God gives us numerous means so that we will not waver in our faithfulness to Him. One of those ways is to persevere by following the example of faithful men and women who have successfully gone before us.
James 5:10–11 teaches us, “As an example of suffering and patience, brothers, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. Behold, we consider those blessed who remained steadfast. You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful.”
This is a series of words James uses in order to encourage faithfulness. He begins by commanding us to be patient. Then, he urges us to establish our hearts. That is, he encourages us to be resolved and not vacillate. Now he urges us to be steadfast, just like the men and women of faith who have walked before us. The idea is persevering. If being patient demands a certain passive waiting and standing firm is a bit more active, notice now James moves to a very active virtue.
Perseverance is active. Sometimes, the Bible gives the image of a runner who is running hard for the finish line. The athlete has to summon up all his energy. But he also has to resolve that he will not give up.
James then provides 2 examples. First, he says, think of the prophets. He might have in mind men like Jeremiah who was thrown into prison and told to remain silent. The prophet Amos was told to go back to Judah and prophecy there but to get out of Israel. Elijah ended up hiding in a cave under the threat of death. Hosea endured a heartbreaking marriage in order to illustrate God’s marriage to Israel. All of these prophets faced considerable challenges.
Even in suffering, all of these men endured and they never stopped their ministry. They pushed on, believing God’s reward lay before them.
And then, curiously, James gives us the example of Job. And we might wonder about that. Those of us who read the book hear a lot of impatient complaining going on in Job. But three things become apparent in reading that book. 1st, Job resolutely refused to curse God in his suffering. 2nd, he refused the false theology of his friends. And 3rd, Job did confess that although God should slay him, still he would trust in Him. In this way, Job also joins the prophets as one who endured in suffering.
James then ends his argument in what might look somewhat curious. “But above all, my brothers, 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)
It may be difficult to understand how this verse connects with the idea of emulating the saints of the past, yet, a little reflection might help us understand.
Both James and Jesus insist that we stop taking oaths that are used to obscure our true motives. Be truthful in everything you say. If you say yes, then yes it is. If no, then no it is. Straight up – just make your mouth truthful.
When people suffer or when they are mistreated there is a pressure to lose their ethics. They either lash out, or they justify themselves unduly. It is an exercise in faithfulness, that in those moments, our speech does not change. As we have been before our suffering, so also we will be in the midst of them.