Series > James: The Wisdom of Faith
The Wisdom of Long-Suffering
Ryan TOmpkins // March 3, 2019
scripture Passage // James 5:1–12 (ESV)
“1 Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. 2 Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. 3 Your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure in the last days. 4 Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. 5 You have lived on the earth in luxury and in self-indulgence. You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. 6 You have condemned and murdered the righteous person. He does not resist you.
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.”
For us today, James raises the question of suffering, and the advocates to us that there's wisdom in being long suffering, being willing to endure, establishing your heart in the Lord and patiently making it through suffering. Are you engaging or receiving some degree of suffering in this season of your life? James interestingly doesn't want to explain to you why that suffering is. So often when we are suffering, we ask the question, why is this happening or why would God permit this to happen? James isn't going to do business with that question at all. He seems to simply assume that suffering is the status for the church and instead wants to take up various aspects of how we experience or participate in suffering. In fact, James is actually going to begin with the notion of sometimes we participate in the suffering of others. So I'd like you to consider three questions today related to suffering either you may cause or that you may experience.
Question number one is, are you causing suffering towards someone else or someone else to experience suffering? Number two is, how do you handle your suffering? And question number three is, how do you treat God in the midst of your suffering? So first, where James begins is a question, are you causing or participating in someone else's suffering? Now, in verses 1 through 6, there's some debate, considerable debate actually. James says such harsh things that some commentators say there's no way that James is talking about the church. If you look at verse 5, he writes, "You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter." So some say, well, James couldn't be talking to the church, he wouldn't use such severe and language and therefore he must be talking about the rich outside the church who are oppressing people in the church. Now, I disagree with this assessment for a number of reasons and offer to you perhaps something of a minority report. But number one, James sounds just like the profits. The profits were often taking to task the people of Israel who had resources and power, who are oppressing and taking advantage of the Israeli brothers and sisters. And if that could happen in Israel, and I see no reason why it's not happening in the church and James isn't taking issue with it.
Number two, James doesn't signify that he's changed his audience in any way. Hasn't said, "Hey, I want to talk to those outside the church or particularly to encourage those of you who are suffering under their hand." And third, we already know because James is addressed it, that the people in the church are struggling with money and treating people with money and power differently, giving them special seats in the congregation. So for all these reasons, I think James is actually addressing people in the church who have more resources and in fact find themselves in a place where they love money, right? Paul doesn't say that money is the root of all evil, he says that the love of money is the root of all evil, and this is to whom James is writing. People who really their affections are captured by resources and wealth. And to these people, perhaps to you, if your heart is captured by money and what it can acquire, then James is saying this to all of us, verse 1, "You might as well weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you."
In verse 2 and 3, he mentions the three basic goods that indicated wealth in the ancient world, right? Your clothes, your precious metals and your riches, which could be other idols and things of that nature, and he says, "Your riches are rotted, your garments are moth eaten, and your gold and your silver corroded." In other words, the things that you think are precious and valuable, they're already as good as dust in your hands. Why? Because they have no eternal significance. For all the things that you think you can hoard or signify wealth, or make you feel like you're well established here and now, James is saying they're actually pointless, well, not simply that they're pointless, the point that they will have is the actually serve as evidence against you in the Day of Judgment. When you stand before Jesus and he says, "Why don't you give me an account of how you used your wealth related to the kingdom?" All of the things that you treasured up on this earth that have no relation to the kingdom are going to be brought out as evidence before you and those charges would be laid against you. It's a bit of a scary picture that James has presented.
Now, he's not speaking simply to the rich. It's not wrong to be rich and it's not money as a tool that should be used for the good of the kingdom, for the good of our families, he's talking about people who treat money as an idolatry and we know this because these people are taking advantage of other people. And you only take advantage of other people to make more money when money is an idol to you, when you worship it more than you do God or the people around you. And so in verse four he talks about these people are withholding the payment that they owe to laborers, to servants who would work the fields so that they can enjoy more money, and as a result, the servants are suffering. And in verse five, he seems to sum up the whole thing saying, "You have lived on the earth in luxury and self indulgence. You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter." James's language there is literal in the sense that it's the same language that would be used of a sacrificial animal. He says because you've been committed, you've loved, you've devoted yourself to luxury and self indulgence, in effect you've just fattened your heart, you've made yourself a better sacrificial animal because that will be the outcome of what you've worshiped.
I think we live in a culture and in a day particularly that knows a whole lot about living in luxury and self indulgence. How much of our wealth, how much of our money is spent on making sure that we're comfortable and we have what we want before we think about actually spending it on the work of the kingdom or on those who were actually oppressed and in need, and honoring Christ in some capacity. The idolatry is dangerous and there's a lovely picture of idolatry recently. It's about a man named Stephan Breitweiser. And Stephan is probably the most gifted ... gifted is the wrong word, the most accomplished art thief in the history of the known world. Stephan is a really interesting character. He grew up and his father was a fairly well to do lawyer Aristocrat who loved to acquire antiques and works of art. The house that he was growing up and was full of them. When Stephan was a young man, his parents went through a brutal divorce and his father took everything so that he and his mother were largely left destitute. And what Stephan missed were all of these objects.
Stefan would describe his childhood, he was never interested in sports, he was never interested in playing video games. If he could go anywhere, he would always go to the museum and when he got to the museum, he would spend the entire day there. He was passionate about works of art and particularly works of art that moved him. He eventually enters his early 20s, starts dating a girl and he's standing at an art show looking at an antique revolver that reminded him of something that his dad possessed. And he says, "I found myself thinking I should have that. If my dad hadn't left and taken everything, I would actually have a piece like that." And so he starts to talk about it with his girlfriend, his girlfriend says, "Go ahead and take it." And he sneaks it into his coat and they walk out. And thus begins a little over 10 years of a robbery spree that would hit over 200 museums and would total one point $4 billion in goods that Stefan acquired.
Now, you might think, well, Stephan must be loaded and a fat cat. He's a popper. He lived in the Attic of his mother's house, he seldom had a job, if he did, it was waiting tables locally in France where he lived. And yet the attic of the house had every single thing that he had stolen on display. He lived in a sanctuary to art. This is what he had fallen in love with. An article on him goes, when he covets an object, says Breitweiser, he feels the emotional wallop of a coop decor literally a blow to the heart. There are just things that make him swoon. Looking at something beautiful, he explains, I can't help but weep. There are people who do not understand this, but I can cry for objects. And Dee Dee would cry for those objects. He again, he had a tremendous run. Eventually though would be caught and held. For some time, police started to investigate who he was and started to connect him to other robberies. Now, when he's caught, he's actually in the middle of going back to the museum where he forgot to take care of his fingerprints. Really, totally unassuming guys and very basic rules.
You go at lunchtime when the guards are on rotation for lunch and the crowds are the thinnest, you dress nicely, you are pleasant and polite to everyone. He had a specially designed coat that would allow him to hide objects in it and he only carried a Swiss army knife. So he'd walk in, wait for a room to be clear, his girlfriend would stand at the door and keep watch if anyone was approaching, and he would often, with his knife and dismantle a case, take what was in it, put it in his coat, walk out, say hi to the guards, and by the time they realized something was missing, they were long gone and they did this moving all over Europe. At one point, he forgets to take care of his fingerprints and so it's going back to clean them, and that's when he gets picked up and his girlfriend is there, but they don't recognize his girlfriend, his girlfriend panics, runs back to the house, tells his mother everything who goes into a rage. I've sacrificed everything to raise you. I provide you, you don't even hold down a job and you've, you've made me an accomplished to your crimes.
So they grab all of the arts, throw it in the car and make trips in the middle of the night to a nearby river where they throw everything in the river, $1.4 billion worth of treasure. And so someone walking their dog by the river and sees the glittering in the water. And so they actually drain the canal to recover all the items that have been disposed. And this is a fantastic picture of idolatry in the census. Stephan comes to a point where his love for art, which is not wrong, consumes him. And as this gives birth to sin, he continues to send more and more and in bigger and bigger ways, which is always you have to make bigger sacrifices to an idol until he's consumed. And what does it do? It destroys him, it destroys the people that he loved, and ultimately the very object of his desire is destroyed because it's corrupted by his inordinate desire. He's now 33, he's out of prison and he thinks his life is miserable. He says, "The greatest part of my life was stealing and now I can't do it anymore." And he's not permitted to step foot in any kind of museum whatsoever. And he says simply that art has punished me.
This is a picture of what James is talking about. When we in the church would very slowly, very subtly and very small way, start to become in love with money and we'll have what money can acquire, and when we start to worship that and to love it more than God, then inevitably we'll take advantage of other people so that we can have the resources that we want and acquire the things that we need. So are you causing suffering? And friends, anyone who lives in the West has to ask that question. For the clothes that we wear, the goods that we use, made in all kinds of parts of the third world, and what ways are our addiction to having money and to having goods causing others to suffer? And in a very pragmatic way, the only way to not be a lover of money is to be willing to part with it, is to be willing to be generous on behalf of the kingdom. It's a willingness to make a priority, to be generous to the benevolence fund because that goes to help people in economic distress.
There'll be an announcement later today about this year's green door run, which it's the 10th anniversary and they're trying to do 50 houses. If I'm not a lover of money, but a lover of the kingdom, my next question is, okay, how can I participate in that? And these are the questions we always have to be asking and challenging ourselves with if we truly don't want to be a lover of money and don't want to find ourselves causing or contributing to the suffering of others. Now, James having made this point, having dealt with the people who are lovers of money in the church is going to pivot and actually address those who are suffering for under the oppression of those who are loving money.
And he makes this pivot in verse 7 and this raises the question for us, for you, how do you handle the suffering? In the midst of your suffering, how do you walk through it? Now, it's going to be a little bit tricky to apply this well, so bear with me. The first thing isn't tricky. James says off the bat, you need to be patient. So our tendency in the midst of suffering to try to rush into something that will alleviate the circumstances or solve whatever has come upon us. But James says, "No, you need to be like the farmer who waits on the rains."
In Palestine, there are two rainy seasons, one early and one late. The farmer can't do anything to control when the rain comes and the farmer can't do anything to manufacturer water, to water the crops. The only thing that the farmer can do is wait, be patient, and to realize that these things are out of his control. And this is what James is urging the people to do, to be patient, not to rush in and do foolish things, but instead to establish their hearts in the Lord as he will say and to wait. Now, passages like this, frankly, are problematic. They're problematic for a number of reasons. One is that our worlds are very different. The people to whom James is now addressing, they're slaves in the ancient world, and the number of options you had as a slave in the ancient world, when you suffered injustice, amounted to zero. There's no one to appeal to. There's no law to exercise on your behalf. There's no one that you can bring in to right the situation, because a slave in the ancient world is actually considered less than human. There's nothing that could be done.
And so to take this passage and say, "Oh, well, all you have to do is endure whatever suffering comes upon you." That becomes very dangerous. You may be in a situation of domestic abuse, you may be in a situation where you're an older child being abused. You may be in a situation where you're in the worst work situation ever and your boss is taking advantage of you left and right. And if you took this passage and just read it very simply and flatly, you'd say, "Oh, well my only option is to endure." That's it. I have to be patient and as the Lord brings the rains, so he'll alleviate my situation in his timing. And I think the contexts are too different to make that kind direct application. James is absolutely saying, yes, be patient in the midst of suffering, but I don't think he's saying that you need to suffer whatever befalls you. And if it's a particular case of injustice or oppression or failure on the part of someone to love well, please do not hear me as saying that you just have to grin and bear or set your jaw.
The other part of the problem is the James obviously thinks Jesus is coming any minute. If you look at verse eight, the coming of the Lord is at hand, verse nine, the judge is standing at the door. Now, this isn't surprising. Throughout the New Testament, we see the New Testament authors expressing the notion that they believe Jesus is coming very soon. This is very obvious and Paul where his early letters talk a lot about the imminent return of Jesus and his later letters negotiate that. Like, okay, Jesus hasn't shown up in these decades that I've been writing administering. Apparently, we need to rethink what we expect.
So if James knew now that we're sitting here waiting 2,000 years after the fact for Jesus still to come back, would he give the same counsel to endure the same kind of suffering? Question is answered for us, but these are the reasons that we have to understand what James is truly after and it's not simply a patient endurance of suffering. What he seems to be most concerned about is the effect that a lack of patient endurance will have on the church itself and the relationships in the church. Look at his one exhortation in verse nine, do not grumble against one another so that you may not be judged.
So James is saying is, if you are in a place of suffering, you need to be patient and to establish yourself in the Lord. But if you don't actually do that, what's going to happen? Well, you're going to become very frustrated because you want things to change and you're not trusting God, and in that frustration, you're going to grumble against one another. It's going to pour out and it's going to pull apart the relationships that exist within the church.
Now, you see this in your home all the time, right? Little Suzy comes home from school and got a bad grade, or her friends didn't treat her very well and she's filled with all kinds of frustration. Now, does little Suzy come home and say, "I am really going to honor my mother and father and I don't want to compromise my obedience in Jesus. So even though I'm frustrated and full of tension, I'm going to love my brothers and sisters and I'm going to be very careful of not going into sin." Not my little Suzy does that. Maybe yours does.
Now, little Suzy comes home and she's frustrated and the frustration spills over into every aspect of life. So that contempt is expressed for everyone and everyone must pay and suffer her wrath as a result of the disappointment and frustration she feels. This is James's concern. But if you're actually in the midst of suffering and it's overwhelming you and you don't have a posture of waiting and trusting in the Lord, then that will spill over and you will begin to devour your brothers and sisters in the church.
So the question to you is, who have you devoured? Who of you grumbled against? Have people sitting around you or the people in the other service have because you're frustrated, because life is weighing you down and you're enduring something that seems not fair and your real frustration is with God, but rather than going to God with that frustration, you take it out on the people around you. That's going to hurt the relationships in the church and therefore hurt the church, and if that's the case and you can think of those occasions, then you need to repent. You need to go to that person and say I'm sorry, you were not meant to be the target of my frustration.
God was actually supposed to be the target of your frustration, but we find even in James's last piece, that we don't always take our frustration with God in a healthy way or in a real way, voicing it, instead we try to manipulate God. And this is the third question, how do you treat God in the midst of your suffering? Here we come to verse 12. Now, verse 12 seems almost not the fit and we're James what ... some commentators even said a scribe must've gotten this wrong and put verse 12 in the wrong place because it seems so out of whack with the rest of the passage. But this is what I think James is after. If you look at verse 12, he writes, "Do not swear either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your yes be yes so that you may not follow or fall under condemnation." Now, what do you do when you're in the midst of suffering and you want things to change and you feel like, God, you don't love me because you're not changing anything. You're certainly not for me. You seem very distant. We get frustrated in the midst of that frustration. What do we do with our frustration? Well, James has already dealt with the ways in which we grumble against one another, but what do we do with God?
We take that frustration out on him as well, and one of the ways to do that more commonly in the ancient world was to take a vow or an oath. 'Cause a vow or an oath is an easy way to try to manipulate God. A vow or an oath is something where you say, "God, I am committing myself to you in this way because I believe as a result, you'll do X. Jephthah is a good example of this in Judges 11. He's one of the judges and you may not remember, but Jephthah had a sad life. He was one of 11 brothers and sisters, but he was the only one that was born to a woman who sold kisses. And so his brothers and sisters exiled him from the community as a result of who his mother was. Jephthah grows up on the outskirts of his community and Israel and his community is oppressed by the ammonites. And finally, the people in the community say, we're getting kicked out left and right by the ammonites. There's really only one guy who's tough enough to lead us against the ammonites. And guess who that is? Jephthah, the guy we kicked out long time ago. So they go to Jephthah and Jephthah says, "Well, what do I get from coming back and saving you all?" And they say, "Well, we'll let you back in the community."
Well, Jephthah desires this and so he begins to lead Israel as a judge, but he's frustrated too of the campaigning against the ammonites. And so in his frustration and his expectation that God would deliver them from the oppression of the ammonites, he makes a vow and his vow as what? God, if you deliver the ammonites to me, I'll sacrifice the first thing that walks out of my door when I get back home. And the first thing that walks out of his door is his daughter. I mean, then as the sacrifice to fulfill his vow to God. That's a picture of what it means to try to manipulate God to say, God, you have to do this based on what I'm committing to you. Now again, vows and oaths are much more common in the ancient world.
Occasionally you hear somebody say something silly, but it's often when you're young, "God, if you give me success in this area, I promise I'll teach Sunday school for the rest of my life." You may hear something like this, but far more common for us, I think is simply pulling away from God. In other words, God, and you're not doing what I'm want you to do. That's fine. I'll go to church. I'll listen to some worship music while I'm working in the yard, but that's all you get in me. I'm going to retreat and stay over here and when you want to show up and do the things that I expect you to do, then I'll be more responsive to a relationship with you. In the midst of suffering, that's easy to do. It hurts to suffer and it hurts to try to figure out why God would permit some of the suffering that comes upon us. But pulling away from him, trying to punish him, trying to manipulate him in the midst of that suffering, is the worst call to make, because as a result, you simply alienate your friendship with God and move away from him.
And I think James is in one sense, anticipated all of this. Some of you are participating in other suffering because you love things too much like money. And some of you in the midst of your suffering, you're grumbling against one another because you're so frustrated, and still others of you in the midst of your suffering are trying to manipulate God, whether you're taking a vow or an oath or giving him a cold shoulder. And James has the most interesting remark in verse five in which he writes, "You have condemned and murdered the righteous person. He does not resist you."
Now, you could read that as simply being one of the people, one of the laborers that the rich are taking advantage of, but the grammar seems to indicate something else and righteous person could just as easily be translated righteous one. And what I think James is doing is making an illusion to Jesus. He's saying in the midst of what you're doing, you have condemned and murdered the righteous one. He does not or he did not resist you. And what James is saying is, listen, I get it. In the midst of your suffering, you're very frustrated, but what more could God give you to communicate that he has for you? Did he came and became man and allowed you to put him to death and he did not resist your anger and frustration and grievance against him, but instead went to the cross. You can almost hear James the back saying, "Really? Tell me, what more could he give to you that would encourage you to be enduring in your suffering to be steadfast and to be patient, to establish your heart in him and trust him? You know what? What is it? What more could he possibly have done?"
I can imagine someone might say, "Well, you could take this suffering away." And would that be the loving thing for God to do? Has not suffering been instrumental in moving you toward God and has not the lack of suffering, your indulgence and luxury been instrumental in moving you away from him? God is not spared his own son. The righteous one did not say you don't have a right to put me to death. I permit you to put me to death, that you might be redeemed. The cross is the first place we go to understand God's love and mercy toward us, then even in the midst of our suffering now, yes, again, it's not that you succumb to any kind of injustice that you might suffer, but in the frustration that you experience day to day, it invites you to a peaceful steadfastness in which your heart is established and you're not blown to and fro, you're not double-minded. But instead like the prophets and like Job, you remain steadfast and believe that he will bring all things to its proper conclusion.
We confess and ask you to forgive us for putting you the righteous one to death. We marvel that you did not resist the violence of humanity against your righteousness, but instead succumb to it that we might be redeemed. So in the midst of our suffering, some of us would cry out with loud voices now and some of us with soft voices, but whatever our degree of suffering, would you help us to establish our hearts and you? Would you help us to be patient? Would you help us to believe that if you bring death to resurrection, then even in the midst of our suffering, you will bring all things to to rights?
Lord, we pray for those who are in the midst of bitter suffering that you would alleviate it, that you would be kind and merciful and bring that chapter to a close and encourage their hearts and their faith and cause them to look to you with expectations. And for those who have moved away from you and decided that you are not good or loving or neither because of the suffering that you have permitted in their life, would you give them new reason to help? We thank you for the life that has been effected from the very suffering of Christ and pray that you would return to us the joy of that life this morning as we come to your table. Amen.