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The Patience of God

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In the patience of love’s delay, part 2

In the previous issue of the MB Herald, I claimed that because God’s Word is abroad, we stand in need of Christian patience. Here I will focus on the patience of God, not simply to get at human patience, but for its own sake. Patience has its source in God. As St. Cyprian asserted in the third century, “From Him patience begins; from Him its glory and its dignity take their rise. The origin and greatness proceed from God as its author.” God’s patience manifests itself in a myriad of instances narrated in the Scriptures, beginning with creation itself. According to Paul Dafydd Jones, the creation account of both non-human and human creatures in Genesis 1:1–2:4a “can be read in terms of an exercise of divine patience – an act of ‘letting be’ and ‘letting happen’ wherein God establishes, guides, waits on and endorses the free action of non-human creatures.”

Cyprian claims that God’s patience toward us is profoundly evident in the enduring of profane temples, images, and sacrilegious rites instituted by humans. 1 Peter 3:20 provides an example of this kind of dynamic wherein God is described as waiting patiently in the days of Noah during the building of the ark, when eight persons were saved through water. The fact that God allows sinful activities to carry on can be understood as the lavishing of divine love on those who remain ignorant and unbelieving but may someday turn to the worship of God. St. Paul understands his own life as providing an example of God’s display of patience. “But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost [sinner], Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life” (I Timothy 1:15,16).

It is important to notice that God’s patience does not consist in an empty waiting, a passive spectatorship of the unfolding of events. Instead, we observe, following Barth, that “patience exists where time and space are given within a definite intention, when freedom is allowed in expectation of a response…He makes this purposeful concession of space and time.” Barth insists that any description of God must not make the mistake of speaking of ‘attributes’ that have an existence apart from or independent of God’s own being. That is, if one speaks of grace or mercy, it is important not to say that God has grace or mercy, but that God is grace, God is mercy. God’s patience is not some isolated ‘characteristic’ among other ‘characteristics’ of God – it is a dimension of what God is – or as Barth puts it, “the perfection of divine patience is a special perfection of love and therefore the being of God.”

So we observe (gratefully) that God in total freedom allows humans space and time for the development of our own existence, thus “conceding to this existence a reality side by side with His own, and fulfilling His will towards this other in such a way that He does not spend and destroy it as this other but accompanies and sustains it and allows it to develop in freedom.” God is not thereby suspending the reality of the human experience, but rather “the fact that God has time for us is what characterizes His whole activity towards us as an exercise of patience.”

The Patience of Jesus Christ

God’s patience is most clearly manifested in Jesus Christ. It is in the revelation of Jesus Christ, and the attestation of Scripture that we can begin to speak of the necessary patience of God; Jesus is the person in whom the patience of God has been fully vindicated. There are several ways in which we can draw on Christological doctrine as a source for Christian moral patience. First, the teachings of Jesus call the Christian disciple in various ways to express patience as a way of being in the world. However, what we learn about patience from Jesus is not restricted to his imperative declarations but can also be found in his life. Cyprian points out that Jesus also fulfilled patience in his deeds – the Incarnation, the bringing of salvation, allowing himself to be baptized by John, the temptation in the wilderness, the washing of the disciples’ feet, his bearing of the presence of the traitor Judas without pointing him out, accepting the treacherous kiss and of course the Passion itself – all of these and more are seen as evidence to frame the deeds of Jesus as the ultimate display of patience. “All things are borne preservingly and constantly, in order that in Christ a full and perfect patience may be consummated.”

Christopher Vogt, in his work on the ethics of dying and death, mines the Passion narratives and finds there a deep and rich model of patience that goes considerably beyond the dimension of endurance. Vogt understands Jesus’s experience during the entire Passion as displaying four dimensions of patience. First, Jesus displays a reluctant endurance of suffering, which is to be avoided if possible but endured if necessary. Second, the patience of Jesus depends on a profound sense of Providence and desire to be obedient to God, thus compelling him to wait for events to unfold so that God’s purpose may be made known. It is important at this point to also recognize that we are part of the unfolding of history as participants, calling for discernment and endurance at the same time. Third, Vogt finds in the Passion a willingness to endure the difficulties entailed in sharing the task of controlling our destiny with others, most importantly with God. Vogt highlights the fourth dimension of Jesus’s patience as something that is practiced out of love for God, his friends and the world, bringing to view the fact that the practice of patience is fundamentally social in nature. Vogt’s work brings into sharp relief the fact that the patience of Jesus is not just one thing, that it is neither quiescent nor passive, but rather an active shaping of a response to the fact that Jesus is going about the will of God. And in so doing, Jesus is not left to his own devices, just as God’s patience with us is not indifferent withdrawal that leaves us to our own devices. But it is in Jesus that the patience of God is fully vindicated.

Patience in the Power of the Spirit

Before Jesus went down to Jerusalem to be crucified, he promised his disciples that he would ask the Father for an Advocate who would be with them forever. This reference to the coming of the Holy Spirit as Advocate is central to John’s account of things, especially in chapters 14-17 of his Gospel. Jesus tells his disciples that while he will leave their immediate presence, they will not be orphaned because the Spirit will come to abide with them, will teach them everything, and will remind them of all that Jesus has said to them. Further, the Spirit will testify on Jesus’s behalf; and the Spirit will guide them into all truth.

In a passage with an overtly eschatological dimension, Paul in Romans 8 shows his readers that life in the present circumstances ought to be shaped in part by an understanding of the glory that will be revealed. Such a posture is not some misguided notion that we know the future and how things might unfold, or that we can control the shape of that unfolding. Rather, the future remains open precisely because it is the arena of God’s activity, which Christians can understand to some degree – not in terms of apocalyptic timelines or calendars or some such speculative activity – but in terms of the shape that we have seen in Christ by the power of the Spirit. Thus we have a high calling indeed, “to offer to the world in the present a foretaste of the ultimate glory that God is bringing definitively in the future.”

But a reminder to look to the future is not a call to ignore the present – rather, the present becomes an opportunity to be open to the work of the Spirit, who helps us in our weakness, who intercedes for us, who makes known the will of God, and so on (Romans 8:1-30). Put another way, it is the work of the Spirit that provides the power of the possibility of living the life of patience within the space and time provided by God’s patience revealed so clearly in Jesus Christ. God’s patience is expressed in Trinitarian form, and that matters because it is this God who is set before us in Scripture, and whom the church worships. And it is the calling of the church to be the patient body of Christ that we will turn our attention in the next article in this series.

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


  1. Cyprian, On the Advantage of Patience, Treatise IX, 484
  2.  Paul Dafydd Jones, “The Patience of God the Creator,” 361

  3. Barth, Church Dogmatics, Vol II:I, 408

  4. Barth, 407

  5. Barth, 409-410

  6. Barth, 417

  7. Barth, 409, 418

  8. Cyprian, On the Advantage of Patience, Treatise IX, Section VII

  9. Christopher Vogt, “Practicing Patience, Compassion, and Hope at the end of Life: Mining the Passion of Jesus in Luke for the Christian Model of Dying Well,” 138-143

  10. Philip D. Kenneson, Life on the Vine: Cultivating the Fruit of the Spirit in Christian Community, 125

  11. John Webster, Confronted by Grace, 95

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