Patience and suffering–and joy

When my dad was in graduate school in the early 1950s, he needed very sophisticated calculations. He arranged to have them done on a computer, and if I recall the story correctly, he got his results back in about a week.

Computers almost immediately started getting faster and more powerful. He got in the habit of describing his project to computer experts and asking how long it would take newer computers to finish it. Each time he asked, the estimate of time diminished, to days, then hours, then minutes. He stopped asking when he found that computers could spit out the answer in less than a second.

At the same time that was going on, the time it takes to connect a long-distance telephone call or get news from all over the world has decreased to the vanishing point. Speed limits on highways have increased. We expect everything to be faster, faster, faster. Maybe now, more than ever, we need James’ wise counsel on patience.

It is interesting that he starts by pointing to the farmer. One modern farmer can grow vastly more food than one in his day. And yet, what farmers actually do hasn’t changed all that much. Our technology has transformed everything about farming except for one thing: first the blade, then the ear, then the full corn in the ear, and the plants don’t do their thing any faster now than they did at the beginning of the world. Now as then, the farmer might as well be patient, because nothing is going to hurry.

When Jesus left the world, he promised to come back. James said to be patient for that reason. 2000 years later, Jesus still hasn’t returned. We can’t do anything more to make God move faster than we can with the plants.

But then James leaves off teaching and starts in meddling. He tells us not to complain about each other. The Message puts that verse this way: “Friends, don’t complain about each other. A far greater complaint could be lodged against you. The Judge is standing just around the corner.” Hmm. “To live above with saints we love, oh that will be glory. To live below with saints we know, now that’s a different story.”

We can’t actually do anything more about our spouses, neighbors, coworkers, or anyone else than we can about gardens or God. People are going to be whatever they’re going to be no matter how much we get upset about it. There’s nothing to be gained from getting upset. We might even wind up making matters worse and get them upset at us!!.

But it gets even worse. James goes on to mention the prophets. As an example of patience? No! Suffering and patience! We don’t want to hear about suffering. We want to put an end to suffering—especially our own. When we look at the prophets, we see men that we respect tremendously. We study their writings in order to understand more about God, more about the world we live in, and more about how we’re supposed to live. But if we look closer, we see men who were hardly respected at all in their own times. They were ignored, mocked, scolded, persecuted.

And where was God in all that? Telling them to do weird stuff like giving their children hideous names, shaving their beard with a sword, wandering around Jerusalem buck naked for three years. And then James mentions Job, who lost everything dear to him just so God could win a bet with the devil. And then God sent him three friends to comfort him. Devout church people that they were, they concluded that Job must have done something very bad to deserve all that and piously insisted that he come clean.

But that’s not the end of the story, not for Job, and not for anyone else in the world. The farmer works hard and waits through months of uncertainty, but in the end, he reaps his harvest. Jesus hasn’t returned triumphantly to usher in the end of the age yet, but he has returned to dwell within us, and believers of all generations have rejoiced in the strength and comfort he brings. The prophets put up with abuse and never quit. They honored God all the time and had the satisfaction of knowing that he honored them. Job encountered God in all his majesty. God pronounced him blameless and gave him back more than he lost.

No matter how bad things look or feel, it’s always too early to give up. Even Jesus had to go to the cross and descend into hell before he could rise victoriously. The fellowship we enjoy with our risen Lord is only a down payment on the rewards he has promised. Meanwhile, we have to wait. We have to endure all the annoyances, pain, and humiliation that life dishes out to us, and we might as well endure it patiently. After all, when we are raised with Christ, none of what causes us to suffer will be raised with us.

Originally published in The All-Purpose Guru on August 22, 2009

The true prophetic word, or, why things often feel so wrong

You’ve all heard the jokes that start out, “I have some good news and some bad news for you.” That could also serve as an introduction to the message of the Bible. The trouble is, no one wants to hear the bad news, but the good news doesn’t seem like much without it.

There’s no shortage of bad news in our mass media. We all know that the national economy is getting pretty soundly thumped. Some of us are getting pretty soundly thumped in our personal life, too. I’m going through a really serious thumping right now. Maybe some of you are, too. Maybe some of you are not going through it at the moment, but you have been thumped at some time in the past. And we all know that whatever is happening now, we’re likely to get thumped some time in the future.

The bad news of the Bible is that we deserve it. We have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Sin is not merely failing to be good enough. It is an out and out rebellion against the divine majesty. God takes that very seriously. He told Moses that he is gracious, merciful, and slow to anger, but in the same breath he said he would not let the guilty go unpunished. That’s why we all get thumped from time to time. God himself thumps us.

The good news is that we don’t get what we really deserve. God is not in the business of punishing sin. Oh, he punishes sin all right, but that’s not what he is about. His ultimate intention is not punishment, but restoration. He wants to have fellowship with us, but he wants us to be perfect. All that thumping is part of the process of causing us to become perfect.

Not long ago, I got an email from someone asking me to prepare a devotional on restoration, based on a passage in Jeremiah. I reached for my Bible and opened it to Jeremiah, but before I could read anything, I got interrupted. When I got back to my desk and saw the open Bible there, I found Jeremiah 37:7-10 and wondered, did that have to do with restoration?

I looked at the email again. Oops. Wrong chapter. It was supposed to be Jeremiah 31:7-10 . There is a real connection between the right passage and the one I read by mistake.

The Bible is full of passages like the first one I read—denunciations of sin and stern warnings about the consequences of continuing in it. We often think of the prophets delivering them with their teeth and fists clenched in indignation, but in fact they were more likely to speak with tears of sorrow streaming down their faces. We especially see it in Jeremiah and in Jesus.

Today, we come to the church hoping to hear the prophetic word. It seems to be rare in our day. The true prophetic word never omits denunciations of sin and stern warnings about the consequences of continuing in it. But it never stops there, either. The true prophetic word always holds out the promise of restoration and reconciliation. It always presents the love of God while not neglecting the wrath of God.

I heard about a church where the pastor was so unpopular that the congregation finally forced him to leave. They really liked the new pastor. One member told a visitor that he was lucky he hadn’t come while the former pastor was preaching. He was really bad news.

“Oh?” said the visitor, “why is that?” ”

“That other preacher constantly preached against sin and told us we would all go to hell if we didn’t change our ways.”

“Well, it sounds to me like that’s exactly what this fellow was saying.”

“Well, yes, but there’s a big difference. It seemed to make the other guy happy to think about it. This one’s sad about it and doesn’t want any of us to go.”

God doesn’t want anyone to go there, either. He is busy thumping us to let us know that he is serious about not accepting our sin. But beyond that, there is the promise that after he bruises us, he will heal us. After he scatters us he will gather us together. We might be weeping as we return, but our weeping will eventually turn to joy. No matter what we feel now, we can look to the future God has promised with eager expectation.

(Originally published in The All-Purpose Guru on August 11, 2009