How To Avoid Practical Atheism

James 5:13-18 Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. 14 Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. 16 Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. 17 Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. 18 Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit.


The Puritans developed an important category they called “practical atheism”. The main idea refers to non-Christians who profess to believe in God and, perhaps, even in the Bible as His Word, but who actually live as if God is not real and His Word is not true. They are not confessional atheists (they claim to believe in God), but practical or functional atheists (they don’t live as if there is a God).

The Puritans got this idea from passages like Romans 1:21 in which Paul laments the fact that there were many in his day who, “although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.”

But practical atheism is not something that exists in non-Christians only. Stephen Charnock is especially helpful in explaining what practical atheism looks like in Christians. In “The Existence and Attributes of God,” he notes that all sin is the result of at least temporary practical atheism. Meaning, every time we sin, we are acting as if God does not exist. If you believed in all that God is in any given moment, you would not talk harshly to your wife or exasperate your kid or lie to your boss or watch garbage on the TV/internet or fudge your taxes or demean your employees or gossip about your friends. When we do those things, we’re practically atheists.

You might be wondering what any of this has to do with our passage this morning? Good question. In it James mentions Christians who are suffering, cheerful, and sick. At its heart, these few verses are a call to acknowledge God’s sovereignty over each of those things, and to do so primarily in prayer. Practical atheism creeps into all of us when, instead of looking to God in prayer in every circumstance, we think mainly in worldly terms.

When we suffer, instead of prayerfully resting in God’s promises, we often grow bitter and despondent. When we are cheerful, instead of celebrating it in song as a thankful acknowledgement of God’s kindness, we tend to treat it as an end in itself. When we are sick, instead of hopefully soliciting the prayers of the saints, in full assurance that God works through them, we typically lament and despair. In short, once again, we are prone to practical atheism. These few verses are meant to help address and correct that tendency. What we have here, therefore, is a defense against and an alternative to practical atheism in suffering, cheerfulness, and (especially) sickness. Let’s pray for God’s help to hear and do what James commands.


James forms these six verses around three questions. The first two get a single verse, while the last question, indicating its importance in James’s mind, takes up the final five. All of them, however, point to the same basic principle: God is a good god over our every suffering, cheerfulness, and sickness, and prayer is the most appropriate way to acknowledge that. Practically, living in light of that principle makes all the difference. Let’s consider each as we strive to live thoroughly theistic lives.

The first question James posed to his readers was: “Is anyone among you suffering?”. The word translated “suffering” typically refers to persecution, but can also refer to any type of hardship. From what we’ve already read in James, we know that James wasn’t actually wondering whether any of his readers were going through a hard time. He knew there was suffering among them; significant, serious, and prolonged suffering. His intention was to give advice, not gain information. A good paraphrase of James’s idea, then, would be something like, “Whenever you find yourself suffering…”

Before considering James’s prescription, let’s pause here and consider our response to suffering in our own lives. What do you do when you suffer? Imagine some ache or pain that just won’t let up. Imagine your employer instituting a policy that goes against your conscience. Imagine being diagnosed with some type of degenerative disease. Imagine being in a really hard marriage. Imagine having kids who renounce their faith when they are older. James is about to tell us what we should do, but it’s good for us first to settle on what we probably would do? And I say that knowing that some of you don’t have to imagine because it’s your reality right now.

As I mentioned in the introduction, more often than we’d probably like to admit, the answer is that we forget that all things work together for good for those who love God (Romans 8:28), we forget that God uses every evil for the greatest good (Genesis 50:20). We forget that the cross and empty tomb are a perfect guarantee that perfect justice is certain (Romans 3:26). In other words, tragically, our response to suffering is often to act like practical atheists. Whenever our first thought and greatest hope is anything other than God’s glorious promises of sufficient grace, unwavering fellowship, sanctifying work, and greatest good through it, we are practically atheists.

Until Jesus returns, we will always struggle with this. Our sin, our flesh, and the devil all conspire to turn our hearts and minds away from God in our suffering. In acknowledgement of this and as a means to help in this, James instructed his readers on what it looks like to respond rightly. God’s people avoid practical atheism and honor God in our suffering, James wrote, when we respond to suffering by turning to God in simple prayer. James didn’t elaborate on the content of the sufferer’s prayer. His main point is one of disposition. But we know that it is good in our suffering to pray, “God make me strong enough to endure this in faith.” And, “God, give me wisdom to know how to honor you in every moment of suffering.” And, “God, help me to experience your presence throughout this trial, for that is sufficient.” And, of course, “God, please deliver me from my suffering, but at the same time let me live through it as though deliverance is Christ and death is gain.”

The practical atheist response to suffering is to think only in terms of the pain and getting out of it and to be miserable until it comes. The response of the fully sanctified follower of Jesus is to hope wholly in the promises of God and to know the peace of God that surpasses understanding regardless of what transpires. Because we always fall somewhere between the two, we pray.


What about the other end of the spectrum? What does practical atheism look like when we are cheerful and how to we avoid it?

Think of the last time you were really happy. Some of you have beamed with pride recently in telling me about an accomplishment of one of your kids. Krista getting to 100% support. Jack with his Pride and Joy. Two different Lukes when their employers were especially generous. Gerri when the TFG team really pulls together to serve a mom in crisis. I’ve been privileged to have many of you share the objects of your cheerfulness with me.

The crucial question for us all, once again, is what do we do when that kind of cheerfulness comes. It’s a crucial question because just as we can be practical atheists when life is hard, so too can we be when life is good. Was there any practical atheism in any of the examples of cheerfulness I just mentioned? If so, what would it have looked like?

Practical atheism delights in the kids’ accomplishments apart from an overwhelming sense of God as the giver of the gifts that led the accomplishments. Practical atheism celebrates 100% support merely as a chance to be done asking for money or as a green light to depart, rather than as the kind provision of the God who commissioned the going. Practical atheism laughs at a joke without thought of the fact that laughter is God’s gift to remind us of His pleasure in His children. Practical atheism delights in a generous raise from a non-Christian employer simply as a means to maintain a comfortable lifestyle, rather than as an unlikely expression of God’s common grace. Practical atheism produces cheerfulness merely in the physical and psychological help TFG provides for hurting moms and kids rather than first and most in the beautiful reminder it is of the spiritual help God offers in Jesus.

In short, practical atheism is cheerful in something as an end in itself, while godly cheerfulness always recognizes God as the only giver of good gifts. Practical atheism sings praise to the object of our cheerfulness only, while godly cheerfulness results in vertical and then in horizontal praise.

That’s the essence of James’s command at the end of v.13. “ … Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise.”

Practical theism, godliness, therefore, finds all cheerfulness rooted first and most in the unwavering belief that every good and perfect gift comes from God (James 1:17). It therefore responds to every blessing, every happiness in a song of thanksgiving to God.


Finally, the third question James asked was, “Is anyone among you sick?” This involves, of course, a more particular form of suffering. And as we all know, sickness is often one of the most practical-atheism-tempting experiences we can have. It is for that reason that James spent more time on this question than any of the others.

One more time, it’s good for us to consider what happens when we’re sick. What’s your first impulse? Practical atheism causes you to think only or mainly in terms of diagnosis, prognosis, and healing. Practical atheism produces an entirely earthly view of those things. Practical atheism can’t think much beyond doctors, medicine, and surgery.

Of course, all of those things can (and usually should) be a means of God’s grace. By themselves, however, they fail to recognize the fact that both sickness and healing are entirely in God’s hand, even as both are God’s grace for all who are hoping in Jesus. Sickness is God’s grace in that it humbles us, reveals idols, and causes us to recognize our finitude and dependence on God. And healing is God’s grace in that it puts the power of God on display, it provides a picture of the greater spiritual healing that God does in Jesus, and it is an opportunity to praise God for specific kindness.

For all of those reasons, James told his readers that their first impulse when they fell ill ought to be to acknowledge God’s sovereignty over their sickness. And for that reason, their first action ought to be to pray and solicit the prayers of the saints, and especially the elders.

14 Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. 16 Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.

This passage has caused a good deal of controversy within the Church over the centuries. What is the nature of the sickness? Was James referring mainly to spiritual sickness (some) or physical sickness (most)? What does it mean to anoint with oil? What is the purpose of the oil (healing, ritualistic, symbolic)? Is that necessary every time? Was that limited to the apostolic age? Is this a promise for healing? If so, in this life or the next? What is a prayer of faith? Whose faith; that of the sick individual or those praying on his behalf? How much faith is necessary to expect healing? Should we confess our sins when we are sick because all sickness is tied to sin? You get the idea. I’m sure most of you have wondered about at least some of these things.

Some of these questions are truly important and some less so. Some the text answers with clarity and some it doesn’t address at all. The main thing I want you to understand, though, is that most of them miss the clear and main point. The clear and main point once again is that sickness and healing are in the hands of God. God’s people, when we are acting faithfully, don’t respond to sickness in the same way as non-believers do. We don’t think in the same terms. Our hope is not in the same things. Our goals are different. Where practical atheists only know how to look to the things of earth and god only as a last resort, James calls his readers to look to God alone as savior, raiser, forgiver, and healer. He often uses means to accomplish these purposes (elders, oil, prayer, confession, doctors, and medicine), but those things are merely ways God brings healing, not true sources of healing.

In simplest terms, James’s antidote for practical atheism in sickness has two parts. First, whenever James readers fell ill, he commanded them to call their elders to pray over and anoint them, to confess their sins to one another, and to entrust their sickness to God. And second, he called his readers to have faith in God’s promise to use those things to save, raise, forgive, and heal.

With all of this, there are four specific principles that are good for us to consider and apply.

  1. There is nothing special about the prayers of an elder. James also calls each sick individual to pray for themselves and the whole church to as well. The fact that James calls on elders to pray for the sick is not meant to suggest that elders have some type of extra measure of healing power in our prayers. In this, elders are like the bread of communion in that while it is just bread, God has chosen to do special things through it. Nothing in the bread was especially worthy before communion and nothing about it changes during communion to make it worthy of representing Jesus’ body. In the same way, there is nothing uniquely meritorious in an elder that makes us better conduits for God’s healing grace other than that we are sometimes God’s chosen means of healing.

    All of this is embedded in the simple phrase, “in the name of the Lord” at the end of v.14. We saw last week the seriousness of breaking an oath made in the name of the Lord. That’s because God is holy, holy, holy and, therefore, calling on His name is to invite the highest scrutiny possible. On the other hand, as we see in this verse, the same power of God that is against those who take His name in vain is for those who call on it in righteousness. God is the power. Elders are at times merely the conduit through which God has chosen to make it flow.

  2. V.15 is not a promise that every time an elder prays and anoints that sickness will be healed.

    15 And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up…

    This is not a promise of immediate and universal healing, but it is two important things. It is (1) a godly vehicle for the godly impulse to turn to God, and it is (2) a genuine means of grace.

    Calling on elders to pray and anoint is a godly vehicle for the godly impulse to turn to God in our sickness. In His kindness, God, through James, tells us what to do with our desire to honor him when we’re sick—call the elders to pray and anoint. In this passage James was not making a promise of certain healing, but he was helping his readers to know what godliness looks like when they became sick.

    And second, even though James was not promising certain healing, that is not to suggest that the prayers of faithful elders is powerless. Indeed, they are a particular means of grace for those who are ill. God really does use them to save, raise up, forgive, and heal the sick in the same way that He uses quiet times to commune with His people and baptism to strengthen our faith and evangelism to encourage us.

    Not every quiet time leads to overwhelming worship, but it is right to say that the quiet times of the saints will revive our souls. Not every baptism casts out all doubt, but it is right to say that baptism strengthens the faith of God’s people. Not every evangelistic encounter is positive, but it is right to say that it is a means of God’s encouraging grace. And not every faithful elder prayer for the sick results in physical healing, but it is right to say that the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick.

  3. The end of v.15 is not a promise that elder prayers have the power to impart forgiveness.

    15 …And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.

    This statement is an acknowledgement that the kind of heart that looks first to God in sickness and then to His appointed means of grace, is the kind of heart that has genuine faith in Jesus; and the kind of heart that has genuine faith in Jesus is certainly one to which 1 John 1:9 applies, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

    In other words, the prayers of others don’t effectively bring about the forgiveness of our sins, but the whole exchange, rightly engaged in, is an expression of the kind of faith, through which God saves sinners.

  4. There is a grace connection between confession of sin, the prayers of the saints, and physical healing.

    16 Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.

    The Bible is explicit that not all sickness is tied to the sin of the person who is sick (John 9:2-3). But the Bible is also explicit that some sickness is (1 Corinthians 11:28-30). James’s logic in v.16 seems to be that (1)If we are to be freed from sin-induced sickness, it will include confession and repentance. (2) Even when our sickness is not sin-induced, it is a reminder that we need righteousness. And (3) since, confession and repentance are gifts from God, we ought to pray for one another that God would grant them continually, and especially when we are sick.

    The principle here is that sickness is like hunger. God gives physical hunger to teach us to long for righteousness. Every time we feel our bellies growl, we ought to turn that to a prayer for holiness. “God, just as I long for food, knowing that my body need it to survive, so too and even more, I’m reminded to long for righteousness as my soul needs that to survive.” That’s how fasting works. Hunger may or may not result from some type of personal act of unrighteousness, but every time it is a reminder to seek the righteousness we were made for.

    In the same way, not every time we are sick is it a direct result from some particular sin in our lives, but physical sickness is every time a reminder of the soul sickness that lingers in us. Every time we are sick, then, we ought to pray and invite others to join us in praying, “God, I long for you to heal my body, but I’m thankful that in this moment of sickness, I’m reminded that my greater need, one you’ve already met and are continually meeting in Jesus, is for healing in my soul. Drive out every sinful desire. Forgive every sin in Jesus. Even if this illness takes my life, may my soul be fully and forever sanctified by grace through faith.”

    And James’s true promise here is that this kind of prayer pleases God, and in these ways, always works. It is for that reason that he ended this verse saying, “The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.” And as proof of that, James offered Elijah’s prayers as an example.

    17 Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. 18 Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit.

    When God’s people seek God’s will in the ways God has prescribed, there is great power as it is working. Living in suffering, cheerfulness, and sickness in light of this reality is the opposite of practical atheism and the exact kind of heart that glorifies God.


Grace, is anyone among you suffering? Is anyone cheerful? Is anyone among you sick? Acknowledge God’s sovereignty over each of them and do so primarily through prayer. Invite others to join you in prayer, that you may honor God in them and therein grow in the assurance of your salvation.

And in all of this, remember the gospel. Remember that none of us have done this perfectly. Remember that in this life none of us ever will. Remember that the consequences of this rebellion is death. Remember that these things are the reason we all need a savior. Remember that God has given us the savior we need in Jesus Christ. Remember that He is ours not by works, but by faith alone. And remember that the gospel is the good news that God has provided for us and is already working out in us all that He requires of us. That’s good news indeed.