“For in the patience of love’s delay lies human blessedness.” – Pilgram Marpeck
It’s no great insight on my part to note that we find ourselves in tumultuous times. We might highlight outright warfare, opioid crises, intensifying climate events, or widespread violence as evidence of tumult and instability, but such a laundry list would inevitably be too brief to be comprehensive. Not only do these kinds of problems cause anxiety and confusion, but the accelerated pace of change itself intensifies the tensions we experience as we try to navigate the world(s) in which we find ourselves.
The current lived experience of significant uncertainty provides an opportunity for us to consider what kinds of Christian practices we might cultivate in these times. One such practice is Christian patience, which sometimes drops from view in times when it’s easy to think that the primary need is for quick action which responds confidently to uncertainties. Oliver O’Donovan’s dramatic conclusion to an essay concerning issues faced by the church prompted my consideration of patience. There he asserts: “one word of caution for those who speak and for those who listen when God’s word is abroad. The first, and surely the hardest demand that it makes on them is: patience.” Several observations: first, O’Donovan highlights the challenge for us to recognize anew that ‘God’s word is abroad,’ that even a comprehensive list of crises is incapable of telling the whole story of what is going on in God’s world. The suggestion is that when circumstances seem to indicate a shaking of the foundations, Christians ought to pay attention to signs of God at work. Further, where one might have expected O’Donovan to name the importance of leaping into action, we find instead a call to exercise patience.
We should be careful at the outset to recognize what we do not mean by patience. All too often, in our conception, patience “has come to mean an indiscriminate, self-immolating, crabbed, joyless, and spineless submission to whatever evil is met with or, worse, deliberately sought out. Patience, however, is something quite other than the indiscriminate acceptance of each and every evil…” Importantly, our understanding of Christian patience is delusionary if seen as “an invitation to escape from the tasks of large struggles against gargantuan and fast-moving whirls of destruction;” patience is misguided if taken to mean the preserving of the status quo; patience is false when it derives from indifference, weakness, or short-sightedness.
“While you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish; and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.” – 2 Peter 3:14-15
Further, I am not suggesting that Christian patience is fully expressed in what we might call ‘natural patience,’ the kind of actions taken by a hiker who pauses to rest on her way to a destination, a farmer waiting for a crop to grow, a mother with her children. While these examples qualify as the exercise of patience, they can also be understood as providing a way to get something we want, for “gaining what is coveted.” Rather, for Christians, the understanding of patience begins with God, that is, God’s patience displayed in creation toward humans, revealed most explicitly in Jesus Christ and in the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit.
To clarify our understanding, I highlight two passages of Scripture, which serve as a brief display of the broad strokes of a biblical view of patience, namely: 1) that God practices divine patience toward his creation, and 2) that humans are also called to practice patience. However, to recognize patience as divine and as human ought not to lead us too quickly to a conclusion that runs something like: because God is patient, humans too ought to be patient; that the patience to which humans are called can be understood as being modelled directly on God’s exercise of that virtue. That is, while divine and human patience may be related, it is not the case that human patience is simply a pale version of the divine.
Regarding divine patience then, the apostle Peter writes, “But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance…Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish; and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.” Peter describes God as exercising patience with people, an offer that opens the possibility of repentance and salvation, and exhorts his readers, who are ostensibly the recipients of God’s patience, to wait in peace for the renewal of all things. (2 Peter 3:8-; 14-15).
Second, James adds a call for human practice of patience with an emphasis that is different than Peter’s. “Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient… As an example of suffering and patience, beloved, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. Indeed, we call blessed those who showed endurance. You have heard of the endurance of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful.” James counsels patience on the part of the reader, offers encouragement in the fact that the coming of the Lord is near, and provides examples to follow in the prophets of Israel, explicitly offering the blessed pattern displayed by Job. (James 5:7-11)
But we might still inquire further and ask what patience is – of what does it consist? One way to come to fuller understanding of the nature of patience referred to and described in the Bible is to examine those terms that are translated into English as ‘patience.’ Two of the key terms are makrothumia and hupomeno. Makrothumia, “a compound word (makros – long, and thumos – anger) carries with it the notion of taking a long time to get angry, describing a person who takes some time prior to reacting, or retaliating, or perhaps even changing course.” Makrothumia also includes the notion of being “long-spirited,” of being willing to wait for things to grow.
The closely related term, hupomeno, carries with it a strong sense of survival, of holding out. New Testament scholar Susan Garrett suggests that “hypomone literally means “steadfastness” or “standing fast,” and in the period of early Judaism and Christianity it designated a supreme virtue: energetic resistance to hostile forces.” Additionally, Garrett argues that the dimension of endurance is central here, especially as demonstrated in the life of Jesus. Neither term is consistently translated as ‘patience,’ but also by terms such as forbearance, endurance, perseverance, or steadfastness.
While careful definition is important and provides insight, the pursuit and refining of such definitions cannot do the work needed to come to a nuanced understanding of patience in the Bible. Simply noting the terms cited above, one can already see that, taken together, they begin to offer a multi-faceted meaning that does not rely on a clear distinction of meaning. The details of technical word study may not be the most fruitful way to pursue an understanding of patience. Rather than trying to define the term abstractly, we can look to understand patience as conveyed through narrative accounts, which “point rather than define.”
Here I want to turn to the work of David Baily Harned, who, in his wonderful book, Patience: How We Wait Upon the World, does not pursue the recovery of meaning of patience via the locking down of definitions; rather, he frames the understanding of Christian patience within the broader narrative of God’s patience as displayed in the Bible. The focus on a narrative account of patience allows Harned to make the case that patience properly understood includes a long list of dimensions that make up its meaning. For example, Harned finds in the Bible an oft-appearing triad of ‘merciful and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness;” the reader finds that “[t]ime and again the Bible declares that God is gracious, merciful, and patient…the patience of God is the very heart of the story.”
In the next article in this series, I will take up this topic of God’s patience as it is displayed in narrative form, focusing specifically God’s patience with the created world, and especially with humanity. The central truth I will develop is that God’s patience grants us space and time to become the people God created us to be.
Written by: Dr. Paul Doerksen
Paul Doerksen is Associate Professor or Theology and Anabaptist Studies at Canadian Mennonite University.
- See Hartmut Rosa, Social Acceleration: A New Theory of Modernity, 2015.
Oliver O’Donovan, “Homosexuality in the Church: Can There be a Fruitful Theological Debate?” in Eugene Rodgers, Jr., ed. Theology and Sexuality, p. 86.
Josef Pieper, The Four Cardinal Virtues: Prudence, Justice, Fortitude, Temperance, p. 129.
Stanley Hauerwas, “The Politics of Gentleness: Random Thoughts for a Conversation with Jean Vanier,” p. 193.
Hauerwas, A Better Hope, p. 277.
Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, The Doctrine of God, II.I, p. 423.
Soren Kierkegaard, Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses, p. 161.
Ron Julian, Waiting for God (blog).
Margaret Hebblethwaite, “Patience,” p. 142.
Susan R Garrett, “The Patience of Job and the Patience of Jesus,” p. 256.
David Baily Harned, Patience: How We Wait Upon the World, p. 25.