Sunday, December 11, 2016
Patience Under Suffering

Be patient, therefore, beloved,* until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. 8You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near.* 9Beloved,* do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged. See, the Judge is standing at the doors! 10As an example of suffering and patience, beloved,* take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.

James asks his readers to be patient. Fair enough advice, but what does that really mean? For the poor Christians in James’ community, who he was writing to, suffering at the hands of their rich non-Christian oppressors was a fact of life. Not only were they patiently waiting for the second coming of Jesus, which he had promised, but they were asked to patiently endure exploitation and powerlessness, sweat and toil in the meantime, uncertain of what troubles life would throw them next.

As time drew on, they continued to be subject to forces beyond their control: crops nurtured then spoiled, money earned then repaid, children born then lost – and it didn’t look like things were going to change any time soon. If Job is an example of patience under suffering, the man who lost his home, his family, his reputation, his everything, that does not bode well for what is yet to come. Where is the encouragement in that?

For those of us waiting in suffering, it seems like it will never end. It is hard to have patience when there is no clear end in sight to look forward to, or when like the farmer we have been sowing our seeds tirelessly with no crop yet to harvest. Sometimes we are more like a hired labourer than a farmer, uprooted and disconnected from our work, and when the harvest comes it won’t even be ours to reap.

It is common for us to question God’s love when we are lonely or rejected,            God’s sovereignty when we are weak or helpless, or even God’s existence when we cry out for help and don’t hear a reply. But what is interesting about James’ call to patience is that he does not try to explain or defend God’s actions in the face of evil, what philosophers today would call a theodicy.

Such an approach, under the influence of the 18th century Enlightenment, sees the problem of evil as an abstract intellectual problem to be solved. James reminds us that it is rather a concrete, practical problem to which we must respond as Christians. Any attempt at systematizing evil into our pre-existing view of justice fails to recognize how much real harm that evil can cause, and a false explanation can even cause more harm when it unfairly places the blame back on the victims.

Evil is the source of much suffering, but suffering in itself is not the same thing as evil, for to suffer strictly means to be acted upon, to endure hardship. And it has been said that within God’s good creation there is both Yes and No, light and shadow, clarity and obscurity, progress and impediment, growth and decay, and these all praise the creator. [1]

And yet, for many of us privileged Canadians, suffering is no longer an everyday expectation. We feel entitled to have a life of comfort, ease, and security, as if individual economic flourishing were the source of our salvation – but this is not the Christian message.

Suffering will seek us out regardless of wealth, status, age, or health, and perhaps if these become prideful attempts to insulate us from it we may only be making ourselves bigger targets.

The story of the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ tells us that suffering is an inevitable part of the whole of human life which Jesus has redeemed by taking it upon himself and sharing it with us. As theologian John Swinton says, suffering only becomes evil when it separates our hearts from God so much that we can no longer love and trust him; when it takes away our ultimate source of hope.[2]

As Christians, we know that Jesus Christ has already defeated death and sin on the cross; we know that Christ has already won the final victory for us.

In this light, the question ought not to be, “why does God allow evil and suffering?” but rather, “how does God respond to evil and suffering, here and now?” Well, James reminds us that “the coming of the Lord is near,” and that “the judge is standing at the doors!” God responds to evil by coming near and being present with us in our suffering, through our union with him in prayer and through the care of strangers and loved ones.

In the midst of our pain, God our judge and redeemer is moving through the doors to reach out to us and assure us of his presence and of his self-giving love. And just as the farmer will receive rain eventually, so the Lord will come again eventually, once and for all. In the meantime, while we patiently await the final renewal of all creation, lamenting and weeping in this vale of tears – God equips us to endure the wait.

God does not promise us freedom from suffering, but promises us that he will help us to bear it well. The strength and endurance to which we are called does not come from the heroic depths of our own heart, but from the gift of God’s grace alone.

Our hope is not based on tidy philosophical solutions that rationalize evil as if it were part of God’s plan or justify evil as if God willed it to teach us a lesson. Our hope is not based on material evidence that inevitable human or technological progress is going to eliminate injustice and oppression in our lifetime.

Our hope IS based on the saving promise of God’s Son Jesus Christ, revealed in history and continuing to work and speak today, to whom nothing can be added or taken away. When Christ returns, the damage of evil and darkness will be undone and we will be crowned in everlasting glory.

This hope is the ground of our active and joyful patience in the certainty of his coming again, in the conviction that we have already seen his footsteps.[3] This is the exemplary character of Job’s suffering which James alludes to: that throughout the story, Job complains very loudly but never loses sight of the Lord his God, the cause of his being and the source of his salvation.

This is rather different than a passive patience which accepts injustice and tolerates evil in the name of our own helplessness. Active patience is not sitting around waiting for someone else to solve our problems, or soothing our troubles with false optimism, or even being complacent with mere survival – it’s about finding the courage to thrive while things are still in process and we’re not quite arrived at our final destination.

One way God equips us to endure the wait with active patience is by building up what theologian Stanley Hauerwas calls communities of care, within which the impact of evil and suffering can be absorbed, resisted, and transformed through the power of communal love, not as isolated individuals. An example of such a community waiting for Jesus’ return together could be our very gathering of the body of Christ here today; even just our presence makes a powerful statement about God’s sovereignty over the powers of darkness.

But often the most subversive way to resist evil is by continuing to love and trust God in all circumstances. This is certainly easier said than done, but the good news is that we already have everything we need; we are his creatures, made in his own image, and intellectual ability or socio-economic opportunity have no bearing on God’s love for us,or our capacity to love him in return.

Now in the season of Advent we wait patiently for Jesus, the Word made flesh, to come and dwell among us. Under the weight of the darkness which still surrounds us today, this hope for the coming of the Christ-child may seem feeble, fragile, or futile in the eyes of the rest of the world.

But let us remember the words of St Paul, writing to the Church in Rome: “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”

Amen.

Eric Prachar – Seminarian

James 5:7-10

 

 

[1] To paraphrase Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics III.3, 50.2.

[2] Much of this discussion of evil inspired by John Swinton, Raging With Compassion: Pastoral Responses to the Problem of Evil (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007).

[3] To borrow a phrase from Henri Nouwen.