Is anyone among you suffering?
He should pray.
Is anyone in good spirits?
He should sing a song of praise.
The Letter of James is the only wisdom book in the New Testament. There are several in the Old, including Job, Ecclesiastes, Ecclesiasticus, and Proverbs. James updated the genre to fit the recent revelations of Jesus. In this last chapter, the Divine Author tacks on a few more teachings, including advice for the suffering and for those in good spirits.
There are critics who must complain about the unfairness of anyone who gives advice to those who suffer. "They need compassion, not advice." These critics might especially object to James's advice, "They should pray!" How will that help?
If you don't know the answer, you needn't ask the question.
But prayer does help, as any Christian will tell you.
There are many days in the life when we are assailed with pain and there is nothing to do but bear it. We can ask how we should bear it. What attitude is helpful? What thought is comforting? How can I assimilate this moment into my story without wishing my life were over?
The soldiers, marines, sailors and guards that I meet in the VA often say, "I have no choice." There is a kind of comfort in that, though it sounds fatalistic to me. Suffering is as real as pleasure, they seem to say. There's no begrudging its claim on us.
I am familiar with another tradition, surely just as old: we offer it up. Saint Paul describes this sacrificial attitude in his Letter to the Colossians:
"Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the Church...."This is an amazing insight and I always think of Colossians 1:24 in regard to Christian suffering, but the attitude and practice appear in all of Saint Paul's letters. I could be wrong but I don't think it appears in the Old Testament, except in the Servant Songs of Isaiah.
If we must suffer, we may as well make something useful of it -- and what can be more practical than a prayer?
As I have recently been confounded by the insult of aging, with its attendant aches and pains, I remember a very holy, very old religious woman and her story, told to me many years ago:
"The Bishop said to me, 'Sister, I know you are a prayerful woman, and I know you are in continual pain. For what do you offer your pain?"
'Bishop," I said, 'I offer it for priests!"
"Well no wonder you suffer so much." he said."
(The sainted scamp, Philip Neri, would love the story!)In the VA I meet people who use their pain as a prayer for their children and grandchildren, as atonement for their sins, and as prayers for their beloved Nation. Many of the elderly feel great distress over what they see in their families, churches and nation, but by their prayers they are assured of God's goodness, and God's worthiness to receive our suffering as a thank offering in union with the Suffering of Christ.