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The Meaning of Patience

I hate it when someone says to me, “Thank you for your patience.” It usually means that I have every reason to be impatient and that someone is trying to make me be patient when I have no desire to be.

Delayed at an airport at Christmas time, unable to do anything about it, faced with the incompetence of airline employees, I get impatient. Who wouldn’t? After all, isn’t impatience in the face of injustice a good thing?

When Paul talks about patience (makrothumia) as one of the fruits of the Spirit he means something quit different from quietly waiting when you would rather get on with it. He means that the Spirit will inspire in us persistence and centeredness. Patient people persist in doing what is good and right until they accomplish what they intend to accomplish. In order to do that, patient people are focused. They cannot be pulled away from their central convictions and goals.

For example, an ancient writer once said that the key to Roman success was their “policy and patience.” By patience the author meant the Roman quality of persistence in the pursuit of victory, by never making peace in defeat.

Another example is found in the life of Abraham. God promised him a son and he waited patiently, according to Hebrews 6:15, until he received what was promised. We might argue that Abraham was anything but patient; he accepted Sarah’s idea of a liaison with Hagar which resulted in the birth of Ishmael. But that objection ignores the fact that, even in the affair with Hagar, he was confident that God would provide him a son. Through it all, Abraham was centered on God’s promise.

Another illustration of this persistent centeredness comes from the ancient Christian preacher, St John Chrysostom. He defined patience as “the spirit that could take revenge if it liked, but utterly refuses to do so.” The Graeco-Roman world did not view this kind of patience with admiration. In fact, they despised it. The scholar William Barclay contrasts the Christian attitude of patience with one of the great Greek virtues (megalopsuchia) which refused to tolerate any insult or injury.

The Christian patience that never seeks revenge does so because it is so centered on the good of the other person that it cannot tolerate the idea of harming that person. That is surely why Paul puts patience first in his list of descriptors for love (1 Cor. 13:4).

Years ago, a news report described the story of a newly married young woman who suffered severe brain injury in a terrible car accident. After weeks in a coma she gradually regained consciousness, but it soon became apparent that her recent memories had been erased. She recognized her parents but when her new husband entered the room she ask, “Who is he?” She ignored him and rebuffed his attempts to get close to her. Eventually she came to accept the fact that she had married him, but it was clear that she had no memory of their common history. The husband chose the way of patience. He remained committed to her, cared for her in her convalescence, and eventually took her home to the place she had decorated in her own unique style. Life was difficult for them, because they had to get acquainted all over again. Counseling helped them get through some rough periods. But because the husband had committed himself to his wife “in sickness and in health”, he remained patient in the relationship despite the difficulties and hardship he had to endure.

In the Hebrew Scriptures that kind of patience is called “long suffering.” It is one of the prime characteristics of God. He does not take revenge on those who slight him or ignore him. Rather he reaches out in love for each of his children.

The Greek language has another, more interesting word, for patience — hupomonē. In contrast to makrothumia, which they despised, the Greeks saw hupomonē as a great virtue since it describes a courageous endurance that defies evil.

Far from being passive, this quality involves an active resistance to hostile powers. It describes a wounded soldier who endures the pain and keeps fighting the enemy. It describes the ability of a plant to live under hard and unfavorable circumstances. It describes a man who loves honor more than anything and stands firm in the face of those who would persuade him to act dishonorably.

In short, it is a “conquering constancy,” a steadfastness in face of pressure to give in. In the Greek concept, there was no guarantee of victory or conquest. Steadfastness in the face of evil was admired, whether it prevailed or not.

The Hebrew and Christian scriptures also use this word for patience. Basic to the biblical idea of patient endurance is a promise. People patiently endure the immediate trial, persecution, or opposition, because they know that there is a promise of something better in the future; there is a promise that the present suffering will come to an end; there is an assurance that evil will be defeated and righteousness will triumph.

The biblical perspective never sees that promise as distinct from the Promiser. We patiently endure with a certain hope that God will keep His promise and deliver us.

The Greek concept of patient endurance involved an inner strength of soul that could endure hard times, and that was to be achieved by the disciplined schooling of the will. In contrast, the Hebrew Scriptures describe patient endurance as outwardly directed, towards God. It reflects a confident waiting until God intervenes. The Psalmist exhorts us to “wait upon the Lord” (see Ps. 33:20; 37:7).

This kind of patience has a particular relevance for us, because the Hebrew Scriptures looked toward the future. God’s people suffer and are persecuted in the present but at some time in the future God will intervene. Those who wait patiently for God to fulfill his promise in the future will be saved (Dan. 12:12). The focus in the Hebrew Scriptures is neither on the hostile opponents, nor on the power of resistance within each person. Rather, the goal is to hold fast to God and not ignore his power and faithfulness (Ps. 27:13, 14; Job 6:11-13). This kind of patience is also a fruit of the Spirit, for God and His promise inspire patient endurance within the ones who wait on Him.

It should be clear that this kind of patience is not merely passive resignation. It is not the patience which sits down with its head bowed and lets things descend upon it, inactive until the storm is past. Rather, it is the spirit that can bear things, not simply with resignation, but with blazing hope.

Jesus is an example of this kind of patience. The book of Hebrews tells us that Jesus exhibited this kind of patience as he went to the cross (12:2). He patiently endured opposition from sinful men. His patience was certainly not passive. As we read the accounts of His suffering and death, we get the sense that He is in control, not his captors. In the garden when the mob comes to arrest Him, He yields to them, though he doesn’t have to. At the trial He decides when to speak and when not to. He tells Pilate that as his judge, Pilate has no power that was not given to him (John 19:11). He resists the evil that seeks to break His spirit, he resists responding with hatred and anger, and in the end he cries out in triumph: “It is finished.”

Thus, as Hebrews tells us, Jesus patiently endured the cross, despising the shame of it, and is now seated at the right hand of God. He was able to go through with the crucifixion, remaining true and pure to the end because he trusted God’s promise of deliverance.

The book of Revelation foresees a time of great tribulation and suffering. The third angel of Revelation 14 has a warning message for the earth. Most translations conclude the third angel’s message with verse 11—a grisly warning that those who receive the mark of the beast will be tormented day and night without rest. In fact, a good case could be made that the third angel’s message continues through verse 12, with its call for patient endurance on the part of those who obey God’s commandments and remain faithful to Jesus. Could it be that the third angel’s message is really directed toward the saints, to encourage them to remain patient in their trust in God’s promise of deliverance?

But tribulation does not come just at the end of time. Today, in times of loss and grief, we are encouraged to stand fast, to endure patiently, to live on the basis of the promises of the Almighty, and to set our hopes on His ability to defeat evil and death.

The opposite of patient endurance is not toe-tapping impatience but giving up, letting go, slinking away defeated, retreating in shame, throwing in the towel.

The fruit of the Spirit is not that kind of cowardice. The Spirit inspires within us an active resistance to evil, one that remains constant until it conquers. That persistence is based on the fact that the One who endured the cross is also the One who has conquered death and who promises to come for His own, some day soon.

We don’t face the future grimly waiting for the end; rather we look to the future, based on the promises of Jesus. We can bear up under anything—patiently enduring—because we know that whatever we bear in His name will lead us to glory.

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Sources for this essay are:

William Barclay, New Testament Words (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1964) s.v. “HUPOMONĒ” and “MAKROTHUMIA.”

F. Hauk, “Hupomonē” and J. Horst, “Makrothumia” in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. Gerhard Kittel (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967).

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