The following was originally presented as a sermon at Cornerstone Church in St. Andrews, Scotland.
What is there to be said about patience? Certainly it is not a word that is unfamiliar to us. No doubt many times in our lives someone has told us that we ought to have more of it or be more of it. The Greek word it translates is μακροθυμία, fromμακρός – meaning long (as in time or distance) andθυμός – meaning passion, wrath, rage, indignation and so on. Of course, taken together these terms do not give us a meaning along the lines of “being angry or indignant for a long period,” but rather speaks of a state of being able to endure a situation characterised by θυμός. Thus, in some translations you will not find “patience” but “long suffering”. The term “patience” includes this as well, being ultimately derived from the word “passion” but not in the romantic sense but rather the “being in a state of torment” sense. Think a patient in a hospital or the passion of Christ. Patience means suffering through difficult circumstances, but with a distinctly positive framework: not just suffering, but suffering well.
You probably already knew most of that, though perhaps not the exact details, but it seemed suitable to start a sermon on patience with a long and dull explanation.
At this point, what more is there to say? Christians ought to be patient. Check. The temptation I suppose is to leave it there. One could go on and on about it, but somewhere that becomes a bit of repetitive moralizing. I don’t want to do that. So it might be helpful to briefly talk about some ways that patience is best expressed (or not), and how patience is to be nurtured.
For the first, how patience is best expressed, I want to return briefly to Galatians 5.22-23. We have been going through this list, and will do so for the rest of the summer, one point at a time. This is helpful, but it might be a misleading if we end up thinking that each of these is its own sealed little area. I’ve seen this in illustrations where each attribute is represented as a different fruit; love is a banana, joy is a strawberry, that sort of thing. Nothing necessarily wrong there but it does take away from the idea that these are all united as the fruit of the Spirit. Though this comes through in the English, it is quite clear in the Greek: fruit, the subject of the sentence is singular, and the verb “is” is singular as well. The fruit is, not the fruits are.
Thus these have an awful lot in common. After all, in 1 Cor. 13, Paul famously begins by saying love is patient, love is kind. It would be silly to say that Paul is contradicting himself at this point: patience and kindness are built into love in a necessary way. So rather than seeing these things as sealed off from one another as separate kinds of fruit it might be better to think about each term as some aspect or attribute of a single object. For instance we can talk about a peach in terms of its taste, texture, colour, as well as it different applications: pies, jams, eaten whole, etc. This can then tell us a lot about each one: like Paul says love is patient, love is kind, and we could add is also joyful, peaceful, good, faithful, gentle, and self-controlled.
If we do the same with patience we find that the waiting part, which is basically passive, can take on a much more active and positive character: Real patience is loving, joyful, peaceful, kind, good, faithful, gentle, and self-controlled. This is what is meant when we say that patience is waiting well.
On the other hand, we can also compare the fruit of the Spirit to the “deeds of the flesh” listed in the verses just before:
…immorality, impurity, sensuality,idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions,envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, of which I forewarn you, just as I have forewarned you, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
If during the waiting period you find yourself resorting to some of the quick fix solutions in this list, then you can be sure you aren’t being patient.
I won’t belabour the point, but hopefully there is something there to chew on. There’s another aspect of the Galatians passage, but I want to work that in after moving somewhere else: James 5.1-8.
So if that gives us a better idea of what patience is, and is not, how is patience to be nurtured? Safe to say, we in this part of the world have become very bad at waiting for anything, much less waiting well. To an extent we can blame technology. We have microwaves, the internet, you probably see where this is going. If I want to have a hot meal I can usually get one within five minutes or less, just about anywhere. That this is an incredible luxury is now completely lost on me. The other day I was wishing that there was some way to have the same kind of device but that would make things cold instead of hot. The funny thing is that I already have that: it’s called a refrigerator. Not too long ago if you wanted a cold drink you had to wait for winter. The internet is even worse. Nearly all human knowledge is available through a device that most of us carry around in our pocket. And it’s not fast enough. Have you ever pulled up YouTube video, realized it was more than 2 minutes, and decided to watch something else because it was too long? Maybe it’s just me. Technology, stuff, the things we own that make our lives so much easier. With that in mind I want to read another passage about patience, and while I might be making a bit of a jump here I hope you will bear with me:
Let’s begin from the beginning:
Come now, you rich, weep and howl for your miseries which are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments have become moth-eaten. Your gold and your silver have rusted; and their rust will be a witness against you and will consume your flesh like fire. It is in the last days that you have stored up your treasure!
Not the most comfortable words, but don’t miss James’ point: He is speaking hyperbolically, exaggerating, to create and image: the rich surrounded by their possessions to such an extent that they are unaware that not only are these things perishing around them, but that the corruption has spread to their own flesh. Try to visualize this. It is a disturbing image. The picture is one of comfort that has taken hold in such a way that a self-destructive complacency has set in. An interesting thing for me here is that the rich aren’t necessarily malicious or pro-actively selfish; they are just sitting there while everything rots and rusts around them. But it is not only self-destructive:
Behold, the pay of the laborers who mowed your fields, and which has been withheld by you, cries out against you; and the outcry of those who did the harvesting has reached the ears of the Lord of Hosts.You have lived luxuriously on the earth and led a life of wanton pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter.You have condemned and put to death the righteous man; he does not resist you.
The “rich” that James is talking about defrauds other people as well. Given the passivity of the previous verses one gets the idea that the “rich” have just sort of forgotten the people who make everything possible for them. But God hasn’t. There is certainly another sermon here about social justice, but it will need to wait for another day because I want to stay on topic. Let’s move forward to the application James draws from everything said thus far.
Therefore be patient, brethren, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious produce of the soil, being patient about it, until it gets the early and late rains. You too be patient; strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near.
What James says next comes a bit of a surprise. What does anything he has just said have to do with patience? How is patience related to the problem just described? I think there are two ways.
First, there is the real danger for those of us who enjoy, by default of birth, the privileged position we currently enjoy. We are surrounded by luxuries which we quickly take for granted, luxuries that in all sorts of ways cause us to defraud the people around us. Luxury means getting what we want and getting it now; a person that is used of luxury will quickly become agitated when they are deprived of that luxury. Examples abound. I think that our familiarity with luxury is a big reason we find being patient so difficult.
The second reason we fail to be patient is much more insidious and far more difficult to identify. You see, patience is only really required in difficult, hostile, toxic, uncomfortable situations. You don’t have to be patient when everything is easy, friendly, safe, or comfortable. More exactly, you don’t have to be patient when you think your situation is these things.
There is a sort of necessary pessimism to being patient because otherwise what you end up in one of two potential pitfalls: being in a bad situation and liking it. This is called masochism and isn’t exactly a Christian virtue. Being patient does NOT mean enjoying yourself because things are painful. The other pitfall is being in a bad situation and not realizing it. I think that, generally, we are in far more danger from the second. I don’t know how many of you have seen the movie or read the book Watership Down, but it includes a good illustration of this. For those who don’t know, Watership Down is about a group of wild rabbits in search of a new warren because their old one has been destroyed. During their journey, you may remember, they encounter a warren of rabbits who behave very strangely: they are healthy but lazy, and there don’t seem to be an elderly rabbits around. Stranger still, they depend on a local man for food. In the story this warren becomes known as a “The Warren of Shining Wires” or “The Warren of the Snares.” This warren, it turns out, is really just a collection of half-domesticated rabbits. They are so healthy because they eat well, and they eat well because the man feeds them. The man feeds them so he can slaughter them. The woodland surrounding their home is filled with shining wire: the snares that bring death. It is only through discontent and displeasure with this strange place that the rabbits in the story are drawn to escape, and this discontent and displeasure set in before they even realize what is going on.
And I think this is a situation something like what James is getting at when he tells the rich that they are being fattened up for the time of slaughter, and the solution is patience in waiting for “the coming of the Lord.” We don’t have time to elaborate on the eschatology here, but it is a fact that in the New Testament Christians are told over and over again that Jesus the Lord is coming again, and this carries with it the fundamental assumption that he needs to. What this means is that all is not right with the world. There is therefore what I would call a very needful “godly discontent” with the current state of affairs. Like a farmer without a crop we need to have a sense that we are waiting for something more, a culmination. If life in this fallen world has become so comfortable that we don’t feel that we even need to be patient, that we are not enduring something, then something has gone terribly wrong with our worldview. The farmer analogy is also helpful because it illustrates that this kind of patience isn’t all passive. A good farmer doesn’t just stand around in an empty field and expect things to turn out. He has to work at it. In the same way, as Christians, we must realize that while new creation can ultimately be brought in by Christ alone, there is a God-ordained role for us to play in the process. So patience must be nurtured first by the realization that it is necessary, that we are waiting for something that hasn’t happened yet, there are promises that are yet to be fulfilled. There is another way that it is nurtured as well. Returning to Galatians, the role of the Holy Spirit in all of this is absolutely critical. James’ analogy of the farmer, and Paul’s metaphor of the fruit come together here. Apart from the presence of the Spirit in our lives none of this is going to happen. Cultivating that presence is both a process that God perfects as well as something that we are called on to nurture. The result is a harvest of good fruit.
So in conclusion: Patience is enduring through suffering in ways characterized by the fruit of the Spirit, because it is part of that fruit. It is not only passive, but has an active aspect as well. It is, in part, the solution to the kind of complacency and comfort that comes with luxury, but results in self-destruction and unjust treatment of others. It is nutured by the reminder that all is not right with the world and we are looking for the final return of Jesus Christ. While we wait for that moment, the Holy Spirit cultivates in us the fruit of the Spirit. In the midst of a fallen world we are called to exist as “new creations,” not only waiting for the new heavens and the new earth, but working and living in a way that anticipates them in every way.