But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. – Galatians 5:22-24
“Patience is a virtue.” We’re all familiar with that cliché, and many of us know that patience is listed by Paul in Galatians 5:22-23 as among the fruit of the Spirit. So there’s no disputing that the Christian ought to be patient. But as with most of the virtues, the biblical writers assume that we know what patience is and don’t give an explicit definition. But do we?
Why patience is a virtue? If we define it as “waiting without complaint,” patience might seem to be a morally insignificant trait. If no discomfort is involved, then are we really patient? Therefore to improve on that initial definition above, we might say that to be patient is to endure discomfort without complaint. This calls into play some other virtues, specifically, self-control, humility, and generosity. That is, patience is not a fundamental virtue so much as a complex of other virtues.
What are the different contexts in which patience is demonstrated? One way to distinguish types of patience is based upon the nature of the discomfort involved. The following threefold distinction can be made.
The first type is the patience needed when facing a nuisance of some kind. A person or a set of circumstances really irritates you, and you’d love to complain about it, but you hold your tongue, knowing that such a grievance would be petty or simply compound the problem.
A second type of patience is called for when facing boredom. Those who fall into a rut at work or at home often experience discomfort over the uneventful routine. To those who don’t struggle with boredom, it might seem absurd to suggest it can be a serious trial. But those who endure the plague of drab routine without complaint exhibit the virtue of patience.
A third type of patience is the most serious and significant. It is the patience required when one suffers in some way, either physically or psychologically. If you’re struggling with some disease or mental illness, then patience is required of you. Another example is when you find yourself out of a job. You put faith in God that he will provide, as He says he will. Philippians 4:19 says, “And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.” However, as time stretches on, you begin to wonder will God provide, if we have faith, He will, and that faith calls for patience. When we see the light at the end of the tunnel, and a job is almost in our grasp, we must be patient and know that God will provide. We must have faith and patience.
Does faith and patience mean that we must endure our trials without complaint? Jesus complained when his disciples lacked faith. And on the cross, Mark 15:33-34 tells us, “And when the sixth hour had come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour. And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’”
Complaint to God is inappropriate only when its cause is insignificant. Major physical and psychological afflictions are significant, so patiently enduring them may actually involve complaint. Thus, complaining to God in prayer in such cases is not vicious but virtuous. It is a useful complaint to someone who is sovereign and therefore in control of whatever concerns us. The Psalms feature several examples of godly complaints, such as the following:
Why, O lord, do you stand far off?
Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?
Why do you hide your face
and forget our misery and oppression?
I pour out my complaint before him;
before him I tell my trouble.
And in one of the darkest of biblical passages, the psalmist declares,
From my youth I have been afflicted and close to death;
I have suffered your terrors and am in despair.
Your wrath has swept over me;
your terrors have destroyed me. …
You have taken my companions and loved ones from me;
the darkness is my closest friend.
This is, indeed, a complaint, but the severity of the suffering calls for it. Most importantly, God is the recipient of the complaint. So this is actually an act of faith on the part of the psalmist, affirming divine sovereignty even over his terrible pain.
This point suggests yet another way to categorize patience, one premised upon the biblical idea that God continually sustains the whole universe. God governs every occurrence in nature, so even “natural” events, as it turns out, have a personal explanation—namely God himself. This means that all patience or impatience is ultimately patience or impatience with someone.
The most challenging times of patience is the patience that is God-directed. In every Christian’s life there comes a time when one must wait upon God. Sometimes we must wait for a need to be met, such as finding a job. Other times we must wait for the satisfaction of a significant desire, like finding a job. At other times we wait for God to fulfill a promise, to comfort during a trial, or to give us assurance of our forgiveness for some sin. In these cases, we must be patient with God.
Why is patience toward God so difficult? The explanation boils down to, again, our tendency to see things only from our own point of view. Further reasons compound the difficulty of waiting upon God. For one thing, patience with God involves faith, and to exercise faith is to surrender final control of one’s life. To lack faith is to give in to one’s desire for control. So our patience with God will only be as strong as our ability to overcome this desire and surrender every aspect of our lives.
Most difficult of all, there’s no guarantee that God will, indeed, act to satisfy our desires. God always answers us when we pray, but sometimes the answer is no. Most situations that demand patience aren’t in regard to specific promises of God. Although he has told us he will meet all our needs, he hasn’t guaranteed that all of our desires, even significant ones, will be satisfied. Here, someone might note the biblical promise that if you “delight yourself in the Lord … he will give you the desires of your heart” (Ps. 37:4). This, however, is not a promise that all of our present desires will be fulfilled the way we want them to be. Sometimes they are, but often God keeps this promise by adjusting our desires to bring them into line with his will. If this is disappointing, keep in mind that even if God does change our desires, they are still our sincere desires.
So patience is a virtue, a difficult but important one for the Christian. While every day our patience is tested and, we can hope, increased, we must be mindful of our faith and how God is at work in our difficulties, even in tiny annoyances, to make us more like Jesus. But as Peter says, we must “prepare [our] minds for action” (1 Peter 1:13). We must be intentional about increasing our patience, perhaps even by using mental exercises, but definitely by practicing the spiritual disciplines. Let us focus ever more clearly on the example of Christ in order to imitate him in all things, large and small.