Evangelist John Wesley was riding along a road one day when it dawned on him that three whole days had passed in which he had suffered no persecution. Not a brick or an egg had been thrown at him for three days.
Alarmed, he stopped his horse, and exclaimed, “Can it be that I have sinned, and am backslidden?”
Slipping from his horse, Wesley went down on his knees and began interceding with God to show him where, if any, there had been a fault.
A rough fellow, on the other side of the hedge, hearing the prayer, looked across and recognized the preacher. “I’ll fix that Methodist preacher,” he said, picking up a brick and tossing it over at him. It missed its mark and fell harmlessly beside John. Where upon Wesley leaped to his feet joyfully exclaiming, “Thank God, it’s all right. I still have His presence.”
Not too many of us would respond the way Wesley did when we think our lives are too comfortable. In fact, many of us wouldn’t consider persecution or trials as being the sure sign that we are truly following God. I would say many Christians in the United States believe just the opposite. I have met people who believe that if they are facing any sort of trial, tribulation, or persecution that God is punishing or judging them for something, or they are facing an attack by the enemy. Or even the opposite, since life is going so great God is blessing me. This is called the Retribution Principal: where the righteous prosper and the wicked suffer.
This principal is evident throughout the Bible, and this principal may be true sometimes, but it’s important to know that God allows suffering, difficulties, and trials in the lives of the righteous for good and for his glory. The problem is that very few (if any) of us welcome and/or quietly endure suffering and trials in our lives. Nobody I know personally enjoys trials and suffering but there are some who endure it and grow from it because their hope and faith lies in something far bigger than the temporal and fleeting tribulation they face here on earth.
The common questions people ask when faced with or amid suffering and persecution are “Why? Why me? And why does God allow the innocent to suffer and the wicked to prosper?” This is a valid question and one that many struggle to understand and accept. Often when faced with this question people turn to the book of Job for answers because suffering and God’s justice are common themes in the book. The purpose of Job is to explore God’s rules regarding suffering in the world, especially for the upright or the innocent. In the progression the book aims to change our thinking about God and the way that he runs the world. Most importantly, the book seeks to change our attention from the idea that God’s justice is foundational to the operation of the world to the alternate view that God’s wisdom is the more fitting foundation. Interestingly the book that people turn to for answers in suffering does not offer an answer for suffering and does not try to defend God’s integrity. It does not answer the “why” question that so many ask when things go wrong. Instead, we are pointed to God’s wisdom and, in the course, come to conclude that by faith he is just.
In truth, we will never be in the position to evaluate or question God’s justice. For us to assess the justice of a decision, we need to have all the facts, because justice can be disturbed if we do not have all the information. Since we never have all the information about our lives, we cannot judge God when he allows experiences for us or make assertions and demands.
The book of Job, however, is not about Job (the one who is suffering), his friends (the ones trying to pinpoint the reason for Job’s suffering), or the accuser/the Satan (the one who challenges God’s goodness). It is the story of humanity, and it is ultimately about God. The questions we may have about suffering inevitably points us to God, for when we go through hardships and suffering, there is no one else to question – God and the way He rules, and reigns is the one whose ways we want to understand. When we ask, “Why me?” we are asking “How does God work?” We may begin by asking why we deserved this, but ultimately the question we ask is, “What kind of God are you?”
Patience and Suffering
While Job may not answer these questions, I think we can gain a better understanding on suffering and our response to it in James 5.
James 5:7 -12
In this passage James reminds his readers about the oppression they are facing by the ungodly. His letter contains some practical, godly, and biblical advice regarding how his readers should respond in the face of suffering and persecution. He does mention in 1:19 that retaliation in anger is not the solution because it does not produce the righteousness of God; instead, he encourages them to endure.
Verse 7: James admonishes his readers by using the dreaded “P” word. It is a word so many of us dislike or do not like to hear. James says, “Dear brothers and sisters, be patient as you wait for the Lord’s return.” In this passage James is talking about suffering and He tells his readers to have the mindset of patience and endurance in their suffering and trials.
I am sure these were not the words they were hoping to receive from James. They, like most of us when wrongfully persecuted and oppressed, wanted swift and immediate justice by God. The question then was how long are they supposed to patiently endure their suffering trials?
James gives them even better news; they are to endure until “The Lord’s return”. What does he mean by this? The return of the Lord is what the early Christians believed about Jesus’ physical return to judge the wicked and deliver the saints. They lived in this hope and in this expectation and this is what helped them through the suffering and trials they were called to endure. The return of Jesus is not a secret thing, it is referred to in both the Old and New Testament (One commentator says there are 300 references to Jesus’ return in the New Testament). Jesus spoke about his physical return in one of his famous talks called the Olivet Discourse (Matthew 24).
James is encouraging the believers to wait patiently and in faith… they are to wait just as a farmer patiently waits for his crop. He uses the example of a farmer to show how they are to wait. A farmer knows better than anyone about faith. A farmer works hard to till the ground, plant the crop, and prepare the land for a successful harvest… This is all a farmer can do. He cannot control the weather (amount of rain or sunshine), he can’t make a seed grow, and he can’t determine whether it will be a bountiful and healthy crop or not. He realizes his livelihood depends on so many factors other than himself. R. Kent Hughes writes,
“All farmers must patiently submit to this process (the growing process). To fight against it, to bite their nails, to insist they must have fruit in the middle of the process is futile.
In submitting to God’s process, they will inevitably undergo stressful times when it appears the rains will never come. But these times can be spiritually beneficial to them as they call upon their faithful God.”
Verse 8: James tells his readers that the Lord’s return is not far away (or so it seems), yet he does not say when his return will happen. These believers lived in expectation for his return, but they didn’t know when with would happen. All the New Testament authors who wrote about the coming of Christ all believed it was going to happen soon and swiftly. Yet here we are today still living in expectation and in anticipation for the return of Christ. Christ’s return can happen at any moment (imminent). We do not know the day, hour, or time, so we are to be ready for his return because he will come to judge the wicked and set up his kingdom here on earth. Jesus tells us three times in Revelation 22 that he is coming soon… verses 7, 12, 20 - 21. The Christians didn’t need to be convinced Jesus was coming back, they believed this. They were called patiently endure and stand firm in their faith.
Verse 9: As the oppression and suffering was intensifying so were tempers and patience with one another and with God. We can relate to this. Whenever we are amid suffering, turmoil, or difficulties it is easy to lose our cool, question why or turn against those who care and love us most. James reminds his readers do not do this and instead patiently endure and not grumble against each other.
Verse 10 – 11: James sites Old Testament prophets as being true examples of patience in suffering. He pinpoints Job in his steadfastness and God’s true compassion and mercy in times of trials and persecutions. With everything Job went through and all he had lost he was able to endure (not without complaining) and come out of his funk so to speak with a deeper faith in God and truly knowing he is compassionate, good, and merciful.
Patience and suffering are not words we may welcome with open arms into our lives. Patiently enduring amid suffering and tribulation is probably one of the hardest things for us to do. We all face trials, tribulations, and suffering. It is part of the fabric of life. Our response as believers to suffering should be different than the response of unbelievers. The unbelieving world sees pain and suffering and cries out for justice or retribution because there is no hope. We know our suffering is temporary even if it lasts a lifetime. We live in the hope or expectation that one day there will be relief from suffering. We must patiently endure, until we meet the Lord, or until He returns. Our Lord has an eternity waiting for us where there will be no more sorrow, no more pain, and no more suffering. We have put all our faith in this truth. We do not know when our suffering will end, but it will…someday. It is an open-ended promise. It may end tomorrow, it may come at the end of your life, or it may end when the Lord returns. This truth must always remain before us. We must live every day for Jesus as though it were our last day because, who knows, it may be. Knowing the return of Christ is imminent (could be any moment) can help us live hope-filled lives because we know how the story of history ends.
As I conclude, I cannot answer the question “Why?” “Why does God allow the innocent to suffer? How can an all-loving God allow his children to go through heart-wrenching pain, agony, and misery?”
But I can offer hope for you if you are suffering or facing trials ad tribulation. Know that your suffering is only for a moment. I can assure you of the words of the Apostle Paul who writes in Romans 8:18 -23, “Yet what we suffer now is nothing compared to the glory he will reveal to us later. 19 For all creation is waiting eagerly for that future day when God will reveal who his children really are. 20 Against its will, all creation was subjected to God’s curse. But with eager hope, 21 the creation looks forward to the day when it will join God’s children in glorious freedom from death and decay. 22 For we know that all creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23 And we believers also groan, even though we have the Holy Spirit within us as a foretaste of future glory, for we long for our bodies to be released from sin and suffering. We, too, wait with eager hope for the day when God will give us our full rights as his adopted children, including the new bodies he has promised us.”
Jeff has been in ministry for well over two decades. He currently serves as Campus Pastor at West Bradenton Baptist Southside Campus in Bradenton, Florida.
Jeff Has authored an Advent Devotional (The Advent of Jesus) and a devotional on the book of James (James: Where Faith and Life Meet). Both are available on Amazon.
He is married to Carrie and they have four children, Micaiah, Gabe, Simon, and Berea.
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