The Great Cover-Up
The Great Cover-Up
Text: James 5:13-20
We finish James today with a passage that has deeply troubled me. You and I have heard portions of this quoted, always out of context – The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective. I believe that to be true, but I also believe that it desperately needs it’s context to be true.
I have also had people occasionally ask me why we don’t do this part: Therefore confess your sins to one another ... Why don’t we do that? I have often hesitated, hemmed and hawed, and tried to make excuses of interpretation. For example, James didn’t mean that we should confess our sins, but that we should confess that we are sinners. We should agree with God on that issue. Except that’s not really what James says. He says that we ought to confess our sins to one another. And there will be the result – so that you may be healed.
There’s a whole lot in the context that we leave out, that we ignore. I believe that it’s because of this: we have a prurient interest in the sins of others. We have this sinful tendency to look down on others. We want to expose them and gloat over them. I know most Christians would deny it, but think about our prayer lists for a moment.
I’ve told you, some time ago I think, about the response to a prayer request. We had what is now referred to as a “blended family” in our church – another church, not this one. It was Duane’s first marriage, and Torie had two children by a previous marriage. The two boys lived with them through the school year and spend summers with their father in California. As I recall, the two were something like five and seven years old. It was agony for Torie to put the boys on the plane and send them unaccompanied to California. I don’t like to give any more information than is necessary in prayer requests. I think it is counter-productive and lends to gossip. So our prayer sheet one Sunday read simply, “Pray for Duane and Torie.” After the service, a lady approached me. As she shook my hand, she whispered, “I didn’t know Duane and Torie were having marriage problems.” They weren’t, and I told her so, and asked her to just pray for the family. But at that moment, I swore to myself that I would never print another prayer list. And we didn’t for many years.
I don’t like prayer lists. And I don’t like our salacious desire for more and more information. Pray for So-and-So, having surgery this week. “Oh, what is he having surgery for?” Why do we want to know? “So we can be more specific in our prayers.” You don’t need to, because God knows all the specifics. And often our prayer meetings become more “organ recitals” than prayer – and we share more than we should because we have come to anticipate the curiosity of the others. Answers to prayer - fine – “Doctors say her cancer is in remission. Praise the Lord.” What kind of cancer? I don’t really care. That God knows and has answered should be sufficient for us.
Let’s start at the beginning of this portion, shall we? Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. That’s why, by the way, that I ask you to gather around certain individuals and lay hands on them as we pray together. That’s why I want the men to gather around Leo and pray for his healing. That’s why I want the women to gather around Kay and pray with her for her father. We are charged to pray for one another.
That’s also, by the way, why we have a blessing jar and a communication card. We want to share your joy in answered prayer. We want to rejoice with you in your blessing. We want to sing songs of praise together.
And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. I suppose it is good that we take that statement as a promise. But there is much more to it than simply restoring someone to health. The Greek word, translated here as “make well”, comes from the same root as “to save”. The New American Standard Version renders that “will restore the one who is sick”. Several translations render it “will save the sick.” And James’ connection with the forgiveness of sin causes us to wonder if physical health is all that James has in mind – If they have sinned, they will be forgiven. Is there more here than mere physical health? Is James suggesting that we are more than physical beings, and that physical sickness may involve more than just our body? My work both as pastor and counselor, and in emergency medicine, has convinced me that sometimes our physical illness is a symptom of a spiritual sickness. I have referred to mental illness as “disordered” thinking – where our emotions and our thought processes are out of order. We are not just physical bodies inhabited by a soul. Rather, we are integrated beings with mind, spirit, and body inextricably interdependent. Heart-sickness, grief, fear, anxiety, guilt, will all manifest in physical ways. Sometimes, you are physically ill because you have sinned, or because you are anxious, or because you are grieving. Depression, which is disordered thinking, will make you sick physically. We become sick because we eat the wrong things or not enough of the right things, and we eat for comfort, and when we are stressed, depressed, or lonely. Our diet makes us sick; our sickness affect what, when, and how we eat. None of this is theory or speculation – I see it often. Which means that we should not be praying only for healing, but for wholeness, for restoration, for salvation. The prayer we ought to pray, not only for the sick, but also for the grieving, the fearful, and the guilty, is the prayer of shalom - that God would restore them to their proper place in the world. We ought to be praying for peace of mind, for peace and grace in our relationships with one another. We ought to be praying for belonging and for rest. And our prayers for one another should be encouraging and filled with grace. And then, I believe, our prayers will be powerful and effective.
But there’s more.
James presents Elijah as a man of faith whose prayers were effective. But Elijah was not interested in rain – he was interested in the health of his nation. Israel was led by Ahab, a wishy- washy, soft-headed king, and his evil wife, Jezebel, the princess of Baal, a scheming, nasty woman. She controlled the spiritual climate of Israel and fought every effort of godly people, including Elijah. The prophet’s hope was to turn Israel back to God, to see the nation spiritually whole and healthy again. That was why he prayed for drought and why he prayed for rain, because his hope was for Israel to see their spiritual drought in the blasted wheat of natural drought. They would return and the natural rains would be for them the spiritual showers of blessing of restoration and grace. Can we view our prayers in that way? That what we really desire most for one another is restoration and grace?
That’s what James wants for us to want. My brothers, if one of you should wander from the truth ... You know what actually happens, don’t you? A brother falls, and we hold a pity party. Well, not really. We hold a gossip party. We wonder what went wrong. We examine the life events that led up to his fall. We look for a reason. I was in a church of another denomination where such a one was the subject of a prayer request. The comment was made, “Well, he probably wasn’t really saved to begin with.” And very often, when a brother falls, we leave him by the wayside. We abandon the fallen. Or we criticize them. Someone commented that the Church is the only army that shoots its wounded. Just as often, we shun them. We disfellowship, disassociate, and excommunicate. We act as if we’re afraid their sin will rub off onto us. We turn our backs on our wounded and fallen.
What should happen is this – if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring that person back ... I’m not done, but I need to emphasize this: someone should bring that person back. Someone should show grace, mercy, patience, love, forgiveness. Someone should act the Good Samaritan, bind and dress the wounds, comfort the grieving, show compassion. Their sin won’t rub off on you, but your grace will rub off on them. If one of you should wander from the truth – someone should bring that person back! Someone in the church should be a prayer warrior for the fallen. Someone should stand in the gap for the discouraged.
Remember this: whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins. James language here reminds us of a couple of proverbs:
Proverbs 10:12 – Hatred stirs up conflict, but love covers over all wrongs. Proverbs 17:9 – Whoever would foster love covers over an offense, but whoever repeats the matter separates close friends.
The idea here is that we keep quiet about the sins of others. We don’t expose them to ridicule. We don’t ostracize them or gossip about them. Paul told the Corinthian church that love does not dishonor others ... keeps no record of wrongs ... does not delight in evil ... and, always protects (1 Corinthians 13:5-7). When someone in leadership falls, they need to be taken aside and taken out of leadership for a time of restoration. But they do not become “bad examples”. When a Christian sins, they need to be loved back to grace. Our wounded need to be lovingly healed. Our fallen need to be lovingly restored. Our broken need to be lovingly put back together.
We shouldn’t pretend that the sin never happened. And we shouldn’t go on as if. When a leader falls, we do not cover it up and pretend that all is well. We remove that person from their position of influence. But we do not hold them up for public inspection. When I talk about a cover- up, I don’t mean that we pretend that sin doesn’t, or didn’t, happen. I mean that we protect that person even while we work to restore them. But love covers over, covers up, protects.
I believe now that James really intended that the church should confess our sins to one another and pray for one another. But I also believe that James knew the church couldn’t do it because they were too interested in gossip, too prone to “make an example of” the sinner, and not really willing to protect and preserve. When I said that we have a prurient interest in the sins of others, this is what I meant. And I’ve been in the church long enough to know how hard it is to trust others with your secrets. I’ve been burned, as have many of you. We’ve learned to fight our battles alone, because there haven’t been any willing to fight with us. We’ve leaned to hide our guilt, to hide our sin, because we know we’ll be condemned for it. We can’t do what James says we ought to do. We don’t dare.
And so pastors fall by the wayside, depressed, discouraged, and alone. Faithful members drift into the shadows, ignored and forgotten. New believers give up the struggle, afraid to be exposed for the fraud they believe themselves to be. The wounded fall with no one to heal them. There is no Good Samaritan to pour the oil of grace, and to bind up with forgiveness. And those who do notice, turn up their noses and gather their skirts. I find even more poignant James’s accusation: When you do ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures (4:3). For the chief pleasure of some is gossip.
I think James was actually pleading with the Church to be a place, and a people, of healing and restoration. He was pleading with the Church to love the lost, to forgive the fallen, to protect the broken, to bind up the wounded. He was begging the Church to be a place of mercy, of grace, of shelter. He was begging the Church to be a safe place for the hurting, where there is no condemnation, and where the attitude of Jesus toward sinners prevails. How did Jesus treat sinners? How did he respond to the lepers, the lame, and lost? What did he say to the woman accused of adultery? He condemned her accusers and critics and offered forgiveness. He spoke healing to the mentally, spiritually, and physically broken.
May I suggest to you, in closing, that what James meant when he said that we ought to confess our sins to one another and pray for each other so that you may be healed, is that we ought to confess these sins: our lack of trustworthiness, our failure to protect, our lack of grace, our ungodly interest in prurient details. We have failed to be a safe place, and if we would be healed, we must become that. We must learn to protect one another, to be gracious, to refuse to condemn. We must live up to our chosen name and be a Safe Harbor, so that we may be healed.