Patient Waiting

By John Greenwood

Reading: James 5




Towards the end of his practical letter, James encourages us to be patient “until the Lord’s coming” (James 5.7[1]).  He doesn’t mean that we should simply resign ourselves to the uncertainties of life.  There is nothing passive about the patience of the disciple of Christ.  James illustrated this by describing a farmer who has planted seed and is waiting patiently for harvest.  The Lord had promised to send “both autumn and spring rains, so that you may gather in your grain, new wine and oil.” (Deuteronomy 11.14).  The autumn rain provided the essential moisture for the seed to sprout and the spring rain made the grain swell before harvest.  But farmers also needed patience as they watched and tended their fields, waiting for the land to yield its valuable crop before the arid heat of summer. 


James used this illustration to provide the simple but telling exhortation that we, like the farmer, must be patient and stand firm, because “the Lord’s coming is near” (5.8).  We know that “the Lord of the harvest” (Matthew 9.38) will be true to his promises but this doesn’t mean that we can simply sit back and wait passively until Christ comes again.  James commends watchful patience and faithful stability.


The context of this exhortation is significant.  James wrote in powerful terms about rich people who hoarded wealth (5.3), exploited their labourers (5.4), enjoyed luxury and self-indulgence (5.5) and, worst of all, condemned and murdered innocent people (5.6).  It seems likely that he was writing about people outside the church who, nevertheless, had an impact on the believers.  Throughout history men and women have sometimes been perplexed and frightened by the apparent success of wicked people who intimidate the faithful but powerless minority.  The prophecy of Habakkuk and Psalm 73 address this problem and both commend faith in God’s ultimate control and purpose.


In addition to threats from outside, James identifies dangers within.  Grumbling against one another (5.9) is a particular danger when we are placed under pressure by difficult circumstances and it is often those closest to us who suffer most.  James regards grumbling as a dangerous symptom of a lack of patience.  Paul addresses the same issue with an exhortation that we should be “patient, bearing with one another in love” (Ephesians 4.2).  James adds another dimension by looking beyond the present time to the coming judgement: “Don’t grumble against each other, brothers, or you will be judged.  The judge is standing at the door!”  It seems likely that James has two aspects of judgement in mind.  First, the imminence of the day of judgement should encourage us to examine our own behaviour because grumbling and criticising other believers is not the way of love.  But second, the certainty of final judgement reminds us of the need to be patient, knowing that in God’s good time there will be an end to all injustice and suffering.


It is a long time since James wrote this and today more people than ever scoff at the notion that Christ will come again.  We should not be surprised at this.  Peter predicted that in the last days some would say “where is this ‘coming’ he promised?  Ever since our fathers died everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation” (2 Peter 3.4).  Peter identifies two flaws in this argument.  He points out first, that God has intervened in history before (3.6) and second, that these scoffers are viewing history only from a human perspective (3.8-9).  Peter is certain that the day of the Lord will come.  So he asks “…what kind of people ought you to be?”  His answer is that “you ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming” (3.11-12).  This is another aspect of patience.  Living holy and godly lives in an unholy and godless society can be uncomfortable and challenging.  Our standards and expectations may be criticised or ridiculed.  Our message is frequently ignored.  The need to follow Peter’s advice about living holy and godly lives has never been greater.


James offers two examples of patience in the face of suffering.  The first example is the prophets.  This might seem a surprising choice when we think about Jeremiah, for example.  He was the victim of plotting, cursing, persecution, false accusation and ridicule (Jeremiah 11.18-19; 15.10; 17.15-18; 18.18; 20.7-10).  His reaction to these indignities might at first seem to be the opposite of patience.  Yet for all this he was open and honest with God about his inner struggle and did not lose sight of his calling or of the help which God repeatedly promised.  He was never passive but endured in the knowledge that God was with him and that justice and righteousness would ultimately prevail.


The second example offered by James is the “patience” of Job.  The word used here is not the same as in earlier verses and modern translations substitute “endurance” or “perseverance.”  Nevertheless, at first sight the example of Job also seems inappropriate.  Job complained about his circumstances, argued his innocence and questioned God’s ways.  Yet he never abandoned his faith, even when he felt crushed and victimised by his friends.  Job endured and persevered until he was ready to open his mind to the voice of the Lord.  His first reaction was “I am unworthy” and there is nothing more I can say (Job 40.4-5).  Yet after the Lord had spoken to him a second time Job gladly acknowledged that a significant change had taken place.  Previously he had heard of the Lord but had failed to see Him (42.5).  Now his eyes had been opened.


James gives us a valuable pointer to the importance of this part of the process.  “You have heard of Job’s perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about.  The Lord is full of compassion and mercy.” (5.11)  If Job had buckled under the pressure of suffering, or if he had not challenged the advice of his friends, or if he had simply remained silent in the face of divine power, the process of enlightenment would not have come to fruition.  It is notable that the Lord did not answer the questions Job asked.  He addressed other, deeper, issues which Job had to grasp if he was to begin to see the light.  Through all this, Job persevered in his search for truth and was blessed by the Lord.  One outcome was that he enjoyed greater material prosperity in the end than he had before everything was taken away.  But we should resist the assumption that this was a reward for endurance.  James makes it clear that the outcome was not a reward but the result of the compassion and mercy of the Lord.  This is why the other outcome is so important.  The Revised English Bible offers the following translation of Job 42.5: “I knew of you then only by report, but now I see you with my own eyes.”  Prior to the manifestation of the Lord, Job’s religion was second-hand.  Apparently he found this adequate when things were going well, but when disaster struck his concept of God proved inadequate.  He was unable to make sense of his place in God’s world.  Only when God spoke directly to him did theory became reality.


We are as much in need of patient endurance as were Job and the prophets and the brothers and sisters to whom James addressed his exhortation.  The Lord’s coming is always near for those who long for his coming.  The judge is always standing at the door.  Jesus taught that those who simply wait passively will be taken unawares when he returns.  The parable of the ten virgins is a clear warning of this (Matthew 25.1-13).  Yet “the Lord is full of compassion and mercy.”  He gave reassurance to the Prophets when their faith was challenged by the suffering they endured.  He opened the eyes of Job who endured in spite of wounding criticism.  And He speaks to us through His Son.  This is why we are encouraged in the letter to the Hebrews to “fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.  Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart” (Hebrews 12.2-3).



Brother John Greenwood- Yeovil, England 10.6.07


[1] Bible references taken from the New International Version