THE WORKING AND WORK OF PATIENCE
“My brethren, count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations; knowing this, that the trying of your faith worketh patience. But let patience have her perfect work, that ye may be perfect and entire, wanting nothing.” (James 1.2-4).
It is evident from the Epistles of the New Testament, and from the letters of more recent church history, that Christ’s ministers have always been thankful for the way in which the Lord Jesus, “that great shepherd of the sheep” (Heb. 13.20), overrules the afflictions of His under-shepherds to the good of their own souls and the usefulness of their ministry. When the Lord has shed light on their path, they have seen that what at first appeared a meaningless hindrance, has been a gracious dispensation from their Lord, designed to qualify them to minister to the afflicted members of His flock. How clearly the Apostle Paul, for example, records his gratitude in his memorable words to the church at Corinth, “Blessed be God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies, and the God of all comfort; who comforteth us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort them which are in any trouble, by the comfort wherewith we ourselves are comforted of God.” (2 Cor. 1.3,4). But gratitude is not all that Christ’s ministers have recorded. In their letters they
have opened up the truths which have enlightened and comforted their own souls in the hour of trial, a fact that has made these passages of their writings particularly valuable to Christians whose faith is also under trial.
In this article, we shall consider one such passage from the New Testament, James 1.2-4, where the inspired Apostle is ministering to Jewish Christians who were obviously passing through times of tribulation. We draw attention to James’s teaching at this time for two main reasons.
Firstly, the Apostle’s teaching throws considerable light on the problem of trials. Every Christian is called to experience, at one time or another, periods of trial and to face the difficulties they bring. Times of affliction are times of temptation. They are seasons when Satan, the commander-in-chief of the forces of darkness, launches some of his most subtle attacks against the Lord’s people. Like a skilful general the devil bides his time and assaults his foes when he sees them already under stress, hurling his “fiery darts” (Eph.6.16) at them in an attempt to set their corruptions ablaze and bring them into a state of confusion and rebellion. At such times the Lord’s people need the light that passages of Scripture, like the one before us, are designed to give.
Secondly, the Apostle’s teaching refutes the idea, now being broached in some churches, that the Christian who seeks comfort for his own soul is guilty of a form of religious selfishness which restricts evangelism. “There you go again”, afflicted Christians are being told, “seeking comfort for your own soul. Beware of concentrating on the needs of your own soul. Christians can become so taken-up with the needs of their own souls that they forget the needs of others. What you need to do is to develop a new concern for the perishing heathen. This would give you a new interest, draw you out of yourself, and then all this talk about being in need of light and consolation would soon cease.” If any tried Christian should feel bewildered by this type of teaching, let him quietly and prayerfully read through the passage from James’s Epistle at the head of this article. The writer is much mistaken if the Christian does not find the counsel given by James very different to the counsel he has been receiving from his present day adviser. But let us examine the Apostle’s teaching in more detail.
1. The exhortation is addressed to Christians. It may seem like stating the obvious to say that the Apostle’s exhortation is addressed only to Christians – “My brethren” (v. 2) – but it is a point worth making. In days like these, when militant atheists and numerous false teachers in the church unite in pouring scorn on the holy gospel of Christ and vend their various “answers” to the ills of men, the Lord’s people need to be reminded of the unique glories of the gospel. Here we see one of them. It is only the pure gospel of Christ that displays afflictions in their proper setting and enables the true believer to gain real consolation in his darkest hours. The lanterns hung out by the world may be brightly painted
but they have an unpleasant habit of going out just when souls need light. The sanctification of the Christian’s trials is one of the ways in which the Lord Jesus Christ, “the Light of the world”, fulfils his promise “.. .he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life” (John 8.12).
2. What the exhortation says. We must also notice what the exhortation actually says. “My brethren, count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations”. James is saying that Christians may not only find support in times of affliction, they may experience real joy. But if the Christian is honest with himself he will admit that joy seems to be the last thing he experiences when trials come his way. He may maintain his peace for a while when the trials first hit him but when their real nature is known and especially when they are prolonged, unbelief soon begins to work and an ear is given to Satan’s commentary on the situation. When that illness lasts longer than the Christian expected; when those difficulties in business seem to increase rather than decrease; when that period of convalescence after an operation upsets all his plans; when all his attempts to find suitable employment seem to have failed;
when persecuting tongues seem to be prevailing, how quickly the Christian loses sight of the Lord and his new relationship to Him through the Covenant of Grace and becomes taken up with the trial itself and where it could lead. Sometimes the Christian falls into such despondency that he is almost ready to conclude that the Lord has turned against him. “Surely against me is he turned: he turneth his hand against me all the day” (Lam. 3.3). How can we know joy at such times? What has the Lord revealed about the trials of believers that will not only support us under them but give us cause for rejoicing?
3. The light Christians need. James’s method of dealing with souls burdened with trials is very different from that employed by some evangelical “physicians” of our day. Instead of slighting their exercises of soul and flogging them with a cat-o’-nine-tails made from the need for evangelism, he enters into their needs and reminds them of the connections between the Christian’s trials and his growth in grace. “Knowing this, that the trying of your faith worketh patience” (v. 3). The Apostle here reminds us of two basic truths:Â—
(a) The Christian’s trials are ordained by God. This is clearly implied by James’s words, “Knowing this, that the trying of your faith …” The Christian’s trials, then, do not come by chance but through the unerring providence of the Lord. Our heavenly Father selects the type, appoints the number and determines the length of our trials of faith. This simple truth which we seem to forget so quickly when afflictions come, is the first the Holy Spirit seals to us when He begins to lift us out of the pit of despondency.
(b) The Christian’s trials work patience in him. It is not sufficient for the Christian to know that his trials are ordained by God. He needs more light and James provides it by showing us one of the great benefits the Christian gains from having his faith tried. He tells us that “the trying of your faith worketh patience”. Our heavenly Father never does anything without a purpose, nor does He ever fail to achieve that purpose. His will is that His children should be conformed to the image of His Son and to that end He exercises the faith of His children by trials in order to develop the grace of patience in them. At this point we see one of the devices Satan employs against the Christian in times of affliction. By focussing the Christian’s attention on the affliction itself, the devil blots out all consideration of the gracious purpose of God. This snare is effectively broken when the Holy Spirit shows the believer that the Lord has permitted the trial to befall him in order to promote his growth in grace.
4. Letting patience have its work. In v. 4 the Apostle takes us a step further. Having shown that the Lord tries the Christian’s faith in order to work patience in him, James adds a caution, “But let patience have its perfect work…” Like every other grace that the Holy Spirit works in God’s elect, patience has a work to do. In times of affliction the “perfect work” of patience is to enable the believer to wait for the Lord to deliver him. James’s caution also warns us that the Christian by giving way to impatience can greatly obstruct and hinder patience in its work. Probably the greatest temptation the Christian faces at this point is to attempt self-deliverance. “God helps those who help themselves” may be a popular text in some evangelical circles but it is not found in Holy Scripture. The prophet Jeremiah recorded the truth when he wrote, “The Lord is good unto them that wait for him, to the soul that seeketh him. It is good that a man should both hope and quietly wait for the salvation of the Lord” (Lam. 3.25,26). One of the reasons why the Lord brings to nothing the Christian’s attempts at self-deliverance is that he may learn to wait patiently upon his Lord.
5. Patience and spiritual maturity, Finally, we shall notice why James exhorts us to let patience have its perfect work “.. .that ye may be perfect and entire, wanting nothing” (v. 4). There cannot be real Christian maturity without the exercise of Christian patience. A Christian may possess remarkable gifts, have a considerable knowledge of sound doctrine and be very zealous in Christ’s cause but if patience is wanting he is still spiritually immature, incomplete and lacking in an essential grace. Oh, he may have been persuading himself, before the trial commenced, that he had patience enough but the Lord thought differently and has taken steps to make good the deficiency. As we have already pointed out. His will is that His people should be like His Son who
was patience in perfection and not like the people of this “instant” generation where nobody seems able to wait for anything. Nor is there any department of the Christian life where the exercise of patience is not necessary. In the Christian’s daily work, the marriage union, the fellowship of the local church, the support of Calvinistic societies and the handling of unconverted souls, the exercise of patience is often a secret of success and the want of it often a cause of failure. The more the Christian reflects on his trials in the light of Scripture, the more will he adore the wisdom and grace of God in permitting them and bringing real good out of apparent evil. “My brethren, count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations…”
P. D. Johnson