“I hate it.” That was what Banu said to me when I asked her, “What’s the first thing that pops into your mind when I say the word ‘patience’?” She said that it’s usually thought of as being patient while suffering. I can understand that. I’m hardly a fan of suffering myself.
Richard Rohr defines suffering as “whenever you are not in control.” That casts a wide net, but it might actually get to the heart of it. He adds, “All healthy religion shows you what to do with your pain… If we do not transform this pain, we will most assuredly transmit it to others, and it will slowly destroy us in one way or another.”
Over the past few years, even the past couple of decades, we can see this dynamic at work in our nation—and in the church. We seem to be more divided than ever, and it is destroying us.
Rohr continues, “If there isn’t some way to find some deeper meaning to our suffering, to find that God is somewhere in it, and can even use it for good, we will normally close up and close down… The soul does not need answers, it just wants meaning, and then it can live.”
He’s on to something when he talks about the pain that we all experience. Clearly, for some, pain is more intense than it is for others. But if we do not transform our pain—or perhaps better, allow it to be transformed—we will definitely transmit it to others. We will become agents of destruction. We can quite literally become a pain in the rear end!
Some people transmit pain in a less obvious way. Instead of primarily projecting it outwardly, they direct it inwardly. They might want to bear their pain, their suffering, in silence. They might feel like they have to. This can lead to an inward spiral of self-pity, or maybe self-hatred, which inevitably leaks out.
Suffering doesn’t have to be so agonizing to do damage. Our patience can be tested by something less than a life-threatening situation.
It has occurred to me that traffic makes time slow down. It must be true! While driving down the road, sometimes my car is the last in a line of cars. There’s no one behind me. On occasion, someone will pull onto the road right in front of me, forcing me to slow down—sometimes very quickly. If the other driver had been willing to wait for ten more seconds, even five seconds, there would have been no drama, no temptation for road rage! Apparently, five seconds feels like five minutes.
(You do understand of course, I have never pulled out right in front of someone!)
Waiting in line can also test one’s patience. I especially enjoy being in line at a buffet restaurant, waiting for someone who is shoveling mountains on his or her plate. Evidently, there’s a fear that the restaurant is about to run out of food.
In his letter, St. James does indeed link patience with suffering. He doesn’t need to invent that connection; the community he’s writing to knows about suffering all too well. This is real suffering. It’s not the suffering that comes with slow internet service—or lamenting the terrible season that your team is having!
If we look at the beginning of chapter 5, we see him issuing a warning. “Come now, you rich people,” he scolds, “weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten” (vv. 1-2). It’s the old story of the wealthy beating down the poor, but as we see, their day in the sun will soon be over.
“Listen!” the scripture says, “The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter” (vv. 4-5).
Part of that in another version goes, “You have lived on the land in wanton luxury, gorging yourselves” (v. 5, Revised English Bible). The unrighteous rich are fattening themselves up, like turkeys destined for Christmas dinner.
Still, with all of that in view, as we get to today’s reading, James says, “Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord” (v. 7). (There’s a note for Advent.) Even though being told to be patient might test our patience, it is the fruit, the evidence, of the Holy Spirit, as the apostle Paul says in Galatians 5. It goes along with love, joy, peace, and several others (vv. 22-23). The word in Greek for “to be patient” (μακροθυμεω, makrothumeō) literally means “to have a long, or a large, spirit.”
The letter of James has many nuggets of wisdom. In chapter 4 he says, “What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes” (v. 14). The secret of having a large spirit helps us to take a deep breath and to realize that maybe the sky isn’t falling! (I freely admit, it’s easier to say that when you’re not in the midst of the storm, or if you’re not Chicken Little with the acorn falling on your head.)
Apparently agreeing with the idea that suffering means being not in control, William Loader says, “The alternative to patience is some kind of panic. This usually assumes that everything is in my control or should be. So I become anxious and I fear that not everything will get done. I then push myself and others around me.”
Drawing on James’ image of the farmer, the idea that “we can make the seed grow by worrying about it is an accurate enough parody of the way we sometimes behave. Our anxieties will not add anything. They will diminish us and those around us.”
Why is James so interested in seeing that his beloved audience gets the message to be patient? Why insist on patience? Why insist on having a large spirit?
James is deeply concerned about the community of believers; he’s concerned about the church. Under the pressure of their suffering, he implores them, “Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged. See, the Judge is standing at the doors!” (v. 9).
Susan Eastman has a few thoughts about this.
She says, “James warns his hearers against turning their pain, their ‘groans,’ against each other. It is easy, when we are experiencing hard times, to become bitter…or simply to stop going to church. How many people quietly drop out of Sunday morning worship when they go through intense personal crises…? How many people put on a pious public Sunday morning face because they fear the judgment of their Christian brothers and sisters?”
The prayer attributed to St. Francis which begins, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace,” can be very difficult to live. The part I find especially difficult is the section which goes, “O Divine Master, grant that I may not seek so much to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love.” That bit about seeking to understand, rather than being understood, I especially dislike! I’m not terribly fond of being misunderstood, of being misrepresented. I imagine I’m not the only one who feels that way.
That’s something to keep in mind the next time we think we know someone’s motives.
Still, Eastman says that “patience is essential to the process of becoming a peacemaker. The premature resolution of conflict usually inflicts some kind of violence on one of the parties involved, by silencing them.” Silencing people is the method of a bully, which means we must resist the temptation to shut somebody up by smacking them upside the head—whether physically or emotionally!
If you look at the rest of the passage, James uses the prophets and Job as examples of patience. Even though he finishes by saying “the Lord is compassionate and merciful,” Job doesn’t quietly suffer (v. 11). He questions God. He yells at God. Job might even say that the Lord is guilty of bullying him. In that respect, he really is the picture of patience.
Sometimes change is defined as what happens; transition, however, is how we react to change. What do we do with change? Transitional times, especially in congregations, can be quite restless. One of the challenges is to be patient with the process. We might find there’s great wisdom in it.
Here’s another reason why this fits the season of Advent. James says, “Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near” (v. 8). We are counseled to be patient, to have a large spirit. That results in trusting God, trusting in the one who comes. We learn to trust in the one whose advent continues to lead us in casting a vision for the future.
It takes practice to cultivate a large spirit. I spoke earlier about healthy religion. With a spirituality that is nourishing, we recognize our pain—we own it!—but we’re able (eventually) to let go of it. As noted earlier, it also involves recognizing the pain of others. It involves recognizing the suffering of others and acting!
One way of doing that is by collecting donations of often overlooked items, such as toilet paper. Not at all to make light of it, but lacking toilet paper represents its own kind of suffering.
I’ve sometimes thought if I had to do without, what would I miss the most? Toilet paper, for sure. I would also miss brushing my teeth, applying deodorant, using Q-tips! It’s those little, basic things that wind up meaning so much.
She says, “The youth minister had $10. He said, ‘We can buy one $10 gift or 9 $1 gifts.’ [including tax]. The entire youth group were rallying around the idea of more is better. In other words, they would go to the Dollar Tree and find 9 toys for this one shoe box.
“None of them understood what it was like to be poor. They all lived in solid middle class or lower upper class homes. I had understood what it was like to be solidly poor. I had lived it just a few Christmas’ before. I cut into the discussion. ‘I know what’s it’s like to be on the other side of this box. I’ve lived that life. As someone poor, I could still get a toy from the dollar store. We should get one nice item, something they normally wouldn’t get because the money would have to go to food instead of toys.’”
She says she was outvoted.
I have a crazy idea. Has anyone thought of buying some brand new items, and then donating them to the thrift store? (Now that I’ve said it, I better put my money where my mouth is!)
Speaking of the mouth, we come to verse 12: “Above all, my beloved, 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.”
First of all, there’s a long history of debating what swearing by an oath is all about. It would seem, by a simple reading of the text, that swearing by any oathtaking is forbidden. Sometimes, as these things go, conditions (maybe accommodations) have been made. What is prohibited are rash or careless oaths. Casual swearing (and understand, that’s not swearing in the sense of uttering expletives or “cussing”) is banned. Taking an oath in court seems to be okay.
Here’s how the Passion Translation puts it. (Although, it should be pointed out, it’s more a paraphrase than a translation.) “Above all we must be those who never need to verify our speech as truthful by swearing by the heavens or the earth or any other oath. But instead we must be so full of integrity that our ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ is convincing enough and we do not stumble into hypocrisy.”
My main point deals with the second part, that is, “let your ‘Yes’ be yes and your ‘No’ be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation.” That word “condemnation” is from the Greek word κρισις (krisis), which means “separation” or “judgment.” (I’m not sure why the Passion Translation calls it “hypocrisy,” but that’s a matter for another day!)
Let your “Yes” be yes and your “No” be no. Or to quote my mother, “Say what you mean, and mean what you say.” Speak the truth; live the truth. We might ask, “What does this have to do with patience during suffering?” How do they connect? What is the relationship between a large spirit and a truthful life?
As we saw, James uses Job to help make his case. What was one of the bitterest parts of Job’s suffering? Those lovely friends of his.
At first, they prove to be loyal companions. When they hear of his misfortune, they travel from great distances to be with him. They stayed with him, as the scripture says, for “seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great” (2:13). They exercised what’s known as the ministry of presence.
They honored him in his suffering. They didn’t offer any unsolicited and unhelpful advice. That is, not until Job started protesting against God. That was too much! They were insistent that Job must have done something wrong. Why else would he be suffering? “Repent, Job,” they say, “and your troubles will go away.”
What happens when God addresses Job’s friends? Does God say, “Nice job, guys, you got it right!” Not quite. They are chastised; they weren’t truthful, as Job was. They are found guilty.
What does James say? “Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged.” Do not turn your pain against each other. Live a truthful life. Indeed, honor each other—honor each other’s pain and suffering, especially in these days: “the most wonderful time of the year.” Well guess what? It’s not so wonderful for everyone.
Our loving Lord, whose Advent is nigh, calls us to show that large spirit to bear each other up. We all carry heavy burdens. Let us rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.