“Let patience have her perfect work that ye may be perfect and entire, wanting nothing.”—James 1:4.
We sometimes speak of the troubles of the present state, and are ready to sink under the complicated afflictions in our lot; but it might be useful to us to recollect the disparity between us and the primitive Christians. Compare your lot, my brethren, with that of people who have been harassed, persecuted from city to city, finding no certain resting-place, their lives ever in danger, their dearest friends at variance with them—and all this on account of their attachment to Christ—the father set against the son, the tenderest of natural ties almost dissolved, on account of an adherence to Christ and the gospel:—think of those, and then ask, “What are my afflictions? The world to me has been a quiet habitation, in comparison to that which it has been to them; the persecutions which heretofore raged have been, in a great measure, laid asleep.” And yet we may notice, that the apostle admonishes the Christians in those times to take well whatever God should lay upon them; “to be patient, yea, to let patience have its perfect work;” instead of despairing under present trials, to “count it all joy when they fell into divers temptations.”
Let me have your attention, my brethren, while I attempt,
I. To offer a few explanatory remarks upon the exhortation, “Let patience have her perfect work;” and,
II. To point out the influence which patience thus working has upon the Christian character, rendering it “perfect and entire, wanting nothing.”
I. Let us then inquire, first, into the meaning of the exhortation. Every term the apostle makes use of seems to be full of meaning, and it becomes us to endeavour fully to enter into it. Here, three or four questions seem to present themselves to us for answer. 1. What is patience? 2. What is the work of patience? 3. What is the perfect work of patience? and, 4. What is denoted, by our letting patience have its perfect work?
1. What is patience? we ask. The word so rendered, I believe, signifies rightly, to bear up under, as a man that carries a burden, or a cross if you please, and yet makes progress; goes on notwithstanding the load that lies upon him. In other words, patience is that grace, in the exercise of which we quietly endure present ills in hope of future deliverance. Perhaps we shall form a still clearer and more forcible idea of it by contrasting it with a few things that bear some resemblance to it. There is a species of quiescence that arises from mere fatality, or a consideration that things cannot be altered. This was the patience of the ancient heathens, and must be the patience of modern heathens. Men who have nothing better to hope for can draw their sources of submission from no higher principle. Cicero, and several of the great names of antiquity, when they lost their children, are represented as composing and quieting themselves from nothing but merely the consideration that it could not be altered: we must submit to fate. But this, my brethren, is the patience of despair, while the disposition here recommended is the patience of hope; and how great the difference between the patience which heathenism can produce, and the patience which is the effect of the gospel!
Again, there is a sort of quiescence of mind arising from insensibility, and this in every age and in every country. There are persons who are not greatly affected with their trials, and who are thought to be very patient under them; but the truth is, it is the mere effect of insensibility or stupidity. This is not gospel patience. Gospel patience does not extinguish the feelings, but governs them: it supposes the sensibilities of the soul to be most alive; it comports with the tenderest sensibilities, the most refind feelings. All that gospel patience aims at is, to govern, to direct, to keep those feelings in submission to God. Thus it is beautifully expressed by our Saviour himself, “In patience possess ye your souls.” The soul sometimes becomes like an ungoverned steed; but patience holds the reins and preserves it in awe, and so subjects all the feelings and sensibilities of the mind to a right direction. This is the patience of the gospel.
2. But I pass on to inquire, What is the work of patience? It is supposed that patience works; for though it be a passive grace, or its principal exercise consists in suffering rather than in acting, yet it is connected with activity. Hence the scriptures speak of “patient continuance in well-doing.” It is not to lie under a load of sorrow, and make no movement; it is to follow Christ though we have a cross to carry; it is that kind of sensation which is connected with a perseverance in well-doing. What is the work of patience? Patience is not only represented as operative, but we are informed what it is that it works: “Tribulation worketh patience; and patience, experience; and experience, hope.” If we would look, then, for the work of patience, we must go into the variety of difficulties and trials with which Providence afflicts the children of men, the children of God. There we shall find patience working; there we shall see the work of patience in the path of affliction, persecution, and the like.
That tribulation which affords occasion for patience may be distinguished into three general kinds: the visitations of God; and there the work of patience consists in bowing in submission;—the injurious treatment of men; and there patience consists in rendering, not evil for evil, but good for evil;—and lastly, the suspension of expected blessings; and there patience consists in quietly waiting for God’s mercy. Here, then, you will find the work of patience. Are you visited by the afflicting hand of God? Does God afflict you in your person? Does he diminish you in your circumstances? Does he bereave you of your children and dear friends? Does he inflict wound upon wound, and stroke upon stroke? Here is the work of patience. Imitate the example of that godly man who said, in the deepest of his afflictions, “The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” Are you exposed to unkind treatment from your fellow-sinners? It is possible: though you are not exposed to legal persecutions for the sake of the gospel; though you cannot be haled to prison, and have your lot in a dark and noisome dungeon; though you cannot be dragged to the stake; yet there are many ways in which you may be called to suffer for Christ’s sake. Ungodly relations, ungodly neighbours, ungodly connexions, may cause you to feel the weight of their resentment and malignity in a variety of ways; and here, it is your business and mine, as Christians, to let “patience have its perfect work,” to beware that we render not evil for evil, to beware that our spirits are not overset by these things, and that we yield not to the temptation of rendering vengeance, which is the prerogative of God. Or it may be, that you have conceived the hope of some desired good, and have been in expectation of it; and it may be, that God suspends this expected good, holds it back from you; and “hope deferred,” as the wise man says, “maketh the heart sick.” Here the work of patience is to preserve you from despondency; to keep your head, as it were, above water; to guard you from hard thoughts of God: and such was its work in the afflicted church in her captivity, when she said, “I will bear the indignation of the Lord, because I have sinned against him, until he plead my cause,” until he “bring forth judgment unto victory.” I will wait patiently for God’s mercy.
3. But a third question presents itself, What is the perfect work of patience? I apprehend, this term expresses the degree of it. It denotes, that patience not only be strong but habitual; that patience be not interrupted in its work, and that it hold out unto the end. Patience is often interrupted in its work by the intervention of fits of despondency, seasons of discontent, times in which we are apt to lose the possession of our souls under the afflictive dispensations of God. Job was very patient to a certain degree, but it did not last to the end; it had not “its perfect work.” We hear the same lips which once said, “Shall we receive good at the hand of the Lord, and shall we not receive evil also?” cursing the day that he was born, and the hour in which he was brought forth. This was a sad interruption, and affords a melancholy proof of the depravity of the best of men. Under the resentment of our fellow-creatures, our fellow-christians, there is great danger that after having exerted great patience, and kindness, and meekness, and after having rendered much good for evil, in some unguarded moment passion or resentment will take the place of Christian meekness. Yes, some who have borne evil nobly for a time, have yet permitted passion and resentment to get the better of their sober judgment. Let your patience be habitual and uniform; let there be perseverance even to the end; there is need to pray for grace, and great grace, that we may, by perseverance in well-doing, go on till we lay hold of immortality; patiently endure to the end. Thus it was with the holy martyrs of Jesus; their patience lasted to the end; in patience, fortitude, and expected triumph in the cause of Jesus, they possessed their souls. But why do I speak of the martyrs of Jesus? It were enough to look to Jesus himself. He was a perfect pattern. “Behold the Lamb of God.” See him meekly enduring affliction, enduring the indignities and cruelties of his most inveterate enemies, and the promised good still withheld. See him exercising patience. It may be said in its completest sense to have had its perfect work in him: it was wanting in nothing. He never slackened in the exercise of this grace; not once did he complain; not once did he exercise violent resentment: he “endured the cross, despising the shame;” and this in consequence of the joy that was set before him, and on which his eye was constanly fixed. He knew that he should “see of the travail of his soul, and should be satisfied.” Oh! that we may be enabled to keep the example of our Lord always before our eyes.
Patience must have its perfect work in this life, if it has it at all; for this is the only world in which it is to work. There are graces that shall live and operate in the bright world above, but patience does all here. There will be no occasion for it in the blessed state above. There will be no visitations from God to try us; no more shall he hide his face from us; no more shall he chasten the beloved of his soul. Neither shall men nor devils be able to put our patience to the proof. Their injuries, their resentments, their persecutions, shall be removed far away. Nor will there be any waiting for an expected good. No more sickness of heart on account of hope deferred, for there the crown is in possession. Patience is the vessel, the use of which is to bear us over this stormy ocean; but when we shall ride in this bark into the haven of everlasting rest, we shall not need it any further.
4. Once more, we ask, What is denoted by the exhortation, “Let patience have her perfect work?” This kind of language intimates that we are exceedingly prone to make objections; that we are very apt to hinder the operation of patience; and this is the case particularly in these ways. We are unwilling to take the cross; nay, we are naturally studious to avoid it. Indeed, we are not called upon to choose affliction; but when the path of duty lies through suffering, we may by our own folly, bring trouble on ourselves by going out of our way to avoid the latter. God requires that we should take up the cross when he lays it in our way; but alas! how often do we go out of our way to miss it; and leave the path of duty, in order to shun trouble! Aye, here this exhortation looks us in the face. “Let patience have its perfect work.” Let not your anxiety to avoid trouble lead you into sin. The path of sin will assuredly bring a heavier cross than you are trying to avoid. Do not dispute with Providence. Take these troubles, and bear them in the strength of the grace that God will grant to you.
Again, this exhortation appears to apply, when we are under any particular trials that exercise our patience, and when we are solicitous to get rid of them. The heart not only wishes to avoid this and that trial; but when it comes, we are too apt to show the spirit of Ephraim, we try to shake it off, to escape from a difficulty, being much more solicitous to get rid of trouble than of sin; much more desirous of being delivered from affliction, than that it should be sanctified, and leave a blessing behind it. That is the spirit of Ephraim, of “a bullock unaccustomed to the yoke.” Christian, you may lay your account, that if you feel thus, your trouble will be continued as it was with Ephraim, till he said, “Turn thou me, and I shall be turned.” Or, if God should suffer you to shake off your burden before it has produced its proper effect, the loss of it will be your heaviest curse. God may suffer you to escape from a trouble, and yet give you one which is far worse. He may be saying, “Let him get rid of his sorrows; but there shall be a blast on his prosperity—there shall be a curse on his delights.” Oh, tremble, lest you should wish to shake off these loads before they have answered their purpose, and be more solicitous to get rid of the sin than of the trial. All this seems to be implied in the exhortation.
I hope the solution of these four questions,—What is patience? What is the work of patience? What is the perfect work of patience? and, What is it to let it have its perfect work?—may serve to throw some light on the exhortation.
II. I proceed, secondly, to remark the influence of patience on the Christian character; for this is supposed. “Let it have its perfect work; that ye may be perfect and entire, wanting nothing.” There seems to be a beautiful correspondence noticed by the apostle, between the perfect work of patience and the perfect character of the Christian: Let it have its perfect work, and it will perfect you. I scarcely need remark, that perfection here is not to be taken absolutely, but comparatively. There is no absolute perfection in the present world. It is rather a perfection of parts than of degrees. The child that has all its limbs is taken to be a perfect child; but this is not a perfection of degrees, for there is still room for its growth to a perfect man. In heaven we shall arrive at the perfect stature of a man; there will be perfection in degrees. But there is a perfection of character, comparatively speaking, in the present world; and this it is which the perfect work of patience has a tendency to produce. The perfection to which I allude, is an uniformity of character, a conformity to the divine will. The apostle himself explains what he means, “entire, wanting nothing.” That is the very idea he wishes to give here. Now, where there is a want of uniformity in the Christian character, we cannot be said to be “entire, wanting nothing.” There is much wanting indeed in us all, but there is a great deficiency in many characters in point of conformity. For example, we often see characters that are distinguished by their natural generosity; they are ready to come forward on all occasions in works of mercy and generosity; and in this point of view they are estimable characters; but perhaps they are wofully deficient in spiritual-mindedness. Aye, my friends, do not rest satisfied: there is a want of being “perfect and entire” in our character; there is something greatly defective there. If we could follow you into your closets, how should we find you with reference to secret religion? Do not the walls of your apartments bear witness against you, notwithstanding your amiable deportment? If so, there is a most lamentable deficiency.
Again, you will see another of an opposite description, apparently devout, full of devotion, ready on all occasions to enter into what appears spiritual conversation; but look to another part of his character, and he is wretchedly avaricious, shut up to the feelings of humanity, scarcely possessed of common compassion to his fellow-creatures, or sympathy to his fellow-christians. His pity consists of expressions, “Be ye warmed, and be ye clothed;” but not of that which costs him anything. Is this a perfect character? In the apostle’s words, is this being “perfect and entire, wanting nothing?” Alas! the want of compassion to our fellow-creatures is represented as rendering our devotions suspicious; for how dwells the love of God in that man who feels not the love of his fellow-creatures? Thus we might go on and find a number of religious characters in the world, who resemble these in one respect or another, and with regard to whom there is a want of uniformity of character: they are zealous, but it is a zeal not according to knowledge; or they are very knowing, very intelligent, very much employed in speculation; they are very faithful in telling every one of his faults, but have scarcely any sympathy or compassion for those that fall; or they are very compassionate towards those who are guilty of a fault, but have no faithfulness. Here lies the matter, to unite these things. It is this which constitutes a character “perfect and entire, wanting nothing.”
It remains only to show how the perfect work of patience is supposed to produce this end. Thousands could bear witness of the truth of this. That man who has borne afflictions with patience, who has borne injuries with forbearance and meekness of spirit; who has borne up under the cross God has laid upon him;—that is the man who has grown in grace, that is the uniform character. Show me the most eminent Christian amongst your acquaintance, the most devout, and at the same time the most benevolent; the most faithful, and at the same time the most compassionate; the most zealous for Christ, and yet one whose zeal is accompanied with the largest degree of spiritual knowledge. Show me the man who has the greatest portion of noble qualities, and that will be the man who has gone through the greatest trials. Here is the perfect work of patience. It is the bearing of these trials, and the exercise of patience under them, that fills up the vacancies in Christian character; and hence it is that old age is represented as bearing some of the choicest fruits: “They shall bring forth fruit even to old age.” Do not you know some such aged Christain, who, as his body bows under the weight of age, has a soul which appears almost to bow under its weight of fruit—like a tree in the heavenly Eden—like a shock of corn fully ripe? It seems to be fit company but for the heavenly society to which it is going. God grant that this may be the object of each heart! May all our means of grace, prayer, reading, and so on, be tending to this! Thus shall we be fitted for usefulness here, and meetened for the inheritance of the saints above.
Excerpt from: “The Work of Patience,” a sermon delivered at Maze Pond, London, May 23, 1802.
Fuller, A. G. (1988). The Complete Works of Andrew Fuller: Memoirs, Sermons, Etc. (J. Belcher, Ed.) (Vol. 1, pp. 374–379). Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications.