Patience Under the Mercy of Christ
“Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and the late rains. You also, be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand. Do not grumble against one another, brothers, so that you may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing at the door. As an example of suffering and patience, brothers, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. Behold, we consider those blessed who remained steadfast. You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful” (James 5:7-11).
Someone once called patience “the beggar’s virtue.” A beggar waits. He waits and waits until some kind soul comes along. Sure, he can try to look pathetic and come up with creative lines to win compassion, but, ultimately, his fate lies with the philanthropist, the kind soul who takes note of his need. As Luther commented just before his death, “We’re all beggars.” We approach God as men, women, and children with nothing to offer Him. We come only to receive, pleading His kindness and not our worthiness.
In The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, there’s a story of a respected hermit who went to a communal meeting, called to address the sins of a fellow monk. When he got there and heard the brothers talking about the fallen man, he left and got two bags. He filled one with a heap of sand and put it on his back. He put a few grains in the other, and wore it in front of him. The younger brothers asked him why he did this. He replied, “The bag in the back is my own sins. The bag in the front is the sins of this brother. I am turning my back from my many trespasses, not considering them, so that I can judge the faults of this brother.” They realized their hypocrisy and repented.
Which bag have we been wearing in the front lately? James writes, “Do not grumble against one another, brothers, so that you may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing at the door” (5:9). Isn’t such grumbling ultimately impatience, whether with the supposed pace of the progressing sanctification of our brother or sister or with our own fraternal responsibility to bear with him or her? Although it probably shouldn’t have, when serving as a Pastor in the parish, it surprised me how often I heard from people about the sins of others precisely when their own sins were most apparent. Numerous times, I’ve heard that the main problem with church is too many sinners and hypocrites from those whose sins and hypocrisy were on full display. Even worse (and more than once), when I heard the confessions of others, I lost sight of my own sins and fixated instead on theirs; even though they were actually where I should have been, keenly aware of their need for God’s help and pity, in the throes of struggle, and addressing them with their pastor.
There is always room for one more hypocrite in the church. Sometimes it’s me. Sometimes it’s you. Sometimes it’s a brother or sister. Sometimes it’s someone who has never heard the Gospel before. Jesus has plenty of experience with the self-righteous like you and me. He won’t be shocked by their presence. He who humbled Himself even to the point of death on a cross has a way of humbling the proud.
The perfect need not enter God’s house, but unless you were born of a virgin and died for the sins of the world, you need Christ’s divine medicine as much as anyone else, even if your symptoms seem less obvious. Hidden, internal sickness is almost always more deadly than the external, obvious kind. We gather as saints by baptism, but we are also fellow sinners, taking refuge in the ark of the church, drowning our old Adam each day anew (Rom. 6:3-4). And so our Lord teaches us to pray, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
Our Lord has freely and undeservedly forgiven your every sin, and not just the sins you’re willing to admit in front of others. He has forgiven the sins of your youth, the sins you’ve worked so hard to hide from your family, and the sins you remember when you can’t sleep. He has even forgiven the sins that bother you so much in others precisely because you know them too well or are sinfully jealous they get to “have fun” doing them while you remain steadfast like the older brother of the prodigal son. Consider who you are, consider what you’ve done, and then pass judgment on your brothers and sisters. Yes, as Christians, we should and indeed must call sin “sin” and condemn it, but we dare not judge the one who has committed it with a harsher measure than we use for ourselves.
God has forgiven you. That is an objective fact. You can reject it, but it is nevertheless true. Christ died for the sins of the world, not just for the sins of believers. You are forgiven. Though you are nothing more than a beggar, Christ has made you an heir to the greatest inheritance of all. With this in mind, St. James’ urges us to persevere. “Behold, we consider those blessed who remained steadfast. You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful” (5:11).
The Lord never acts without purpose, but rather, when He delays, He delays for the very people who are growing impatient with Him or with each other. Charles Spurgeon once said, “By perseverance the snail reached the ark” We, too, may think at times that we are crawling, and crawling too slowly at that. But our salvation is near, indeed, it’s in our very ears through absolution, and its fruit will come at the time our Lord has appointed. St. James gives the example of Job. Sometimes we are Job. Sometimes we are the snail. Sometimes our neighbor is. Regardless, Christ is Christ, for each of us.
Take heart and learn the beggar’s virtue. We are all beggars, but we are Christ’s beggars, and for that reason, our beggarly hands overflow with grace, the same divine grace that abounds for our fellow Christians and neighbors as well. In that joy, we can leave both those bags behind and delight in the day on which we wait.