On Patience

“Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for him; fret not yourself over the one who prospers in his way, over the name who carries out evil devices!”  – Psalm 37:7

I’ve been thinking a lot about patience lately.

There’s two reasons for it.

First, my almost one-year-old daughter is cutting teeth. She has six of them now, and the seventh is almost all the way out. And it seems that when a new tooth begins to break through her gums, it is especially uncomfortable for her. Her mouth hurts, and her preferred method of soothing is cuddling up on my lap. I know that this cuddling phase won’t last forever, so I am very grateful that my daughter has chosen me to help her with this. However, I also enjoy sleep. There’s been a few nights where my daughter’s need has kept us up until the sun begins to peek through the shades of our living room picture-window. And while she comfortable drools on my shoulder, I’ve rather impatiently been checking the clock and calculating how much time I still have before my alarm goes off.

But secondly and a bit more to the point, a few weeks ago, the Archbishop of Canterbury uttered a phrase that I hadn’t heard before: “righteous impatience.”[1]

The Archbishop was delivering a small homily at the funeral of Prince Philip, and within the service, he commended the duke on how he wasn’t one to accept the status quo. Instead, if Prince Phillip perceived something to be wrong, he would take immediate and blunt action with an impatient haste.  

And on just the level of semantics, this phrase is oxymoronic. If impatience is sin, it cannot be considered righteous. But is that entirely true? Could impatience be regarded as virtuous in some instances?

Most of us would agree that grumbling about our waitress taking a long time to return with our bill is wrong. Most of us would also agree that impatiently snapping at a child who’s attempting to tie their own shoes for the first time is also wrong. But we might not say the same about an employer that has a “go getter mentality,” who finishes her work in a hasty but driven fashion. If you work in manufacturing and discover that a product you are creating has a flaw that needs to be fixed, your employee who impatiently rushes finds a solution that enables you to get it out on the market will likely be commended for the hurried effort.     

And this doesn’t just apply to secular work-related spheres. Take, for example, Martin Luther King Jr’s words in his Letter from Birmingham Jail:

“One of the basic points in your statement is that the action that I am my associates have taken in Birmingham is untimely…[But] we know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct-action campaign that was ‘well timed’ in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation.”

“For years now, I have heard the word ‘wait!’ It rings in the ears of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘wait’ has almost always meant ‘never.’ We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that ‘justice to long delayed is justice denied.”

These words that Martin Luther King Jr. penned were in response to an open letter published in a Birmingham newspaper. Within it, a group of clergymen accused MLK of being both unwise and untimely in his push for desegregation. King’s answer, as partially quoted above, could be labeled “impatient” by some. But nevertheless, most would agree that if MLK was acting impatiently in that instance, it was done so righteously.  

So again, could this mean that impatience, from some angles, is virtuous?

Let’s explore that now.

What *Is* Patience?

There are several words in scripture that are used to describe the disposition we understand as patience. But patience, first and foremost, finds it’s origin in the “long-suffering” character of God.

There’s an important phrase that’s repeated several times in the Old Testament: “The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love (Exodus 34:6, Numbers 14:18, Psalm 103:8, Psalm 86:15, Psalm 145:8, Joel 2:13, Jonah 4:2, Nehemiah 9:17).” But it’s that slow to anger bit that’s relevant here. The LORD isn’t immediately disrupted or provoked. He doesn’t lose His cool. He doesn’t have a hair-trigger. It’s also important to note that the Greek word behind the English phrase “slow to anger” (μακροθυμία) is the same Greek word that Paul uses in his Fruits of the Spirit list.[2] In other words, as we are further conformed into the image of Christ, we’re to strive to be patient like God the Father is.

Phil Kenneson makes an interesting observation along those lines. In his book Life on the Vine,[3] Phil notes that God’s patience represents His willingness to yield control.[4]

And that isn’t a statement on the LORD’s sovereignty, but instead a comment on how the God of scripture doesn’t force certain outcomes or outright demand His own way. God is patient with His creation. He adamantly insists that Israel follows Torah, but he doesn’t immediately force them to comply when they don’t. And when Israel repeatedly falls into the trappings of sin and idolatry, the LORD practices forbearance. He doesn’t produce immediate judgment but sends prophets and gives His people time to change their ways. He isn’t in a hurry. And because of this, He has no need to be coercive or controlling.

It should also be emphasized that God’s patience is always other-directional.

God is patient for the sake of His creation, not for self-gain. And this stands in contrast to the way that patience is sometimes discussed nowadays. Patience, to some, is merely a means to experiencing better mental health or a stoic resignation to not allow life’s troubles distract you from your goals or pleasures. However, while biblical patience may produce better mental health as a byproduct, it isn’t meant to be the virtue’s motivating factor.   

Paul explains that the LORD loves patiently. In fact, in 1 Corinthians 13’s famous love paragraph (the one frequently read at weddings), “patient” is the first adjective listed. More than this, Paul explains that God’s patient love “does not insist on its own way (1 Corinthians 13:5)” and “bears” and “endures” all things (1 Corinthians 13:7).” Elsewhere, the apostle explains that it’s a Christians obligation to mimic the LORD in this. We’re to bear with others, not for self-pleasure, but for their sake. Our patient endurance is done in hopes of encouraging and building up our brothers and sisters in Christ (Romans 15:1-6, Ephesians 4:1-3).

So, with all of that being said, if we were to attempt to define biblical patience, we might say something like this: patience is yielding control to others for the sake of others.

Righteous Impatience? Not Quite.

Alan Kreider, in his book The Patient Ferment of the Early Church,[5] very convincingly argues that patience was a central virtue of the church in the first few centuries of its existence.

He also claims that it was the patient observation of body habits like prayer, catechesis, hospitality, care of the poor, the collecting of money, feeding the hungry, and baptism, especially in the face of persecution, that the church busied itself with. There wasn’t a heavy emphasis on efficiency or urgency, but instead early Christians expected that the Lord would mysteriously grow their community and bring about His justice if they remained faithful to this calling.[6]

In other words, the early church was patient.

But it was through this patience, not in spite of it, that they hoped to enact social change.[7]

Through their body life, the early church hoped to put God’s kingdom on display. They hoped to present to the world a countercultural glimpse of what was to come in the fullness of time. And because these Christians had a proper understanding of time, they knew that the suffering they faced on earth was only temporary. They did not have to work to rush God’s kingdom along, or attempt to force the world around them to conform to the Lord’s standards, because they rightly recognized that His kingdom was sure to come despite their urgent efforts.

This did not mean that the early church wasn’t concerned with seeing God’s justice realized in their present. They merely understood that they had been called into a particular way of doing so. Hurried or urgent agitation directed outwardly was outside the bounds of this calling. But calculated, inward community-action was very appropriate.

This is what Paul was getting at in Romans 12:9-21 when he states that the Roman Christians needed to be “patient in affliction” and should “leave room for God’s wrath.”

I’m sure it was tempting for these Christians to lash out at their persecutors. Violent action was a path that many Jews took against the Roman Empire in the first century. And just a few centuries before Paul wrote this epistle, there was a Jewish revolt against Greece that actually proved successful for a time. Nevertheless, this was not the route that the Lord wished His church to take. Instead of reacting in hot vengeance, the church was called to feed their enemies, bless those cursing them, contribute to the needs of the saints, and show hospitality. And, of course, it was through the church’s display of longsuffering and kingdom-oriented actions that they were “overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21).”

So, does this mean that Martin Luther King Jr. was wrong? Were the clergymen who criticized him in the right? Not quite.

King’s actions were not spur of the moment. There had been an organized boycott of Birmingham’s white-owned business’ that had been going on for months. There had also been organized non-violent sit-ins and other similar actions taken. And even after King was arrested, he elected to stay in jail instead of pursuing release on bail in order to draw the nation’s eyes towards self-reflection. Martin Luther King Jr. was willing to participate in an act of longsuffering for the sake of other black and brown Americans undergoing much worse. From that zoomed-out perspective, it isn’t fair to label MLK as impatient, even righteously so.

That’s because while patience is always focused on the other, impatience is always focused on the self. And if patience is an act of yielding control for the sake of others, impatience is an act of seizing control for selfish desire.

Patient Action Today

Does the phrase “righteous impatience” contradict itself? Yes. I think that it does.

But as we’ve seen, patience doesn’t necessarily mean just waiting out the bad. There is a component of patience that calls us to action. In fact, it wouldn’t be an oxymoron to state that the church should be participating in something called “patient action.”

So how might we do so today? What could patient action look like in our churches and homes? Consider the following suggestions:

Form Community Habits that Train You in Patience – Like the early church, it may be wise for us to begin to form habits that allow us to better cultivate patience within our community. Practicing reconciliation and making room for the public confession of sin might train us to see others not as annoyances but sisters and brothers in Christ. Participating in the Lord’s Supper trains us up in hopefulness and longsuffering. And catechesis (a dirty word in my denomination) might remind us that there are good things worth waiting and preparing for.

Re-Think How You Talk About Time – It might do us good to learn how to be ok with our schedules getting interrupted. Kenneson recommends that one way to start such a thing is to begin reworking how we speak about time in general. Instead of thinking about time as a commodity that’s able to be spent up or wasted, we should learn to take the long view. And instead of saying that you’re going to “invest” your time into something or someone, use the word “devote.” When you invest in something, you expect something back. But when you devote yourself to something, you do so because of the worth of the person you’re devoting yourself to.[8]

Don’t Cling to the Idol of Efficiency – It’s also good to remember that efficiency isn’t a biblical virtue. In fact, striving to be efficient might rob you from an opportunity to display God’s patience. A sharp word of correction might make someone change their ways faster, but hasty language is almost always unfruitful in the long term. And you might feel like you can complete a task faster than someone else could, but it’s better to share responsibility than to bulldoze another’s opportunity for growth.

In a church in which I previously served, one of our greeters was severely mentally handicapped. He was given the responsibility to pass out bulletins and shake the hands of those entering the building. But he wasn’t very fast at either. And he always insisted on shaking your hand even if you’d already walked past the location he was standing. But not only did empowering this man to serve in this capacity give him purpose within our congregation, it allowed all of us to learn to patiently love him in better ways. It might not have been the most efficient move, but it was the right one.

Sit and Mourn with Those who Mourn – You’re never supposed to give a grieving spouse quick-fix advice on how to cope with loss during their loved one’s funeral service. You might mean well but doing so often proves more damaging than not. It’s also often the case that someone grieving over the passing of a loved one needs the most help a week or more after a funeral service. That’s when the memory of someone transitions from fresh to fading. That’s when the meal trains end and the flower deliveries stop.

Christians would do well to learn how to sit and suffer along with those who grieve. But we should do so in a patient way, one that doesn’t expect results or breakthroughs. We should allow our presence with the grieving to be that which anchors their eyes toward the God’s kingdom coming.

Practice Hospitality and Genuine Care for the Poor – The early church understood itself as the embodiment of God’s justice on earth. And through calculated action, they strove to love their neighbors well by caring for their physical needs. Because the Lord was generous to them, they felt that it was their responsibility to show God’s generosity to others.

We should do the same. But we shouldn’t do so impatiently or dismissively. There is some merit to merely handing out food to those who are hungry. But there is much more merit to intentionally entering into the lives of the hungry in order to partner with them, long term, in hopes of helping them get to a place of sustainability. This way is obviously much messier. And it will take a lot more patience on our part. But that’s exactly what all Christians have been called to do. We are to yield control to others for the sake of others. We’re to take patient action.  

[1] https://www.msn.com/en-gb/news/uknews/archbishop-remembers-prince-philips-righteous-impatience-as-he-prepares-to-lead-service/ar-BB1fwnEd

[2] I’m comparing the LXX’s rendering of Exodus 34:6 with Galatians 5:22.

[3] https://www.amazon.com/Life-Vine-Cultivating-Fruit-Spirit/dp/0830822194/ref=sr_1_3?dchild=1&keywords=life+on+the+vine&qid=1621024777&sr=8-3

[4] Phillip D. Kenneson, Life on the Vine: Cultivating the Fruits of the Spirit, (Downers Grove IL: IVP Books, 1999), 110.

[5] https://www.amazon.com/Patient-Ferment-Early-Church-Christianity/dp/0801048494/

[6] Alan Kreider, The Patient Ferment of the Early Church: The Improbable Rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2016), 11-12.

[7] Kreider, very helpfully, points out that a shift in this type of understanding happened around the time of Emperor Constantine. Kreider notes that Augustine believed patience had limits. And if patience stood in the way of “actions that love seems nessecary,” it should be abandoned for a time (282). In other words, impatience could be justified if it is utilized to serve a greater means (i.e., heretics could be snuffed out using the power of the State). Although, it’s of Kreider’s opinion that Augustine wrote on patience in order to justify the impatient actions he had taken in his lifetime in the name of Christianity (287-289). And despite our western culture’s emphases on efficiency and urgency over patience, Christians would do well to return to the understanding of the early Church Fathers on this virtue. See: Alan Kreider, The Patient Ferment of the Early Church: The Improbable Rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2016), 296.

[8] Phillip D. Kenneson, Life on the Vine: Cultivating the Fruits of the Spirit, (Downers Grove IL: IVP Books, 1999), 129.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s