This text is used for the Lectionary Year A on December 11th, 2016.
How should Christ-followers face life situations of adversity, suffering, and persecution? James offers some instruction in his letter to the predominantly Jewish Christians (“the twelve tribes scattered among the nations”) who were forced to move away from their homes in Palestine.
From this letter, the adversity that these Christians were going through included being poor, being taken to court by the wealthy and powerful, and being oppressed by landowners.
James advises these Christians to live in these oppressive and challenging circumstances with patience. Also, James instructs these Christians to frame their adversity within an eschatological hope—the reality of the Lord’s return. Might one think of this patience as an attitude of living through challenging, unpredictable, uncomfortable and painful situations with a calm confidence?
James uses an everyday metaphor to illustrate this patience—a farmer’s work and life. The farmer works the soil, plants the seed, and then waits for the harvest. It’s not a doing-nothing-kind of waiting. There are small things a farmer can do to work toward a harvest. But, the farmer can’t control the weather and other factors that determine the harvest. Might other images, like a physician treating a patient or a teacher developing students illustrate this kind of patient’s, too? Their work and life, like the farmer’s, is both simple and complex with factors in their control and beyond their control.
According to James, the critical exercise for becoming a patient person is to “strengthen your hearts.” Although patience is often viewed as a quality of a passive or weak person, it is not. It takes an internally strong, disciplined person to be a patient person.
How does one make one’s heart stronger? James says it’s by believing that “the coming of the Lord is near.” Being constantly aware of this spiritual reality requires real discipline. In the life of the believer, one can be frustrated by, restricted by, hurting from one’s current reality and, at the same time, hold on to an attitude of faith that one’s life is incorporated into God’s redeeming work in the world through Jesus Christ. And, this activity, along with the gracious presence of God, produces patience in a Christ-follower’s character and life.
In the hard and trying times of adversity, suffering, and persecution, people tend to become edgy with one another. Relationships among believers can degenerate into grumbling and judging when they focus on their circumstances instead of their character in those circumstances. Without people with patience, adversity can create fear and anger, which produce a spirit of complaining and judging.
Being a patient person means visualizing God as Judge “standing at the doors,” and remembering the stories of the prophets who endured suffering with patience as they “spoke in the name of the Lord.”
In this text, these first century Christians faced being uprooted from their homes, being poor, living under the control of persons with wealth and power, and living under a government that provided weak protection for the practicing of their newly developing religion. In addition to these kinds of adversity, one can imagine the common human kinds of suffering from physical illnesses, personal frustrations, social obstacles, and the reality of death.
What types of adversity are the various groups of people in our country, communities, and congregations facing? What metaphors from everyday life might help them conceptualize how they face their suffering? What exercises from one’s faith might strengthen their hearts and produce patience? What does it look like to be patient in the midst of suffering, adversity, persecution?
How does one live as a patient follower of Jesus in the face of physical suffering and the reality of dying? How does one live as a patient follower of Jesus in the face of adversities that keep one from enjoying life and fulfilling one’s dreams? How does one live as a patient follower of Jesus under the oppression of unfair people and unjust systems?
What is the difference between Christians who lived in the Greco-Roman slave state where a privileged few had the freedom to practice democracy and 21st century Christians on this side of that history? What about revolutions, liberation theology, social activism and protest, and conscientious objection?
How does a Christ-follower live as a patient follower of Jesus in the midst of religious persecution? In the U.S., it is quite relevant to ask, what is religious persecution, religious discrimination, and religious liberty? And, it is quite important to listen to how individuals express their response? And, to ask, from which side of life have they developed their perspectives: as one among those who are in the majority; or as one among those who are in the minority?
According to James, patience in suffering and adversity, not one’s power or privilege, is our witness for Christ.
Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Arkansas, Little Rock, Arkansas
Tags: patience, the coming of the Lord, suffering, strengthen your hearts, grumbling