Waiting for the Harvest (James 5:7–20)Bible Commentary / Produced by TOW Project
James concludes his letter with a variety of exhortations on patience, truthfulness, prayer, confession, and healing. As always, these appeal either to the principle that faithful works must benefit others or that it must be done in dependence on God, or both. And as usual, James makes direct applications to the workplace.
James begins with a workplace example to illustrate the looming return of Christ: “Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near” (James 5:7–8). He then echoes these words as he draws to a close: “Elijah was a human being like us, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain and the earth yielded its harvest” (James 5:17–18).
Patience at work is a form of dependence on God. But patience is hard in the workplace. Work is done to obtain a result—otherwise it wouldn’t be work—and there is always the temptation to grasp for the result without actually doing the work. If we’re investing to make money, wouldn’t we like to get rich quick rather than slow? That mentality leads to insider trading, Ponzi schemes, and gambling away the grocery money at the slot machines. If we’re working to get promoted, shouldn’t we position ourselves better in our supervisor’s eyes by any means available? That leads to backstabbing, stealing credit, gossip, and team disintegration. If we’re working to meet a quota, couldn’t we meet it faster by doing lower-quality work and passing off the problems to the next person in the production chain? And these are not only problems of personal morality. A production system that rewards poor quality is as bad or worse than the worker who takes advantage of it.
“Above all, my beloved, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your ‘Yes’ be yes and your ‘No’ be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation” (James 5:12). Imagine a workplace in which people always told the truth—not simply avoiding lying but always saying whatever would give the hearer the most accurate understanding of the way things really are. There would be no need for oaths and swearing, no retroactive clarifications, no need for contract provisions defining who gets what in the case of misstatements or fraud. Imagine if sellers always provided maximally informative data about their products, contracts were always clear to all parties, and bosses always gave accurate credit to their subordinates. Imagine if we always gave answers that communicated as accurate a picture as possible, rather than subtly concealing unflattering information about our work. Could we succeed in our present jobs or careers? Could we succeed if everyone became maximally truthful? Do we need to change our definition of success?
James returns to the principle of dependence on God in his discussion of prayer. “Are any among you suffering? They should pray” (James 5:13). “If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God” (James 1:5). James is inviting us to get specific with God. “God, I don’t know how to handle this production failure, and I need your help before I go talk to my boss.” God is able to accomplish what we need, though he does not guarantee to answer every prayer exactly as we expect. Many Christians seem strangely reluctant to pray about the specific issues, situations, persons, needs, fears, and questions we encounter every day at work. We forget James’s exhortation to ask for specific guidance and even particular outcomes. Have faith, says James, and God will answer us in the real situations of life. “Ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you” (James 1:5).
Confession and Healing
James exhorts us to confess our sins to one another, so that we may be healed (James 5:16). The most interesting words for the workplace are “to one another.” The assumption is that people sin against each other, not just against God, and at work that is certainly the case. We face daily pressure to produce and perform, and we have limited time to act, so we often act without listening, marginalize those who disagree, compete unfairly, hog resources, leave a mess for the next person to clean up, and take out our frustrations on co-workers. We wound and get wounded. The only way to be healed is to confess our sins to one another. If someone just shot down a co-worker’s promotion by inaccurately criticizing that person’s performance, the wrongdoer needs to confess it to the one wronged at work, not just to God in private prayer time. The wrongdoer may have to confess it to the rest of the department too, if he or she is really going to heal the damage.
What is our motivation for confession and healing? So that we may serve the needs of others. “Whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death” (James 5:20; emphasis added). Saving someone from death is serving a very deep need! And perhaps— since we are all sinners—someone else will save us from death by turning us from the error of our ways.