Endurance

Reflections on James 5:7-11 —

I quit football the second day of practice in my eighth grade year.  Sometimes, I regret that decision–it may have been fun.  But, it was just too demanding for my fragile,  5’11” 155-pound frame.  And, I was a whimp.  So when a friend encouraged me to go out for cross-country my sophomore year, I was ripe for the pickins.

Next to basketball, cross-country quickly became a favorite sport.  I loved the scenery–meets are held not on a boring, asphalt track, but on green golf courses, wooded parks, hilly schoolyards, …wherever there’s enough green to lay out a 2-mile course (I think it’s 5K for guys these days).  We had a great coach, Ms. Anderson, who was always positive and encouraging (we are Facebook friends!).  I also loved cross-country because it’s the only sport in which you can finish dead last, and still have people cheer you on (that actually happened to me once; I’m not making this stuff up!).

My most memorable race was in Atlantic, Iowa, in 1984.  The race at Atlantic was our district meet, the top four teams of which would go to the state competition in Ames.  I had been struggling in my previous few meets, and had fallen back to being Gilbert High School’s third best runner behind Scott Brause and Bob Garmin.  We called Garmin “Gumby” because of his long, lanky arms and legs and goofy-looking face. I knew I would never beat Scott–he was way too fast.  But on a good day, I could beat Gumby. I was just in some kind of funk, and needed something to shake me out of it.

That something was Mr. Graham.  On the night before the Atlantic meet, Mr. Graham came to our practice, well-dressed in his familiar fedora, tie, and brown trench coat.  After practice, he called us together for an inspirational speech.  Actually, I’m not sure why he was there–both of his sons had graduated high school and moved on the year before. He obviously loved the competitive thrill of cross-country.  He had studied our team throughout the year, and he wanted to give each one of us a few thoughtful, encouraging words.  When he came to me, he said something like this–“Schillinger, you’re a mystery, a wild card.  I’ve seen you run well, and I’ve seen you run not so well. All I can say is, if you run well tomorrow, your team will go to state.”

I’ve spent most of my life searching for identity, trying to figure out who I am.  That day, I knew exactly who I was–I was a wild card!  I liked that…

The next day, on a winding, hilly course that circled Atlantic High School’s playground and practice fields, I embraced the “wild card” spirit and ran like my life counted on it.  About half-way around the course, I saw Gumby lumbering ahead of me.  I felt a surge of energy and pushed myself.  As I passed him, Gumby gasped, “Go, Schillinger!”  I kept surging and never let up, finishing strong, taking down runners from other teams as I went.  When the scores were tallied, we finished fourth.  We were on to state!

Bottom line, I just needed some help focusing on the prize, a trip to state.

In chapter 5, verses 7-11 of his letter, James is Mr. Graham.  The prize James points us to is the coming of Jesus Christ, and the rewards for our works of faith.

Never, never, ever lose sight of that prize.

A Powerful Benediction

Up until this point in his letter, James’ message has not been flowery.  Quite the opposite:

  • He exposed countless, weighty sins Christians commit every day.
  • He forewarned believers of impending trials of many kinds (James 1:2-3), trials designed to expose weighty sins, to demonstrate the prevalence of sin, and to foster maturity.
  • He revealed three enemies that are out to get us: our flesh and all its selfish ambitions (James 3:13-16), the world and all its trappings (James 4:1-4), and the devil and his schemes (James 4:7).

In the face of these harsh realities of life, James wrote perhaps the most important benediction ever:

“Therefore be patient, brethren, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious produce of the soil, being patient about it, until it gets the early and late rains.  You too be patient; strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near. Do not complain,brethren, against one another, so that you yourselves may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing right at the door. As an example, brethren, of suffering and patience, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. We count those blessed who endured. You have heard of the endurance of Job and have seen the outcome of the Lord’s dealings, that the Lord is full of compassion and is merciful.” — James 5:7-11

James’ conclusion completes his salutation(1) in which he advised believers to maintain their faith in God in the midst of trials, and to have the right attitude about those trials because they produce endurance.

Endurance is a form of strength. It is not like physical, brute force strength, the kind that pushes over cars and such.  It’s more like resiliency, the kind of strength that does its work over time.  It’s like a bridge holding up countless cars and trucks year after year.  When James says to “strengthen your hearts” (James 5:8), he wants our faith to be like that bridge.  He wants us to withstand pressure over time, which he refers to as “suffering and patience.”

Suffering and patience are two essential ingredients required for producing endurance, and ultimately, mature faith. Suffering feels the effects of pressure, and patience helps it last until the pressure subsides.  The two must work hand-in-hand for the operation to be successful.  James refers us to the prophets and to Job as examples of people who suffered with patience.  Let’s take a look at some of them.

Patience

James began his great benediction with, “be patient.” (James 5:7).  I don’t like being patient.  Time is precious to me.  I’m a multi-tasker to a fault, squeezing as much productivity out of every minute as is humanly possible.  There is nothing worse for me than getting stuck in an unanticipated traffic jam, or waiting in a long checkout line at art supply stores and such that don’t know anything about the importance of getting customers checked out quickly.

We need to be patient in our walk, for faith is not an instantaneous thing.  On the contrary, faith involves time.  Notice how many places in scripture we are told to wait…wait on the Lord, etc., etc.  The things we are to have faith about are usually down the road a bit, and take time to get to. A farmer would love to get his harvest in soon after planting, to reap the benefit from his work, but he must wait a few months, allow time for growth, let the rains come.

James lists Job as an example of people who endured.  Job was a guy who had it all–a loving wife, lots of happy kids, healthy skin, a successful business, and great wealth.  But in an interesting chain of events, God tasked Satan to take all that away in a single day.  Through a series of violent storms and vicious attacks, Satan did what he is good at–wrecking people’s lives.

Job’s own wife, frustrated and understandably tortured with grief, tried to dissuade her husband from believing in God(2).  His best friends tried to help him make sense of his sufferings.  Time passed.  No answer was given.  No “silver lining” to his tragedy appeared.  This is the place where suffering and patience forge faith.  Yes, Job got confused.  Yes, he complained a little.  But in the end, when God showed His hand, Job was well-prepared to listen, and he promptly and appropriately responded in humility.

Waiting on God is hard.  Sometimes when you’re waiting on God, you feel like a bush in the middle of a desert.  But the one who continues to fear God in the midst of drought is like a tree that blooms and bears fruit “even in a year of drought”(3).  Wait patiently for God–it will make your roots go deep.

Suffering

A friend of mine once commented that when he gets to heaven and sees Jeremiah, he wanted to be able to say, “I read your book!”  I took that to heart and read Jeremiah’s book for myself about seven years ago.  It took about a year to go through it thoroughly, to the point where I felt like I understood his message.  I’m glad I did, for Jeremiah’s book developed a right attitude of suffering and patience in me, so that I could withstand some difficult trials I was to face later in life.

Jeremiah was a guy who had great expectations for his life.  He was the son of a priest, a good Jewish boy with a lot of promise.  He had a great heritage, good connections with lots of friends and family, lots to look forward to.  But then God called him away from all that at an early age.  He had a special mission for Jeremiah.  He was to be God’s spokesman, to call out the King of Judah and its priests and prophets for all their hidden agenda–their idolatry, oppressiveness, unfaithfulness, deceit, and corruption.  He was to warn the people of impending judgment, doom, and gloom.  He was to separate himself from society, avoid social events, even to abstain from marriage.  Amazingly, Jeremiah obeyed, faithfully repeating God’s unpleasant warnings to the people.  Yet even Jeremiah succumbed to a common vice we all share.  He obeyed, but secretly, he was counting on big rewards from God for his courage and faithfulness.  Instead, all he got was persecution! His messages were not well-received.  He was scorned, mocked, ridiculed, and reviled.  Other prophets would contradict him, call him a liar and a traitor.  He was plotted against, locked in stocks, and thrown in a cistern to die.  Jeremiah’s life story reveals one misfortune after another.  No wonder he is often called “the weeping prophet.”  His conversations with God, recorded for our benefit, give us great insight into a man whose expectations had to change over time.

It is sad when people suffer with things outside their control–things like oppression, abuse, and cancer fall in this category.  It is really sad when people suffer because of their stupidity, recklessness, and godlessness.  But I think Jeremiah demonstrates the highest and noblest form of suffering, because he accepted it willingly.  By choosing to hold fast to belief in God, and continuing to do what He asked even to his own demise, Jeremiah invited suffering upon himself, for the right reason.  Some call this sadistic behavior, but I would not be so quick to judge a person who is just doing what he feels called to do.  This is the kind of suffering Peter referred to in his first letter, when he talked about the virtues of submitting to harsh leaders and “unreasonable” bosses, citing Jesus’ example(4).  Peter concluded that thought by writing, “…it is better, if God should will it so, that you suffer for doing what is right rather than for doing what is wrong”(5).

Weariness

It’s hard to consistently believe God and do what He asks.  The things He asks run counter to our culture.  Sometimes He asks us to give something up, give something away, be kind to an unkind person, do something that doesn’t seem fair, or step out of our comfort zone.  When the three enemies of our flesh, the world, and the devil are fighting against you, it’s exceptionally hard to do what He asks.  Over time, doing the right thing can become wearisome.  We see everyone else in the world enjoying those pleasures, comforts, entertainments, and addictions and they seem to get away with it.  We don’t see payback for our faithful deeds.  We don’t see anything or anyone changing in spite of all our efforts.  When we don’t see results, we get distracted.  We forget why we’re trying to do good.  We lose hope.  We forget that God cares, that He notices us, and that He will reward us in the future for acts of faith.

James wants us to watch for signs of weariness–in ourselves and in others.  His instruction about prayer in James 5:13-16 focuses on people who are weary, tired of suffering, succumbing to hopelessness, and in need of encouragement.  Weary people need strengthening.

Hope Against Hope

Abraham and his wife Sarah were old and childless when God promised them a son.  God didn’t promise them that the child would come in nine months.  Years went by.  Nothing.  After about 12 years of continued barrenness, Abraham grew weary. Imagine how difficult it would be to believe God after 12 years of waiting.  I think he just grew tired of waiting, tired of believing.  In that moment of despair, Abraham slept with Sarah’s nurse and got her pregnant.  All of this was Sarah’s suggestion!  Sarah was pretty desperate herself.

But something must have happened to Abraham around that time, for the record Paul writes about him is a different story, a much better story.  Paul says this of Abraham(6):

“In hope against hope he believed, so that he might become a father of many nations according to that which had been spoken, ‘So shall your descendants be.’ Without becoming weak in faith he contemplated his own body, now as good as dead since he was about a hundred years old, and the deadness of Sarah’s womb; yet, with respect to the promise of God, he did not waver in unbelief but grew strong in faith, giving glory to God, and being fully assured that what God had promised, He was able also to perform. Therefore it was also credited to him as righteousness.”

In the lowest point of his despair, Abraham found a resurgence of faith.  Somehow, he remembered God.  He remembered the prize–God had made him a promise of a descendant.  It had to happen, for God cannot go back on a promise.  Time served its purpose, and Abraham’s faith was refined and matured over the next 13 years.  His faith in this area grew so strong, he believed God even “against all hope”. He must have looked at his shriveled, 99-year-old body, …and smirked, shaking his head at God’s audacity and power.   In those last days before Sarah gave birth, He must have gazed heavenward, smirking, and having a few good laughs with God over the whole thing.

Truth Worth Remembering

In the midst of the race of life, when weariness sets in, you need refocusing.  Paul tells us to “…fix our eyes on Jesus Christ, the author and perfecter of our faith”(7).  James also points us to Jesus; more specifically to the coming of Jesus, and the certainty that justice will be served.  That’s because in that day, the Judge arrives (James 5:9). That sounds bad in contemporary vernacular, but to the Jew, the coming as the Judge was a good thing.  They actually asked for it(8).  To a people with a history of abuse and oppression, God coming as Judge meant justice, restoration, and vindication.   When He holds court, mysteries will be revealed, secrets will be uncovered, and rewards will be presented.  In that day, people will finally know your story, those difficult secrets you suffered with that nobody knew.  You will be rewarded for every moment you had faith in spite of it all, every time you believed in God and cried out to Him, even when He seemed far away.

Sadly, there will also be things revealed  that you don’t want revealed.  Many of us will be surprised in that day. Everyone will give account for all of their actions(9), which will be tested as with fire–the noble, faithful things we did will be purified and refined; the selfish and faithless things we did will burn and scorch(10).    We will give account for every careless word spoken(11).  So much of our lives we live as though no one sees us.  We hide within the four walls of our homes and become different people, our words less guarded, our attitudes no longer propped up, our defenses lowered.  Don’t let yourself be numbed by a society that denies accountability.  Judgment is reality. But don’t shiver in fear. God is full of mercy and compassion (James 5:11).  If you know you’ve messed up, you have time now to confess your sins, and believe that God forgives your sincere confession.

Keeping our minds focused on these truths gives meaning to our day.  Suddenly, every decision, every word takes on new significance.  Contemporary Christianity doesn’t speak much of heavenly rewards. I think we are too proud to consider them proper motivation for doing good.  But from what I read, we should be mindful of our spiritual “bank account” and try to fill it!  Jesus taught us to store up “treasures in heaven”(12).  I think these are tokens of righteousness accredited to your heavenly bank account, like the ones Paul refers to in Romans 4.  For example, when Abraham believed that God could give him a child, Paul says, “…it was also credited to him as righteousness”(13).  I don’t think Paul is saying Abraham “became a Christian” at this point, as many believe.  Abraham had already been chosen by God to be the forefather of the God’s people.  I simply think Paul is saying Abraham’s demonstrated faith in this one area was grounds for him to receive a treasure in heaven, deposited in his heavenly bank account.  Abraham’s belief in God’s ability to keep a promise in spite of all odds was important to God. Some day in heaven, Abraham will pick up that coin, hold it up, look over at God, and laugh!

Be like the farmer who sees past the summer to the glorious harvest.  Keep your mind focused on the important things, the true things that give significance to your every day life.  Strengthen your heart with these thoughts.  When it seems like God doesn’t notice what you’re doing or what’s happening to you, when your prayers don’t get answered day after day, fix your eyes on the truth.

 

Notes:

  1. James 1:2-3
  2. Job 2:9
  3. Jeremiah 17:8
  4. I Peter 2:13-24
  5. I Peter 3:7
  6. Romans 4:18-22
  7. Hebrews 12:2
  8. Psalm 50:3
  9. II Corinthians 5:10, Philippians 2:10-11, Romans 14:12
  10. I Corinthians 3:10-15
  11. Matthew 12:33-37
  12. Matthew 6:19-20
  13. Romans 4:22

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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