James has been exhorting us these past few weeks to keep our distance from the world. Although we live and work in this world, James wants us to be remain unstained by it. He wants our focus to remain on God.
The reality is, however, that we often fail in this endeavour. We are lured into pursuing all kinds of physical pleasures and prestige that the world offers. We are lured by these things because they are immediate. They are right in front of us, and in an age of "instant gratification", they are difficult to resist.
But James wants us to be "doers of the word"(1:22). He wants us to be "doers" because "doer(s) . . . shall be blessed"(1:25). James wants us to "submit to God"(4:7), he wants us to "draw near to God"(4:8), and he wants us to pursue the Lord's will(4:15). And now, here in chapter 5, James gives us one of the keys to doing--PATIENCE.
"But patience is not an action", you say. In one sense you are absolutely right. Patience implies an absence of doing--an absence of doing where we simply sit back and wait.
I would argue, however, that being patient is indeed an action. Although it in one sense involves an absence of action, we must ask ourselves, how is it that we find ourselves waiting?
We find ourselves waiting because WE DECIDE TO. While patience implies an absence of acting, the very decision to wait and be patient is an act--and a very important one at that.
Last Sunday I summarized James 4:13-17 by saying this: "The Lord is in control". And since God is in control, the proper response of Christians is to seek God and trust God with all things. We do this be giving the Lord control.
Now I realize there is a sense where God is in control whether we give it to Him or not, yet we are admonished nonetheless to "submit to God"(4:7)--to give God control.
Now here's the difficulty. Because we are worldly, even when we give control over to God, we expect immediate results. The difficulty is, and we all know this from experience, that results are seldom immediate. And because doing God's will does not always yield immediate results, James exhorts us to: "Be patient"(5:7).
Now this isn't some ethical sermon on patience. James isn't concerned about whether we sit in traffic for 2 hours or whether we wait in a dinner line-up for an hour. The patience that James calls for is of a certain nature.
When James says, "Be patient" he is exhorting us to be patient with regards to the will of the Lord. Because we too often rush and embrace what the world offers us, James urges us in chapter 4 to "submit to God" and to seek His will. And for the results of this submission we must be patient--patient with God.
Many of you, I'm sure, know what it is like to take a long trip with children. While I don't yet have any of my own, I was one of those kids who always asked the question: "Are we there yet?". On the way to West Palm Beach Florida I'd ask my dad, "Are we there yet?" "No, this is only Buffalo".
We are like young children with our hopes for immediate blessings from God. We begin going to church more regularly and we ask, "Are we there yet?". But it's only Pittsburgh. We start to read our Bible more and we ask, "Are we there yet?". But it's only Washington. We increase our offering at church and ask, "Are we there yet?". It's only Charlotte. We commit ourselves to praying 3 times daily, visiting the sick, and teaching Sunday School and we ask, "Are we there yet?". It's only Savannah.
Do we ever reach West Palm Beach? No--probably not in this lifetime. For James says, "Be patient, therefore, brethren, until the coming of the Lord"(5:7). We have to accept the fact that we may be waiting for results that we will never see with human eyes.
And just because we may not see the final results of godliness does not give us the excuse to do nothing at all. Serving and supporting the church is still necessary. Regular habits of Bible study and prayer are not optional for the Christian.
Look at the example of patience which James gives us: a "farmer" who "waits for the precious produce of the soil"(5:7). None of us would picture this farmer sitting inside all day sipping cocktails and watching cable TV. We don't picture a farmer that does nothing at all except peek out the window periodically to look at his crop.
A farmer must prepare the soil before planting seeds. And even as the plant grows, the soil must be regularly tilled. With certain plants and fruit trees, branches must also be pruned. The farmer does many things to facilitate growth, but at the end of the day the farmer recognizes that they cannot CAUSE growth. They must be patient and wait for things beyond their control. They must be patient for "rain".
As a farmer works and then waits for growth, so a Christian strives for godliness and waits for spiritual growth and blessings. The final results of spiritual growth may be certain, but they may not be seen any time soon--we might have to wait "until the coming of the Lord".
Like many early Christians, James had the conviction that the return of the Lord Jesus could be any minute. Nearly 2000 years later, we may be tempted to say that James was mistaken. James was not mistaken. James lived like the Lord COULD come at any minute. The Apostle Paul lived like Christ COULD return at any time. But neither Paul nor James ever insisted that Christ HAD to return in their lifetime.
They, like Jesus, did not claim to know "the day or the hour"(Mk.13:32), but they lived their lives and taught others to live their lives as if Jesus was returning any minute.
It does not make a difference whether Jesus returns next Friday or in another 2000 years--Paul's admonition to "be alert"(1Thess.5:6) and James' admonition to "be patient" still applies.
The point is Christ will come again. He came the first time as Saviour, and the New Testament agrees with James when he states that Christ will return this time as "Judge"(5:9).
Being patient does not give us permission to do nothing. James qualifies what it means to "be patient" in verse 8 when he says to "strengthen your hearts".
Well, our heart should belong to the Lord. So to strengthen our heart is to strengthen our relationship with Christ. Strengthening our heart requires prayer. Strengthening our heart requires attention to the Scriptures. And here's the one we often neglect--strengthening our heart requires fellowship with other Christians. I don't necessarily mean church attendance here--we are pretty good at that. We need fellowship with other Christians where the purpose of the fellowship is building one another up. This is the message of Hebrews 10:24, 25, it is the message of Ephesians 4, and it is the message of 1Corinthians 12.
In a nutshell, James wants us to walk more closely with God. James wants us to walk more closely with God and to put worldly things in their proper place. And the means to this end is patience with the will of God.
James even gives us some examples: "the prophets" and "Job"(5:10, 11). Should those examples intimidate us? I don't think so. Too often we are given examples like this--we are told to have endurance like Job--and we figure that is like being asked to play basketball like Michael Jordan or like being asked to sing like Celine Dion. But this is not the case.
The prophet Jeremiah, who could not understand what God was doing asked God, "Why has my pain been perpetual . . . Will You continue to be to me like a deceptive stream with water that is unreliable?"(Jer.15:18). Jeremiah had the audacity to equate Almighty God with "a deceptive stream"! The prophet Elijah is also well-known for his complaining(1Ki.19). And even Job grumbled, complained, and self-righteously proclaimed his innocence before God. Yet these men are our examples--they are examples of patience and endurance because they persevered.
Even when their outward circumstances caused them to complain against and doubt God they remained faithful. Complain, they did, but they refused to throw in the towel. They never gave up.
Life may frustrate us. God may even frustrate us--we may wonder "what in the world is God doing with my life?". "World", of course, is the key word. God is preparing us for eternity--He is preparing us for "the coming of the Lord". How God manages our earthly affairs may be a mystery, but James leaves us with some good news: "the Lord is full of compassion and is merciful"(5:11).
The Lord wants the very best for us, but let us not arrogantly assume that we know what this "best" is.
As the trials of life and our circumstances continue to frustrate us, be comforted by the admonition from James: "be patient; strengthen your hearts" and know for certain that "the Lord is full of compassion". Amen.