“Great sermon on loving your enemies,” New Convert said with a sigh. “But I can’t even handle my annoying in-laws, or the lazy people I work with.”
“I know what you mean,” chimed in young Holy Homemaker. “Some days my kids drive me crazy. I wish I were more patient with them.”
“Oh, no!” exclaimed Every Christian, who had joined them at the coffee urn in Fellowship Hall. “Never pray for patience!”
“Why not?” asked New Convert naïvely.
Wise Old Saint behind the refreshment table gave her head a rueful shake. “Because when you do,” she said softly, “prepare to suffer.”
Thus a universal truth gets passed down from one generation of Christian to the next. To pray for patience is to invite trouble.
And rightly so. The original Bible words that mean patience are often translated as forbearance, endurance, longsuffering, or perseverance. They all carry the sense of putting up with the disagreeable or difficult. For the most part, we see patience as the ability to make it through stressful circumstances with a smile on our face.
Like love, joy, and peace, we find that Jesus demands patience of us. After all, patience is an attribute of God. If his indwelling Spirit is to form Christ in us, patience is part of the deal.
Most people picture God under the old covenant as wrathful and tempestuous—exceedingly impatient. I find this ironic, considering that the history of Israel is one long testament to the forbearance of Yahweh. Time after time, God overlooked provocation the same way we as parents overlook our children’s failure to meet adult standards. We are merciful to them when they err, but we never release them from our objective: one day they will have to be adults.
We might be wrong to limit our understanding of this divine attribute to hanging on through hard times. Literally, to be patient is to “abide under,” yet there is nothing beyond God’s sovereign control. To the extent that he puts up with anything, he himself has set the parameters for his own good reasons.
Nevertheless, he is able to help us in our weakness because Jesus suffered under the proving of his faith. That’s why he came. During his earthly life, he was subject like us to the course of nature and the rigors of life among sinful people. Having thus shared in our creature-hood, his Spirit within is now able to train us in patient endurance, in longsuffering, in perseverance.
The startling conclusion is that we will need patience in the life to come. As Paul pointed out, these “light and momentary afflictions” are working for us an eternal weight of glory that far outweighs them all (2 Co 4.17). That is, “if we endure, we will reign with him” (2 Ti 2.12).
What characterizes his reign even now? Seated at the right hand of God, Jesus waits (He 10.12-13). Jesus has the ability to wait for things to develop. He is a God of process.
This insight changes the complexion of patience.
Process is everywhere. The formation of the cosmos and the cycle of life. Embryonic growth and human development. Photosynthesis and football games. Education and eschatology. Raising crops and religious reform. Work flow and the way of the cross. Everything. Everything is a process.
The same with bearing fruit in the Spirit. The formation of the divine nature in us drives home the point that God loves process.
Still, one thing I always thought exempt from process is the afterlife. God himself never changes. Heaven is always set forth as the goal: just get there. Isn’t Christ’s an eternal kingdom, an everlasting dominion that will not pass away? Likewise Jesus described hell as a place where “worm does not die and the fire never goes out.” The essence of heaven is righteous perfection, an enduring state of pure blissful happily-ever-aftering. The very concept oozes permanence, immutability. Is this not the antithesis of process?
And yet God builds patience into his saints. Why? What is the nature of our eternal existence that patience should be required?
Sadly, our thoughts here answer little. Mainly we have to get past St. Peter’s sketchy checkpoint at the pearly gates. There we’ll pick up a custom-made harp and hear a lecture on not offending other denominations who think they’re alone. Then we must find our assigned seats on a designated cloud and get down to the business of making heavenly music. Forever. The only sense in which we’ll need patience in that scenario is if we don’t happen to like harp music.
Could we be more wrong?
The essence of patience is that we await a better outcome. If patience is required to reign with Christ, then we can be sure of this: Each passing moment will bring ever-improving life.
In a world without pain or tears, we will move from joy to joy. That's a future worth waiting for.