Patience is the fruit nobody seems to want, the kale of the Spirit’s produce aisle. It’s supposed to be good for you, but you don’t really want it. Some people say they like it. But you don’t believe them.
Once in a church where I spoke on patience, prior to the service, a woman announced in a voice that could be heard throughout the sanctuary, “I’m looking forward to hearing this. Everybody knows that I’m not patient.”
Imagine substituting any of the other fruit of the Spirit in that situation. It wouldn’t happen. But I’m guessing you can imagine someone saying it about patience. Maybe you can remember saying it about yourself: “I am just not a patient person.”
Despite the seeming lack of interest in patience, it features prominently in several passages that are favorites of many Christians. Paul tells us in Galatians 5:22-23 that the fruit of the Spirit is “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law” (ESV).
Similarly, in 1 Corinthians 13:4, patience is the first characteristic of love that Paul identifies: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud” (ESV). In the parable of the unmerciful servant (Matt. 18: 23-35), the servant who owes the king a huge debt begs, “Be patient with me and I will pay back everything.” The other servant (v 29) uses exactly the same words when pleading to be able to repay his own small debt.
Why do we flaunt our impatience?
So, we are again faced with our question. Patience is a fruit of the Spirit, is essential to love and connected to the idea of God’s mercy. But many of us seem to flaunt that we are impatient. How can that be?
One of the reasons that we are comfortable being impatient is that patience has a bad reputation. Patience is often viewed simply as part of being a “nice person.” It is sort of like good grooming or ironing your shirt. These are good things but not the kind of thing that you worry about having as part of your identity. Patience connotes softness, and our culture often prizes toughness. And being told to be patient feels demeaning. It is the kind of thing that we say to children or to subordinates.
When we think about patience, we often think about being told to wait our turn. In his justly famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King, Jr. reminds us that moderate opponents of segregation often scolded civil rights advocates that they needed to be patient, to wait their turn.
He wrote, “For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear 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 too long delayed is justice denied.’”
King reminds us that being asked by our oppressor to wait while we are being mistreated is wrong.
Google’s online dictionary defines “patient” as “able to accept or tolerate delays, problems or suffering without becoming annoyed or anxious.” Merriam-Webster says, “bearing pains or trials calmly or without complaint.”
As these definitions show, our understanding of patience is that it is passive; we allow things to happen to us without complaining. If that is what it means to be patient, one can see why people resent being told to be patient.
But the Greek word that is translated “patience” invites us to a different and more active understanding. Makrothymia is a term that involves actively creating a space in which another person has the opportunity to change. The second part of the Greek word thymos means “anger” or “wrath.” Patience involves delaying the execution of one’s wrath.
Patience and postponing punishment
When the servant in Matthew 18 pleads with the king to “be patient,” he is asking the king for more time to repay his debt. (The king, of course, went far beyond the servant’s plea for patience, instead canceling the servant’s debt.) A patient person is someone who has the right to call someone else out or to impose a punishment but chooses to give the other person a chance to repent, to turn from disobedience to obedience.
When Paul says that patience is a fruit of the Spirit, he is saying that those who have the Holy Spirit living in them are characterized by postponing the punishment of an offender and giving that person the opportunity to acknowledge his or her sin and to turn away from it. When he identifies patience as the first characteristic of love (the greatest virtue) in 1 Corinthians 13, Paul is saying that the love of others involves creating circumstances that allow a person the room to change.
We can see patience in the way that Jesus deals with people. Think for instance of the woman caught in adultery described in John 8. The teachers of the law are impatient and want to stone the woman immediately. Jesus slows the process down, gives the accusers the space to back away from their thirst for vengeance and also provides the woman the opportunity to repent. Jesus acts patiently toward both the accusers and the accused.
And most obviously, the way that God deals with rebellious humanity—choosing to become incarnate and providing atonement for sin—demonstrates patience. God has created the conditions under which people have the opportunity to repent and be reconciled to God.
This kind of active patience is something that we can and—as new creatures empowered by the Spirit—should practice in our daily lives. When my wife and I had our first child, we received some very valuable parenting advice from some acquaintances. They said that we should avoid backing our child into a corner; we should always give her a way out. They noted that many parents give a child a command and then hover—sometimes obviously, sometimes subtly—to see whether the child will be obedient.
“Don’t touch that electrical outlet,” we tell the child. Then we wait to see if they continue to show curiosity about it. If they continue, we scold them, believing they will learn a lesson. Our parenting mentors suggested that a better approach would be to direct the child’s attention to something else that would still satisfy the child’s curiosity but be safer. They were counseling an active patience.
Our civic discourse—especially on social media—could use a healthy dose of patience. We don’t have to agree with one another, but neither do we have to attack those with whom we disagree. When we attack, we harden the other person’s view. How can we respond and discuss with active patience? How can we create space that allows someone to move to a different point of view?
Churches often want to draw bright lines regarding what type of behavior they will tolerate and what is unacceptable. This is a way that we try to reassure ourselves that we are people who are submitting to God’s will. (It is ironic, of course, that we try to reassure ourselves about our obedience by policing the behavior of others.) Perhaps rather than making sure that we hold the line against the sins of others we should try to create communities that provide the opportunity for people to change.
Patience, as a fruit of the Spirit, is not a passive endurance of the hard things that come one’s way. Rather, a patient person actively creates circumstances that give people the chance to change. I remember the first time I ate an orange fresh off a tree in California; it seemed like a different fruit from what I had eaten growing up in Michigan. It was juicier and tastier. So maybe patience is not the kale of the Spirit’s produce aisle. Maybe biblical patience is a fresher, tastier fruit than what we have been exposed to in contemporary culture.
David Faber is professor of Bible and Religious Studies at Tabor College, the Mennonite Brethren college in Hillsboro, Kansas. He is a member of Ebenfeld MB Church, rural Hillsboro.