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 forewarned believers of impending trials of many kinds (James 1:2-3), trials designed to expose weighty sins, and to refine us to 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’ benediction completes his salutation(1), encouraging believers to maintain their faith in God in the midst of trials, and to have the right attitude about those trials. They are to be positive about the trials God throws their way because they are ultimately for their good, producing the imperishable quality of 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. To do this, he urges us to embrace the examples of prophets of old, godly men who endured trials and grew to maturity of faith by means of two essential ingredients of faith…suffering and patience. Suffering involves handling the pressure in the moment, and patience maintains hope for a better future without expectations for today. 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.
The Patience of Job
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, happy kids, healthy skin, a successful business, and great wealth. But in an horrifying 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 wife was frustrated and understandably tortured with grief over the tragedy, so much so she 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.
The Suffering of Jeremiah
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 with contentment. God called him to do some hard things, things that brought great discomfort to his life. Rather than complain or refuse, Jeremiah accepted his assignments and carried them out. At first, he did them with some complaints. But as he grew older, his complaints diminished and his courage increased. Some call this sadistic behavior, but I would not be so quick to judge. I would call it “suffering well.” It the kind of suffering Peter referred to in his first letter, when he cited Jesus’ example of suffering as an example of the virtues of submitting to harsh leaders and “unreasonable” bosses(4).
When preparing to run a race, we have a healthy appreciation of the agony we’re about to suffer. We are nervous about it, but if we are racers at heart, we know it’s totally worth it. We ought to face life the same way. Expect hardship. Expect suffering. And when suffering comes, suffer well. As James wrote in the introduction of his letter:
“Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” — James 1:2-3
Let’s see trials for what they are, intentional tests from the Lord intended to refine us. In that view, be content in the suffering. “Suffer well”, for it is by suffering that God refines us, makes us more mature.
It is not as though God leaves us helpless through the suffering. He gives us encouragement in real-time, and a future hope that we can focus on through the suffering. In the midst of the race of life, when weariness sets in, James calls us to keep our eyes on the coming of Jesus, and he calls us to be like farmers who must wait through the season until the harvest is ready. When it seems like God doesn’t notice our suffering, when our prayers don’t get answered day after day, fix your eyes on these truths.
- James 1:2-3
- Job 2:9
- Jeremiah 17:8
- I Peter 2:13-24