I’m wondering how many of you in this room are like me. Do you often find it hard to relate to the suffering and the persecution of God’s people in the Bible? What do you think when you hear of prophets tortured, thrown to lions, jailed and killed for their message…when you hear of Christians in the NT, even ones like those to whom James is writing also being imprisoned, killed, being taken into court and exploited. When they are persecuted for their faith in Christ or refuse to participate in the cultural pagan worship and morality of the day? When I read these things, I try to relate. I think, “well, sometimes I can tell that when family or friends find out that I believe a man was fully God and that He rose from the dead, they hold me at arm’s length. They probably think, such a nice girl. too bad she’s gone off the rails a little. And that hurts.” But while that pain is real, my mistreatment seems to pale in comparison to the saints of Hebrews 11, to the NT Christians and martyrs. So I quickly move on in my Bible reading from passages like this to those that connect more with my life, my experience.
But I don’t think that’s best. God has James 5:7-12 here as much for me (and you!) as for James’s readers. So I took some time this week to consider the kinds of persecution and trials we face. And more importantly, how this particular passage tells us we should respond to them when they come. So first I’ll speak about trials and then our response.
Two weeks ago, our Sunday evening preacher gave us three sources of persecution for the Christian: the world, the flesh, and the devil (Ephesians 2:1-3).
First, the world. Persecution from the world seems to be the preeminent form of trial James addresses in this passage. It’s what the “therefore” in v 7 is there for. You could restate verse 7 – Because you have been oppressed by worldly people (5:1-6), here is how you should then live. Also in verse 10 the suffering of the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord was at the hands of ungodly people as well. They suffered great persecution as we read in Hebrews 11. We may not face persecution that intense, but there are lessons here for us . We know from the stories of the prophets that they didn’t become so zealous and faithful overnight. They established their hearts on God in small ways and then God gave them more. Think of Daniel who had a rich prayer life with God long before he was ever persecuted for those very prayers. Then God used him to turn Nebuchadnezzar’s heart toward the one true God as well. I think we would all like to do great things for God like the prophets of Hebrews 11, even if we wouldn’t choose the suffering that came with it. So let’s take James’s exhortations here seriously and as though he’s speaking to us. Let’s feel the weight of his words so that we can be faithful in the relatively small hurts and mistreatments we may endure today.
Additionally, as Christians, part of the universal body of Christ, we are one with those who are suffering persecution. We are commanded in scripture to bear with the burdens of other Christians and to mourn with those who are mourning. When we do this, we actually get to partner with suffering believers around the world who are facing more extreme persecutions of being jailed or executed for their faith. Let’s remember them in prayer and allow passages like this to inform our prayers for them, that our prayers would reflect James’s (and God’s) priorities. So we should pray not only for their release and safety, but that they would be patient and remain steadfast in their faith as they speak in the name of the Lord amidst adversity like we’ve never known.
In smaller ways , but I think increasingly, people in our culture are losing privileges and positions due to their Biblical ethics or morality. It’s something to be aware of and to consider how you will respond if it ever affects you directly. Law Professor Robert P. George in an address just yesterday in Washington, D.C., said this, “American culture no longer favors faithful Christians…Because of that, Christians must be willing to bear the consequences of standing up for the teachings of Jesus and his bride, the Church.” In just the last few weeks, I read two news stories about high-profile people this has happened to. How do you respond when you hear these things? How do we as churches, bloggers, social media users, and Christian communities respond? With hatred and vitriol? Demanding our rights? Slamming our enemies? Or by being patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord.
Finally, persecution and suffering also come from our flesh and the devil. James doesn’t highlight the flesh here, though he has in past chapters, but I think much of my persecution comes from within, by my old sinful nature, the passions that are at war within me to put self first, to gratify my own desires. Fighting the sinful flesh is a constant and wearying battle. And then there’s the devil, who prowls around us like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Job was not persecuted for his faith by man, but by Satan himself with God’s commissioning, which brought about great physical and emotional suffering.
If the pressure outside James’s readers’ church weren’t enough, it seems the church members in James’ day were taking out their frustrations with these persecutions on each other (see v.9). I can relate. I do that in my own family. If I’ve had a rough day of dealing with the kids’ and my own sin, I’m more likely to grumble against my husband. If I’ve had a rough week, I’m more likely to complain if I have to serve in an inconvenient way at church or if things aren’t done in the service or in the body according to my liking. That’s more evidence of flesh/spirit war on for my heart.
I’m sure you could think of your own applications according to ways you suffer or are persecuted, and I don’t mean to pile on more by adding my thoughts. But I wanted to think specifically to encourage us not to be asleep with regards to persecution in our lives and the lives of Christians around the world. James has warned us back in chapter 1 that we will face trials of various kinds. If we’re not expecting them, I think we are more likely to respond to them with knee-jerk reactions, with our feelings and outrage, with our self-righteous indignation instead of with the patience James is exhorting us to here. Whether our suffering is comparatively large or small, a God-glorifying response should be our goal.
So how can we be patient instead of despairing? Patient, instead of demanding our rights and tearing down others? Slow to anger instead of grumbling against one another in heated times? James gives us in this passage at least three tools to endure persecution and suffering Biblically. We’ll discuss these three and then we’ll close. First, consider your reward in doing so, second consider God’s judgment, third consider God’s character.
So first, considering our reward helps us be patient and steadfast in suffering. Do not assume or take lightly the rewards that God promises to those who remain steadfast in Him. The Bible is chock-full of promises of rewards for those who remain faithful to God. I think that’s what James is pointing us to when he talks about the prophets who looked ahead to the city that was to come and to the love and joy and riches that awaited them with God. Their reward from God, though they couldn’t yet see it, was as real to them as the discomfort of their suffering which they could see and hear and feel. And also Job, who endured the loss of all things, but then He was given back twice what he had and God prospered him more even more than before it says. Sometimes when my husband and I have talked about Jesus coming again, he’s said, “It’ll be like Christmas!” I’ve always thought that was kind of silly, but, it’s actually Biblical. Like a child on Christmas day receiving the rewards of his patience, so we are when Jesus comes back.
James’s examples of Job and the prophets point us to the truth that no matter what battles, persecutions, trials, and struggles we may face here, we already know the outcome: God wins! And if we are in Christ, we win along with Him. Jesus Christ, for the joy set before Him conquered sin and death and all evil on the cross. His victory will bring us to that day when the dim glass is removed from our eyes and we experience the fullness of joy and the pleasures that await us forever more at God’s right hand.
This helps us in trial not to sinfully take matters into our own hands. To get angry, to grumble, to demand our rights, to get anxious, thinking we must do something in order to right the wrongs done to us. Pastor Michael recently recommended a book called “The World is Not Ours to Save” (Wigg-Stevenson). I love this quote from it:
“[E]very blow we land on the jaw of this or that evil is actually a hammer stroke forging the shackles around our theological imagination, binding us to the idea that the kingdom [of God] is won through human power. It is not,”
Do you hear what he’s saying? Every time we take matters into our own hands we are more enslaved to the idea that we must act in our suffering, that our victory, our satisfaction and rewards are gained through our efforts.
The author continues. “Our job is not to win the victory but to expose through our lives that the victory has been won on our behalf. And as a result, we will see shoots of God’s kingdom erupt in our midst.”
While we should do good in this world to promote justice and Christian values because we belong to God, we don’t win God’s battles for Him. We don’t receive the spoils of our victories, but of His. What will change the world is not our fighting for our rights, but showing the world the fight is already over by our patience, by our loving, faithful, truthful response to our opponents. We can do this as we wait for the rewards He has coming to us instead of demanding our satisfaction now. Perhaps Psalm 37 says it best:
“Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath! Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil. For the evildoers shall be cut off, but those who wait for the Lord shall inherit the land.”
Second, we get through suffering faithfully by considering God’s judgment. James explained earlier in chapter 5 that the unbeliever and those doing the persecution will receive judgment. In contrast to the victory, joy, pleasures and riches the faithful will receive in God, the wicked should weep and howl for the miseries coming upon them. Nothing we can say or do against the evil person can match God’s judgment coming toward them. Like the battles and the victories, vengeance is also the Lord’s. Our trust must be rock solid that he will right the wrongs we and other Christians endure.
Keri Folmar, in this week’s study, encouraged us to think through common ways we are tempted to take vengeance into our own hands: fighting back, avoiding the person, storing up bitterness, gossip, etc. Another more public way I thought of is through what we’re reading, writing or promoting online and in the media. I read a good amount of conservative media and conservative blog posts, and sometimes I am surprised by the degrading and hateful language directed towards unbelievers or those whose ethics differ from ours. I’ve found lately when I’ve been reading certain news stories on the evil of the world, I’ve had to stop myself, realizing that the author is only trying to fuel my anger and hate my enemies. I’m not saying we shouldn’t be informed or that we should say and do nothing when we see evil in the world. But I think James is saying here that we consider the example of the suffering and patience of the prophets, and of Christ himself who when reviled did not revile in return, but entrusted justice to God.
When I take time to meditate on God’s judgment in scripture to His enemies and the enemies of His people, I almost feel sorry for them. Apart from the grace of God, they are sinners just like me – naked, poor, wretched, blind, and without God in the world. Through no merit of my own, I have been given eyes to see the beauty and glory and riches of Christ.
Not only that, but the judgment of unbelievers is actually not in focus in our passage this week. The judgment of this passage is directed to believers. We don’t know exactly what judgment for believers will look like. We know our punishment was paid for on the cross, but the NT and James are clear – there will be a sense in which believers will be judged, and we want to be found good and faithful servants. James reminds us in verse 9, that when we are being attacked or are suffering, the one who will judge how we respond is standing at the door. His judgment will be on the wicked, but also on us if we are responding wickedly. God reminds us of this, not for the purposes of scaremongering, but to give us a healthy fear of Him, and to help spur us on to love and good deeds.
Finally, and briefly, consider God’s character. In Christ, our judge is also merciful and compassionate (v. 11). What person, when reading the life of Job, some of these prophets, or even Jesus himself would say that God is merciful and compassionate? His mercy is severe at times. But He is faithful – faithful like the early spring and late autumn rains each year to grow the crops, He will return to set all things right, giving those of us who have loved him the crown of life. And in the meantime, these sufferings and persecutions we face now are producing in us steadfastness, which having it’s full effect is making us perfect and complete, lacking in nothing (1:2). To His Glory and praise.