Pastoral work covers a range of diverse activities, from church administration to pastoral care, and compassionate ministry to preaching. But in my current assignment, one aspect of our worship has taken on new significance: anointing the sick. The physical health of this church’s congregation has included: ten surgeries, five cancer diagnoses, an illness leading to death, countless hospital stays, significant injuries, chronic conditions, and close calls. This is within two years among around sixty people who worship regularly each week. So, anointing those who are seeking God’s intervention quickly emerged as a practice that those who are suffering, and the rest of our congregation, desperately needed.
Seeking Balanced Communication
I have realized that in praying for the sick and anointing them with oil, pastors and churches need to maintain balance. On one hand, it is easy for prayer and anointing to come across as a promise that our words and actions will guarantee immediate healing.
On the other hand, if we fail to anoint or pray for healing, if we do not dare to ask God to intervene in ways that exceed our wildest hopes, we evidence a tragic lack of faith in God’s care and ability to act on our behalf.
When we anoint the suffering and offer prayers of faith on their behalf, we affirm our belief as stated in the Church of the Nazarene Manual Article of Faith on Divine Healing: “We believe in the Bible doctrine of divine healing and urge our people to offer the prayer of faith for the healing of the sick.” We demonstrate our belief that God can and does make a difference in the lives of His people when they pray.
This affirmation flows easily and naturally in our tradition. However, maintaining theological and liturgical balance requires us to go a step further. Sometimes healing is not immediate. Sometimes it does not come in the ways we desire. We must communicate an accurate balance of both suffering and God’s faithfulness.
A balanced communication is difficult. No one wants to cast a shadow of pessimism on those who are already ill. No one wants to come across as faithless when ministering to the sick. Yet the resolve to demonstrate theological balance can enrich our anointing practices. Balanced communication shows a conscious effort to state the conviction that God is still good, loving, and active in our lives, even when sickness remains, treatments are not effective, and death comes.
How can we balance our language about anointing effectively?
1. Choose your words carefully. Consider using liturgy. Dr. Jesse C. Middendorf’s Church Rituals Handbook can guide us. Worship books from other denominations can also offer helpful insight. Note prayers and rites specifically designated for those near death or undergoing surgery. Resources can provide helpful ways to affirm faith in God regardless of the outcome.
2. Offer clarification. While a sermon or study on anointing is appropriate, it is not always possible. But, a few introductory words that contextualize the biblical and theological significance of anointing can help dispel misunderstandings. Acknowledge that anointing is not a guarantee, but functions as a means by which all who are present affirm God’s ability to act.
3. Resist the temptation to answer “Why?” Theodicy, the presence of God in the midst of suffering, needs to be addressed. However, when anointing, keep the focus upon the call for God’s aid and upon confidence in God’s goodness.
4. Pray for God to heal through a variety of means. Beyond asking for God to intervene miraculously, seek God’s blessing on all medical caregivers and treatments. Affirm all healing as a gracious gift from God.
5. Pray for courage and strength. Clearly express that despite our sincerity, sickness sometimes remains. We ask God for the faith to proclaim Job’s words (Job 1:21): “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised.” Or we might also seek for God to instill within the afflicted the same Spirit of Christ who faced His own death with the prayer, "Not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22:42, ISV). Following the example of Paul, whose own “thorn in the flesh” was not removed (2 Corinthians 12:7-10), we pray for God’s strength to be manifested in our frailty.
6. Pray for more than healing. The Book of Common Prayer’s “Ministration to the Sick” has a list of petitions beyond restoration of health. On behalf of those being anointed, God is asked to forgive their sins, deliver them from evil, preserve them in goodness, and lead them into everlasting life. There is also the prayer for God to provide an inward anointing of the Holy Spirit for the one outwardly anointed with oil. Calling on God to provide additional blessings combats the idea that an anointing was not successful if the individual’s condition worsens. If the ailment remains, we can affirm that God is still at work in the situation, providing hope, courage, strength, and the gift of His comforting presence through the Holy Spirit.
7. Anoint when death is certain. Since the seventh century, the Church has had a tradition of anointing the sick even when death is imminent. In some traditions, the practice of praying for and anointing those near death usually accompany two other acts: confession and absolution, along with receiving the Eucharist, as the ending of life’s journey. These “last rites” provide comfort and confidence for those at the point of death. When an individual nears death, offering prayers and anointing offers an opportunity to ensure that the one suffering has made peace with God and that those who remain have an opportunity to share the sacrament of communion one final time before we all feast with Christ at His heavenly banquet.
8. Affirm the hope of the resurrection. One popular theological affirmation of the devout is that some will not receive healing until they reach heaven. When the saints of God are raised to eternal life, all of our broken pieces are restored and transformed. Emphasizing the significance of the resurrection allows us to offer a balanced affirmation that the absence of healing in death now is not God’s final word. For in baptism, Paul reminds us: “Through baptism we were buried with him into his death . . . if we have become united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his.” (Romans 6:4-5, ISV).
One constant in pastoral ministry is care for the suffering and for those near death. In the span between the cradle and the grave, we will witness God work wonders, especially through healing the sick, comforting the afflicted, and being present in difficult circumstances. As we anoint with oil, lay on hands, and offer faithful prayers, let us continue to do so with balance, always affirming both the reality of suffering and the goodness of God’s saving grace.
KRISTOPHER ADAMS is pastor of Elizabeth City (N.C.) Church of the Nazarene.