Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near. Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged. See, the Judge is standing at the doors! As an example of suffering and patience, beloved, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.James 5:7-10 NRSV
Opening question for reflection: Spend time thinking about how long it took for something good that has happened in your life. A job? A degree? A relationship? What did it take to make those good things happen?
A few weeks ago I returned to Malaysia to visit family, and – lo and behold! – discovered that my mom had planted three coconut trees in the front yard. The coconuts require lots of tender, loving care, demanding precise amounts of fertilizing for a few years before it can bear fruit, before we can enjoy cooling, sweet, fresh coconut!
All good things take time to come to fruition. Loving relationships require time and commitment to build and deepen. Wisdom demands years of reflection, experience, and awareness. Such patience is one of the critical themes in the book of James, a book that Martin Luther famously called the “straw epistle” because its emphasis on actions seemed to fly in the face of his emphasis on justification by faith alone. That’s unfortunate, because James is a book of wisdom, providing helpful and even timeless suggestions for Godly living.
In our passage, James counsels us to be patient in the face of suffering. This is wisdom that seems to contradict a lot of our impulses today. With the weight of injustice and oppression proliferating around the world, the counsel to “be patient” seems to excuse injustice and give room for oppression to grow.
And yes, this logic has been abused to justify inaction by many. Thus, James provides a good example: the “prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.” (v. 10) Certainly, the prophets in the Hebrew Bible such as Jeremiah, Elijah, etc., were longsuffering, having had to live through Israel’s unrighteousness and callousness. But they were not inactive – they regularly and publicly put their lives on the line to speak truth to power. They did their part, each working for justice and righteousness, each as they were able. And in their patience, they trusted that God had not abandoned them. Many died before seeing Israel repent.
Likewise, James teaches patience and forbearance, not as a token of submissiveness or docility in the face of injustice, but as a recognition that God has a long plan for justice and righteousness in this world. Like the prophets, we are to do our part to be in solidarity with the suffering and powerless in the world today, and being patient, knowing that God is in control.
As 2019 draws to a close, we are reminded of the various injustices against the marginalized, the migrants, the earth, some of which were committed in the name of Jesus. We see evil and oppression lived out in ways that fly in the face of the gospel. Sometimes, oppressors and evildoers are close to us. The fight for justice, truth, and righteousness is a very urgent and pressing need in our world today in which the loudest public voices often confuse evil with justice, idolatry with truth, and unrighteousness with virtue.
In response, we are right to be frustrated and angry – how can we not? Some of us might be wondering where God is in all this. God, are you watching? Don’t you see what’s happening? Are you, God, going to let our world literally go to hell? Of course, Christian faith encourages us to say, No. And this divine and defiant “No” to hopelessness, despair, and death is a powerful response.
But oftentimes, we forget that God’s “Yes” to Godly hope, joy, and resurrection comes in Jesus Christ and is often whispered. And even when we discern the content of that “Yes,” it takes time to persuade and disciple each other so that the world’s future is more just and generous. “Justice now” may be a good catch-phrase, but it may not last long.
The justice that really changes societies is one that requires the conversion of hearts, minds, and habits. Centuries of racial supremacy, nationalist sentiments, hatred of women and black/brown bodies, etc. do not quickly unravel in the span of a year; such sentiments that have been ingrained into us through decades or centuries of constant habituation surely require much more time to interrogate and unravel!
In a time of social media, one-day shipping, and instant messaging/texting, even “overnight” changes feel remarkably slow. And sometimes, following our instant-consumerist sentiments, we prefer to buy over-priced generic “coconut water” from the supermarket instead of waiting to enjoy the real thing. But like my mom’s coconuts, patience in suffering does not mean inaction. It means working hard to do our part in making things right, recognizing that the fruits of our participation in God’s ministry will not be harvested until much later.
Concluding Questions and Suggestions for Further Reflection:
Think of a particular fight for justice that is close to your heart. Climate change? The fight for democracy in Hong Kong? The concentration camps along our southern border? Many of these require digging deep into trouble histories and venturing long term solutions. What might those be? What are some ways the church can participate in them? What are some ways your church (if you attend one) can meaningfully be a part of them?
Follow along with our 2019 Advent devotional series here and read our introduction post here. You can also subscribe for a weekly digest of all our posts on the right-hand sidebar.