When things are going badly, it is hard not to take it out on the people around us.
If you are not feeling well, or under stress at work, or frustrated with something, then you have surely been tempted to be impatient: impatient with your friends, your parents or teachers, your spouse or children or anyone else unfortunate enough to cross your path.
The New Testament congregation to whom James writes was under strain because of economic hardship, persecution and temptation. As a result, they were getting upset with one another. Chapter 4 mentions “wars and fights” among them, as well as evil speaking.
So James exhorts them, “Be patient” (5:7). And he also admonishes them, “Do not grumble against one another” (5:9). The Greek word “grumble” has the sense of muttering, murmuring and complaining. Think of the Israelites who grumbled against Moses as soon as their journey through the desert got a bit difficult.
That is the tendency of our hearts. Not only do we struggle to be patient with God, we struggle to be patient with other people, especially when the going gets tough. We become sharp with our words. Our critical spirit starts leaking out. Perhaps we blame other people for our current troubles.
Why does this happen? Maybe it’s our instinct of self-preservation, that when we face trouble our first thought is to make sure we are doing OK, never mind everyone else. That is our default position, after all: to be self-focused, curved inwards on ourselves. So when life becomes hard or challenging, we quickly give up any thoughts of being generous or kind. Suddenly we have less time or energy for other people. We grumble, or we gossip, or we complain. In short, we are impatient.
James tells us not to do this. And if we look back a couple chapters, we see the spirit that we should have instead. In chapter 3:17 he writes about living according to God’s wisdom, and he says,
The wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy.
This is such a wonderful description of the Spirit’s fruit of patience in our lives, when we are peaceable, gentle, willing to yield and full of mercy.
When we really care about each other, we will endeavour to be patient, always. Scripture teaches that our patience with God’s timing should not be dependent on circumstance: whether we’re happy or sad, strong or weak, we ought to put our hope in God and wait quietly for him (James 5:7-8). In a similar way, our patience with other people should not be dependent on our circumstance. Whether we are having a great day or a grumpy day, we should aim to show kindness and mercy.
What can we do to overcome our tendency to be impatient with other people, to complain or to grumble?
An essential activity for a child of God is always prayer—and specifically, pray for those whom you’re tempted to criticize or grumble about. If you care about them (as God commands you to), then you will pray for them.
Pray, and learn to set a guard over your mouth. So often our impatience is expressed by our words, so let us learn to withhold our critical or harsh words—and learn to speak words of mercy and peace instead.
And third, strive to look on other people with the love of Christ. This irritating person in front of you—this imperfect man, woman, child, this difficult fellow church member—is yet precious to God. In Christ, God forgives him, God cares for her, God is richly patient with this person (and with you!), so we ought to do the same.
Do not grumble against one another, James says, “lest you be condemned” (5:9). That is a really serious reason to put our impatience to death. If you condemn other people, blame and criticize, James warns that we might be condemned ourselves. That was Jesus’ warning too, who told us to stop judging unfairly because it tends to end with us being judged.
God alone holds the position of all-knowing and authoritative judge. When it comes to other people, we rarely know the whole story. And we so often let our judgments be clouded by our personal interests and prejudice. So our first and continued reaction toward others should be patience, forgiveness and mercy—together with a reluctance to judge.
For understand this, says James, “The Judge is standing at the door!” (5:9). As we interact with the people in our life, think of Christ as a judge, about to open the doors to the courtroom and convene his court. He is right at the door, and his coming is not far off when He will demand that we account for every careless word.
We can think of what Paul says in Philippians 4:5. He exhorts, “Let your gentleness be known to all men.” Be gentle with people, patient, compassionate and willing to help. Handle with care!
And now listen to the reason the Spirit gives in Philippians 4, “Let your gentleness be known to all men. The Lord is at hand.”
Christ is near, even right at the door, so He calls us to live in his holy way—having patience for one another.