Friday, May 24, 2013

What is the "perfect work of patience?"

We've all heard the expression, "patience is a virtue," and although it's a cliché, it's borne out by common sense and our common experience. We all know that patience is preferable to being harried and frantic and constantly trying to anticipate the future. But when the Bible talks about patience, it has some very interesting, and unexpected, things to say. 

The word "patience" is used 34 times in the King James Bible. Sometimes it's synonymous with "longsuffering," as in Galatians 5:22, where it's part of the fruit of the Spirit. Usually, however, the words are not exactly synonymous; that's why different words are used in the first place. Longsuffering is usually an attribute of God (again, an attribute of the Holy Spirit in the verse just cited); patience is usually an attribute of men and women.

But we're not going to do a general study of patience right now. (I'm not enough of an expert on the subject!) Rather, I'd like to focus on a single verse, James 1:4: But let patience have her perfect work, that ye may be perfect and entire, wanting nothing.

(It must be noted that 90% of the modern versions of the Bible do not use the word "patience" here, preferring such terms as "endurance" or "perseverence," which are simply not the same thing. Several modern version use the word "it." But the overwhelming majority of Greek fragments, and manuscript evidence, say "patience." That's another example of the fraudulent and unreliable nature of the "new" translations, which are based on some outrageously corrupt "old" Greek manuscripts.) 

In the Old Testament, wisdom is often personified, and here patience is given the same treatment. When God personifies something like this, it's a pretty good indication that the concept is quite important to Him. And in this case, patience is very important to us, in ways that we might not expect.   Patience is a lot more than simply remaining calm in a traffic jam, or being able to wait to buy something we can't afford. It's even more than biting our lip when we want to yell at our spouse, or our kids. It's an attitude, a habitual attitude, and it doesn't develop overnight, like a mushroom. It takes awhile to develop and learn. 

But, assuming we develop it all, what's it good for? (Yes, it helps our blood pressure, and makes life more pleasant for those around us, but beyond that?) What on earth is James talking about when he says "Let patience have her perfect work?" What is her perfect work? We can get a hint from several other passages, in which we see the "work" of patience in other people's lives. In Philippians 3:13-15, Paul says: Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended: but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus. Let us therefore, as many as be perfect, be thus minded: and if in any thing ye be otherwise minded, God shall reveal even this unto you. The word patience isn't found there, but another word from the verse in James is: perfect. In this chapter of Philippians, Paul is recounting some of his experiences, and, in reminding us to keep looking forward, not backward, he says something in an almost casual way: as many as be perfect.... 

So, maybe the "perfect work" of patience is ... perfection

Is Paul claiming to be perfect, along with certain other Christians? Apparently so. Does that mean that he has overcome sin, and is constantly Christlike in his actions? Clearly not: because, right before these verses, in verse 12, he says, Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect: but I follow after, if that I may apprehend that for which also I am apprehended of Christ Jesus. 

Aha! Is this another one of those "contradictions" so beloved of the skeptics? Which is it, Paul: are you perfect, or are you not? 

And the answer is, Yes and no ... because there's more than one meaning of "perfect." 

Some Christians believe that our "old man" (Romans 6:6, Ephesians 4:22, Colossians 3:9), our old sin nature, can be "eradicated" in our earthly lifetimes. That, sadly, is bad teaching. Romans 7 shows us that the battle between the old and new man rages until the day we go Home. In verse 12, Paul is saying, "I'm not perfect, in the sense of sinless perfection." But in verse 15, right after using the word "us," he says that some people are perfect. So it must mean something else. 

And any Christian who's received good teaching knows what it means: it means maturity in Christ. Paul was not sinless, but he was an experienced, scripture-oriented, mature Christian. Paul, through his many trials, had developed patience, and the perfect work of patience, in his life, was spiritual maturity. 

So can it be - - - so should it be - - - in ours. 

Not convinced by Paul's experience? Then let's look at another, very reverently. The Lord Jesus Christ never sinned a single time; unlike Paul, He was sinlessly perfect. But that doesn't mean (I say it reverently) that He didn't have to learn something. And God's word tells us what it was.

Hebrews 5:7-9, speaking of Jesus: Who in the days of his flesh, when he had offered up prayers and supplications with strong crying and tears unto him that was able to save him from death, and was heard in that he feared; Though he were a Son, yet learned he obedience by the things which he suffered; And being made perfect, he became the author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey him. Some people say that "perfect" means "complete," instead of "mature." No problem: spiritually speaking, I think that's a distinction without a difference. 

So, if patience has a "perfect work," it must be spiritual maturity, spiritual completeness. (It could be other things as well, but it's this, at least.) That's a good deal more valuable than a healthy blood pressure reading! So, how do we develop patience, anyway? 

Well, this is the rough part. You might guess, from the examples of how Paul and Jesus were made perfect. To get the context, Romans 5:1-5: Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ: By whom also we have access by faith into this grace wherein we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God. And not only so, but we glory in tribulations also: knowing that tribulation worketh patience; And patience, experience; and experience, hope: And hope maketh not ashamed; because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us. 

That's why we glory in our tribulations: because they produce patience. (It's also why I never pray for patience! When facing difficulty, I pray for grace.) And when patience is produced - - - and it's only produced by tribulation - - - then it can have its perfect work of spiritual maturity and "perfection." 

Becoming a Christian, receiving Jesus Christ according to John 1:12, is the easiest thing in the world; anybody can do it. But living the Christian life is a different story. There's nothing easy about it. 

But the alternative? Not having Christ in my life? 

I don't want the tribulation, Lord ... but give me grace. And thank You for Your word, and Your promise that he which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ (Philippians 1:6).

What a promise!  What a Saviour!

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