Me speaking on patience is like Lu giving hairstyling tips or Margaret demonstrating how to slam dunk a basketball. We all have different gifts, and patience isn’t mine. And what’s funny is I’ve had three or four occasions this week where I had to remind myself, “You’re preaching on patience this Sunday – you’d better practice what you’re going to preach.”
Like the sermon last week on the dangers of wealth, it’s easy to poke the lions if you’re on the other side of the bars; it’s quite another thing if you’re in the cage being drooled on. We all need to grow in patience – in our ability to cope with difficult and frustrating circumstances and people.
James uses two similar, but different words here to describe this godly quality that bears up under those difficulties.
1) Patience that waits – makrothumia – “long suffering”
At times, patience is a passive, restrained emotion – it recognizes that there are times and situations where there is no place to push back, no handle to grab, no one to plead with in order to cope with a situation. And so, patience involves a willingness to wait, an acceptance of circumstances without affecting my inner state of peace.
2) Patience that acts – hupomone – “perseverance”
There are other times when patience involves getting involved in the outcome. Pushing back, pleading your case, aggressively pursuing a conclusion.
James gives us three examples of patience:
The first comes from their surroundings – they lived in an agricultural community.
Be patient, then, brothers, until the Lord’s coming. See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop and how patient he is for the autumn and spring rains. You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near. (James 5:7-8)
James must have known different farmers than I’ve known. I spent six years in Vernon, TX, where half the congregation were farmers, and 100% of the folks grew up on farms. They were a wonderful bunch of people, but I don’t remember them being patient, at least not like you and I think of patience.
It was dry in Vernon – we were always in some sort of drought. The time between rain was measured in weeks and sometimes months. And when it did rain, it rained too much and at the wrong times. We’d get 25 inches of rain a year and most of it would fall 8-10 inches at a time. Invariably, they’d have to dry sow the cotton and harvest the wheat in muddy fields. You can only imagine how stressful it is preaching to grumpy farmers who live in fear of another ruined crop.
But having said that, these same men and women were people of great faith. They had learned that whatever God gives them is a gift, and that God had always taken care of their needs. And if their cotton was rotting out in muddy fields, then it was God’s cotton to rot, and he’d make sure they didn’t go without. They were the most generous people – and they were hopeful people. Even if their last 3 cotton crops had to be plowed under, next May they’d be out there planting it again.
The thing that James points out about farmers is that they learn there are certain things you can’t rush. It’s going to rain when it rains, and nothing you do is going to change that. And once you plant your cotton or your wheat in the ground, there’s nothing you can do to make it grow any faster.
Their lives were lived in synch with the seasons. They learned to work hard when it was time to work, not rush the things that couldn’t be rushed, and not worry over the things that couldn’t be changed.
The second picture comes from their spiritual heritage:
Brothers, as an example of patience in the face of suffering, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. As you know, we consider blessed those who have persevered. (James 5:10-11a)
Once again, the prophets aren’t exactly a group that comes to mind when you think about patience.
The prophets were sent by God to bring about change – to a people who had no intentions of changing. Their work was slow, frustrating and often fatal – Elijah was threatened, Daniel was thrown in the lion’s den, John was beheaded – The Hebrew writer adds his thoughts: And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and the prophets, who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies. Women received back their dead, raised to life again. Others were tortured and refused to be released, so that they might gain a better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. They were stoned ; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated—the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. (Hebrews 11:32-38)
There were times the prophets despaired and wept and tried to resign. But when push came to shove, they stood their ground and preached God’s word fearlessly. They knew that they were involved in God’s will and work, and they were willing to die for him.
So patience, for the prophets, meant continuing to do and be what is right in the face of opposition and a willingness to accept the consequences for God’s glory.
The third picture comes from their experience: You have heard of Job’s perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy. (vs. 11b)
We spent a little time with Job a couple of weeks ago, and noticed that Job was anything but patient. He demanded an audience with God, he fiercely maintained his innocence, he wanted a referee to rule between them. Job came under tremendous physical and emotional suffering and loss. He faced the scorn and accusations of his friends and the rejection of his wife. He sat in the middle of ashes, scraping boils, considering the loss of everything he had, and still Job maintained his faith in a righteous and loving God who was faithful to him and in the end would vindicate him.
Was Job patient? Not if you measure patience by silence and passivity. But Job’s faith under fire was an incredible testimony to his commitment to trust in God when everything was telling him to turn away.
Did you notice that after each example, James followed with a little piece of instruction and application? What do you do when you are faced with a situation where you can’t do anything but wait? What do you do when you are in the right but you’re being wronged? When your life is in somebody else’s hands and they are abusing it?
It begins with a change of perspective: vs. 8 You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near.
They were used to the language of farming – the word of God had been planted in them. God was the vinedresser, pruning, planting, tending. Jesus told them the world was a field ripe for harvest. So, when James said, “be patient like the farmer,” they understood. The Lord’s coming would be when he came, not a moment sooner or later than when God said. Worrying, grumbling, or frantic activity weren’t going to bring it more quickly.
And at the same time, when it did come – it would vindicate and reward all of their hard work. It wouldn’t be in vain – it would all be worth it. So stand firm – keep living faithful, godly lives and when the Lord returns, it will be like bringing home a bumper crop.
The Lord’s coming puts it all in perspective – whether you are irritated by little inconveniences, or are anxiously waiting on a life changing event – when the Lord comes back none of that will matter. Are you suffering and in pain, are you being persecuted for your faith? The Lord’s return will wipe every tear away and exalt every humiliation.
That perspective also affects how we react to others around us: vs. 9 – Don’t grumble against each other, brothers, or you will be judged.
You know who you get most impatient with – the people you are closest to. Familiarity breeds contempt – when you know each other’s faults, those imperfections are magnified. If it’s true in our families, it’s also true in the family of God. More church fights and church splits occur over personality differences, and impatience with each other’s shortcomings than any doctrinal differences. But with those imperfections we can choose to be impatient (yes, choose), or we can choose to be forgiving and forbearing. Paul wrote to the Colossian church: Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. (Col. 3:13).
The very word James uses here that is translated “grumbling” paints a picture of our dilemma. The open grumbling which characterizes our impatience is rooted in the inner distress we let simmer away – (stenazeto – literally “to sigh, groan”). It’s not just the loud and bitter complaints that we vocalize, but the unexpressed feelings of anger or the smothered resentment we keep to ourselves. To keep either one going is to bring judgment on ourselves.
James also reminds us in vs. 11 As you know, we consider blessed those who have persevered. It’s easy to forget that patience and perseverance are a blessing – Paul identifies “patience” as one of the fruits of the Spirit. James told us in ch. 1 that perseverance is the catalyst in the maturing of our faith – Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.
When our desire for patience drives us to the cross in need of strength instead of to our natural responses of anger, pride and self-reliance, then God can begin to work in us in a powerful way. That was the lesson Paul learned. Paul was not a patient man, but God created the situation in his life in which he was forced to learn patience – and in doing so, Paul reflects back on what a blessing it brought to his life – To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Cor. 12:7-10)
The most important lesson we learn about patience is that it is one of God’s most powerful qualities – James says, The Lord is full of compassion and mercy. (vs. 11) He says look at Job and says, see what the Lord finally brought about.
The Lord’s incredible patience for us is what motivates and empowers us to be patient and persevere. The Lord is so patient with us, and he gives us not just a second chance, but a third, and a fourth – God never quits loving us and never quits forgiving us. How can we possibly be impatient with others?
It’s really the apostle Peter who drives home the significance of patience when he writes – But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare. Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. (2 Peter 3:8-12).
God’s patience has a purpose – it is to give you the time and opportunity to respond to him. Patience does not mean neglect or disregard. If you think God has gone off and forgotten, he has not, and in a single moment – whether we are prepared or not, he will come. You may feel like time is standing still, it may seem like nothing changes, but God is not finished and has not forgotten. Just wait – you’ll see.