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Suffering plus patience equals -- joy!

Updated on November 25, 2009

Patience, they say, is a virtue. It also seems increasingly rare. Hardly anyone obeys the speed limit on the highway, and we hate to get stuck behind someone who is. Too much in a hurry. People who used to spend hours or days gathering information expect it instantly with a couple of mouse clicks. Need it fast. Need it yesterday.

No one wants to suffer. If we can't avoid it, it's best to find the quickest way back to our comfort zone. Or if there is no fast way out, cover it up with food or drink or chemicals. Blame someone else and try to spread the misery around.

Does anyone benefit from impatience? I certainly haven't, and I haven't noticed anyone else who does, either. We all need to calm down and open our hearts to the Holy Spirit. A familiar poem by John Greenleaf Whittier concludes,

Drop Thy still dews of quietness
Till all our strivings cease.
Take from our souls the strain and stress
And let our ordered lives confess
The beauty of Thy peace.

While waiting for that prayer to manifest in our thoughts, it helps to meditate on the wise counsel contained in James 5:7-11. James's illustration of the farmer is a very helpful place to start. Advancing technology has changed much about how farming is done. Modern fertilizers and machinery have made it possible for one farmer to feed a couple of orders of magnitude more people than an ancient farmer could, with less physical labor.

But technology does not make the crops grow any faster. Technology does not control the rainfall or make it more predictable. Today's farmers, like those in biblical times, plant their crops and wait. Although they have plenty of work to do between the time they plant seed and the time they harvest, the crops grow and mature at their own pace, aided or hindered by weather conditions the farmer cannot influence. He waits patiently. Farming it too much work to waste energy on waiting impatiently.

Farming at New Farm, Hilton

 Copyright Duncan Grey and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons License
Copyright Duncan Grey and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons License

All Christians wait for something else, the overarching promise of the New Testament. When Jesus ascended into heaven, he left behind the promise that  he would come back. Could James have possibly guessed that we would still be waiting for Jesus to return 2000 years later? God is not in a hurry, so we might as well wait for  him patiently. We have no more influence on his timing than the farmer has on how long it takes his crops to grow.

At least the farmer knows about how many weeks or months he has to wait. God can speak to our hearts with a vividness that makes it feel like the answer is coming within the hour, but it hardly ever happens that fast. The turning point comes without warning, and then waiting turns to joy, as God gives us not only the answer we patiently sought, but other blessings that never entered our minds.

While we wait for God, James tells us, do not be impatient with each other. If that seems difficult, and it certainly can be, it helps to recall that we have no more influence to make family, friends, enemies, or strangers do our bidding than we have over how long it takes our tomatoes to ripen.

The fact is, God has forgiven us all our sin. Forgiveness requires patience, among other things. We put ourselves in a position where we cannot receive the forgiveness that God freely offers if we  hang onto our grudges and refuse to forgive.

When James mentions the prophets and Job, he brings us face to face with the necessity of suffering. We consider these ancient biblical characters heros of the faith. We lift them up and exalt them far above their contemporaries. Their contemporaries did not.

They viewed the prophets as men who insisted on saying what no one wanted to hear. They interfered in people's lives and pronounced uncomfortable words about sin and judgment. Most people ignored the prophets. Some actively persecuted them.

Although not a prophet, Job had to bear not only his own troubles, but his friends' assumption that no one suffers without deserving it. When he rejected their suggestion of some hidden sin in his life, they turned on him

Where was God while Job and the prophets suffered? He caused their suffering. He allowed Satan to test Job beyond what anyone but Jesus has ever been tested. He sent the prophets out with an unwelcome message he knew society would angrily reject. In some cases, he compounded the problem by making them do odd things like marrying an unfaithful woman or buying property while predicting the destruction of the city.

James mentioned the suffering of Job and the prophets as a reminder that it was not the end of the story for any of them. Job received back everything he lost. The prophets knew that God and a substantial minority of the public  honored them. They considered honor from God more important than honor from corrupt leaders and immoral  people.

As we look at all of James' illustrations, we see that everyone receives from God, and that God's gifts and favor more than make up for any suffering they experienced while waiting.

The farmer endures months of hard work and waiting and then harvests his crop. The prophet receives vindication from the Lord in return for putting up with abuse from the godless. Jesus has not yet returned in glory, but he come back to dwell within his church and his  people. We can have a glorious relationship with him while we wait for his even more glorious return.

No matter what ills we suffer, whether health, the business cycle, strained or even poisonous relationships, rejection, betrayal, grief of loss, physical pain, or just the endless succession of petty annoyances that crop up even in the best of times, it is always too early to give up. God has promised glory. Even if we never see more than a glimmer of it in this life, we know we will see it perfectly in the next.

Fretting about our troubles only makes them worse. God is full of mercy and compassion, but it is by faith and patience that we inherit his promises.

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