On Patience (part 1): Defining Patience

Would you call yourself a patient person? I’ve never met anyone who would. All Christians are growing in each of the fruit of the Spirit, but for most, the difficulty with patience is more visible and frustrating than with other fruit, like gentleness, for example.

Why is it that we struggle so much with impatience? What can we learn from this struggle, and how can we grow in patience?

Briefly, here is the way I’ll approach the topic: we’ll first see that patience is discussed in numerous places in the New Testament and in the process we’ll assemble a working definition. We will then look at the patience of God the Father and the patience of Jesus. Following this, we’ll consider how to grow in patience and what our struggle with impatience reveals about us.

For now, let’s set the stage by considering an example. I know it sounds a bit hokey, but I think it will help if, as you read through this series of posts, you have an example in mind of a recent situation in which you were not patient. When have you lost your temper in the last week? Uncomfortable as it may be, store this in your brain and reflect on it.

The Greek word translated “patience” can also be translated as “endurance,” “steadfastness,” or “perseverance.” Let these instances in Scripture speak to you.

  • In Matt 18:23–35 (the parable of the Unforgiving Servant), patience shows up in verses 26 and 29 in the pleas of the debtors: “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.” Note that the debtor has wronged the lender (by not paying on time) and so the plea here is for the lender to wait, to delay taking action (throwing the debtor into prison).
  • Romans 2:4 — “Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” Note here that “patience” is parallel with both “kindness” and “forbearance.”
  • The meaning of patience can also be seen in Ephesians 4:2. For some context, here are verses 1–3: “I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you 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.” The phrase “bearing with one another,” which modifies the command to be patient, indicates that patience is a posture available when one is wronged.
  • In Colossians 1:11, “patience” and “endurance” are parallel terms.
  • In 1 Timothy 1:16, Paul talks about the patience of Jesus toward him in mercy. This is in the context of Paul calling himself the foremost of sinners. “But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.”
  • The theme of endurance and waiting comes out in Hebrews 6:11–12 also: “And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end, so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.”

In an effort to define patience, what have we seen? This is by no means perfect, but here’s my working definition: patience is waiting in the midst of suffering.

Including the word “suffering” in that definition may give you pause, and I’d argue for a broad interpretation of “suffering” to make this definition work. But “waiting” alone seems insufficient. Even the patience displayed by God is because He has been wronged by His creatures. But that’s the topic for the next post.

Does this definition of patience match what you see in the Scriptures? What do you think patience looks like? I’d love to read about it in the comments.


Photo by Duncan Harris, Creative Commons License

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