A Lasting Virtue
Most of us recognize that patience is one of the cardinal Christian virtues—we’re just in no hurry to obtain it. Others just define patience as a delay in getting what we want. As Margaret Thatcher once famously remarked: “I am extraordinarily patient, provided I get my own way in the end.” In today’s fast-paced society and self-centered culture, patience is quickly disappearing, even among Christians.
Patience is not optional for the Christian. The apostle Paul repeatedly commanded Christians to demonstrate patience to each other. In fact, this is a critical test of Christian authenticity. True Christian character, the very evidence of regeneration, is seen in authentic patience.
In the New Testament, the apostle Paul instructed the Ephesian Christians to “walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:1–3).
In a similar context, the apostle called the Christians in Colosse to “put on” the virtues of “compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” (Col. 3:12). Again, Paul illustrates the necessity of patience by pointing to conflict in the Christian community. According to Paul, if one Christian has a complaint against another, he is to respond with patience, willing to suffer loss rather than to injure the reputation of the church.
To the Thessalonian Christians, Paul’s instruction was absolutely clear: “Be at peace among yourselves” (1 Thess. 5:13). In order to achieve this peace, Paul instructed the Thessalonians to “be patient with them all” (1 Thess. 5:14). That is no small challenge.
Most importantly, patience must mark the Christian leader. Writing to Timothy, his young protégé in ministry, Paul set the example: “And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness” (2 Tim. 2:24–25).
The Bible’s understanding of patience as a Christian virtue is rooted in the totality of Christian truth. Patience begins with the affirmation that God is sovereign and in control of human history, working in human lives. With eternity on the horizon, time takes on an entirely new significance. The Christian understands that full satisfaction will never be achieved in this life, but he looks to the consummation of all things in the age to come. Furthermore, we know that our sanctification will be incomplete in this life, and thus Christians must look to each other as fellow sinners saved by grace, in whom the Holy Spirit is at work calling us unto Christlikeness.
When we consider the scriptural command to be patient with one another, we should be reminded of several aspects of patience revealed in God’s Word that are vital for Christian understanding. First, we must understand that patience is both a command and a gift of God. As with all Christian virtues, we are obligated under the command of God to demonstrate the fruit of the Spirit, of which patience is a vital part. The biblical portrait of patience is not that of mere acquiescence or of facile biding the time, much less is patience seen in inexcusable action. To the contrary, patience is a vibrant and virile Christian virtue, which is deeply rooted in the Christian’s absolute confidence in the sovereignty of God and in God’s promise to bring all things to completion in a way that most fully demonstrates His glory.
As a command, patience arrives at the Christian conscience as a matter of accountability. At the same time, patience is a divine gift. Christians are not able, in and of themselves, to demonstrate true patience as a fruit of the Spirit. Augustine, the great bishop of the fourth century, warned that Christians must avoid the “false patience of the proud.” Augustine castigated those who attribute patience merely “to the strength of the human will.” We must indeed will to be patient, but patience as a genuine virtue comes only to those who have been redeemed by Christ and in whom the Holy Spirit is calling forth the fruit of the Spirit.
Second, the Christian virtue of patience is rooted in our knowledge of ourselves as redeemed sinners. Knowing our own frailty, and all too aware of our own faults, we must deal with other Christians out of humility rather than pride. The Christian has no excuse for responding to fellow believers in a spirit of arrogance, haughtiness, or superiority. Instead, we are to be instructed by the example of Christ, and respond in true humility both to God and to fellow Christians.
Patience presents the Christian with a critical test of character, rooted in the simple acknowledgement that we might be wrong. Our error may be in character rather than in conviction. When Christians engage in disputes, it is possible to be wrong while being right. That is a good reminder, even as we must contend for the faith once-for-all delivered to the saints.
Third, the Christian understanding of patience is grounded in our understanding of others as those in whom God is potentially at work. As Paul instructed Timothy, the Lord’s servant is to be kind to everyone, demonstrating patience even in correcting opponents, because “God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will” (2 Tim. 2:25–26).
This remarkably strong language indicates that Paul is talking about serious matters of Christian disagreement. When he speaks of correcting those who have been captured by the devil to do his will, we can be assured that Paul is speaking of very serious matters indeed.
Paul grounds the virtue of patience in the clear affirmation that God may be at work in those with whom we are experiencing disagreement and conflict. Here again, the biblical doctrine of sanctification helps us to understand that growth into Christian maturity. This comes as a process, through which God forms a redeemed sinner into the image of Christ.
With this in mind, we must respond to fellow believers as those who, like ourselves, are sinners saved by grace. Thus, we must show grace to one another, and the integrity of our Christian professions must be demonstrated by true patience. Even as we seek to convince, to instruct, and even to correct, we must remember that only God can reach the human heart, and we must maintain the confidence that God is at work in those who are fellow partakers of His grace.
Fourth, the Christian virtue of patience is rooted in our understanding of time and eternity. We do not expect to achieve our greatest satisfactions in this life. Relating to our fellow believers, we know that they, like ourselves, will experience full sanctification and glorification only in the age to come. As John Calvin remarked, immortality is “the mother of patience.” This is a good and healthy reminder, for even as Christians are called to a common embrace of all truth, we understand that we will achieve full unity only when Christ claims His Church and we are gathered before the throne of God throughout eternity.
Patience must be one of the hallmarks of the Christian home, as each member of the family shows patience in dealing with others. Husbands and wives must be patient with each other, even as parents must be patient with children. In the household of faith, patience, often that rarest of virtues, becomes a test of authenticity and a necessity for the right ordering of the home, the church, and Christian fellowship.
That said, the church must obey the command of God and seek to demonstrate authentic Christian patience—and fast.