.

Ministers are often asked what they would do in certain health crises. This question often arises from a person who is fearful and wants the minister to shoulder the burden of the decisions that are rightfully the sick person’s. A minister must be truly neutral on medical matters. Subtle differences can be dangerous. The elder cannot, for example, tell one person to take vitamins, get a broken bone set or have a decayed tooth extracted, but then tell the next person that it is “up to you” whether to take antibiotic drugs or have surgery.

The elder should counsel the sick person to do some research, to get all the facts, to take the course most likely to result in success with the least risk — and reaffirm that the decision must be based on sound physical criteria, and not supposedly spiritual criteria about which method is more righteous than another. And the minister should remind the person to pray about the decision and trust God in whatever course he takes. The minister should also remind the person that doing nothing when a reasonable course is advisable and available is foolhardy at least and may even be spiritually irresponsible.

Having seen a health crisis from the perspective of the sick person and the minister, we can now conclude with some thoughts about the responsibility of the church.

The responsibility of the church

The church’s primary responsibility is to teach the truth about divine healing and to provide spiritual counsel and encouragement through its ministers. The church has provided teaching through this article to fulfill its first responsibility, and it has provided a trained ministry to serve the spiritual needs of its members and others who ask for help.

In the normal circumstance where bigger moral questions are not involved, the church does not take any position for or against any particular health therapy or procedure except to recommend that any care sought should be the best available and affordable for the task. However, the church recognizes that ill persons are notoriously susceptible to supposed health cure-alls and fads, and cautions everyone toward wisdom in this regard.

It has been said that many people attach more importance to their physical welfare than their spiritual welfare. These words have proven true time and again in many aspects of life, not just health matters.

To a sick person, regaining full health can be the most important thing in the world. Certainly, full health for you or a loved one is supremely important. Anyone who has ever been seriously ill or watched a loved one suffer in sickness will immediately — and compassionately — recognize this fact. But although important, physical health is not the most important thing. The most important thing in anyone’s life is spiritual health and salvation! We must never — never — lose sight of this critical truth!

In conclusion, the truth about divine healing can now be summarized: Illness is the malfunction of one’s body. Divine healing is God’s miraculous intervention to resolve such a malfunction. Factors determining whether God will heal include faith, and God’s will in our life. The question of what therapy to use in a health crisis is not a spiritual, but a physical, question. Using medicines or the service of medical doctors is not a sin.

God can heal. He has healed. He may heal you, either immediately or over time. Whether he heals you depends on factors like your faith and, most especially, on God’s desire to do what will benefit you most in the long run.

God grant you the faith to trust your entire life into his hands, in sickness and in health, while striving to face your health trials with wisdom and understanding!

Author: Joseph Tkach, Sr. & Bernard Schnippert

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