Patience in Adversity

Encouragement for sufferers

To comfort those under persecution, James has been exhorting them to look for Christ’s return (vv. 7-8). The imminence of this event reminds suffering saints that their siege of trouble cannot go on forever. It will end soon when they pass out of this world either by death or by the rapture of the church. James now marshals two more arguments to encourage them in patient endurance.

The first is that the possibility of patient endurance has already been demonstrated by their godly forerunners (v. 10). He points out in particular the example of "the prophets, who have spoken in the name of the Lord." James's use of the prophets to illustrate how to handle persecution recalls the last of his brother's Beatitudes: "Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you" (Matt. 5:11–12). Even though the prophets stood as spokesmen of the King of kings, they did not escape rejection and retaliation by sinners, infuriated that anyone should dare to question their evil practices. The wicked, desperate to stop the words stinging their hearts, did not tremble to lash out against the prophets. But even as these men of God were engulfed by violence, they stood fast in their faith, leaving us timeless illustrations of two virtues: "suffering affliction" (a single word implying a deliberate choice to accept suffering) and "patience," which means to keep an unwavering heart through severe trials.

The second argument designed to encourage those under affliction is that they have blessings awaiting them. What did the prophets accomplish by enduring pain rather than denying God's message? James alerts us to the answer. He says, "Behold." In other words, shift your gaze from the scene of suffering to another scene I will show you. What is that? He says, "We count them happy which endure" (v. 11a). That is, we know what happens to them after all their trials, so bitter and heartbreaking while they last, finally come to an end. They leave this world to receive their reward, which is an everlasting state of being "happy," or "blessed." Looking back, they rejoice at God’s leading, though it took them through perilous paths. Could they live again, they would not choose any other course. An easier life would diminish the suffering, but also the victory and the rewards for victory.

Suffering of the prophets

The New Testament frequently pays tribute to the prophets for their bravery in the face of persecution (Matt. 23:29-37; Acts 7:51-52; Rom. 11:3; 1 Thess. 2:15; Heb. 11:32-38; Rev. 16:6). Who were these prophets that wicked men tormented and killed? The sufferings of many are remembered in the Old Testament. Others are memorialized in Jewish tradition.

We know, for example, that the wicked Jezebel, wife of King Ahab of Israel, slew many prophets (1 Kings 18:13). She would have killed Elijah, except that he fled into the wilderness.

Every one of the major prophets underwent great hardship. Isaiah had a long career, stretching more than fifty years from the reign of Uzziah probably to the reign of Manasseh, the vilest of all the kings of Judah (Isa. 1:1; 2 Kings 20:21). According to a pre-Christian Jewish tradition, Manasseh killed Isaiah by having him cut in two with a wooden saw. Doubtless Isaiah is the one remembered in Hebrews 11:37 as the martyr who was "sawn asunder."

Jeremiah was constantly in danger of his life throughout the closing years of his ministry. Zedekiah, the last king of Judah, allowed the prophet’s enemies to cast him into a miry dungeon, where he would have starved, but the king relented and imprisoned him instead in a courtyard above ground (Jer. 38:1–13). Later, the Jewish remnant after Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Jerusalem took Jeremiah to Egypt against his will (Jer. 43:1–7). One tradition says that while there he was stoned to death.

We do not know how Daniel died, yet as a youth, after he was taken to Babylon, he was willing to defy the king and face death rather than disobey God. He refused to eat the food and to drink the wine that the king provided because the food violated the dietary laws of Moses (Lev. 11) and the wine violated a divine command preserved in the Book of Proverbs (Prov. 23:31–35). If God had not stirred up sympathy in the heart of Daniel's overseer so that he made an exception for the Jewish boys, Daniel would certainly have lost his life (Dan. 1:5–16). Many years later, when Daniel came to the end of his career, the king decreed that for thirty days, no prayers should be raised except to himself, and Daniel again risked his life by doing what was right. He continued his practice of praying to God three times a day. As a result, he was arrested and cast into a den of lions. For a whole night he sat in foul, dark confinement surrounded by hungry beasts, yet an angel of God protected him. In the morning, the king found him unharmed (Dan. 6:4–23).

In Jesus’ estimation, the greatest of all the prophets was John the Baptist (Matt. 11:11). Yet his greatness did not bring him the acclaim of men counted great by the world, but rather their hatred. When John denounced Herod for marrying his brother’s wife, Herod imprisoned him. Later, at the instigation of this woman, named Herodias, Herod had John beheaded. He was killed while Herod was entertaining guests at a banquet, and his head was delivered to Herodias on a platter, as if it were just another course in the meal (Mark 6:21–28).

The sinner's hardness of heart

Why were the prophets hated? Because they told the people that God was angry with them. They challenged the self-satisfaction that all human beings use as a defense against guilt. The main message of the prophets was that Israel had angered God by forsaking Him and embracing the idols of the heathen. But the people were impressed by their heathen neighbors. They replied, why not worship gods that made their followers rich and strong? Besides, Jehovah was too demanding. Life was more fun without Him. When the prophets threatened judgment, the people rose up in rage against them and killed them. Usually among the chief instigators were the false prophets, who viewed their godly rivals as a threat to their lucrative business, pulling in good revenue as payment for telling people what they wanted to hear.

The mentality of these people is exactly described by the title of a best-selling book some years ago: I'm OK, You're OK. To escape God's opinion of their sin, many men wrap themselves in denial and turn their fury on anyone who tells them the truth. They do not necessarily deny God's existence. Yet if they believe in God, they will recreate Him as a soft-hearted grandfather who thinks whatever they do is cute, or as a jolly Santa Claus who winks at whatever gives them pleasure. They set their own reflection in the place of God and give it a smiley face. They sing, "God bless America" when their wickedness has forfeited God's blessing. They reject any suggestion that God is holy, beyond compromise with sin, beyond sympathy with man's selfish ways. And anyone who tells them what God is truly like becomes a target.

How can any mortal man find the strength to stand in a prophet's role, in which he will inevitably suffer scorn, rejection, perhaps even death? John Bunyan, author of Pilgrim's Progress, was such a man. For him, the price of preaching the truth was to spend many years in jail, separated from his beloved wife and family. Let me quote one of Bunyan's poems illustrating how he encouraged himself in the Lord.

Who would true Valour see
Let him come hither;
One here will Constant be,
Come Wind, come Weather.
There's no Discouragement,
Shall make him once Relent,
His first avow'd Intent,
To be a Pilgrim.

Who so beset him round,
With dismal Storys,
Do but themselves Confound;
His Strength the more is.
No Lyon can him fright,
He'l with a Gyant Fight,
But he will have a right,
To be a Pilgrim.

Hobgoblin, nor foul Fiend,
Can daunt his Spirit:
He knows, he at the end,
Shall Life Inherit.
Then Fancies fly away,
He'l fear not what men say,
He'l labour Night and Day,
To be a Pilgrim.

The example of Job

In commenting on all the terrible calamities that befell the prophets, James says, "Behold, we count them happy which endure" (v. 11a). Yet in any story of persecution to the point of martyrdom, we find no evidence that the victim achieved happiness. He suffered distress and pain even to the last moment of life. If he won happiness by his endurance, he must have found it beyond the grave. Then how can we know that happiness was indeed his reward? Recognizing that our view is limited to this life, James helps us to see the end of patient suffering by presenting the example of Job (v. 11b). Here was a man who kept his heart right with God even in the midst of heavy blows. God allowed Satan to cut off from Job everything dear to him except his wife. In one day Job lost all his wealth to robbers and all his children to a great storm (Job 1:7–22). Then a short time later he succumbed to a horrible disease, subjecting him to unrelieved pain (Job 2:1–8). Yet although his wife tempted him to curse God and die, he refused (Job 2:9–10). At the height of his troubles, he declared, "Though he [God] slay me, yet will I trust in him" (Job 13:15). God was so pleased with Job that instead of asking for faithfulness unto death, He delivered and rewarded Job while he was still alive. He took away Job’s disease and replaced all his losses, to the extent of doubling his material possessions and granting him and his wife as many new children as the number who perished (Job 42:9–17).

God's purposes in suffering

James says that the case of Job demonstrates "the end of the Lord"; in other words, "the final result that the Lord intends when He permits a saint to go through suffering." For Job, the final result was to receive an outpouring of God's blessing. Every other saint going through a hard trial can look forward to the same outcome. When God is done accomplishing His purposes in the suffering, blessing will take its place.

What are God's purposes in allowing His children to suffer? He has many. Among them are the following:

  1. Because the saints here below could not endure their suffering except by His grace, their endurance glorifies Him before the angels and the saints above.
  2. Their endurance also silences the accuser, Satan, who argues that God’s children love Him with a love too shallow to survive any hardship from His hand.
  3. Trials refine the character of His children by increasing their patience and trust.

James reveals that in accomplishing all these purposes, God shapes our experience so that we come to a proper view of His character (v. 11c). We learn that although He has taken us through tough lessons good for us, He is not a grim schoolmaster, but a loving God. We see His love in two ways.

  1. We see it when, either in life or in death, He delivers us from trouble and afterward heaps upon us great reward.
  2. We also see it in the measure of suffering. He does not give us all the trouble that justice and discipline might warrant, but He cuts it short. He withholds the worst. Why? Because, "Like as a father pitieth his children, so the Lord pitieth them that fear him" (Ps. 103:13), or, as James says, "the Lord is very pitiful, and of tender mercy." Love shapes and limits and directs His intervention in our lives.


1. When I find myself in the midst of suffering, do I help myself endure patiently by studying and following the good example set by many saints of old?

The best place to look for these examples is in Scripture, which is profitable for "instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be throughly furnished unto all good works" (2 Tim. 3:16-17). But also it is very helpful to read Christian biographies, especially those written in past generations. The subject of many recent biographies, such as you find in a Christian bookstore, is not a real saint who exemplified a holy and sacrificial life, but a modern celebrity outstanding for fame and fortune rather than spirituality. Dig into older Christian books if you want to be sure of spiritual blessing rather than froth.

2. Do I measure my sufferings on the right scale—a scale comparing myself with past saints and martyrs?

On such a scale, do you see that God has visited others with far greater suffering than you must endure? Do you praise Him for His mercy to you? Whenever you feel sorry for yourself, try reading Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. Then you will see that the suffering God has required of you is small change.

3. How well have I endured testing and trouble?

No doubt they have not destroyed your faith, or you would not be reading this lesson. But have the troubles of life robbed you of the enthusiasm you once felt for the things of God? Are you more distant from God than you used to be? Do you fault God for weighing you down with a greater burden than you can bear? Then stop trying to carry it. Remember that He is willing to carry it for you. As the psalmist says, "Cast thy burden upon the Lord, and he shall sustain thee: he shall never suffer the righteous to be moved" (Ps. 55:22).

4. To encourage myself, do I keep my eyes on the rewards for endurance?

Whether we will receive them in this life or in the life to come, we do not know. Scripture certainly authorizes us to hope and pray that we, like Job, will see our sufferings lifted before we die (Ps. 90:14-16; 27:13). We should therefore comfort ourselves with the thought that we may yet find a little space of peace and rest in this world, another Beulah like the pleasant land that Pilgrim in Pilgrim's Progress enjoyed before he crossed the great river. But even if we must fight the good fight until the moment of death, we know that rewards await us in the realm of the blessed. Besides saying much about God’s goodness to His children in this world, the psalms also say much about the delights we will know when we dwell in His presence forever (Ps. 16:11; 17:15; 30:5; 73:24-26). Consider also many other promises of Scripture that our future beyond the grave will bring us happiness worth any price of suffering now (Isa. 35:10; 25:8; Rev. 21:4).

5. Have I ever seen God’s pity hold my trials in check?

In my wife’s bout with cancer some years ago, we marveled at how God strictly limited her ordeal. The cancer was found early enough to be removed with little risk of recurrence. She escaped the need for chemotherapy. Before discovery of the cancer, she had gone on Medicare and supplemental health insurance that fully paid her expenses. God directed us to a surgeon who was a Christian. Though we lived in a rural area, a world-class radiologist was available nearby. The church volunteered to supply meals while she was undergoing radiation treatments. The list goes on. God is a merciful God even when our troubles rise to full measure.

Study Questions

  1. What is James's first encouragement to people going through suffering?
  2. What is his second encouragement?
  3. Who are notable examples of endurance through suffering?
  4. Tell what happened to Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, and John the Baptist.
  5. Why were the prophets hated?
  6. Who suffered more than most and remained true to God?
  7. What followed his suffering and follows the suffering of every saint?
  8. What are three purposes in suffering?
  9. What additional purpose does James emphasize?
  10. In what two ways do we see God's love?

Further Reading

If you have found this lesson helpful, you might want to obtain Ed Rickard's commentary on the whole Epistle of James. For a brief description and for information on how to obtain it, click here.