Beautiful and Terrible Things
James 5:13-20 (NRSV)
You probably are familiar with the parable of the mustard seed in Mark 4:30 where Jesus compared the kingdom of God and the way the gospel spreads to a mustard seed. You might not know that there is a Buddhist parable also called the parable of the mustard seed, and it goes like this:
There was a young mother who had a son, her only child, and the toddler was the light of her life. The boy became ill and died, and the young mother was so distraught that she clasped the child’s body to her chest and refused to bury him. Though many tried to console her, she insisted that there had to be a cure for death, and that requiring a mother to give up her only child was too much to ask. Someone suggested that maybe the philosopher Buddha might know of a special herb that could restore life, so the grieving mother went to see him.
“Please tell me, dear teacher, how I might cure my grief and raise my boy to life,” she begged.
“I can make a tea for that,” he told her, “but it requires a very special ingredient.”
“Tell me, dear sir, and I will get it for you,” she pleaded.
“I must have a few mustard seeds,” he said, “but they have to come from a home that has never known loss or suffering.”
“I’ll find them!” she said, and she began to visit each home in all the nearby villages to find one that had never known loss or suffering and obtain a few mustard seeds to make the special tea. At each home she visited, she asked about their difficulties and sorrows. One home had lost a beloved spouse and another a parent. The next homes had lost grandparents, favorite aunts and uncles, even pets. They had suffered crippling disease, loss of crops, and hunger. The grieving young mother sat with each one and listened to their stories, sometimes sharing her own story of losing her son. After she had visited each home, she found that there was no one who was unaffected by suffering. The mother buried her son in the forest and went back to see the philosopher.
“Do you have the mustard seeds?” he asked her.
“I visited every home to see if there were any mustard seeds in those homes untouched by suffering,” she said. “I found plenty of mustard seeds, but there were no homes that were without suffering and loss. What I found in the midst of their suffering was comfort for my own grief as well as comfort I could offer them because I had suffered, too.”
In this case, the mustard seed was an excuse to get the grieving mother to talk to others and understand that suffering and loss are a part of living in this world. As the American writer and theologian Frederick Buechner (pronounced BEEK-ner) says in his definition of what God’s grace looks like in the world, “Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you.”
As Christians, we wonder about our role in being “with” people as God’s hands and feet. Our scripture reading from James 5:13-20 helps us understand our role as participants in extending God’s grace and comfort to ourselves and others.
Read James 5:13-20
What can we notice about this passage?
- The context of the book of James: This passage falls near the end of a book written to encourage God’s people to live together in peace, supporting each other and refraining from the usual worldly attempts at domination, including favoritism and lying. This last section offers practical ideas for how we can live together and support each other in a world that is often filled with difficulties.
- James 5:13-14: We can see that suffering is a part of life in the first part of v. 13. The emotional intent of the word translated suffering (kakos) refers not just to the persecution the early church endured, but also negative life events in general. The question “Are any among you suffering?” does not label those who are suffering as “bad” or “deserving” of their difficulty. The verse simply goes on to suggest that prayer, as a communal exercise, can be an encouragement during tough times. The wording translated “cheerful” refers to an inner self that is doing well and is at ease. When things are “cheerful” or going well, we offer praise by telling someone about God’s love for them, acknowledging God’s grace in the beauty and blessings that are often ours without any intervention from us.
James 5:14 recommends asking for prayer if one is sick, including being anointed with oil. Once again, prayer and especially prayer for healing is not a one-person, solitary activity. An interesting point is that olive oil was not always available to the poorest of Christians, and so James may be emphasizing the need for wealthier Christians to make oil (known for its healthful properties) available to those who could not afford it.
- James 5:15-16: The first part of verse 15, if misread, sounds like it is our faith through prayer that saves the sick. However, we all can think of at least one time when we prayed for someone to be healed, and they weren’t. Our experience in this world of “beautiful and terrible things” is that sometimes healing happens and sometimes it doesn’t. There is no “formula” that offers a guarantee. And this is part of the mystery of the way God moves in our world. It’s as if James and other biblical writers wanted to emphasize that the process was more important than the outcome. Praying for one another, comforting one another, and offering support are what we can do. They are how we participate in God’s grace as it is expressed here on earth. Rather than thinking “what’s the use?” when praying for healing or deliverance from difficulty, we see ourselves as the hands and feet of Jesus as we minister to those who are hurting. Whether or not healing comes, the person who is prayed for feels loved and supported. The mystery of healing is not ours to control, but building loving relationships falls within our domain and responsibilities.
The last part of James 5:15 can also be confusing, making it sound as if sin and illness are connected. If we stop to think about it, we can all think of instances where illness just happens, and assigning blame is never productive or helpful, especially to the person who is suffering. The second part of v. 15 can make it sound as if we are the ones to forgive to sins. This part is closely tied to James 5:16 in that James encourages us to “confess [our] sins to one another.” The idea of prayer and confession being closely linked is not a new one. How can you pray for someone if they are not being honest and authentic about their struggles? However, one must use discretion and approach the practice of confession with caution, as not every Christian is able to shoulder another person’s struggles. We all at times have more to bear than we have capacity for, and it is not fair to ask someone who is already weighed down to support our struggle, too. Consulting with a church pastor, a licensed counselor, or therapist are all appropriate steps to take, depending on the issue.
At the end of James 5:16, James is acknowledging the power of communal prayer while emphasizing that our own personal relationship with God must not be neglected. Unless we are centered and clear about who we are in Christ, we lack the depth of connection we need to effectively intercede on behalf of others.
- James 5:17-18: The example of Elijah is provided as an example of asked and answered prayer. While it seems straightforward, it can make us feel hopeless and discouraged when our own prayers are not answered in the way that we had hoped. When we remember that our perspective is very limited, it helps us to see that the “no” answers or the seemingly unanswered prayers often end up holding a greater meaning than we knew at the time.
Sheri Salata has written a book called The Beautiful No: And Other Tales of Trial, Transcendence, and Transformation, and in it, she writes about her life in hindsight, noting how closed doors often led her to another path, ultimately leading her to become the producer of the Oprah TV show. If we think about it, we’ve all had our own “beautiful no’s” when a closed door seemed life-shattering but eventually turned out. Sometimes “beautiful no’s” won’t make sense during our lifetime, and it’s there that we trust in God’s goodness and love, knowing we are treasured and held in his everlasting arms.
- James 5:19-20: James’s encouragement to “bring back a sinner from wandering” can be easily misconstrued. “Wandering” is often subjective, so caution must be exercised, and a nonjudgmental attitude should be present at all times. Due to human nature’s temptation to compare oneself with others, we have a proclivity to minimize our own flaws when considering others’ choices and struggles.
James is reminding us to love and support each other. Loving and listening to a sinner is often the thing that brings them back. We can stand by and support the person without supporting the behavior or attitude. We can offer advice when it is asked. The best advice is that which is asked for (not simply offered) and spoken with a humble and caring attitude. Most of us want to be the “savior” or the person who brings the wanderer back, but few realize that we all wander more than we are willing to admit. Sometimes sharing our own wandering helps. Even as the Israelites wandered in the desert for forty years, so sometimes our faith journeys take a more circuitous than direct path. Being transparent with each other helps everyone grow together. Our own journey allows us to share that God is faithful as our faith evolves and grows.
- See prayer as a way to build community, not just a solitary activity.
- James encourages us to pray for one another and be available to offer support as we are able. Building relationships is the goal, and prayer is one avenue Christians can use to meet one another in the midst of suffering to offer support.
- See prayers for healing as an important part of the process of expressing God’s grace on earth, regardless of outcome.
- We don’t understand why some are healed and some aren’t. What we do understand is that
- every person is precious and loved by God,
- there is nothing we go through that the Father, Son, and Spirit do not endure with us,
- prayer allows us to express love and care for one another.
- By valuing the process more than the outcome, we can support one another through difficulties.
- Maintain a humble, vulnerable, and authentic attitude to ensure effective prayers on behalf of others.
- Recognizing how far short we fall while still knowing beyond a shadow of a doubt that we are loved helps us keep an open and aware perspective.
- It makes us open and honest about our struggles in an appropriate manner to engage and support one another.
Even as the grieving mother in the Buddhist mustard seed parable learned that suffering and loss are best handled in community, so our scripture passage in James emphasizes the importance of prayer as a means of building strong relationships and expressing God’s grace in this world where “beautiful and terrible things” happen. While we can’t always explain why terrible losses and suffering occur, we recognize our limited human perspective and trust in God’s continuous presence and goodness, knowing we’re supported by our community of faith.
Small Group Discussion Questions
- How does changing the focus on prayer as a solitary activity to a community-building activity change your expectations about it?
- How does shifting the focus from the outcome to the process of prayer change your thoughts about participating in it?
- When prayers seem to be unanswered, we often seek to find meaning to reconcile what we wanted with what actually happened. Can you share an experience where a prayer was not answered as you wanted and how you dealt with that “beautiful no,” ultimately finding meaning in that experience?