Saturday, May 10, 2008

patience, the forgotten virtue

If you were asked to list the most important Christian virtues, what would you say?

Love. Faith. Joy. Peace. Hope. Maybe compassion, or kindness, or humility.

I'm not sure patience would be near the top of my list. Yet Paul puts it right after the big three: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal. 5:22-23).

No doubt partly because the quarreling Galatians needed a good dose of patience. But also, I'm sure, because patience is more important than we realise.

Patience is such an everyday virtue. It's not trendy, or conspicuous, or attention-seeking. It's a grit-your-teeth-and-bear-it virtue. It's a virtue suited to mothers, or the elderly, or those who serve. It's unlikely to be noticed, or rewarded, or praised.

Yet patience is enormously important in the Bible. It's the first fruit of suffering, and the earliest expression of hope. It's the handmaiden of peace and joy. Without it, love and kindness can't flourish. It makes the greater virtues possible.

Patience silences the querulous mind, so it may be filled with hope and peace. It keeps the mouth of grumbling shut, so words of thanksgiving and praise may come forth. It stills the hands of revenge, so they may act in love and service.

In the Bible, patience is five-fold:*

1. Patience makes us long-suffering when abused by those who have power.
We imitate Jesus, who suffered silently on the cross, sought no revenge, and entrusted himself to the One who judges justly. Like him, we submit to injustice and cruelty with quiet endurance, trusting in the justice and faithfulness of God (2 Thess. 1:6-7; 1 Pet. 2:23, 4:19).

2. Patience makes us slow to anger when provoked by those we have power over.
We imitate God, who declares himself to be "The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness" (Exod. 34:6; Jam. 1:19). The One who calls us to discipline our children in love rather than anger, bite our tongues when others speak hurtfully, and treat those under our authority with humility and gentleness.

3. Patience gives us the everyday virtue of forbearance with those around us.
It enables us to willingly bear irritating behaviour from family members, quietly tolerate the short-comings of fellow-Christians, and humbly forgive the sins of those we live and work with, remembering how great God's patience and forgiveness is towards us (1 Co. 13:4; Eph. 4:2-3; Col. 3:12-14; 1 Thess. 5:14) .

4. Patience enables us to wait on God.
It helps us to trust God's timetable is best, persevere in prayer, and keep believing his promises, even when hopes remain unfulfilled, prayers go unanswered, and discouragement feels unending (Ps. 40:1-2; Heb. 6:15).

5. Patience helps us to endure and persevere in suffering.
It clothes us with the beautiful qualities of endurance, standing firm in the midst of suffering, and perseverance, going on in the face of affliction. It is woven from deep trust in God's love, knowledge of his purposes for suffering, and undying hope in heaven (Rom. 12:2, 15:4; Col. 1:11; Jam. 5:7-10; Rev. 1:9, 5:10, 13:10, 14:12).

Patience is hard work. It may mean your wants go unnoticed, your rights unfulfilled, your needs unmet. No-one is likely to congratulate you for it. They may not even notice it. But to God, patience is beautiful. And he notices, and rewards those who entrust themselves patiently to him.

*The five meanings of patience are taken from the chapter on patience in Jerry Bridges' The Fruitful Life, which opened my eyes to the complexity of this big Bible word, and which led me to reflection, repentance and prayer.

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