Grumbling and the Judge Who is Nearby

Scriptures: James 5:9
by Jacob Abshire on January 25, 2021

During a trip to visit the Jerusalem church, the apostle Paul found himself in a quandary. Some Jews, burning with hatred for his preaching, rallied up the locals to kill him. The commotion was loud that a Roman commander intervened, threw Paul in the barracks, and waited for the dust to settle (Acts 21:27-37; 22:24). 

The next day, the commander brought Paul and the Jews together in order to get to the bottom of things (Acts 22:30). Paul, making his defense, said aloud, “Brothers, I have lived my life before God in all good conscience up to this day” (Acts 23:1). Ananias, one of the Jewish council members, ordered Paul to be struck in the mouth, a flagrant violation of Jewish law.

Paul was furious. “God is going to strike you, you white washed wall! Are you sitting to judge me according to the law, and yet contrary to the law you order me to be struck?” (Acts 23:2-3). The Jews immediately defended Anania, “Would you revile God’s high priest?” (Acts. 23:4). Paul shrunk back in humility. “I did not know, brothers, that he was the high priest, for it is written, ‘You shall not speak evil of a ruler of your people’” (Acts 23:5).

What was happening to Paul was unjust. The high priest was unrighteously charging Paul with breaking the law while breaking it himself. Indignant with this blatant violation, Paul blew a gasket. His heart was fired up. His mouth bursted with flames. And, he repented.

As we look at the trial of suffering, the Lord tells us that patience is the expression of true faith when it is pressured by affliction. Turning to the next verse, we find impatience judged.

Do not grumble against one another, brothers, so that you may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing at the door.

James 5:9

When the pressures of life have afflicted us, we are tempted to grumble about others. Jesus, talking privately with Peter, said, “ When you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go” (Jn. 21:18-19). He was telling Peter about his future suffering and death. Such news would shock anyone. Peter, looking back at John, grumbled, “Lord, what about this guy?” Will he have it bad, too?” (Jn. 21:20-21, paraphrased).

It’s easy for us to notice the seemingly soft life that others experiencing while we ourselves are suffering. We may grumble about the friend who is taking vacations, the co-worker who is being promoted, or the church member who received an unexpected blessing from God. The tendency of the impatient heart is to grumble, instead of being cheerful.

Do not Grumble

Finances were low during our first years of marriage. We often struggled to make ends meet. I was working two jobs. She was tending to the home. Our neighbors, however, were enjoying their free nights and weekends, buying new cars, getting bigger homes, and setting up wide-screen televisions. I couldn’t help but notice. Arriving home from my second job, sweaty and hungry, my neighbors were putting away their dishes with a full stomach and getting ready for bed. I smiled, but my heart groaned. I wasn’t cheerful. I was resentful.

This is the idea that James has in mind when he says, “Do not grumble against one another, brothers” (Ja. 5:9). Why? Because the character of true faith is patient in suffering. It is cheerful when others are doing well. The immediate context suggests that James was speaking to the poor who suffered the afflictions of the rich (Ja. 2:6; 5:6). Their suffering, rooted in earthly proclivity, caused them to grumble against one another, their leadership, their authorities, and others, which has no place in the Christian life.

The word “grumble” is sometimes translated as “complain” to capture the idea of verbalizing disdain. But, to “grumble” involves an inner groaning more than an outward expression. It’s a disposition of the heart, a stirring of painful frustration. Paul uses the word in Romans 8:23, a well-known passage relating the discomfort of the world awaiting the renewal of creation.

“We ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we sit eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.”

Groaning itself is not inherently evil. It is a natural response to evil. When a child continues to rebel, the heart groans for better times. When a spouse dies of sickness, the soul aches for their passing. It is not until groaning gives way to the disdain “against one another” that it becomes evil (Ja. 5:9). “We may, indeed, groan, when any evil torments us; but [James] means an accusing groan, when one expostulated with the Lord against another,” said John Calvin.

Unsurprisingly, this kind of accusative groaning involves most, if not all, of the sins that James has prohibited in his epistle up to this point. It involves envy and resentment (Ja. 4:1-2), judgmentalism (Ja. 4:11), evil speech (Ja. 4:10), jealousy and selfish ambition (Ja. 3:16), partiality (Ja. 2:4), and being quick to anger (Ja. 1:19). It is a nasty sin that directly assaults the sovereignty of God. This is why James points us to the door where the Judge stands by.

The Judge is Ready

Most of us know what happens in the young children’s classroom when the teacher leaves—the students erupt in chaos. Our tendency is to act up when the authority is not present. And unfortunately, we don’t grow out of it. Even as believers, who know that God is all-present, can convince ourselves that He cannot see us when we act out. But, this is not so. God is not like the teacher. He never leaves the classroom. His delay of judgement is a manifestation of His divine patience, wanting more to come to their senses. So, James reminds us, “Behold, the Judge is standing at the door” (Ja. 5:9).

The word “behold” is a common way of telling people to sit up and pay attention. In a wooden sense, it means to look intently at something. I think James meant for us to do both—sit up, look intently, and pay attention. What is it that we should see? The Judge is standing at the door. He can see you. He is paying attention to what you do, even observing your heart.

The nearness of the Judge brings hope to believers who are suffering. It means that our affliction is temporary (Ja. 5:7). It reminds us that we can have hope for a better future when suffering is absent. However, to those who are characterized by impatience, it should strike terror and motivate them to not grumble, “so that you may not be judged” (Ja. 5:9). 

This was a vivid picture to the ancient readers who were familiar with the local judgment halls. They were large rooms with doors through which the presiding judge would enter. When he entered, the court was in session. The judge was there to execute judgment (Matt. 25:46).

Instead of grumbling during your suffering, be cheerful for the blessings others are receiving. After all, it is by God’s providence that they (and you) are in your present situation. He is working all things for the good of those who love Him. But, this doesn’t mean that He won’t perform His judiciary responsibilities. The divine Judge is nearby, so don’t grumble.

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