The Practice of Christian Patience (5:9-11)

One view is that 5:9 is "quite isolated," with "scarcely any material connection with the admonition to patience" (Dibelius 1976:244, 242). Such a reading misses the point that James is now turning from the nature of Christian patience to the very practical manifestation of it. What will it look like when we practice Christian patience? James gives one specific application and then reminds his readers of models to follow.

The one application of patience is that we will not grumble against each other (5:9). The imperative verb is stenazo, which means "sigh" or "groan." It refers to a proper groaning for something good in Mark 7:34, Romans 8:23 and 2 Corinthians 5:2. The only other New Testament usage is in Hebrews 13:17, where it has a sense more like the grumbling or complaining that James wants Christians to avoid. It is a grumbling specifically against each other (kata with genitive), thus referring to a complaining in which we blame each other. "Do not moan about one another," Davids translates it (1982:184). The warning or you will be judged is identical to Jesus' words in Mt 7:1 (hina me krithete), indicating that James regards this grumbling as a form of speaking against or judging one's brother, as in 4:11. No further explanation is given for the identity of the Judge, but the Lord in the immediately preceding verse is surely the most likely referent. At the door (translating the idiom "before the doors") would be an image for the nearness of the Lord's coming, as emphasized in 5:8.

It is valuable for us that James makes grumbling his singular point of application. We might want to sidestep this behavior while we try to practice patience in other ways. The trials being faced by those suffering Christians would have put their patience to the test and given plenty of opportunity for bickering and criticizing. The same happens in the church today, even when the Christians are more affluent and the trials more contemporary: "difficult marriages, frustrated dreams, demotions at work, commotions at home, insomnia, high blood pressure, allergies, credit-card bills and insecurity" (Webster 1991:149). Christians lose patience with each other under these pressures, and the church becomes infected with a readiness to criticize and blame. James would correct the problem with a renewed vision of the imminently returning Christ, particularly emphasizing that he comes as Judge.

The models given (5:10-11) are the prophets and Job. Here James's focus is on three elements that make up the portrait of patience at work in the believer's life: suffering, perseverance and blessing. James wants his readers to understand that these three develop in succession and that their outcome is as definite as the character of God. Suffering enters the believer's life; perseverance is the believer's response; blessing comes from the Lord, who is full of compassion and mercy. As in 2:20-26, James's choice of illustrations assumes a largely Jewish-Christian audience who would be familiar with Old Testament examples. A host of particulars might come to their minds from these models, but James chooses not to isolate specific instances as he did with Abraham and Rahab. Instead, he chooses to focus on the three elements: suffering, perseverance and blessing.

The suffering is kakopatheia, which can have a passive sense—misery that comes upon a person. It is also used in a more active sense to describe the deliberate endurance that a person practices in hardship. The latter meaning is James's emphasis here, since the prophets are an example of the pair of traits: literally, "an example . . . of suffering and patience," which would probably mean "patience in suffering." His term for patience is the nominal form of the verb with which he instructed his readers in 5:7 and 5:8 to be patient. It is clear that he is intending to give examples of those preceding imperatives. When he speaks of perseverance in the next sentences, he is using the verb hypomeno and the noun hypomone, going back to the idea with which he began his letter in 1:3-4. He is using patience, makrothymia, and perseverance, hypomone, as virtually synonymous.

God's work in the life of the persevering believer is to bless, conveyed by the verb makarizo ("consider blessed"). James's use of this verb in the first-person plural in 5:11, coupled with the reference to the prophets, indicates a common knowledge of Jesus' words recorded in Matthew 5:11-12. The source or reason for suffering is not identified. James's concern is not to answer that question, but to emphasize that God brings blessing. It was the same in chapter 1 of the letter. The origin of the trials was not specified, but it was important to be clear about this: God does not tempt us to do evil; he will use trials to bring good gifts to us. Now James emphasizes not merely that God will manage to bring some blessings but that God will ultimately accomplish his good purposes. The example of Job, who was ultimately blessed in abundance, reveals to telos kyriou—the end or goal of the Lord.

All of this demonstrates the character of the Lord, which is finally what James wants his readers to know with confidence. The description of God as compassionate and merciful would be as familiar to his readers as are the prophets and Job, from passages such as Exodus 34:6 and Psalms 103:8. Yet James places unique emphasis on this picture of God by introducing a term used nowhere else prior to or within the New Testament: polysplanchnos ("full of compassion"). This, ultimately, is the source of assurance by which we can be patient. What will it look like when we practice Christian patience? It will look like the prophets, who kept speaking, and like Job, who kept believing, in suffering and perseverance, with this specific assurance: God will bless.

This is the message of grace. God gives good gifts because he is full of compassion and mercy. Grace is the element in God's character which James wants his readers to know with absolute confidence. The Christian can be patient in suffering and consider trials pure joy because of the assurance that God will give wonderfully good gifts even through the hardships.

Fundamental for Christian practice is Christian belief. What is the truth about God? Is he this God of grace or not? We are called over and over in James's letter to believe this truth—believe it, believe it, believe it. And then act accordingly. Put belief into practice by being patient in the endurance of suffering.

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