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Must Patience Be So Slow?

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In the Patience of Love’s Delay, Part 4

Patience as a Form of Waiting

The exercise of patience is often associated with slowing down. Examples proliferate of people suggesting that contemporary life speeds along at a furious pace, and keeping up with, participating in, or taking advantage of this pace often has deleterious effects of various kinds on the individual and on the structures of societies. Thus, the person making these kinds of claims offers counsel that highlights the merits of slowing down, of waiting, of cultivation and practicing patience instead of pursuing frenetic activity at a pace that often must not only be maintained but increased just to keep up. Regarding the exercise of patience, it is often the case that is characterized as (very nearly) synonymous with slowing down.

There is an important truth to be recognized in the connection of patience with acting slowly. In a recent collection of essays, letters, and conversations, Stanley Hauerwas and Romand Coles struggle to understand a way forward in a culture they claim is obsessed with death. The notion of patience, secular and Christian, runs throughout the book.1 They suggest that “radical patience, stillness, ‘acting out of the deepest silence,’ sitting around on front porches with no plan of action, resisting imperatives for quick improvisations – these are among the most important political motifs…” Further, “…not knowing what to say and knowing one does not know – perhaps for a very long timeand dramatizing the fact that one is confronted with something for which one knows that one does not yet have the words: this is a very important ethical capacity.” To illustrate some of these dynamics, Coles and Hauerwas draw attention to Charles Marsh’s depiction of the American civil rights movement as including the discipline of waiting, which required uncommon patience even as it sustained humility and perspective. A condition of achieving ‘beloved community’ (Marsh’s term) was a certain kind of stillness in a nation of frenetic activity and noisy distraction. The waiting and witnessing did not equal preserving the status quo; rather these actions testified to the truth of Christ’s kingdom amid the world without expecting that we humans can enact that kingdom ahead of its appointed time.

My own consideration of patience continues to be influenced by developments in the field of disability theology, in particular the work of John Swinton, who rehabilitates the notion of slowness, rescuing it from being used as a pejorative descriptor of people with disabilities.2 Instead, in Swinton’s use of the term, slowness becomes a positive and constructive challenge to take up in our understanding of God’s ‘speed,’ in stark contrast to modern understandings of time in which it is “perceived as morally neutral and instrumental, a blank sheet onto which humans can inscribe their histories.” In place of such a modern account, Swinton puts forward a very different notion, wherein he suggests that a mode of time exists within the world as perceived by God’s time for creation. We need to allow God’s time to come upon us; we cannot assist it, because all we can do is receive it. As it is received, we are allowed to enter a quite different relationship with time. Swinton uses the language of becoming “friends of time,” of being in the world in ways that are radically different from the clock-time-driven, anxiety-ridden ways of living that we so often inhabit. God’s time is slow, patient, and kind. It welcomes friendship; it is a way of being in the fulness of time that is not determined by productivity, success, or linear movement toward personal goals. It is a way of love, a way of the heart. Slowness, gentleness, perseverance, and love: these are the qualities of people who have become friends of time. Says Swinton: “The ideas of slowing down; taking Sabbath, finding Sabbath moments; learning to be gentle, patient, and perseverance; coming to know what it means to become friends with slowness, and becoming friends of time (the practises of timefulness) are not easy to understand or to value in a world filled with clocks and meaningless evolutionary history. However, if in God’s coming kingdom ‘slow is the new fast’ and if gentleness and vulnerability are the new modes of transformative power, we find ourselves in a quite different world that holds to a different perception of time.”

Patience Does not Equal Slowness

I find these kinds of discussions not only convincing, but deeply challenging. Nonetheless, I have some questions. Is it the case that there is a causal, constitutive, or necessary connection between patience and slowing down? We must ask if slowing down is intrinsically upbuilding or edifying. Or could it be the case that ‘slow’ can be destructive? A cover-up of passivity? A reluctance to face injustice? Support of gradualism whereby the person calling for patience does so at the expense of oppressed people, for the uninterrupted prosperity of the one who counsels patience?

Here a word of caution is in order, becasue slow can have a shadow side. We need to be careful not to allow the practice of patience to occlude the possibility of seeing dangers that lurk in a commitment to slowness, namely, the danger of slow violence, a term that has been given significant currency in the work of Rob Nixon.3 His book Slow Violence offers an unsettling argument in which he attempts to make visible the long-term social, cultural, political, and effects of environmental practices that are put into place slowly. Nixon’s notion of slow violence refers to “a violence that occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, an attritional violence that is typically not viewed as violence at all…neither spectacular nor instantaneous, but rather incremental and accretive…” Nixon’s work serves as a cautionary tale to those who would equate patience and slowness.

Further, a word of caution regarding speeding up is also in order. Recognizing the dangers of haste is important. As Kelly Johnson asserts, “The moral problem of a hurried culture is not its love of speed, but its collective evasion of the truth about ourselves and our world; we are creatures, living in an unfolding time whose purposes we did not create.” Part of our evasion of truth includes our desire to control time even as we “deny the truth that time is not ours to control.” Hurry becomes a social practice, useful as evasion and necessary for maintaining our place in the world of empty, objective time.4 And yet, we all know that there are times when we must hurry – in times of true emergency, in taking advantage of opportunities to do good, in showing love; in short, not all speed kills.


Slow is not synonymous with patience; sometimes violence relies on slowness. Not all speed is to be avoided, but hastiness often ignores truth and assumes that time is ours to control. So, how can we express Christian patience? I contend that we need to recognize that Christian patience can move at various tempos, but that whatever pace we choose to follow, slow or fast, ought to be shaped by our understanding of patience. Perhaps the way to express this is to say that we are called to the practice of urgent patience, a term I take from biblical scholar Kevin Scott. In this regard, I’ve often thought of the father in the well-known parable we refer to as ‘The Prodigal Son.’ Much is made of the father’s hurrying in joy to embrace his wayward son who has come home. Fair enough, but we also ought to recognize that the final urgent sprint of that story is shaped by and comes only after and as part of enduring, waiting, watching, and hoping. The father distributed the share of inheritance against his own better judgment, he continued his work over the years, he worked side by side with his other son and employees, and all the time the working and the waiting were of a piece, a way of being which I’m calling urgent patience. And the practice of urgent Christian patience in a time of uncertainty is a demand made on the Christian precisely because God’s word is abroad in these times.

Finally, insofar as the practice of urgent patience is possible in our lives and churches, and in the world in which we find ourselves, it is made so by “the love that waits, scandalous in its patience, (which) will finally be unreserved in its haste to welcome us into the feast of reconciliation. In the meantime, we wait in joyful hope.”5

Dr. Paul Doerksen is Associate Professor of Theology and Anabaptist Studies at Canadian Mennonite University.


  1. Stanley Hauerwas and Romand Coles, Christianity, Radical Democracy, and the Radical Ordinary.

  2. John Swinton, Becoming Friends of Time: Disability, Timefullness, and Gentle Discipleship.

  3. Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor.

  4. I’m drawing here on Kelly Johnson, “Hurry and the Willingness to Be Creatures,” in Attentive Patience: The Christian Reflection Project.

  5. Kelly Johnson, “Hurry and the Willingness to Be Creatures.”

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