Seminary Viewpoints

Enduring Hard Places and Dark Spaces: Spiritual Comfort Food, Not Junk Food

Sam Horn | March 16, 2023
Theology Thursday

Frankly, James’s epistle can be somewhat of a downer — with a large chunk exposing, confronting and correcting sinful, double-minded behavior of professing Christians. But blessedly, Christ’s earthly brother landed his high-impact missive as he launched it — providing spiritual comfort and sustenance for devoted but hope-hungry believers striving to maintain a whole-hearted, single-focused, fully trusting faith in the hardest and darkest of hard places and dark spaces.

James begins by exhorting Jewish believers, dispersed across the Roman Empire as a result of the exile, to joyfully endure fiery trials that perfect and complete their faith.

What trials were those? Per historians, despite dispersed Jews’ efforts to maintain good relations, both Romans and Greeks mocked them, their laws and their customs, and economic and physical persecution rose around the time of Christ’s death and resurrection in A.D. 30 and thereafter.

But in chapter 5, James identifies other ruthless oppressors of God’s people: wealthy Jewish landowners, familiar with Moses and the Prophets, who considered early Jewish Christ-followers worthy of persecution or death.

Though regular synagogue attenders, this lot is painted in 2:6-7 as ostentatious in dress, adornment and luxurious treasure, dragging Christians into court and blaspheming Christ’s name. Now, the charges expand: living godless, self-indulgent, sensual lives through ill-gotten gains from systematically depriving, impoverishing, condemning and even murdering God’s righteous servants.

What did James have to offer discouraged, despairing followers to endure the almost unbearable pain of trials producing immeasurable agony and irreversible loss, even to the point of death? Spiritual comfort food from God’s eternal Word.

This loving leader exhorts readers to “establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand” (5:8). “Establish” in Greek (στηρίξατε) connotes strengthening from inside, such as filling a can to withstand heavy pressure without crumpling, but also external support rendering objects unshakeable under opposing forces, like deep pilings on an oil rig in a raging sea. James’s spiritual comfort food, similarly, ensures believers won’t be crushed by the pressure of a trial or get blown off course by persecution.

One writer described the idea of “establishing” as “putting iron in our hearts.” That iron is the not-so-secret ingredient of James’s rib-sticking recipe: the confident expectation that Messiah’s long-promised appearing (Parousia) is true and will come to pass — and moreover, is imminent! That expectation is only reinforced by systematically, regularly, repeatedly, prayerfully, and submissively consuming God’s own true, proven, body-and-mind-building words that present that promise, through prophets and apostles, from Genesis through Revelation.

In contrast, some Christians content themselves with devotional aids and books about God’s Word, which can be profitable if used discerningly. But displacing reading the Bible itself as it is designed to be studied — line by line — is subsisting on junk food. The result: stunted spiritual growth and inability to endure trials, resist temptation or discover God’s peace and joy in them.

James’s comfort food still strengthens believers with powerful promises direct from an omnipotent Lord, buttressed by compelling examples of trust in those promises.

The inescapable doom of oppressors

James opens with a call to the wealthy to “weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon (them)” as their riches rot and their wealth corrodes (5:1-3). The language harks back to Old Testament prophecies of the “last days” or “the Day of the Lord” when Messiah would vindicate His people and judge their enemies. James makes clear that this prophecy applies to apostate Israel: the cries of the oppressed have reached the Lord of Hosts (5:4), and their corroded riches will “eat their flesh like fire” (5:3) for their denial of Christ and acts of wicked oppression.

The “precious fruit” of patience

The word “patient,” occurring four times in verses 7-10, is more than simply persevering under pressure and opposition. The term means “long-suffering” and describes active and intentional self-restraint and graciousness believers are to exhibit in the face of severe persecution and prolonged opposition.

James provides three helpful examples. The patient but not passive farmer plants and tends crops in faithful dependence on God to send early rain to give life to the seed and later to bring about a full harvest. James, referring back to Joel’s description of Christ’s first and second comings, respectively as these early and late rains (Joel 2:18-27), promises “precious fruit.” Persecuted prophets — one of whom, Isaiah, was reportedly sawn in half on Manasseh’s orders — and Job are offered as examples of patient perseverance.

Their ultimate reward for perseverance — and forbearance

With the promises come admonitions — not to grumble against their brothers (v. 9), as the Israelites grumbled in the wilderness with disastrous effect, or to make false promises (“let your yes be yes, and your no, no,” v. 12). The reward for such perseverance and forbearance: being considered “blessed” by a “compassionate and merciful” Lord (v. 11).

James accentuates this final promise with the word “behold!” (i.e., “pay attention!”). The term “consider blessed” means to be regarded as favored or approved by the Lord. What more satisfying sustenance or greater comfort could there be than that for a believer devouring and living according to His Word in those hard places and dark spaces?

As discussed by Sam Horn on The Steve Noble Show on March 16