A PRACTICAL FAITH: (5) EXERCISING PATIENCE
Back in the early days of my ministry, I was leading a service one Sunday afternoon at retirement home known for its well-appointed accommodations. This service was always followed by tea with the residents. Over tea and cookies it was common for those in attendance to offer their reflections on the sermon. On this particular Sunday afternoon I drank my tea while sitting next to a stately woman in her late eighties. This woman had been born into one of Toronto’s most prominent families, and she was the widow of a judge who had concluded his career on the Supreme Court of Canada. I think in my sermon that day I must have preached on the rich young ruler, or some similar passage, because that prompted her to make a comment which I still remember very clearly. She said, “The Bible doesn’t have much for rich people - does it?”
These words echo in my ears when I read the opening verses of the fifth chapter of the book of James. In these verses, James is so hard on rich people - so excoriatingly critical - that you feel sorry for them. When he tells rich people to weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon them, you can’t help thinking that this seems a bit harsh on individuals who simply managed to be born into the right family or “marry well”. Are people excluded from the kingdom of God purely on the basis of how big their bank account is?
We were reminded this week, with the election of a pope who espouses the values of St. Francis of Assisi, that God has a particular concern for the poor. But does God have an equal and opposite reaction towards the rich? You might get that feeling from reading these words of James. But does God’s love for a person actually cease if they move up into a higher tax bracket?
That would seem to be a rather rigid way for God to approach things, so we have to think there’s more going on in this passage than merely a lambasting of rich people. The clue that points towards this doesn’t come until James has completed his indictment of the wealthy. After James has listed the crimes and punishments of the rich, he says, “Be patient, then, brothers and sisters, until the Lord’s coming.” What that tells us is that James is not actually talking to rich people. Instead he’s talking to those Christian brothers and sisters who are suffering at the hands of those who are greedy and ruthless. He’s telling the poor to take heart in the face of injustice.
In the New Testament period, the word “rich” was actually an insult. It didn’t really have anything to do with how much money you had. It had to do with how obsessed you were with acquiring wealth. In a culture where almost all of a person’s wealth consisted of land and property, there was a lot of suspicion of people who wanted to increase their wealth. You could only get more land by taking it from someone else – in other words, the rich could only get richer if the poor got poorer. A rich person, then, was someone who exploited others, stealing what rightfully belonged to them.
Modern economics has taught us that wealth can be created – it doesn’t have to be taken from someone else. Although it’s certainly true that wealth is sometimes stolen from other people. That’s true today, and it was true in the time of the New Testament.
James is not condemning wealthy people in general – he’s condemning those whose wealth is ill-gotten - those who exploit and rob others. And he’s saying these words of condemnation primarily to encourage the victims of these crooks and swindlers. James is declaring that God is on the side of those who suffer, and that in the end justice will be done. These words of judgment on those who take advantage of the poor and the weak are words of comfort to those who are being harmed. They’re words that tell them that in the end everything will be put right.
In the meantime, however, the suffering is very real. And there’s no promise that it’s going to end overnight. It’s necessary to wait for justice to be done. It’s necessary to be patient.
As the saying goes, patience is a virtue. But it may well be that patience is the hardest of all the virtues to come by. Peter Marshall once prayed, “Teach us, O Lord, the disciplines of patience. For to wait is often harder than to work.” Perhaps it’s for good reason that we speak of exercising patience. Patience requires an exertion that we often find exhausting. It wears us out, and leaves us drained.
Patience is hard work even in small things. We struggle to be patient while we’re waiting at the red light, while we’re waiting in the supermarket check-out line, while we’re waiting on hold for the utility company. If we find it taxing to be patient in these circumstances, then how much more difficult is finding patience in serious situations?
A friend of mine was living in Montreal a few years back when a terrible ice storm passed through Eastern Ontario and Quebec. When the ice storm hit Montreal, it not only knocked out the power for hundreds of thousands of people, it essentially sealed off the entire region from the rest of the world. Roads were blocked by downed trees and power lines. The railways shut down, as did the airports. Even if you wanted to leave, you couldn’t. The power outage affected not only those with electric heat, but also those with gas furnaces relying on an electric motor to run the fan. My friend’s family had no heat for five days. They huddled in the basement with a blanket over the door. They lit twenty candles, which enabled them to keep the temperature at 10 degrees Celsius. My friend didn’t sleep more than an hour a night. He was watching to make sure none of the candles fell over and started a fire. In comparison to some affected by the ice storm, my friend’s ordeal was relatively short. Others coped for weeks without power. All they could do was survive as best they could. And wait. Wait for things to return to normal. Talk about an exercise in patience.
Waiting patiently in expectation is the lot of all those who have to contend with suffering in their lives. Sometimes that wait takes a few days. Sometimes it takes a few weeks. Sometimes it goes on even longer. We can find that frustrating, because we want instant relief. But in many cases that just doesn’t happen. If a resolution comes, it comes slowly, and over time. We’d like to be able to speed it up, to take matters into our own hands and get everything sorted out. But some problems are simply bigger than we are. Only God can do anything about them. We have to wait for him to act.
There are some things in life we just can’t fix on our own. Whether it’s a natural disaster, or a debilitating sickness, or a crushing injustice, in the end what we need more than anything else to help us through these situations is patience. We can do everything possible we can think of. And then we just have to sit and wait. It may take days; it may take weeks; it may take months. There’s nothing we can do to hurry it. It’s out of our hands. We have to entrust it to God.
We need to remember that when we go through these experiences of suffering, it doesn’t mean God has abandoned us. Many people of faith have to endure profoundly painful experiences. The prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord knew suffering. They give an example of patience. The great Old Testament figure of Job is another model of perseverance in the face of suffering. Job waited for the Lord, even as his life collapsed in shambles around him.
There’s no promise that life for God’s people will always be simple and smooth. Becoming a Christian doesn’t banish all of life’s problems. But it does give a different perspective on those problems - a long term perspective, the perspective of eternity.
Patience is, in effect, a form of faith. It’s not just a matter of having a stiff upper lip. It’s not just a matter of taking a positive attitude in the midst of hardship. It’s a form of trust in God. When we are patient we trust that God will prevail over our suffering and put right what is wrong. Just as the farmer trusts that the seed he planted will grow into a valuable crop, we trust that God will bring to fruition his promise of compassion and mercy.
James speaks in particular to those suffering from sickness, encouraging them to bring their prayers to God for healing. There is no question that God is on the side of healing - he prefers health to disease, just as he prefers joy over suffering, and justice over injustice. When we pray to God for healing we’re asserting this truth about God, and entrusting the health of our bodies no less than the health of our souls to his care. James says, if anyone in the church is sick, they should call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. It’s not that this anointing with oil was some kind of magical process. It’s not that the oil itself contained any spiritual power. It was just ordinary oil - olive oil, probably. This was essentially what the medical system looked like in the ancient world. Oil was as powerful a medicine as anything they had. It was standard practice to anoint the sick with oil.
James, then, is telling the believers to continue to make use of all available medical knowledge. One of the primary ways God brings healing is through medicine. God works through doctors and nurses and therapists to make healing available. While modern medicine cannot cure every illness or heal every disease, it is not to be ignored as one of God’s gifts to those who suffer. At the same time, when we avail ourselves of what medicine has to offer, we need to make sure that it’s accompanied by something else: prayer - prayer for healing.
But even when medicine is accompanied by prayer, that doesn’t automatically mean there will be instant healing. We must still submit ourselves to patient waiting. For often times the answer to our prayer does not come as quickly as we would like. Does that mean God doesn’t love us? Or that he’s abandoned us? Or that he’s punishing us? Or does it mean that we just have to wait?
Jesus told the parable of the persistent widow who kept coming to the judge with her plea, “Grant me justice against my adversary.” She waited and waited, and eventually her plea was granted. Jesus said God also will bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night. But they should always pray and not give up. They should wait patiently in expectation that God will answer their prayer. In God’s time, their requests will be answered.
One of the words the Bible uses to describe God is “long suffering.” It means being patient. God has waited patiently over many thousands of years for human beings to respond to his call. He’s waited for them to turn away from fighting and violence; he’s waited for them to renounce idolatry and superstition; he’s waited for them to embrace justice and love. But he’s never given up. He’s always left the door open. He’s always waited patiently for them to return.
It is the God of patience who gives us the opportunity to be like him. God can be patient because he knows what he himself intends for his creation. He knows how he will ultimately bring his kingdom to fulfilment. And we can be patient because we trust in God for the very same thing. In the divine scheme of things, our waiting for God’s will to be done will not be long. Where there is now injustice, there will be justice; where there is now suffering, there will be joy; where there is now sickness, there will be healing; where there is now death, there will be life. God’s promise is that this is the reality he holds before us. It may not necessarily come to be in this life; but there is no stopping the fullness of God’s promise being realized in eternity.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, facing certain death at the hands of the Nazis, wrote this prayer:
Do with me as is best for you,
For that will be best for me too.
Whether I live or die, I am with you,
And you are with me.
Lord, I wait for your salvation
And for your kingdom.
The prophet Isaiah said, “They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.” This is the promise God gives all those who wait patiently in expectation. It’s a promise that transcends life itself, assuring us that in time or in eternity, God will give us what we long for.