Give Them Time to Grow

Learning the Power of Patient Love

Several weeks ago, I bore witness to a miracle. It was the kind of miracle I had often prayed for — and the kind I had come not to expect. And then, in an ordinary moment of an ordinary day, it happened.

A man I have long known and loved, a man I have poured into and prayed for, a man I have sometimes despaired of and sinned against, changed. He really changed. The Spirit of God moved upon the waters of his soul, shining light into an old and stubborn darkness, and I bore witness to a startling, miraculous act of obedience. It was a moment worthy of angels’ admiration.

As I reflect on the miracle now, and the years leading up to it, I find myself wishing I could take back many impatient responses along the way: cynical thoughts, reproofs spoken in fleshly frustration, unbelieving prayers on his behalf, unrighteous inner anger. But even more, I find myself marveling at the patience of God unashamed to call this man — and me — his own.

So often, I labor for others’ growth on a timeline dramatically shorter than God’s. Whereas I tend to track others’ progress in terms of days and weeks, “the living God,” says David Powlison, “seems content to work . . . on a scale of years and decades, throughout a whole lifetime” (Making All Things New, 61). And oh, how I want to be like him — zealously yearning for change, faithfully praying for change, and then patiently waiting for change.

For miracles are wondrous things. But many miracles take time and remarkable patience.

Disciples of Perfect Patience

The apostle Paul knew something of such patience. His own testimony bore the marks of God’s long-suffering love, his “perfect patience” (1 Timothy 1:16). And Paul remembered that patience. He couldn’t forget it.

In response, he lived and ministered with a profound patience of his own. What else could have kept Paul loving churches that sometimes broke his apostolic heart — churches like Corinth or Galatia? Though slandered (2 Corinthians 10:1–2), though underappreciated (Galatians 4:15–16), though repeatedly faced with startling folly and sin (1 Corinthians 3:1–4), Paul remained patient, a disciple of God’s perfect patience. He yearned, he prayed, he labored, he pleaded, but he also waited “with utmost patience” (2 Corinthians 12:12). He let miracles take their God-appointed time.

And so he instructed others. “Reprove, rebuke, and exhort,” O Timothy — yet do so “with complete patience” (2 Timothy 4:2). “Admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak,” dear Thessalonians — yet “be patient with them all” (1 Thessalonians 5:14). Patience, for Paul, was not merely one way of responding among many: it was a robe to clothe all responses.

“Miracles are wondrous things. But many miracles take time and remarkable patience.”

Where might such “complete patience” come from? Where might we find the strength to be patient not just with the outwardly hopeful, or with those whose struggles we understand, but “with them all”? Patience like Paul’s comes in part (as we’ve seen) from the backward glance, from the story of God’s patience with us. But Paul also gives us more. For so often, as he responds to sin and folly with patience, his eyes are looking ahead.

Imagine Them Then

Consider the Christian who causes you the most grief: a brother or sister in your small group, a parent or sibling, your own believing child. What do you see when you look at this person, especially in his worst moments? A stubborn young man, perhaps, who can’t seem to take counsel seriously. Or maybe a flaky woman whose “yes” is actually “we’ll see” and often “no.” A headache or a heartache. An inconvenience or an interruption. A waste of time.

Those assessments are understandable, at least to a man like me. But what did Paul see? He saw, no doubt, a troubled soul, just as we do. But whereas we often see only what is, Paul had an astounding ability to see what could be — and in Christ, what will be. We see a house unfinished; Paul saw an unfinished house. He saw stumbling saints in light of who they one day would become:

I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. (Philippians 1:6)

The picture frame I place around people is often no more than a cramped little square: I imprison them in the present moment, neglecting to see where they came from or where they’re going. But what a broad frame the apostle used! Broad enough to see the darkness and death from which others came (“he who began a good work in you . . .”) — and broad enough to see the light and life to which they are headed (“. . . will bring it to completion”).

Paul could still see the present moment, of course. And his patience did not prevent him from rebuking and reproving, nor from earnestly warning when needed. But when he looked upon someone in Christ — repenting, believing, yet often stumbling — today was not as important to him as “the day of Jesus Christ,” when this unimpressive saint would shine like the sun in the kingdom of God (Matthew 13:43).

And so, he could look upon today’s stumbling and see tomorrow’s standing. He could trace a line between today’s discouraging failure and tomorrow’s final victory. He could imagine the angry turned calm, the lustful made pure, the grumbling quietly content, and the bitter full of forgiveness — not because people themselves are so full of promise, but because our faithful God finishes whatever he begins.

Name Them Now

Ah, yes, I find myself thinking. Paul wrote those words to the Philippians, a maturing church. Would he say the same to the struggling? Indeed he would; indeed he did. He begins his letter to the Corinthians in much the same way (1 Corinthians 1:8–9). And as he does, he reveals another dimension of godly patience: the patient not only imagine other Christians then; they also draw that future reality down into the present moment and name these Christians now. They see, in Christ, that the sun of another’s life is rising, not setting, and then they define this person by the coming day, not the lingering night.

And so Paul, though discouraged and disappointed by the Corinthians’ slow progress, begins his letter with their true name: “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints” (1 Corinthians 1:2). O Corinthians, you might act sometimes like sinners and fools, but that’s not who you are. In Christ, your name is saint.

We find this patient naming elsewhere as well, perhaps especially in Peter’s life. When he saw himself as merely “a sinful man,” worthy to be forsaken by Jesus, our patient Lord named him a fisher of men (Luke 5:8–10). Later, when Peter surely felt like little more than a lost and desperate sheep, our patient Lord named him a shepherd (John 21:15–17).

Every failed Peter needs someone to believe that failure need not define him. Every stumbling Corinthian needs someone to see his sin and still call him saint. Every discouraged Christian needs someone to lift his eyes to the coming day, when all the soul’s shadows will flee before the face of our patient and purifying Christ.

Of course, we don’t want to give anyone a name that God himself doesn’t give. But if Jesus could see a shepherd in Peter, and if Paul could see saints in the Corinthians, then surely we can name others more hopefully than we sometimes do. And what a difference such a name might make. When we feel utterly lost in some forest of failure, a faithful name can be like a path that suddenly appears and a light to guide our way. I don’t need to stay here, such a name suggests. In Jesus, I can be more than I am right now.

Room for Good to Grow

Several times in Paul’s letters, the grace of patience holds hands with another Spirit-given virtue: kindness. “Love is patient and kind,” he tells the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 13:4). He writes also of “the riches of [God’s] kindness and forbearance and patience” (Romans 2:4). In the garden of the Holy Spirit, the two grow side by side: “patience, kindness” (Galatians 5:22).

“Every failed Peter needs someone to believe that failure need not define him.”

Such a pairing suggests that the truly patient do not merely hold their tongue or restrain their burning frustration behind a forced smile. No, their patience is the product of a deeper passion, godly and pure: a love of kindness, the very kindness that leads to repentance (Romans 2:4). As God has been patiently kind with us — as God is, right now, patiently kind with us — so we love to be patiently kind with others.

Imagine, then, patience like the walls of a garden, protecting the fragile shoots of grace in another’s soul. Whereas impatience lets wind destroy and animals trample and chew, patience gives room for good things to grow. It gives room for kindness to shine like the sun and fall like rain, for the work that God began to grow toward completion.

You and I, dear Christian, are a garden within God’s walls. Whatever grace we have is a miracle wrought by his patience and nourished by his kindness. And the same miracles still happen today. We may see more of them if we pray, and imagine, and name, and wait, and robe our every word with some of the patience we have received from him.