"Patience and Prayer in Suffering"
James 5:7-18 Nov.8, 2009 Int'l Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church
WHEN IT'S NOT EASY TO BE GOOD
One of the great things about the Bible is that it takes the human condition seriously. Now if I had been tasked with writing a supreme-answer-self-help-book for humanity, I would have kept it nice and simple, 3 easy steps to solve your problems, there-you-go. It might have been a best-seller, but it would not be adequate; in the final analysis it would not even be anything approaching the real truth. Life is complex. Most days we would prefer it to be a whole lot simpler and straightforward, kind of a cardboard cut-out, good guys always win and villains are sacked. But read the newspaper and you'll see that's not how it goes.
The Bible is true, but not easy. It acknowledges the mystery and complexity of life. On the one hand, it affirms God's infinite goodness and perfection. As we read last week in James 1:17, "Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows." And this week in 5:11, "The Lord is full of compassion and mercy." God in His essence is holy and good, as people experienced in the presence of Jesus when He was visibly present on earth. Paul summed it up in 2Cor 4(6), "For God, who said, "Let light shine out of darkness," made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ."
Yet it's often hard to glimpse that glorious light when the world's in such a mess. Though God is good, there's cosmic corruption. Wars erupt for no good reason and drag on. Long before the Ten Commandments and ever since, people have been stealing, murdering, coveting, and committing adultery. In 1:21 James referred to this when he urged his audience, "Get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent..." The consensus of Old and New Testaments is that "there is no one who does good, not even one..." (Ps 14:3; Rom 3:10) An example of human misery that we cause ourselves is found in James 5 just before our text, describing how those in power, the rich, take advantage of and oppress the poor: "Look! The wages you failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered innocent men, who were not opposing you." (Jas 5:4-6)
Sometimes those in power in the religious sense make it miserable for religious minorities. A recent article in ChristianWeek describes the situation in Pakistan, where Christians make up less than 2% of 160 million people. An unjust blasphemy law is used by extremist groups among the Muslim majority to terrorize and kill followers of Jesus. The 2009 annual report of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom states that blasphemy allegations in Pakistan are 'often false'; even so, an unsubstantiated allegation results in the 'lengthy detention' of the accused. One source says 'hundreds of innocents have been killed or imprisoned by religious fundamentalists.' On August 1 this year, a Muslim mob rampaged through the town of Gojra in Punjab Province, setting fire to homes owned by Christians. Between 100-180 homes were destroyed. Six members of one Christian family were burned alive.
James and his readers were no strangers to religious persecution. The powerful back then had "condemned and murdered innocent men", too. Part of the mystery and complexity of the world situation is that we're struck with a sense of ought-not-ness, we are truly bothered in our conscience by injustice. So what do people do with that? How do they respond? Some become cynical - life has turned sour, they're turned off by it. Others become escapist or dismissive, trying to lose themselves in amusement so they don't think about it; like Scarlet O'Hara in Gone with the Wind, "I'll think about that tomorrow!"
But others - those with faith in God and heeding the call of Jesus - these are not cynical or escapist, but pioneering. By pioneering I mean introducing civlized order (in this case, the Kingdom of God) into an area formerly 'wild', untamed, savage even, not developed to its potential. Pioneers introduce Christ's Kingdom in a way that transforms their relationships and their world.
RESPONDING WITH KINGDOM-CONSCIOUSNESS
So, when it's not easy to be good - when prosperity theology doesn't work - when you suffer not because you've brought it on yourself through careless sin, but 'the evil that is so prevalent' has decided to pick on you - how can we respond in a way that releases a glimmer of Christ's glory in the darkness? The first thing James emphasizes is to BE PATIENT. Verses 7-8, "Be patient, then, brothers, until the Lord's coming. See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop and how patient he is for the autumn and spring rains. You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord's coming is near." In spring, a farmer has to wait until the soil's dry enough and warm enough before he can work it and plant it. In summer, the farmer has to wait for a 2-3 day stretch of good weather in the forecast before he cuts hay - hopefully that comes before the clover or alfalfa starts to lose its protein content. In autumn, the farmer has to wait for the beans to dry down before he combines them - but not so long that they become too dry and shatter. A lot of farming has to do with waiting, being patient for the right time.
So Christians who are experiencing suffering have to be patient through the dark times. We're not the first ones to be experiencing this. In v10 James recommends, "Brothers, as an example of patience in the face of suffering, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord." The Life Application Bible has an excellent chart, "Bible Persecutions," which summarizes how heroes of faith in both testaments had to be patient and endure much unjust suffering. [EXAMPLES] Thrown in prison, stoned, executed - it's enough to make you think twice before you sign up for this God business! And how much of it was deserved? Not a bit of it; all unwarranted. But they were patient and faithful. They stuck it out.
That's the next thing James urges - to BE PERSEVERING. V11, "As you know, we consider blessed those who have persevered. You have heard of Job's perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about." The root word could also be translated "steadfastness, endurance" - hanging in there. Job knew God was God, full of justice, compassion, and mercy, even though it didn't seem so at the time - that's why he was so determined to argue his case, his defence, before the Almighty. It wasn't as simple as the prosperity theology his friends were proposing: "those who do good prosper, the wicked suffer; you're suffering, so you must be wicked." Job refuse to give up, he absolutely refused to curse God and die like his wife suggested - even though he'd lost all his wealth and children through horrific accidents, and was covered with painful boils from head to toe. Job persevered, and God finally vindicated his steadfastness.
And a pioneering faith is PRAYERFUL. V13, "Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray." Literally, the tense of the verb would render this, "Let him keep on praying." The term 'pray' in some form comes up 7 times in vv13-18: he should pray; call the elders of the church to pray; the prayer offered in faith; pray for each other; the prayer of a righteous man; Elijah prayed earnestly; again he prayed. James seems to be really driving this 'prayer' thing home as if it's important. He wasn't just talking through his hat: tradition says James the brother of Jesus was nicknamed 'camel-knees' because he spent so much time on his knees praying his skin there developed tough pads. Let's look in more detail at the tone of prayer he suggests.
PRAYER THAT SHAKES THE HEAVENS
What is this prayer like that this seasoned expert, this prayer-warrior, yearns for believers to develop? It's prayer that means something; prayer that's significant, not just empty words, but heartfelt petition that virtually reaches up and shakes the heavens - by its trust in the Almighty who alone has that power.
First, serious prayer is CONTRITE. Vv15-16, "And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to each other..." Note prayer doesn't avoid a person's spiritual condition - it gets to work on the yucky stuff, our sin, the things we'd rather other people didn't know about us and what we've done. So sincere effective prayer is contrite - you actually take time to own up to the bad things you've done, see how ugly they are in the eyes of a holy God, and become truly sorry. You admit your guilt, both for sins of omission (the good stuff you failed to do) and commission (the rotten stuff you weren't supposed to do but did). Such prayer is broken, humble, and honest; ready even to tell it to an accountability partner or elder so they can be praying for you, help you change, and assure you of Christ's forgiveness available through the cross. Wouldn't that send the hypocrites skidaddling in a hurry! Church needs to be - is supposed to be - a safe place where we can 'come clean' with one another, accept one another warts and all, and love one another with Jesus' supernatural love into wholeness. So, if you want to experience the power of serious prayer - are you ready to get serious about your sin?
Next, significant prayer is COMMUNAL. Note this isn't done in isolation. The elders of the church are called to come and pray for the sick person. V16, "Confess your sins to each other and pray for [WHO?] EACH OTHER so that you may be healed." It's to be a communal thing. This is why small groups are so helpful if you really want to progress in your personal discipleship (rather than just imagining you are). John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, called it the 'class meeting': different words, but the same idea, a fellowship that meant business in a spiritual dimension: loving, confessing, confronting, supporting, holding each other accountable and real.
Last, significant prayer is COMMITTED LIKE CRAZY. V16 tells us "the prayer of a righteous man [or person] is powerful and effective." Then James goes on to offer an example of a righteous person - someone walking with God who is confessing their sin, intent on pleasing God, finding out and doing His will - and how powerful and effective this person's prayer proved to be in history. The example is Elijah - v17, "a man just like us." Elijah wasn't perfect; when wicked Queen Jezebel threatened him, he got scared and ran for the hills; once a long way away, he then proceeded to get depressed and on the verge of suicidal. Doesn't that sound pretty much like us? But God met the prophet down there in the dumps and re-commissioned him, got him back on track.
However the particular incident James refers to happened just before that, at Mount Carmel. This very-human prophet interceded before God for the drought to end that had lasted over 3 years. Note the adjective to describe how Elijah prayed at the start of this period of chastisement for the nation: "He prayed earnestly that it would not rain..." NRSV, "he prayed fervently..." Literally the expression is something like "he prayed prayingly" - same root used twice, doubling the intensity. Praying with real commitment, sincerely, as if your life depended on it. How many times did Elijah pray in 1Kings 18(43) and his servant went and looked in the sky and there was nothing there? Six times! But Elijah didn't give up praying after the third, or 4th, or 5th, or 6th time. He prayed earnestly, fervently, and the 7th time the cloud came, and a heavy rain ended the years of drought. Elijah put his whole self into praying. After the first 6 times with no result some would have called him crazy to continue, but he did.
A WIDOW'S WORTHY WITNESS
Those who are being persecuted around the world are committed like crazy. They know the importance of being patient, looking forward to the return of Jesus in power. They understand about persevering, hanging in there despite beatings and threats, even death. And they are driven to rely on God in prayer - and they remind us to be praying for them. In closing, here's the story of one woman in India whose pastor husband was killed for his success in helping people come to know Christ. She doesn't shrink from the danger but is heeding God's call for her to pick up where her husband left off. [Nov.09 Persecution Report]