The Fruit of the Spirit 5: Patience

Article by   November 2015
Parts one, two, three and four of this series can be found hereherehere and here ~ Mark McDowell, the Editor

I

As he unfolds the ways in which the Spirit renews and animates our lives, the apostle has spoken of love of God and our fellows, the fountain of the other virtues; of joy, the pleasure which believers take in the presence of the good things which are promised to us in our new condition; and of peace, the settled state which accompanies life well-ordered in relation to God and to others.  Yet in our present state, this side of the heavenly consummation of God's entire remaking of us, love, joy and peace are never unmixed; even as they begin to provide the shape of our lives, we find them opposed by the persistence of sin and disorder in ourselves and in all that surrounds us.  Reconciled to God by the Son, made alive and active by the Spirit, marked out by Christian baptism as members of the communion of saints, nevertheless we remain incomplete.  Our incompleteness does not indicate the fragility or uncertainty of our present state, so much as the fact that we exist in a condition of promise rather than full possession.  Christian life and experience now is always accompanied by the reality that those lovely things of God of which we are assured and of which we have conviction are hoped for, not seen (Heb. 11.1).

In this state, we are required to exercise a virtue which enables us to face affliction in a steady and collected way, that is, the virtue of patience.  How does the gospel instruct us as we seek to think about and fulfil the command: 'Be patient' (Jas. 5.7)?

II

Christian patience is an excellence of regenerate human nature.  Knowing that we are chosen, called, justified and sanctified by God, and that day by day we are preserved and sustained by his goodness as we move to an inheritance of great glory, patient Christian people tolerate difficulties and encounter present obstacles with equanimity and steadiness of purpose.  Our unfinished condition means labour and a certain lack of fulfilment; patience is the composure and readiness to wait which does not allow the good things of God to slip from our grasp.

Patience appears routinely in apostolic moral and spiritual instruction.  By it, believers are enabled to endure the present interval before the return of Christ and the end of history, and to face the afflictions which fill the present.  'Be patient ... until the coming of the Lord.  Behold, the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient over it until it receives the early rain and the late rain.  You also be patient.  Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand.' (Jas. 5.7f.)  'May you be strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy.' (Col. 1.11)

These exhortations to patience assume that there is a distinctively Christian patience, 'the patience of the saints' (Rev. 13.10, 14.12).  Early Christian theologians, though they were not unaware of the overlaps of their moral world and that of paganism, often laid some emphasis on the singularity of patience in its Christian modulation.  Cyprian, for example, writing in Carthage in the middle of the third century, says: 'Philosophers also profess that they pursue this virtue; but in their case the patience is as false as their wisdom is also.  For whence can he be either wise or patient, who has known neither the wisdom nor the patience of God?'  True patience, on the other hand, is for Cyprian to be found only in the 'servants and worshippers of God'; it is 'the patience which we learn from heavenly teachings'.  Cyprian's point is not just dogged reluctance to admit that there are anticipations of Christian virtue outside the church.  It is, rather, a perception that for those who serve and worship God and receive divine instruction, the world is a different place, and, because it is different, a place which both requires and makes possible a distinct manner of life, of which Christian patience forms a part.  And, as with all the fruits of the Spirit, to describe the distinctive form of Christian patience, we must talk of God.

Patience is a property of God's nature and of his outer works.  'Where God is,' says Tertullian, 'there too is ... patience.'  In its outward operation, God's patience is an enactment of his infinite sovereignty and goodness in relation to created things.  The good purpose of God for all that he has made will be brought to complete fruition; no disruption or opposition, no accidental happening, can intervene to inhibit or imperil the love with which God orders all things to fulfilment.  The creaturely good that God wills, will be.  And so there is in God no anxious, fretful interval between will and effect, no insecurity of purpose, and so no occasion for impatience.  God's patience is his entire unhurried composure as Lord of all things in heaven and earth.

God's patience in his dealings with his creatures takes the form of long-suffering.  In his wisdom as creator, God has assigned to creatures a temporal nature.  Creatures are not complete in an instant, but rather attain completeness over time.  Having bestowed this nature on his creatures, God exercises his patience by allowing them to enact their lives and fulfil their natures temporally.  He gives them opportunities and possibilities, allows them their sphere of life and their historical course, and so 'waits' for them.  This waiting is long-suffering, not suffering.  In giving time to creatures, God does not relinquish his purpose, passively observing creatures and occasionally, perhaps, reacting to some initiative of theirs: such a quiescent god cuts a poor and graceless figure.  Rather, God's patience is his enduring exercise of government, his unceasing direction of the lives of his creatures to their good which does not violate but guide and complete their unfolding nature in accordance with his benevolent purpose.

This divine purpose is supremely manifest in God's saving dealings with his creatures after the fall.  Sin is impatient: it refuses to tolerate divine government, or to let that government take its course and bring us to our appointed fulfilment.  Instead, sin invents, grasps and defends some desired end which must be enjoyed now, and so cuts short the steady unfolding of our nature within the good order of God.  Sin compounds this offence, moreover, by 'presuming upon the riches of [God's] kindness and forbearance and patience' (Rom. 2.4).  Sin seizes on God's patience as a suspension of judgement and an opportunity for unchecked wrongdoing.

Among creatures, such provocation would spell the end of patience and the beginning of retribution.  Not so with the gospel's God.  In the saving work of the Son, God's patience demonstrates a special kind of endurance, a suffering of sin and guilt which - because it is the endurance of the eternal Son of God in fulfilment of his Father's will - brings about the overthrow of all that opposes the purpose of God for his creatures.  In the supreme work of patience, God ensures that creatures will not destroy themselves but will, instead, be brought to fulfilment.

This divine work of constant, forbearing love remakes the situation of the believer, and in this new condition patience assumes a particular character.  By the patience of God, believers enter into a new, though still unfinished, history, which we may call the history of regeneration.  Because it is willed and governed by God, this history has a goal, which is the perfection of our nature in fellowship with God.  But this history is incomplete, and part of its incompleteness is its coexistence with the old history of sin, set aside and defeated but not yet wholly eradicated.  Believers exist in a mixed condition, awaiting the perfection of the new nature given to them, and so are required to exercise long-suffering, endurance and forbearance.  These virtues are supplied by God the Holy Spirit: the fruit of the Spirit is patience.  What may be said of this divine gift, which is part of the renovation of our nature in anticipation of its heavenly completion?

III

The patience which the Spirit gives has two forms: endurance of difficulties of circumstance, and forbearance in our relations with others.  Of the many kinds of difficulties which require the exercise of endurance, two may be isolated.  There is, first, the distress and dejection which believers experience when faced with the lingering presence of fallenness and the incompleteness of the new reality of regeneration.  This distress is made all the more sharp by the goodness of what God promises, the ardour with which believers desire these good things, and their present elusiveness. Second, there is the distress which is generated by the hostility of the unregenerate world.  This opposition may take the form of active persecution; or it may be a matter of public or private contempt, of dismissiveness, of amused and ironic tolerance of faith as a matter of no account.  Believers rarely enjoy the honour of the world; often they are called to suffer a measure of disgrace for the sake of Christ and the gospel.  How does Christian patience conduct itself in the face of these causes of anguish?

It does so, first, in knowledge of and reliance upon the fact that, though patience is not innate, it is given by the Spirit's grace.  Christian patience is what Augustine calls 'the patience of the poor', received from the 'Rich One'.  Like all the virtues of Christian living, patience owes its origin and exercise to the working of God the Holy Spirit, who makes creatures new and moves them to bring their new nature into effect.  The Christian life depends upon the eternal deity of the Spirit: only because he is God in himself is he infinitely able and determined to make creatures flourish.  Patience is a fruit of the Spirit, and therefore of God's grace.

Second, Christian patience keeps before itself the example of Christ.  'May the Lord direct your hearts to the love of God and to the steadfastness of Christ', the apostle prays (2 Thess.3.5).  The Son of God is both cause and exemplar of patience.  He is the cause of patience because it is only by virtue of his resoluteness in discharging his office as saviour that there arises the new reality of regeneration in which Christian patience is possible.  He is the exemplar of patience because he is 'perfect through suffering' (Heb. 2.10) - that is, because he filled out his human life by bearing the nature and condition which he took to himself.  He set himself in our midst as our brother, partaking of our nature (Heb. 2.11-14), both to renew and to exemplify its proper course.  '[I]f when you do right and suffer for it you take it patiently, you have God's approval.  For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.  He committed no sin; no guile was found on his lips.  When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten; by the trusted to him who judged justly.' (1 Pet. 2.20-23).

Third, Christian patience reads affliction in a distinctive way.  Troubles produce sorrow, and sorrow often persuades us that adversity is an eruption of disorder or malign fortune.  Patience is certainly no stranger to sorrow, but it understands that the afflictions which give rise to sorrow are contained within God's providential and saving dealings with us.  Afflictions do not separate us from the love of God; they are occasions for divine goodness, instruction, correction and consolation.  Because this is so, Christian patience is not dull resignation to inevitable and inexplicable calamity, because calamity is not a Christian category.  Christian patience is composure in adversity, the endurance of faith which derives from knowing and trusting ourselves to God's good order and protection.

Fourth, therefore, Christian patience endures.  Patience is long-suffering in face of the deferral of the things we love and long for.  'If we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.' (Rom. 2.7).  In order to wait in this way and to temper our longing for fulfilment in the present, Christian patience keeps in mind the specific end of patience.  Its goal is a good deal more than mere preservation of equanimity in difficult circumstances.  Patience directs itself to the future cessation of tribulation and the completion of our nature - that is, to the reality of heaven.  It arises from knowledge of and trust in unsurpassable future happiness, secure but not yet fully enjoyed.  In theological terms: Christian patience is a moral-practical extension of Christian eschatology.  In the language of apostolic exhortation: 'We desire each of you to show the same earnestness in realizing 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.' (Heb. 6.11f.) 

IV

Christian patience also has the form of forbearance.  It takes this form in face of the disappointments and troubles which arise from the social condition of the Christian believer.  The Christian is set in the fellowship of Christ's people; yet expectations that this regenerate society will be supernaturally and consistently loving are quickly dashed by the persistence of enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness and the like.  How do believers meet this situation with forbearance?  

Here is the apostle's injunction: 'I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called,  with all lowliness and meekness, with patience, forbearing one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.  There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all.' (Eph. 4.1-6).  As forbearance, patience has its origin in an affirmation that the communion of the saints is to be defined, not in terms of whatever conflicts and dissensions, small and large, it may contain, but in terms of the singular realities on which it rests and which relativize any human divisions: one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all.  These realities exceed all the oppositions - the bitterness and wrath and anger and clamour (Eph. 4.31) - which occur in the church, and they establish 'the unity of the Spirit' (Eph. 4.4).  Because this is so, then each fellow believer is to be judged and treated, not in terms of the surface performance of their lives, but in terms of the identity and calling given by the one shared reality to which all have been gathered.  Our fellow believers, like we ourselves, may present all manner of obstacles and hindrances, all sorts of irritation and disruption to common life.  On occasions, these will require the exercise of exhortation and discipline.  But in all this, believers are to act with patience and forbearance, because patience and forbearance are fitting to the given reality of unity in the Spirit.  The Spirit calls and unites disparate, unlovable people; forbearance recognises that calling, endures conflicts, seeks reconciliation, avoids retribution.  Patience does not allow itself to be distracted into grumbling or harsh judgement or revenge.  It waits, lowly and meek, knowing that makers of discord are, like us, still on their way to perfection, and knowing, too, that retaliation produces much sorrow but little sanctification.  And acting in this manner, it follows the way of the Lord: 'Put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, meekness, and patience, forbearing one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.' (Col. 3.12f.)

V

Patience is a difficult and commonly despised virtue in acquisitive cultures which inflame the desire to possess and count deferral of good as tragedy or dishonour.  Such cultures are often incapable of enduring affliction with composure; they are inattentive, restless, excitable, quickly distracted, lacking in steadiness of spirit and longanimity.  All the more reason for Christians to think and act differently, and so to witness to good things beyond anything we can imagine.  'In thy forbearance, take me not away.' (Jer. 15.15)  In Jesus Christ God has answered that prayer, and in sending his Spirit has taught and enabled us to wait.  Such waiting is not the least part of Christian witness to God's gift of human happiness.

John Webster is Professor of Divinity at the University of St Andrews. His books include Holiness and Domain of the Word; a two-volume work God Without Measure will be published in the Fall
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