Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing psalms.
The Universe is binary.
We see this, of course, in the Genesis Creation account. Heaven and earth. Darkness and light. Evening and morning. Water and dry land. Sun and moon. Male and female.
This last one causes no small amount of angst to the post-modern mind, as society’s fluid concept of gender comes up against the brick wall of biology. A valiant attempt at defying the binary has been made by imagining a concept of “non-binary”, but at the end of the day all that has been accomplished is creating a new binary – those who are non-binary, and those who are not.
As God said to Saul (later the Apostle Paul), “It’s hard to kick against the goads.”
Bringing the conversation back to our text, James here presents us with another inescapable binary. He describes two groups of people: those who are sad (suffering) and those who are happy (cheerful). Like it or not, you fall into one of those two categories.
Now, bear in mind, emotional states fluctuate. So you may wake up happy, and then during the course of the day encounter events that make you go to bed sad. Or you may get up on the proverbial wrong side of the bed, then receive news that makes you happy. And it’s possible that the happy/sad spectrum might vary throughout the day. But at any given moment, one of these two emotions will be true.
One might argue that there is a state of depression that takes away the highs and lows and leaves you feeling blah. But I would counter that “blah” fits well within the “suffering” category. My experience with people suffering from depression bears this out.
James has some very simple advice for those in one of these two categories.
For those who are suffering, he says simply “pray”. It’s important, I think, to note that he doesn’t say “only pray”. There may be a half dozen, or more, other things that need to be done in the face of a situation that is causing us to be sad. But the first, knee-jerk reaction for the anguished believer is to turn to God in prayer.
For those on the other side of the spectrum, those for whom things are going just swimmingly, James’ admonition is to “sing songs of praise”. The word could be adequately translated “psalms”, but need not be limited exclusively to passages from that book of the Bible. So the first, knee-jerk reaction for the joyful believer is to turn to God in praise. Once again, praising God may not be the only thing one should do, but it should be the first instinct.
(This distinction between “first” and “only” will be of help to us as we tackle the next verses, which can be somewhat confusing, so keep it in mind.)
In my experience, it is much easier to remember to pray in times of trouble than to praise in times of triumph. But that is not to say that it is always a given. It is also not difficult to get so focused on the waves that we take our eyes off Christ.
And that brings us to the central point of the passage. The focus of the believer is to be Godward, constantly. Is there ever a time when a believer should not look to Him? Well…if you can think of a situation that finds you outside of the suffering/not-suffering binary, then perhaps.
But good luck with that.
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