God Works in Those Who Wait

We are living in the age of impatience. Whether it’s waiting in line, waiting in traffic, waiting for food service, or waiting for marriage, biding our time is more counter-cultural than ever. We’ve been conditioned to have it our way, right away. First it was fast food and instant coffee; then it was everything else as well.

In such a day as ours, we have all the more reason to marvel at Jesus’s perfect patience. Not only do we have the old-covenant examples of the psalmists — who “waited patiently for the Lord” (Psalm 40:1) and encouraged their readers to do the same (Psalm 37:7); we also have Abraham (who “having patiently waited, obtained the promise,” Hebrews 6:15), along with all “those who through faith and patience inherit the promises” (Hebrews 6:12). And most importantly, we have the God-man himself as the example of “perfect patience” (1 Timothy 1:16).

When Jesus displays his patience, he not only shows us the very patience of his Father, but he does so as fully human. He demonstrates the kind of divine life that can be expressed in our own human flesh. And so the Bible is full of calls to Christ-like patience. The New Testament gives us at least five specific situations in which God empowers us to wait well. Consider these as prompts for prayer and particular opportunities to seek greater patience in the strength he supplies (1 Peter 4:11).

1. Patience with People

We may be prone to think of patience first in relation to things — whether it’s food service or Internet connection speed. But behind things is people. We live in a personal universe, created by a personal God, and our daily circumstances, even when they feel isolated from everyone else, are inevitably formed and shaped by other people. If we are to be increasingly patient people, it will have to relate to actual people.

When the apostle urges us to “walk in a manner worthy” of our calling in Christ, he fleshes it out exclusively in other-oriented terms: “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” (Ephesians 4:1–3). Patience relates to other people.

Similarly, we’re called to cultivate “compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other” (Colossians 3:12–13). Patience bears with other people when they don’t share our cadence, practices, priorities, and sense of timing. “Admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all” (1 Thessalonians 5:14).

2. Patience in Doing Good

To get even more specific, one way that patience orients on others is by enduring in doing them good. Christian good deeds are personal — they are for the good of others. When Jesus tells his parable of the sower, he characterizes the good soil as “those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience” (Luke 8:15). Patience is not only produced by the Holy Spirit himself, but it also assists in our bearing fruit for the sake of others.

No significant long-term fruitfulness in this fallen world comes without obstacles and resistance. To serve others in a meaningful way will mean to encounter friction soon enough. Patience, then, is the virtue of soul that helps us persevere in doing good, and not be scared off from worthy causes by opposition, toil, and fatigue.

3. Patience in Leadership

One of the most striking truths about patience in the Bible is its pairing with leadership. All Christians can (and should) increase in patience, but it is not a prerequisite for being a Christian. However, patience is required for office in the church.

“The Lord’s servant,” says Paul, must be “kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil” (2 Timothy 2:24). Those who “preach the word” are to do so “with complete patience” (2 Timothy 4:2). Look what company patience keeps in Paul’s commendation of his protégé Timothy: “You have followed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness” (2 Timothy 3:10). Patience even plays a central role in Paul’s defense of his apostleship (2 Corinthians 6:4–6; 12:12).

At the heart of formal leadership in the Christian church is being an example for the flock (1 Peter 5:3). Jesus means for his church not only to have his example of “perfect patience,” but also to see patience lived out in community by the duly appointed and recognized leaders, imperfect though they be.

4. Patience in Suffering

The aspect of patience likely hardest to cultivate is patience in suffering. It’s much easier to endure an annoying person when your own body doesn’t hurt, but how will you endure in pain and suffering? Will you have the wherewithal in trial to have patience with God as he unfolds his perfect timing, which regularly does not correspond to our preferences? Will we “be patient in tribulation” (Romans 12:12), looking to the prophets for “an example of suffering and patience” (James 5:10)?

God has a special balm to give his children in suffering. He keeps his best wine, said Samuel Rutherford, in the cellars of affliction. And he doubles our joy by enabling us to serve as instruments of his comfort to others who are hurting. Our patience in suffering, then, helps others endure with patience. “If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer” (2 Corinthians 1:6).

Five times in the first three chapters of Revelation, the apostle John mentions patient endurance. He writes as “your brother and partner in the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in Jesus” (Revelation 1:9), and then shows that this Christ-sourced patient endurance multiplies as it echoes in the lives of Jesus’s followers (Revelation 2:2–3, 19; 3:10).

5. Patience with the Second Coming

Finally, we wait for the return of Christ. As Christians, our greatest joy waits for something we do not yet have. We long to see Jesus face to face. “But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience” (Romans 8:25). James makes the connection even stronger:

Be patient, brothers, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and the late rains.  You also, be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand. (James 5:7–8)

Waiting patiently on Jesus’s return is the climactic patience for the Christian — and note well, it is not a “patience” that amounts to being apathetic about his return. True patience presupposes acute longing and intense ache. We can’t be patient with his second coming if we don’t first pine for it. To look around at our broken and sin-sick world and say, “How long, O Lord?” does not betray patience but gives patience its greatest expression.