For many of us, patience is a quality more admired than desired. We are tempted to agree with Ambrose Bierce, who defined patience as “a minor form of despair, disguised as a virtue” (The Devil’s Dictionary). Yet the apostle Paul lists patience as one of the fruits of the Spirit. What is he thinking? Is it the mark of a spiritual person not to fidget in waiting rooms? Clearly, Paul sees patience as a miraculous and essential work of God in the lives of His people, but what is the biblical virtue of patience, and why is it so important?
The meaning of patience
In the list of the fruits of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-23, the word translated “patience” is the Greek word makrothumia. Breaking a word down into its component pieces can be misleading (does knowing about butter and flies help you understand butterflies?), but in the case of makrothumia doing so points us in the right direction. Makros means “long” and thumos means anger; the root meaning of makrothumia is “taking a long time to get angry.” The word came to be used to describe the person who is slow to react, reluctant to retaliate, resistant to changing course. If we lived several generations ago, I would say that the best English translation is “longsuffering.” Years ago, “to suffer” was often used to mean “to endure, to put up with” people or circumstances, as in “I do not suffer fools gladly.” So the quality of patience is the quality of longsuffering: facing into difficult situations and difficult people and putting up with them, forbearing without reacting in anger or turning away.
Patience in the biblical sense, therefore, is not just a question of temperament or restlessness; patience is a way of thinking about and responding to the difficult circumstances of our lives. The biblical quality of longsuffering is rooted in our beliefs about the future. As believers, we are learning to take the long view. We endure, we wait patiently, because we believe that our present difficulties will be resolved. To show what I mean, I want to look at the two main aspects of the biblical virtue of patience: 1) patience as we persevere in our faith, and 2) patience with the faults of others.
Patience and perseverance
Abraham was a man who had great promises from God, but he had to wait for them. He was promised a child, a descendant who would found a nation and bring blessing to the world, but Abraham would not see the child for many years. He was promised a homeland, but he himself spent much of his life wandering that land as a stranger. He was promised a blessing, but most of that blessing did not come to him in his lifetime. How did he respond? The author of Hebrews tells us; he offers Abraham as a model of those who “through faith and patience inherit the promises” (Hebrews 6:12). Abraham was a patient, longsuffering man. Perhaps at times he may have felt impatient, restless, and eager to get on with it, but that did not change his fundamental attitude toward God and His promises. The fulfillment of God’s promises was long in coming, but Abraham responded to the delay not with anger and mistrust but with faith and persevering patience.
One of my favorite passages in the Bible is from the book of James:
Be patient, therefore, brethren, until the coming of the Lord. Behold, the farmer waits for the precious produce of the soil, being patient about it, until it gets the early and late rains. You too be patient; strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand… As an example, brethren, of suffering and patience, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. Behold, we count those blessed who endured. You have heard of the endurance of Job and have seen the outcome of the Lord’s dealings, that the Lord is full of compassion and is merciful. (James 5:7-11)
James is writing to people facing great difficulties and trials. Their faith is being tested, and James is exhorting them to persevere, to hold fast to the faith until the end. The Lord is coming, and they should hold on until He returns. Although I know nothing about farming, I have always loved the analogy James makes here. The farmer waits patiently because he understands what he is waiting for. He waits hopefully, with a reason and a purpose, because he knows that the harvest will come in the end. We, too, wait with a reason and a purpose. As James says, we can be patient, longsuffering, because “we have seen the outcome of the Lord’s dealings, that the Lord is full of compassion and merciful.”
We see, therefore, that a patient response to our current troubles is rooted in our faith and what that faith tells us about the future. We can wait patiently through the difficulties of today, because we are confident that they are temporary.
Patience and forbearance
As we have just seen, in the midst of our troubles God calls us to wait patiently for His promised salvation. In essence, we can be patient with God because of what we know about His character. The Bible, however, also calls us to be patient with those who are very much less reliable than God; we are told to be patient with each other.
And we urge you, brethren, admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all men. See that no one repays another with evil for evil, but always seek after that which is good for one another and for all men. (I Thessalonians 5:14-15)
This kind of longsuffering also has a lot to do with how we see the future, because God is in charge of that future. We may have little confidence in those who have hurt us, but we have every reason to be confident in God. God is both savior and judge, and at the end of the age He will deal out both mercy and justice. This sounds very abstract, but in fact it has profoundly practical ramifications. In this very real world, other people can be very difficult to deal with.
· People take unfair advantage of us.
· People say evil things about us.
· People misjudge us and accuse of things we never did.
· People take our real faults and mistakes and use them against us, gossiping about us and hurting us.
· People get angry and overreact to our mistakes and lash out at us.
· People who should care about us are indifferent and treat us like strangers.
· People who should be the closest to us sometimes take us the most for granted.
· People are selfish and put their own desires above ours.
How can we be “longsuffering” with such people? Why would we want to be? Because we believe that God exists and that one day He is going to judge and restore the world. He is going to execute justice, and He is going to grant mercy. Both of these truths are profoundly important. If I am patient with you today, I am not just ignoring your faults. I believe that ultimately God is going to deal with your faults, either by judging you because of them or by rescuing you from them. Either way, I can be patient, because God will prevail in the end. Even more importantly, the gospel message forces me to reflect on my own future. You are not the only sinner in the world. For me, too, God holds out either mercy or judgment, and I pray that it is mercy. If I refuse to be patient with you, why should I expect God to be patient with me?
Once again, our willingness to be patient and longsuffering with each other is directly related to our faith, our beliefs about the future. Rather than striking back at those who have sinned against us, we are being told to endure, to be patient with their faults. We are doing this because we believe the gospel. Both justice and mercy are in the hands of God, and we are learning to trust that He will do right by us all.
What patience is NOT
Perhaps we can see more clearly what the biblical quality of patience is by highlighting what it is not.
Not just a feeling
Biblical patience is not primarily a feeling of patience and calm. The spiritual attribute of longsuffering arises from the will; it is a decision to endure that is rooted in our faith, in our growing belief that God will keep His promises for the future. By nature we may be hyper, nervous sorts of people, but the fruit of patience can still show itself in our decision to take the long view, to forgive each other’s failures and to hold tight to our trust in God.
Not an instantaneous supernatural power
Although we very rightly see patience as one of the fruits of the Spirit, we would be wrong to believe that the Spirit usually bestows such patience instantaneously, as if patience were some supernatural power like Superman’s x-ray vision. The biblical picture of sanctification suggests that patience will be a growing quality, one that emerges through God’s work in our lives in the midst of trials. In other words, we may very well find ourselves going through seasons where we are not patient, where we struggle to put up with each other and to continue trusting God. Often God uses exactly those sorts of struggles to teach us patience in the long run. Such trials force us to confront our beliefs about the future and our trust in God’s promises; as our faith and trust grow, so does our patience.
Not just external behavior
Longsuffering is a description of an inner attitude, a new set of motives and beliefs; it is not just outward behavior. Imagine you have a neighbor who is a real pest. This neighbor drops over without invitation every day and takes up hours of your time talking about boring things. You “patiently” say nothing for a long time. Is that longsuffering? From a biblical perspective it may or may not be. To ignore my irritation is not longsuffering in a biblical sense. Lots of people, out of a desire to be conventionally polite, can be patient and let a situation continue. Inside, though, we’re seething. The irritation is building up, and we have no way of diffusing it. We have no wisdom, no perspective, no answer to give ourselves; we just give a strained smile and try to keep from killing them.
If the hope of the gospel is not capturing our hearts, then at best we can only fake patience. When difficulties come, we can plaster on a smile and play the brave Christian, even if inside we are just building up our resentment against God. But a mature and growing faith will be learning the perspective of the farmer: I am working for a reason; the harvest is coming. When others let us down, we can grit our teeth and suppress our irritation, even if inside we are seething. But a mature and growing faith is learning to see the faults of others in the light of the future. God will make all things right, both judging evil and rescuing us from it. If He can save an evil person like me, He can certainly be counted on to deal with everyone else as well.
Not passive and indifferent
Sometimes we mistakenly think that the patient person will show a passionless serenity, a bland indifference to the vicissitudes of life. This is far from the biblical picture of longsuffering and patience. A mature faith is content with the present only because God has promised to overcome and redeem it. God’s people can and will have a strong desire for change. Today we groan, just as creation itself is groaning, waiting for our ultimate redemption tomorrow. We weep, even as Jesus wept. We long for Jesus to return and make things right. Christianity does not advocate the end of desire; it advocates that we set our hearts on the right things and trust God to bring them about.
It is only appropriate to conclude by reminding ourselves where such a profound change of heart comes from. Not for nothing is patience called a fruit of the Spirit. Nothing less than the Spirit of God Himself could bring us to the place where we respond with that kind of patience. Paul prays that we might be “strengthened with all power, according to His glorious might, for the attaining of all perseverance and patience” (Colossians 1:11). It takes the glorious might of God, the same power that hung the stars in the sky, to overcome the inertia of the human heart and bring us to patience.
Patience is a Christian virtue because it is intimately tied to our faith itself. We continue in the face of heartache and suffering because we believe that our rescuer is coming. We put up with each other’s failures because we know that everything will finally be resolved; both justice and mercy will prevail. We do not give up on God or on each other, because we believe that God will not give up on us.