|Fruit of the Spirit: Patience (James 5:7-11)|
In our series based on the nine-fold ‘fruit of the Spirit’ (Gal. 5:22-23: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control) we have reached patience.
One thing that quickly becomes clear when you consider these nine different aspects of the fruit of the Spirit is how the different aspects overlap and to some extent imply each other, such that if one aspect is missing in a person or a community, then other aspects are likely to be missing as well. This is certainly true of patience, a virtue that is linked on one side to peace and faithfulness, and on another side to kindness, gentleness and self-control.
What do we mean by ‘patience’? It is more than simply not losing one’s temper. A representative biblical text is James 1:2-4: ‘My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.’ Patience, in other words, suggests endurance under pressure. This is one of the main themes of the Songs of Ascents, to which I turn first of all.
The Songs of Ascents are in general focussed on Jerusalem (Zion). But first Psalm in the collection (Ps. 120) begins in a location far from Zion, or rather, two such locations: ‘Meshech’, to the North of Israel, and ‘Kedar’, to the East. Perhaps the place-names should be understood to mean ‘Meshech and Kedar and all the lands in between’, so as to suggest the plight of all faithful Israelites living in the diaspora, that is, living away from the Land of Promise in the post-exilic period.
The speaker in Psalm 120 is a lonely figure living in a hostile environment: he lives among enemies, among deceivers and those who hate peace. He feels uncertainty, distress and even anger at what he has to face. Psalm 120 ends somewhat inconclusively: ‘I am for peace; but when I speak, they are for war.’
But Psalm 120 must be read in context. In Psalm 121, the same speaker seems to be drawing near to Jerusalem, and near to God at the same time (vv. 1-2): ‘I lift up my eyes to the hills—from where will my help come? My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth.’ In Psalm 122 the speaker describes the joy that comes from worshipping with his fellow-Israelites in Jerusalem and in the temple there (v. 1): ‘I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the LORD!”’
So when we read Psalms 120–122 together, there is a movement from loneliness to fellowship, and from isolation and uncertainty to community, confidence and joy. But the mood changes again as we come to the next ‘triad’ of psalms in the collection (Pss. 123-125).
In Psalm 123 we return to the mood of Psalm 120.
Even the wording at the end of Ps. 123 reminds us of Ps. 120. A literal translation of the endings of both psalms brings this out: ‘For too long my soul has lived among those who hate peace’ (120:6); ‘For too long has our soul endured ridicule from the proud’ (123:4). But here it is not the individual speaker of Psalms 120–122 who expresses frustration and even desperation; rather, it is the community as a whole.
What is the effect of reading Psalms 123–125 after Psalms 120–122? Psalms 120–122, taken together, tell us: how good it is to join together with brothers and sisters to worship! How encouraging that can be for a believer who is going through difficult times!
But Psalms 123–125 give a different viewpoint: sometimes when believers get together they may not feel very joyful; they may feel themselves to be under attack, the object of mockery; they may be fed up with their situation. Sometimes all that happens when believers meet is that there are 200 gloomy faces instead of one gloomy face. In such situations the appropriate thing to do is to lay the matter before God, which is what Psalms 123–125 do.
Psalm 123 is a short Psalm, so short that it almost cannot stand by itself. It contains just two ideas, really: (i) we look to you, Lord, to show us mercy, for we are absolutely in your hands; (ii) we are fed up with the mockery of those who oppose us. This Psalms restates ideas from Psalm 120, but now the it is the people as whole which expresses frustration at their situation, not simply an individual Israelite. (Remember the situation described in Ezra/Nehemiah: those who opposed the work of rebuilding in Judah; those who mocked when they saw the Jerusalem being rebuilt.)
Psalm 124 develops the themes of Psalm 123, but does so by looking back to the past: Psalm 123 is about the opposition which Israel faces in the present; Psalm 124 is about the opposition that Israel has had to face throughout her history.
Psalm 124 briefly surveys Israel’s history, presenting it as a series of narrow escapes: we were almost eaten alive, but God was with us (vv. 1–3); we were almost drowned, but God rescued us (vv. 4–5); we were caught in a trap, but God freed us and we escaped (vv. 6–7).
What is the writer talking about in these verses? The exodus? The time when Sennacherib besieged Jerusalem? The return from exile? The language of Psalm 124 is vivid, but it is also metaphorical (devouring beasts, floods, traps, etc.) This means that the language is non-specific: it is not clear exactly the writer is referring to.
This may be deliberate: perhaps the writer doesn’t want to give us snapshots of particular events in Israel’s history; instead, he wants to give a more general picture of Israel’s entire history. Perhaps the point the writer wants to make is: Israel has always been in trouble; Israel’s whole history has been about getting into desperate situations and then being delivered by God. We’ve only just escaped disaster, by God’s grace; and that’s what our fathers experienced; that’s how you can sum up the whole of Israel’s history, as a series of escapes from disaster.
That is why the Psalm ends as it does: ‘Our help is in the name of the LORD, the maker of heaven and earth.’ What else can you say, when you belong to a nation like Israel? If the history of your people has been a series of narrow escapes, what other conclusion can you draw? Where else can you put your trust, if not in the LORD?
Psalm 125 begins on a very confident note (vv. 1–2): what could be more solid than Zion? What could be more secure than Jerusalem, surrounded by mountains? What does the people of God have to fear, if God surrounds them with his protection?
But then the focus shifts, and the speaker considers the present situation of God’s people. Apparently they are under foreign domination: the ‘sceptre of wickedness’ is at present resting over ‘the land allotted to the righteous’ (v. 3); that is, the Promised land is under enemy occupation (remember again the context of Ezra and Nehemiah, set in the Persian period).
The writer even raises the possibility that the ‘righteous’, those committed to God, might turn to evil (v. 3). Why would they do this? Out of despair that God has not answered their prayers? There’s a verse in Isaiah 63 that seems to express that sense of despair (v. 17): ‘Why, O LORD, do you make us wander from your ways and harden our hearts so that we do not revere you?’
Admittedly the writer, having raised this possibility, seems at once to dismiss it: no, God will not allow the present situation to continue; he will not let the righteous reach a point at which they give up hope. But the possibility has at least been raised.
Psalm 125:5 seems to distinguish three groups: ‘evildoers’ (Israel’s enemies); the ‘upright in heart’ (faithful Israelites); and ‘those who turn aside to their own crooked ways’. This third group seems to consist of compromisers: Israelites who should be committed to God, but who instead throw in their lot with Israel’s enemies, and who are treated like the first group (‘banished with the evildoers’). Again, similar groups can be identified in the narratives of Ezra and Nehemiah.
In Psalm 125, the more the writer focuses on the situation in which God’s people find themselves, the more desperate it seems: some within Israel are, apparently, giving up the struggle, finding the opposition of their enemies more than they can bear. Psalm 125 leaves a mixed impression in the reader’s mind: Yes, it expresses confidence in God; but increasingly the difficulties of the situation come into view, so that in the end the speaker can do no more than appeal to God.
Is he truly confident in God? Is his faith wavering? He expresses his trust in God, but he also refers to the difficulties he and the people as a whole face. Where does the balance lie? Are some of our prayers like this? Are we conscious of trying to fight off panic as we pray?
You can sum up the theme of Psalms 123–125 as ‘Faith under Pressure’. These Psalms have much to say about the difficulties and frustrations faced by those attempting to rebuild Jerusalem and maintain the worship in the restored temple; and, by extension, about the difficulties and frustrations faced by those who attempt to extend God’s kingdom in the Christian era.
There’s quite a lot about patient endurance in these three psalms. They express confidence in God at points, along with an awareness of God’s faithfulness to his people in the past and in the present. But there is also a longing for God to act; a sense of dissatisfaction with the present situation; quite a lot of impatience, in fact.
Perhaps patience and impatience often go hand in hand. This brings us to our final text, from the letter of James.
The church has had to wait 2000 years for the Lord’s coming so far. Probably in every generation there have been Christians who have thought, ‘Things are so bad that Jesus must be returning within a decade or two.’ There are probably many who say or think that today. What if it is another 2000 years before the Lord returns? Or longer than that?
The thought is somewhat staggering: can God’s plans really operate on that scale? Can it be that there will be Christians who will be as distant from us in time as we are distant from the early church described in Acts? Isn’t 2000 years enough, 2000 years in which creation has been groaning and straining, waiting for the revelation of the sons and daughters of God?
But we must be patient: God is not hurried, so why should we be in a hurry? James uses the analogy of seed planted in the soil to describe the fulfilment of God’s purposes (v. 7): the farmer knows that the seed he has placed in the ground will bear a crop, once it receives the necessary rain. He trusts God to give the increase. He has to: if he starts digging the soil up to see how the seed is doing he will ruin the crop. But it is hard to wait for months when no rain falls and nothing seems to be happening.
The prophets (whom James mentions in v. 10) were like this: they trusted that God meant what he said, and they declared his words to the people, not caring what the response was, provided they had been faithful in passing on the divine message. They trusted that God would bring about his purposes in his time: their task as prophets was simply to believe the message and declare God’s intentions to the people, leaving it to God to fulfil his word.
Patience on one side (I have suggested) is linked to faithfulness (faith) and peace: we are patient (if indeed we are patient) because we trust God to keep his word, and trust that God’s timing is best; we are patient because (like the writer of Ps. 131, which we considered earlier) we have stilled the questions and doubts in our hearts and brought ourselves to a point where we can find rest in God.
Patience on the other side is linked to kindness, gentleness and self-control. It is most striking that in speaking about patient endurance James finds it necessary to add the comment in v. 9: ‘Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged.’
When a group is under pressure, what is often one of the results? Tension, conflict, within the group: we cannot deal with the external pressure, so we attempt to relieve the pressure by grumbling about each other. This general point about group dynamics applies to churches; or it can do so.
James has a lot to say about the control of the tongue: he knows that external pressure, trials and temptations of many kinds, may lead believers to behave towards each other, and particularly to say things to and about each other, that they should not. He emphasises the control of the tongue, and sees this as one of the main indexes of the spiritual health of a believer and of a congregation (James 3:2, 8-10). How do we react under pressure? What spills out of our souls in that situation?
So yes, kindness, gentleness and self-control are also linked to patience: if we have faith in God, that should be reflected in the way we respond to pressure, whether expected or unexpected.
I find it interesting that James mentions Job in v. 11. Job could indeed be described as a patient man: he suffered much at God’s hand and still sought God, refusing to believe that God would abandon him, looking for the day when his relationship with God would be restored, even though God seemed for the present to have rejected him.
But he was also rather impatient on some occasions, particularly when his three friends tried to explain his sufferings to him in ways that he did not find convincing. Being patient clearly does not mean putting your mind on ice, refusing to think clearly about your current situation, treating bad explanations and bad arguments as though they were good.
But still, there is this aspect of character, of the developing of Christian character at times of trial and temptation. Patient endurance leads – or should lead – to Christians who are ‘mature and complete, lacking in nothing’ (James 1:4): that is the distinctive contribution of this part of the fruit of the Spirit.
Patience in the end has to do with dependence on God: fundamentally we Christians should be patient because we trust God. We must wait for God to carry out his purposes in his time; and meanwhile we should behave as is appropriate for those who trust in God.
Maybe this leads to a certain impatience in the Singaporean church: we’ve got the resources, we’ve appointed the right people, we’ve got the plans in place – so why are things not happening as we expected they would?
If we find ourselves thinking like that, maybe we’re in danger of substituting faith in ourselves and in our techniques for faith in God.
Let us be clear that we depend upon God just as much as the Israelites who wrote the Songs of Ascents, just as much as the Christians to whom James wrote. God alone can fulfil his purposes: for us, for our churches, for a place like BGST. We depend upon him to do so.
Ps. 123:3: ‘Have mercy on us, O LORD, have mercy on us’
James 5:11: ‘you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful.’
- Dr. Philip E Satterthwaite
The schedule for our Wednesday Chapel at noon is as follows:
Friends and visitors are welcome to join us for fellowship and devotion together at our school.
Note: There is no Chapel on 7th May 2014. The school is closed from 12 noon—2pm for a staff prayer session led by Mr. John Chong Ser Choon.
|2014 BGST Convocation|
Our 23rd Convocation & Thanksgiving Service is on Saturday, 24th May, 2014.
In order to graduate you need to hand in all your assignments for the courses that you need to complete your program by 30th April 2014.
|BGST Church History Tour|
BGST will be conducting a Church History tour to Italy from 30th September ‐ 10th October 2014. To date, we have a tour group of 15 pax. Limited seats still available. Interested parties please contact Dr Lai Pak Wah at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The starting price for the tour is S$5,300 (min.15 pax). If the tour group grows to 20 and above, all registrants should be able to enjoy some rebates on their fees.
For details on the tour and the lectures that will be covered, please refer to the tour brochure in the web link: http://bgst.edu.sg/424‐2014‐church‐history‐tour.
|Upcoming Public Lecture|
TESTING THE SPIRITS ‐ Jonathan Edwards, Spiritual Discernment, and Global Christianity
Free Admission / To register call 6227 6815.
Prof McDermott is also giving a follow-on course to this public lectures (please see below).
|God’s Beauty in a Pluralistic World: Introducing America’s Theologian
(CS/IC302, 1.5 credits) - By Prof Gerald McDermott
Date / Time : July 1‐3 (7.15 ‐ 10.15pm), July 5 (9.30am ‐ 4.30pm) [Intensive course]
Venue : Mt Camel BP Church
Fees : $225 (for credit); $157.50 (by audit)
To register call 6227 6815.
|If you would like to have an overview of the courses we will be offering in Semester 1 of Academic Year 2014-2015, please visit our webpage at http://www.bgst.edu.sg/media/files/courses/2014-15-sem1.pdf. For course inquiries, please email us at email@example.com.|
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