Passage – James 5:7-12
7 Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and the late rains. 8 You also, be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand. 9 Do not grumble against one another, brothers, so that you may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing at the door. 10 As an example of suffering and patience, brothers, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. 11 Behold, we consider those blessed who remained steadfast. You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful.
12 But above all, my brothers, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your “yes” be yes and your “no” be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation.
Think of a time when you were relationally hurt or emotionally upset. What was one of the hardest things for you to do? Chances are, “sit still” is near the top of the list. Being hurt and upset energizes us. We feel an innate need to move, to talk, to do something. We want things to be different, so anything other than prompt, decisive action feels like “doing nothing.”
Often, the result of hurt-fueled activity is to take the situation from bad to worse. We say things we haven’t thought through. We do things we regret. We blow up at people who had nothing to do with our hurt and then feel bad for hurting them.
Facing the challenges of post-hurt temptation is what this passage is all about. As we’ve seen, James’s readers had been hurt in many ways. In these verses, James turns his attention to helping his friends avoid the regret that comes from post-suffering temptations.
Patience Isn’t Passive (v. 7-8)
When James says, “therefore” in verse seven, he is referencing back to his pronouncement of God’s promised judgement on those who harmed his readers. We need to be careful not to read this passage like a generic pontification on the themes of patience, farming and suffering. James is not writing random proverbs about life; he is writing a letter to his friends.
As they heard of God’s judgement against their oppressors, their question had to be, “Okay, we’re glad God won’t overlook our oppression, but how are we to respond now?” James says, “Be patient (v. 7).” To which their inevitable reply would be, “How long should we be patient?” And James answers, “Until the coming of the Lord (v. 7).” Our response is to interpret this as a hyper-spiritual way of saying forever.
But it is a misperception of what it means to be patient that can make James’s response seem off-putting. If we mistake patience for passivity, it is as if James is saying, “Do nothing. Take it until Jesus returns.” We would be right to dislike this counsel.
To help us better understand what James means by “be patient,” consider the illustration he uses: a farmer patiently awaiting harvest. Anyone who knows a farmer knows that farmers are not passive. Famers plant, fertilize, weed, and tend to their crops. Farmers protect against insects and animals that would eat their crops. Farmers are highly active towards the things they can control.
But farmers are patient with regards to things they cannot control – the weather. A farmer cannot coerce the early rain to fall after the seeds are planted or the late rain that would optimize the yield. Patience towards the things that cannot be controlled is not passivity towards the things we can. Both healthy faith in God and good mental health require knowing the difference.
A fancy term for what James is describing in this passage is responsibility allocation: that is, accurately assigning responsibility for the various components of a situation to the right people.
- Name and describe the situation that is distressing for you. In this passage, the situation is the pressure to produce a crop that will feed and provide for the farmer’s family.
- Name the aspects of this situation that you can control. Obedience entails doing these things with a good attitude, like farmer planting and tending his crops.
- Name the aspects of this situation that only other people can do.
- If these people are cooperative, then trust gives them the freedom to fulfill their role.
- If these people neglect or are manipulative with their responsibilities, then patience is waiting on God’s James 5:1-6 response to their actions.
- Faith that honors God by actively obeying out of devotion to God, trusting good faith actors in our life, and being patient for God’s judgement against bad faith actors in our life.
Whether you’ve noticed it or not, these three notes (i.e., obedience, trust, and patience) are the melody of faith that have been playing throughout the book of James. James has cycled through these themes many times. We could summarize it this way:
- Your character matters, so obey God’s ways, even in hard times. God deserves our obedience even when life is hard, and we, as his children, should want to emulate his character.
- You need community, so trust God’s people, and don’t turn on one another in hard times. In hard times, community is more important, yet easier to break.
- Justice is not an illusion, so don’t think patience means that those who create hard times will get away with it. Maintain faith that God will have the last word.
When we read these verses as part of a letter, rather than a pithy proverb, we realize that this is what James is saying to his friends.
Your Character Still Matters (v. 9-11)
The notes trust and obey emerge more loudly in verses nine through eleven. James focuses on not grumbling or judging. In effect, he’s saying, “Don’t take your frustration out on your innocent companions. Yes, times are hard. But when we succumb to rudeness towards our co-sufferers, we multiply our hardship by isolation.”
There is an important message in this emphasis: being the victim of oppression does not excuse what we do to others. The parent who is neglected by their spouse is still responsible for treating their children with honor. Employees with a rude boss are still responsible for how they treat one another. God is the Judge for the children and fellow employees as much as God is the person who is being oppressed (v. 9).Being the victim of oppression does not excuse what we do to others. Click To Tweet
Amid hardship, this is an easy principle to forget. That is why James has emphasized the importance of our personal choices many times in the short letter even as he is writing to those who are suffering.
Think of James’s balance between compassion towards suffering and call to responsibility for one’s choices like the coming in and going out of the ocean tide. Coming in: you are not responsible for your suffering. Going out: your choices still matter, and you are responsible for being a person of godly character.
These themes also need to be balanced in how we counsel one another. Using the ocean tide image, would your counsel towards suffering result in no beach (i.e., predominantly coming-in emphasis on responsibility) or miles of sandy beach (i.e., predominantly going-out emphasis on compassion). Both are needed to accurately represent God and benefit our friend.
While James used the illustration of a farmer for patience, he uses the Old Testament image of the prophets and Job for trust and obedience. The prophets embody what it looks like to be a good counselor. Job is an example of receiving counsel, in hard times, even from imperfect counselors.
The prophets were not just messengers of God (teachers) but examples to be followed (men of character). This means the quality of our counsel cannot be measured simply by the biblical faithfulness of the advice given.
For counsel to be an accurate ambassador of God, the character of the counselor is as important as the content of their counsel. Character is essential for effectiveness because trust is the bridge that carries counsel from one person to another. If our friend doesn’t trust us, because our character is not Christlike, it undermines the effectiveness of our biblically faithful and theologically accurate words.
Job was innocent (morally) and honest (emotionally) without creating discord with those around him (relationally). These qualities exemplify what James has been calling his readers towards in this letter. None of these qualities need be neglected for the sake of the others.
We shouldn’t miss how James concludes verse eleven? He says, “The Lord is compassionate and merciful.” This contrasts with Job’s friends, and how we often feel about those who are suffering with us. Job’s friends were barely “better than nothing.” They weren’t skilled in compassion and had a bad theology of suffering. But isolation would have been worse.
By using the example of Job, James is inviting us to remember, even if our friends are mediocre at best, God is unwaveringly compassionate and merciful in hard times.
Avoid Rash Words in Hard Times (v. 12)
This is an odd conclusion. When we read, “above all else,” we expect profound wisdom on how to endure suffering. Instead, we get an admonition not to make rash promises. Really?!? Why?
When we’re going through suffering, we are tempted to think this, “I’m going to do… [hyperbole, exaggeration, empty words, etc.],” and say things like, “I’ll tell you what I ought to do [outlandish response against the person causing suffering].” And we usually cap it off with, “And I’ll do it too!”
Is this a form of lying (Lev. 19:11)? Yes, but lying is probably better than acting on most of what we say or think. Is this why James emphasizes it so much? Probably not. God is not more concerned about bloviating than he is oppression.
Why, then, is this James’s “above all else” statement? These empty promises consume massive quantities of our life. We spend hours relishing what we ought to say or do. We develop a plot around these fantasies: how the other person would respond and how we would respond to that. If it’s a conversation and not just our private thought life, we’re consuming the time of two people. So much time and energy are spent, but life is not improved at all.
In that sense Ephesians 4:15-16, “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil,” is a better foundation for James 5:12 than Leviticus 19. To entertain these vain promises is problematic because it is a waste of our lives. James is pleading to his friends, “Don’t waste your life!”
Willingness to waste our life is a form of surrender to sense of meaninglessness that suffering introduces. In that sense, James is saying, “Above all else, don’t give suffering that last word on your life by thinking your time and choices are meaningless!”Willingness to waste our time is a form of surrender to sense of meaninglessness that suffering introduces. Click To Tweet
Martin Luther was famous for saying (paraphrased), “People are like drunken peasants. When they realize they’ve fallen off one side of their donkey, they try to get up and fall off the other side.” If we’re honest, that is how we relate to the key truths of this passage.
Amid suffering, we are prone to either emphasize responsibility (“change what you can”) or compassion (“this isn’t your fault”). Our instinct becomes an over-emphasis. We fall off one side of the proverbial donkey. We realize it. We see the problem that being one-sided creates, so we overreact to the other emphasis.
Playing ping-pong with our responsibility allocation doesn’t make us “balanced” any more than alternating fad diets results in balanced nutrition.
Acknowledge which way you naturally lean. Articulate the ways you are prone to overreact. Then, instead of giving way to the extremes, search for approaches to the hardship – you own or your friend’s – that balance compassion with responsibility.
- What are examples of when you “refused to do nothing,” but the something you did created more regret than relief?
- In your own words, what does James mean by “be patient” in this passage?
- Pick a recent hardship: what does it look like to balance obedience, trust, and patience in that situation?
- What are examples, in your life or in culture, where suffering is used to excuse personal responsibility and the result is destructive?
- What are examples, in your life or in culture, where suffering is met without compassion and the result is demoralizing?
- How does seeing James’ admonition against making empty promises as a warning against wasting your life in empty fantasies change how you receive this caution?
* * * This article is part of a series entitled A Counseling Commentary on James.
* * * If you enjoyed this article, you may also be interested in my series A Counseling Commentary on Philippians.