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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- We see it when, either in life or in death, He delivers us from trouble and afterward heaps upon us great reward.
- 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.