A Warning and a Hope
As James issues his stark warning to the unrepentant oppressors, he offers the faithful a word of comfort. And the occasion for both is the same: Jesus is coming back soon. And when he returns, it will not be as servant, but as king, as judge. While we all need to heed the warning of James 4:13-17 lest we be condemned (James 5:1-6). We can also take comfort in the coming of the judge. He will rectify all wrongs. The wicked will get their just desserts.
Vindication has long been the desire of the people of God. It is found in all the imprecatory Psalms (Psalm 5; 10; 17; 35; 58; 59; 69; 70; 79; 83; 109; 129; 137; 140). Those martyred for the faith express their longing for it in Rev 6:10. But that raises three questions:
1) How soon is soon?
The next verse tells us, answering the martyrs: “… [A] little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been. (Rev 6:11 ESV) The imminence of Christ’s return is a complex subject. There are verses seeming to indicate a delay in the return of Christ (Matt 24:14; Mark 13:7; 2 Th 2:3-4, etc.). There are other verses that suggest he could come at any time. It is worth noting that Christ, himself, did not know the timing of his return (Matt 24:36). But he urges us to be in a constant state of readiness for it: Matt 24:44; 25:13; 1 Pet. 4:7; 1 Th. 5:6; Luke 12:35-37.
So, while after 2000 years, ‘soon’ might seem to be emptied of its urgency, we ought to bear in mind two things. 1) When something is next, it is always sooner today than it was yesterday, and the imminence isn’t diminished. This is the point of Romans 11:13 ff. and 2) Just as for a child, 2 hours may feel like an eternity, so we must not measure ‘soon’ by our own reference, but recognize that God’s sense of soon is what really matters. This is the point of 2 Peter 5:8 ff.
Undoubtedly, some will begin to doubt that his coming is imminent (2 Pet 3:3-4). And that is why James urges us to hold on, strengthening our hearts in patient expectation (James 5:8).
2) How can I plead for retribution when I’ve been shown mercy?
The more we understand the grace of God, the more we might struggle with the imprecatory Psalms, the more we might feel awkward longing for the punishment of the wicked. It is good to remember that we who will stand at the judgment will not do so on our own merit. It is good to remember that the salvation of our enemies would be every bit as glorious as their destruction, a lesson Jonah stood to learn. And yet, don’t forget what your redemption cost. Your salvation came at the cost of God’s Son. How heinous must our sins be for that to be the only remedy? And with such a generous offer proclaimed in the gospel, what does justice require when it is rejected?
We need to remember that it is God who is chiefly offended by the sins of the wicked. Consider David’s words when repenting of murder and adultery: “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.” (Psa 51:4 ESV) We are not merely longing for our own vindication, but for God’s vindication. We who see God for who He is, infinitely good and just and merciful and true, we long for the day when those who slander His name and exalt themselves are brought low. Indeed, Lord God, “break the teeth in their mouths; tear out the fangs of the young lions, O Lord! Let them vanish like water that runs away; when he aims his arrows, let them be blunted. Let them be like the snail that dissolves into slime, like the stillborn child who never sees the sun.” (Psalm 58:6-8) “So may all your enemies perish, LORD! But may all who love you be like the sun when it rises in its strength.” (Judg 5:31 NIV11)
3) What if I’ve been wronged by a brother in Christ?
Some of our most painful injuries come at the hands of our brothers. But there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Rom 8:1).What sort of patience is James calling for then? We are not waiting for their destruction. So how will our patience ‘pay off’, when we restrain our tongues and refuse to grumble against fellow believers? (James 5:9; James 4:11-12; James 1:26)
Let’s consider the alternative. When we grumble against one another, holding grudges, whether passive aggressively or something more in-your-face, we implicitly stand in judgment on the one we grumble about. It gives us a false sense of self-worth, as we compare ourselves with their wretched behavior. Opening our mouths about it, we seek to be seen as a martyr while they are seen as a monster. But the real problem is that we set ourselves up to be judged on the basis of our performance (Matt 7:1-2). And that would be disastrous. So what is the ‘pay off’ to our patience? Not being disqualified for grace (Matt 6:14-15).
But wouldn’t you much rather see your brother repent anyway? After all, you know that you are a work in progress. That’s why the thought of standing for judgment on the basis of your own performance is so frightening! And if God can save you, is the brother who offended you really out of the reach of God’s grace? If we are to pray for our enemies (Matt 5:44), how much more should we pray for and bless those who, like us, struggle against the flesh as they strive to be the righteous men and women God has declared them to be? Put simply, in words we’ve seen before, “who are you to judge your neighbor?” (James 4:12 ESV)
Let your grudges go. And leave vengeance to the True Judge (Rom 12:19; 14:13; James 4:12). He is at the door (James 5:9).
Like the farmer, you must be patient for the refreshing rain of the Holy Spirit to mend the wounds and heal the relationship. But like the farmer, your waiting must neither be idle, nor indifferent. Actively seek to get rid of your grudges. And do so with full expectation that God will do it.