Text: James 5:7-12
“Oh, Lord, give me patience!”
At some point in every parent’s life, they utter these words. It’s the frustrating behavior of a child who can’t find the shoe “hiding” in plain sight, or the snail-like response to getting ready for school or to do some small chore. Or, it’s a rambunctious cacophony of a toddler into everything. Maybe it’s siblings who seem to be playing together nicely who suddenly erupt in open combat – and you’ve got to step in, again, and play the role of peace-maker. It may be the umpteenth time you’ve said the same thing to a child who “never listens.” You do know they’re going to grow up, someday. And it’s not a matter of their survival, but yours.
Once upon a time, we prayed for patience. It is part of the fruit of the Spirit, after all, and we do want to grow in grace. So we prayed for patience. What happened? Something that stretched you to the limit. So we began telling people, “Don’t pray for patience.” That’s a prayer God always answers, and the only way to develop patience is through trials that test your limits.
Listening to Dr. Warrick at Campmeeting this year, I decided that I want to write a book about some of my favorite Greek words. One that is high on my list is the word translated “patience”, and various forms of the word are used four times in our text. The word is μακροθυμία- makrothumia.
It is a compound word of two parts. The first, makro, in reference to time, means “long” or “extended”. In reference to distance, it means “far away” or “distant”. It is used in modern computer lingo to refer to a “short-cut”, a small program of a couple key-strokes that does a much larger task. For example, Ctrl-A highlights an entire document, Ctrl-C saves it as a copy, Ctrl-V pastes it into a new document. In six keystrokes, you can move the contents of one document into another. You don’t need to do the work of re-typing the entire document. But, think of makro as something that is prolonged or extended.
The second part, θυμία, thumia, from the root θυμός, thumos, which, depending on context and form can mean passion, anger, rage, to be filled with anger, to be enraged, or to have an outburst of anger. It is used in reference to the wrath of God against sin and injustice. It is used to describe the anger and fits of rage of the “acts of the flesh” in Galatians 5:20.
We put them together and combine the words “long” and “rage”, but it doesn’t mean “great rage” or “long-enduring wrath”. Quite the opposite – it actually means “a long time to become angry”. My understanding is that the word came originally from a description of the process of creating temper in metal - the sudden cooling of red-hot iron that hardens the metal and makes it more durable. In the shift from softer metals, like copper, to harder metals, like iron, in use for weapons - swords, spear heads, and the like - harder, more enduring swords were described then as makrothumia, long-enduring or long-suffering. They kept their edge in battle.
That would mean for us that, as used in the Bible, patience has little or nothing to do with waiting. Patience is not about waiting in line at the grocery check-out or at the gas pump. It doesn’t have anything to do with waiting at a stop-light. Patience often does involve waiting. But it is in keeping with James’ earlier admonition: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry (1:19). Patience is “slow to become angry.” It is “long-suffering”. It is endurance through hard times. It is keeping your edge in the midst of the battle. It is learning to fight on when you’re too tired to fight.
James begins this paragraph by telling the Church to be patient while we wait. We are waiting for the return of Christ. Let me confess that Second Coming theologies test my patience. There is so much false theology surrounding the return of Christ that it sometimes frustrates me almost to the point of screaming. Recently, I dared to question someone’s concern over the importance of Gog and Magog in end times theology. I said that they didn’t really matter much at all – and got blasted for it. I was told that perhaps I should actually read the Bible, that it was apparent that I didn’t know the Scripture. I responded, gently, with a short lesson on what Gog and Magog actually mean.
You see, there is this great concern about some great final battle – the Battle of Armageddon – when Gog and Magog march from the north to fight against God’s people. Here’s why they are not important: the battle never takes place! Revelation 20:9 tells us that while the enemy is massing for an attack, fire came down from heaven and devoured them. There is no battle. God protects his Church. Whoever comprises the enemy army is irrelevant. Gog and Magog don’t matter. And Revelation (I repeat) is not about the end of time, but about the rule of Jesus Christ. It is the Revelation of Jesus, not the revelation of the end times. The book is about him, but theologians of all stripes have got us all confused and anxious over the “end times”. I told my critic that I would rather place my hope in Jesus than in any end times theology. We are waiting, but we are to be patient in the waiting – and not allow ourselves to be diverted from the truth.
Like the farmer. We planted our garden. We water and weed. And wait. And wait. We can’t allow ourselves to become angry about the weather, the soil, the slowness of germination. We don’t grumble – although there are days. James applies this to our fellow believers. The seed has been planted. We water. We try to weed. But people, being what they are, don’t always respond the way we wish they would, or as quickly as we wish they would. We are fickle, busy, distracted, anxious about many things, worried over what tomorrow may bring, preoccupied, forgetful, sometimes confused. Most of all, we are not machines to be assembled; we are gardens to be grown and nurtured toward the day of harvest when our lives begin to bear fruit.
It is tempting to grumble when someone doesn’t respond the way we want, or when their Christian walk appears to be stunted or their priorities skewed. It’s far too easy to judge one another and to become frustrated and angry with one another. But God is working on each of us differently. What needs work in my life may not need work in yours. And where I think you should grow may not, in fact, be where God is working in your life.
We need to be careful with ourselves, and not allow any of this to become an excuse. In fact, we should be harder on ourselves than anyone. Paul said, I beat my body to make it my slave (1 Corinthians 9:27) so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize. We should rather be self-controlled and self-disciplined. We should not have to be reminded of our commitments. We should not have to be pushed in our spiritual growth. From a spiritual growth perspective, we ought to be our own fiercest critic. Self-discipline is a mark of spiritual maturity. And, folks, the truth is, we each have enough trouble of our own, we are really in no position to judge each other.
But we do need to look to those who are examples. They are not necessarily leaders, but they are models for us of that self-discipline and self-control essential to patience. James calls our attention to the prophets. He does not specify anything other than that they had patience in the face of suffering. So we look into the Scriptures for those prophets who suffered - both writing, like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel; and non-writing, like Elijah and Elisha. Their patience was exhibited in their trust in God’s wisdom, providence, and timing. He calls our attention to Job’s perseverance. That’s a word that means “over-coming”. Job overcame his suffering with his trust in God, and James says we have seen what the Lord finally brought about.
This is an aspect of patience, and another of my favorite Greek words – the concept of time. There are two Greek words for time - χρόνος (chronos) and καιρός (kairos). The first, chronos, refers to a definite measurable period of time - a day, hour, year - and we might define it as calendar time. The second, kairos, refers to a point in time or a certain period of time - as the Day of the Lord, a welcome time, a time of healing, the time of salvation - and we might define this word as referring to the right time or God’s timing. Paul wrote to the Romans: You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly (Romans 5:6). To the Corinthians: judge nothing before the appointed time; wait until the Lord comes (1 Corinthians 4:5).
Patience focuses on the latter, kairos, on God’s timing, on God knowing what is best and bringing it about in his time. Patience endures knowing that God is in control and we will see what God brings about at the right time. Patience is less concerned about the number of days or years involved. And when Jesus talks about the time of his return, it’s never in terms of the actual calendar date. That’s why it’s futile to try to set a date. God is not working with our calendar. He’s working out his plan, his way, and when the time is right according to God’s plan, than Christ will return to fully establish his eternal kingdom on a newly-created earth. Christ is not returning to take us out of the world – the next time he comes, it will be to stay.
So, what are we to be patient in? We have focused on the need for patience, in the sense of endurance. James tells the church to stand firm. We wait for the return of Christ the same way the farmer waits for the autumn and spring rains. Why do we need the instruction to stand firm?
We have this hope, and we are in a world that does not understand. We share the gospel of hope, the gospel of the Risen Christ, the first-fruits from the dead as we await our turn. We try to explain the reason for our hope. But we live in a rebellious, oppositional, even confrontational, world. They do not believe and so they ridicule. I have a friend who was a missionary to what we call a Creative Access Area - a place where Christianity may be illegal, conversion considered apostasy, and persecution is common. He keeps me apprised of the suffering and persecution of Christians in other parts of the world - people who are jailed for their faith, people who are murdered for trying to share Christ with others, people who are hounded out of jobs, homes, and communities because of their faith. Sometimes they are given the option of renouncing Christ to go free. More people have been martyred for faith in Christ in the past century than in the preceding nineteen. And James was writing to a church that was scattered across the Roman empire because of persecution.
Stand firm in your hope. Stand firm in your faith. Face your suffering as waiting for the return of Christ. Endure because of hope. Have faith in God’s timing. Wait patiently for your blessing to appear. In the face of suffering, look to the example of those who have gone before you.
But don’t take on the role of judge. Let God be the Judge. Trust in his judgment. He knows you. He knows your heart. And there’s another of my favorite Greek words – James says, we count as blessed those who have persevered. I’m not going to go into detail, but that word “blessed” is a word that refers to a gift or honor bestowed by a king. It takes us back to Jesus’ “Blessings” in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:3-12). We should read those this way: The honor of the king awaits those who are poor in spirit ... Or, God bestows honor on those who are peacemakers ... And here in James, he means to say, We consider those who persevere in their faith through times of trial to be especially honored by God. Look how God honored Job’s faithful patience. God honors your perseverance in suffering, in times of trial, as you wait for his glorious appearing.
If I read the Scripture correctly, it will all be worth the wait. The gospel song says, “It will be worth it all when we see Jesus. Life’s trials will seem so small when we see Christ! One glimpse of his dear face all sorrow will erase. So bravely run the race ‘til we see Christ.”1 Paul agreed, when he wrote, I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us (Romans 8:18). If we keep our hope in Christ strong, the patience, the perseverance, the waiting will be not worth comparing with the joy and blessing of Christ’s return.
Keep the hope. Stand firm. Live expectantly. And keep on encouraging one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching (Hebrews 10:25).
1 Esther Kerr Rusthoi, “When We See Christ”, © 1941, renewal 1969 by Howard Rusthoi, Assigned to Singspiration, Inc.. All rights reserved. Used by permission.