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Anointing the Sick
by Esther R. Knott, M.A.
When I was a child, the anointing service appeared to be something mysterious that happened behind closed doors. After 28 years of pastoral ministry I have learned that the anointing service is something mysterious that happens to open doors—doors of surrender, reconciliation, forgiveness, and healing.
As pastors we are asked to pray regarding many situations; one of the petitions that will continue to surface until Jesus comes is praying for the sick. Sometimes the prayer request comes from a young girl who is praying for a little brother who is having his tonsils removed (and gets to eat ice cream, popsicles, and Jell-O for a few days). Sometimes the request is for a spouse who is having a hip replaced, a pacemaker put in, a hysterectomy, or having cataracts removed. Sometimes the prayer is for an emergency appendectomy, a broken back because the spouse has fallen out of a tree, or a broken clavicle from playing Capture the Flag on an 8th grade class trip.
Too often, these days, the prayers seem to be for a friend, co-worker, family member, or small group member who has stage four metastasized cancer, or maybe a brain aneurism or a brain tumor. Perhaps it’s someone in need of a liver transplant or a baby born prematurely. These are especially serious health problems that drive us to our knees.
The Seventh-day Adventist Minister’s Handbook (2009) reminds us of the following:
 Anointing is not a last rite to bless the dying, but an act of faith to heal the living. It recognizes serious health problems and meets them by placing trust in God.” (190) Anointing addresses not only sickness, but forgiveness as well. It is a time of serious reflection and commitment to the will of God, and it is in the prayer of faith that His restoring power and grace are given. Anointing is not reserved as a last rite for the dying, nor is there mystical power in the oil itself. Both James and the early church were well aware that they were placing themselves in the had of God in faith, trusting that His will would be accomplished in their lives. (189)
The book of James records the following regarding prayer for the sick:
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. And the prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much. James 5:14-16 NKJV (Note gender adaptation below.)
Preparation for anointing takes place on two fronts—1) preparation for the one who is sick, and 2) preparation for the pray-ers. I recommend that all of those taking part in the anointing take time to read the chapter on “Prayer for the Sick” that is found in the book Ministry of Healing by Ellen White.  This can also be found on line:
One important aspect of this chapter is the reminder that as we pray we should also take advantage of the medical help that is offered through the gifts God has given us through the medical profession. Another focus of the chapter is developing a willingness to trust God. We come to Him with our requests, trusting Him with the answers.
Preparation for an anointing gives us the wonderful opportunity to search our hearts and remove every barrier that prevents God from answering our prayers the way He wants to.  An exposition of Psalm 66:18 says: “If I regard iniquity in my heart. If, having seen it to be there, I continue to gaze upon it without aversion; if I cherish it, have a side glance of love toward it, excuse it, and palliate it: The Lord will not hear me.”
When my friend Elisabeth* was anointed, I witnessed a wonderful example of someone taking seriously this admonition to clear away obstacles to answered prayer. The anointing started late because we were waiting for her dear friend Steve* to show up. When we heard the story of why he was late, we began to understand one of the “open door” mysteries of the anointing.  
When Steve was 14 his dad left the family, notifying Steve that he was now the man of the house. For thirty years the father and son had not had a good relationship. Steve carried around much bitterness and an unforgiving attitude toward his father for disrupting their home and his life. Because Steve was going to participate in the anointing he felt compelled to visit his dad and try to bring some healing to that relationship. The morning of the anointing, he drove three hours to another state in order to see his father. His dad was surprised to see him and apprehensive. They ended up talking for several hours. Their tears washed away years of pain. As Steve was leaving, there was a long embrace and Steve heard his dad say, “I love you”—words he had not heard in 30 years.
When Elisabeth heard this story, she said, “If my brain tumor has been used by God to bring about this reconciliation, He can do whatever He wants with my brain tumor and me. I’ve been healed in all the ways that really count.”
Preparation for the anointing opens the door for reconciliation, forgiveness, restoration and healing. Let no opportunity be wasted.
As a pastor you may be called upon to participate in an anointing without much notice. Therefore it is important that we keep our hearts ready—nothing between our soul and the Savior, or others.
In preparation for the anointing I ask those who will participate—family members, friends and elders—to be prepared to share a Scripture passage that has helped them when they have gone through a difficult time. Out of town family and friends can be included using technology such as Skype, Face Time, or a speakerphone.
My friend Cindy* was in the hospital when we discovered that she had a brain tumor. She requested to be anointed. Cindy was part of two small groups and they all wanted to be there to participate. This became a larger group than normal but fortunately Cindy was in a private room where we could all fit comfortably without disturbing anyone.
The day of the anointing arrived and I was concerned. For two days Cindy had been unresponsive. The group gathered in the lobby to pray before we went into the room; we wanted this to be a meaningful experience for Cindy and we longed to interact with our friend and demonstrate our love to her. When we walked into the room Cindy opened her eyes and smiled at us. She greeted each one of us by name. We marveled at what God was already doing.
This was the process:
  1. We began with a prayer acknowledging that we were gathered following  God’s instructions.
  2. Each group member read the scripture they had written out on an index card—these they left leave with Cindy for further reflection and comfort.
  3. We adapted James 5:14-16 to read this way:
Is anyone among you sick? Let her call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over her, anointing her with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise her up. And if she has committed sins, she will be forgiven. Confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The effective, fervent prayer of the righteous avails much.
  1. I always ask the one being anointed if they would like to pray. Cindy and her husband both prayed. Their prayers were very touching, revealing the deep desire to live, yet total surrender because they know and trust God. Three of the elders prayed, and then I prayed and anointed Cindy with the oil. (Traditionally we use olive oil, but any oil is all right.) As I gently rubbed the oil Cindy’s forehead I reminded her (and those present) that the oil is the symbol of the Holy Spirit and of His desire to heal us in all areas of our lives.
In one of Pastor Dwight K. Nelson’s sermons he reflects on three things we know about God: He loves us. He is trustworthy. He knows the end from the beginning. I included those thoughts in my prayer. We reflected on Jesus’ prayer is the garden asking that if it be possible that the cup would pass from Him, nevertheless He surrendered to His Father’s will and the plan they had set from eternity.
  1. After the final prayer we sang “He’s Able…I know my Lord is able to carry me through.”
  2. It is my practice to leave something tangible with the person we have just prayed for—a reminder of the service and their relinquishing all to God. On this particular occasion, I had placed the anointing oil in a small olive wood communion cup I had brought back from Israel. (I had brought back 200.) On the bottom of the cup I had used a Sharpie black marker to write the date and the word “Surrendered”. My explanation is that in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus too faced a bitter cup and trusted His Father all the way. I wanted this cup to remind Cindy of Jesus’ great love for her and that she was not making the journey alone.
  3. The group left shortly after. This is not the time to hang around and chit chat about trivial things. You want the moment of God’s special presence to linger. I also wanted to clear the room so that Cindy and her husband could spend some time alone since she was now fully conscious. It was a beautiful scene. They were both beaming. God gave them a few more months together.
In this story I mentioned that we anoint the person’s head/forehead. I have had an exception to this. Once while in a home anointing a child before surgery, the mother was sobbing. I realized that perhaps she was the one in need of the most healing. On an impulse, in the middle of my prayer, I reached over and anointed the mother’s hands, rubbing the back of them with oil—asking God to bless the hands that would look after the child while he was recovering from surgery. The mother seemed to relax as she gained the strength for the task that was before her.
In our humanness we desire an instant miracle of healing. I have seen God do that. (It really messes up the medical community when tumors disappear.) I have also seen God work through months of chemo and radiation. I have even seen those God loves fall asleep with the sweet peace of surrender, reconciliation, forgiveness and yes, healing.
Miracles are not a guarantee of faithfulness to God—look at the children of Israel. God works in mysterious ways in this world of sin. Consider the following three cancer cases:
  1. The person has cancer and does not know they have cancer. God heals them.
  2. The person has cancer, discovers it, prays and is healed.
  3. The person has cancer, discovers it, prays and goes through months of chemo.
Which of the three do you think spends more time “on their knees”? The answer is always “the person in the third scenario”. So I’ve learned to not interfere with the work God is doing. While no one wants to suffer (neither the patients nor those who care about them) those who have grown spiritually mature through the process have somehow always found a way to see the blessing.
Encourage your members to enter into the ministry that opens doors—doors of surrender, reconciliation, forgiveness, and healing.
Esther R. Knott, M.A. is the director of the InMinistry Center as well as associate director of the NAD Ministerial Department.
This article contains excerpts from a book the author hopes to complete before she dies.
*Not their real names