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I used to think of patience as a passive personality trait. I prayed for patience as if God might infuse me with this trait so that I would become unaffected by trying circumstances. It is certainly right to pray for patience; James is the one who urges prayer and reliance on grace so strongly. But if I want patience, I need to better understand what it is.
First, patience has a specific object in our own sanctification. James begins with the verb makrothymeo, which carries not only the idea of being patient but specifically the picture of waiting with patience. This implies some object of the waiting, but the object is not the parousia, the coming of the Lord. This becomes clearer in the analogy of the farmer who also "waits." James first uses the verb ekdechomai for the farmer's waiting, but he makes the continuity definite by adding a participle of makrothymeo—"being patient." The farmer is patient "over" one thing and "until" another thing. The text says the farmer waits for the valuable fruit of the earth, being patient "over it" (ep' auto), that is, over the fruit. He is patient "until" (heos) it receives the autumn and spring rains. The description of the crop as valuable (or "precious" in NASB) would help the persecuted readers to identify with the farmer as not a wealthy landlord but a small farmer who depends on a good harvest for survival, even as the Christian readers are hanging on for survival. More important, it reminds the readers that there is something to be patient "over," something that is of more value than riches or ease. By this point in the letter, readers should be accustomed to James's conviction that the goal of becoming "mature and complete" is the goal of greatest value. James is telling the brothers to be patient over their trials to gain maturity and completeness until that process is crowned with the glorious coming of the Lord. The parallel is that farmers must be patient over their labor to gain the fruit of the soil until that fruit receives the coming of the rain. Do you want to learn patience? The first step is a choice of values. Set your heart on becoming "mature and complete" and having "the righteous life that God desires."
Second, patience has a specific hope in Christ's return. James tells the brothers to be patient "until" (heos) the coming of the Lord. The future return of Christ is the event that motivates Christians to persevere in the endurance of suffering. In the life of the farmer, the autumn and spring rains have a similar role. If the farmer could not hope for the rains, all the plowing and planting and weeding would be futile. Rain (literally, the "early and late [rain]") is a standard Old Testament image of God's promised faithfulness (e.g., Jer 5:24 and Joel 2:23, as well as Deut 11:14, which would have been especially familiar as part of the regularly recited Shema). The effect is to leave no doubt about how appropriate it is to be patient. God has promised these rains; therefore the farmer can be patient in laboring. Even so, God has promised Christ's return; therefore believers can be patient in their hardships. Do you want to learn patience? Contemplate the hope of Christ's return.
Third, patience has a specific stance in deliberate behavior. In 5:8 James begins with the same verb makrothymeo in imperative form, exactly as at the beginning of 5:7. Then kai hymeis ("you too") adds emphasis to the force of the imperative and defines this verse as the application of the farmer analogy. The elaboration comes with a second imperative, "strengthen your hearts" (NIV "stand firm"). It communicates that the waiting is to be done not in weakness or defeat but in strength and action. This makes the patience "much more than passively waiting for the time to pass" (Kistemaker 1986:164). Finally, the hope is stated again; the Lord's "coming" (parousia) approaches or comes near. The perfect tense refers to a process viewed as having been completed and consummated. With the final verb engiken ("approaches" or "comes near") in the perfect tense, the coming of the Lord receives dramatic emphasis, as if James is saying with intensity, "It is so close and so certain—don't give up now!" Do you want to learn patience? Since you have set your heart on becoming mature and complete, and since you hope for Christ's return, now choose to stand firm. What that stance will mean in actual behavior is described in the next three verses.
I was talking with a woman who was facing circumstances of terrible hardship. She was telling me of a friend who had encouraged her significantly, and I was keenly interested to know what the friend had done to minister to her. "What helped me the most," she recalled, "was that he reminded me with assurance that these circumstances will come to an end. It looks so dark and unending now; I needed to be told that it would not last forever." In the same way James has encouraged his persecuted readers with the hope of Christ's return and so has helped them choose a stance of patience.