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Trying Patience

Why do we need patience in an instant world where most things we consider desirable are available without waiting?  

And as if running into Starbuck’s wasn’t quick and convenient enough, they’ve revived instant coffee. Just fill a mug with instant hot water and stir in a packet of instant VIA® for instant caffeinated gratification.

It’s another instance of how patience has fallen on hard times these days. Why do we need patience in an instant world where most things we consider desirable are available without waiting?

Between the Internet and credit cards, we buy what we want with alarming swiftness. Pay a little extra and you can have it tomorrow thank to FedEx. Rather than taking the time to cook, we can have our food right away from restaurants, take-outs, or the microwave. Sex — real or virtual — is well within reach without patiently awaiting marriage.

The places where patience is required show us how impatient we really are. Think bumper-to-bumper traffic, slow service, long lines at the supermarket, and old magazines in the waiting room at most doctors’ offices. You get the idea and, in fact, just thinking about it is making you feel impatient.

Another side of this is that impatience has become a sort of a modern virtue and it’s certainly a status symbol. I’m way too busy and important to be kept waiting.

While impatience is in the air we breath, we’d be wrong to think it a modern problem.

Take, for example Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus better known to us as Tertullian. He was Born in Roman North Africa around AD 160 and converted to Christianity just before the year 200. Before his death about 220, he was a prolific author and thinker leaving behind books on apologetics and on practical Christian living including his treatise On Patience.

Robert Louis Wilken in his masterful book The Spirit of Early Christian Thought writes:

On Patience is a work of spiritual discernment wholly out of character for the author. Tertullian himself was not a patient man, yet he showcased a dimension of the moral life that could easily have been shoved to the periphery.

Wilken points out that while patience was lauded as a virtue by Christians, it was not considered important in the ancient Greco-Roman world.

[Roman authors] Cicero and Seneca had written admiringly of the virtue of endurance, by which they meant perseverance in adversity, but said nothing about patience as Tertullian understood it.

The distinction between endurance and patience becomes clear when we understand that for Tertullian and other early Christian thinkers patience is first and foremost a characteristic of God. God, being omnipotent, does not experience adversity and thus does not persevere in the sense that we do, but God is patient — very patient.

God patiently puts up with us, the human race. He causes the sun to shine and the rain to fall on the good, the bad, and the ugly (Matthew 5:45). His doesn’t even zap those who persecute his Church, but is patient “not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:8-9). Tertullian comments that God is so patient that many do not repent and believe the Christian message because “they are so long without knowing that He is angry with the world.”

God’s patience, argues Tertullian, shows itself most wonderfully in Christ. In his incarnation, God in Jesus Christ “suffers Himself to be conceived in a mother’s womb, and awaits the time for birth; and, when born, bears the delay of growing up.” Jesus, the second Person of the Holy Trinity, lived hidden for nine months in Mary’s womb and then lived another 30 years in obscurity before his baptism inaugurated his public ministry. As he preached the gospel of the Kingdom and cared for the people:

He did not strive; He did not cry aloud; nor did any hear His voice in the streets. He did not break the bruised reed; the smoking flax He did not quench…. Not with that city even which had refused to receive Him was He wroth, when even the disciples had wished that the celestial fires should be forthwith hurled on so [abusive] a town [Luke 9:51-55].

Finally Jesus “is spitted on, scourged, derided, clad foully, more foully crowned” and crucified. He bore all with such startling patience, Tertullian argues, that those who saw him should have recognized his divinity because, “Patience of this kind none of men would achieve.”

“As God is the author of patience,” he continues, “so the devil is of impatience.” Whether Satan’s malice or impatience came first doesn’t matter, writes Tertullian. What is certain, however, is that malice and impatience “subsequently … conspired between themselves; and that they grew up indivisible in one paternal bosom.” The connection we feel between impatience and anger has an ancient lineage.

In the Garden, Tertullian writes, as Satan tempted Eve he breathed on her “a spirit infected with impatience.” Had she remained patient, he insists, she never would have sinned since, “Every sin is ascribable to impatience.”

So is patience set over the things of God, that one can obey no precept, fulfill no work well-pleasing to the Lord, if estranged from it.

Whether or not instant coffee is a sin, I will leave to your conscience. I do know that the anger that wells up in me when kept waiting at the doctor’s is most assuredly sin that springs directly from the sin of impatience. We have all cursed bad waiters. We’ve watched and may be even exhibited road rage. And as Tertullian dryly asks, “Who ever committed adultery without impatience of lust?”

Just as all sin springs from impatience, all virtue springs from patience. Jesus commanded us to “turn the other cheek” (Matthew 5:39). That requires great patience — patience in suffering, patience in loving our neighbor, and patience in knowing that if our attacker ought to receive retribution, he will face God and his justice when the time is right (Romans 12:19). Jesus went so far as to tell us to forgive the same offense not seven times, but to exercise such patience that we forgive 77 times (Matthew 18:20-22).

Without patience there can be no faith, hope, and love. “Abraham believed God,” he writes, “and was accredited by Him with righteousness; but it was patience which proved his faith” in the sacrifice of the patiently-awaited Isaac.

Patience, he writes, allows us to exercise hope in grief. Faced with death, we have the hope of the resurrection. “Since, then,” Tertullian tells us, “there is certainty as to the resurrection from the dead, grief for death is needless, and impatience in grief is needless.” We will see those who die in Christ again, their departure from us is temporary. It only requires patience to wait for the fulfillment of hope.

Finally, just as God’s love for us requires patience, our love for others requires the same. He points out that when Saint Paul lists characteristics of love, he begins, “Love is patient …” (1 Corinthians 13:4).

Like Tertullian, I confess that I am impatient by nature and that I allow the conveniences of life in the 21st century to whip that native impatience into a frenzy in which faith, hope, and love have little room to maneuver. I want what I want and I want it now.

It’s exhausting.

By contrast, “Patience sits on the throne of that calmest and gentlest Spirit, who is not found in the whirlwind, not in the leaden hue of the cloud, but is of soft serenity, open and simple…. For where God is, there too is His foster-child, namely, Patience.”

So come, my companion in impatience. There is much for us to learn and a harvest of heavenly peace if we will patiently learn from our God who is both willing and exceedingly patient to teach us.

Copyright 2010 James Tonkowich. All rights reserved.

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About the Author

James Tonkowich

Jim Tonkowich is a scholar at the Institute on Religion & Democracy in Washington, D.C. He holds a degree in philosophy from Bates College and both a Master of Divinity and a Doctor of Ministry from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Jim is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church in America. He and his wife attend McLean Presbyterian Church in McLean, Va.


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