Impatience is a dark and prevalent sin that we love to explain away. We were worn out. We were busy. We were distracted. The kids were being difficult. We were carrying too much at work. Our spouse was short or cold or harsh again. We didn’t sleep well last night. What excuses do you reach for when your patience runs low?
I usually reach for tired. If only I got enough sleep and enough quiet time to myself, I often think (or even say), then I wouldn’t be so impatient. I’m a patient person who gets impatient when I’m tired. Can you hear yourself arguing that way? No, the truth is that I’m an impatient person whose impatience often crawls out of hiding when I’m exhausted. Weariness never makes any of us sin; weariness, and other pressures like it, only bring our sin to the surface (Matthew 15:11).
So where does impatience come from? At bottom, impatience grows out of our unwillingness to trust and submit to God’s timing for our lives.
What We Cannot Control
Impatience is a child of our pride and unbelief. It rises out of our frustration that we do not control what happens and when in our lives. We see this dynamic in the wilderness, among the people God has just delivered from slavery and oppression:
From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom. And the people became impatient on the way. And the people spoke against God. (Numbers 21:4–5)
“Impatience grows out of our unwillingness to trust and submit to God’s timing for our lives.”
Even after God had carried them out of Egypt, and walked them through the Red Sea, and wiped out their enemies behind them, and fed them with food that fell from heaven, they still grew impatient. Why? Because the life God had promised them, the kind of life they really wanted, didn’t come fast enough. The path he had chosen for them was longer and harder and more painful than they expected. They grew angry over how much they could not control. So much so, in fact, that they even began to long for the cruelty of Pharaoh — at least then, they got to choose what they ate (Exodus 16:3).
Our impatience has much in common with theirs. We don’t get to decide how much traffic there will be. We don’t get to decide whether our kids will cooperate at any given moment. We don’t get to decide when we’ll get sick, or when an appliance will fail, or how often interruptions will come. So many decisions are made for us, every single day, without our consent or even input. And God’s plans for us are famous for upending our plans for ourselves.
So when we are confronted with our lack of control, when life inevitably interrupts what we had planned, when we are forced to wait, how do we typically respond? Impatience tries to wrestle God for control, while patience gladly kneels, with hands spread wide, ready to receive all that God has planned and given. Impatience grumbles, while patience rejoices, even while it experiences real pains of delay.
So where does patience come from? If impatience is a child of our pride and unbelief, patience springs from humility, faith, and joy.
Humility Subverts Impatience
Humility subverts impatience by gladly admitting how little we can see in any given moment, however difficult or inconvenient the moment may be. As John Piper says, “God is always doing ten thousand things in your life, and you may be aware of three of them.” When we grow impatient, we overestimate our own ability to judge our circumstances, and we underestimate the good God can do through unwanted inconveniences and unexpected delays. The humble receive the same inconveniences and delays as callings, not distractions — as God revealing his will and timing to them.
The humble are patient toward God, and they are patient toward others. “Walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called,” Ephesians 4:1–2 says, “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love.” Humility fosters the kind of patience that love requires. Every truly loving relationship is an exhibition in patiently bearing with one another, because our sin both makes us difficult to love and keeps us from loving well.
“Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble’” (1 Peter 5:5). Do you want to grow in patience and experience a fuller, richer stream of grace from God? Wrap yourself in humility.
Faith Subverts Impatience
If humility subverts impatience by admitting how little we can see in the midst of our trials, faith subverts impatience by holding firm to God’s promises, even when life calls them into question.
Be patient, therefore, 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)
Farming well requires waiting well, and so does living well. Faith trusts that God is both sovereign and good, that all of his promises are true in Christ, that suffering produces endurance, that Jesus really will return and make all things new, and so we can afford to wait, to bear, to be patient. The patient continue to sow, even when the ground seems hard and the harvest uncertain, because they know they will eventually reap (Galatians 6:9).
And where does James go in the next verse? “Do not grumble against one another” (James 5:9). This kind of faith subverts our impatience with one another. The farmer believes the seeds will sprout and bear fruit, so he endures the dry weeks or months with patience. The Christian believes he will soon experience fullness of joy and pleasures forevermore — and not alone, but with everyone who has ever believed — so he endures offenses from other believers. He doesn’t grumble like others would. The promise of what’s to come makes him more durable in love, more gracious in his judgments, more patient in conflict.
Joy Subverts Impatience
This faith, however, is not merely a trusting in verses, but an overflowing joy in experienced wonders. The apostle Paul prays that the church would be “strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy” (Colossians 1:11). The patient are not secret grumblers; they’re not simply bottling up irritation and bitterness and hiding it from others. Their patience flows out of the wells of their joy in God. They’re too happy in him to be undone by interruption or inconvenience.
Where do we see this kind of resilient joy? Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 8:1–2, “We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part.” They did not grumble like Israel in the wilderness. They did not resent what they could not control. No, when their lives were upended and they were thrown into the fire, their joy not only held, but overflowed in generosity.
“The patient are too happy in God to be undone by interruption or inconvenience.”
The patient can wait and embrace inconvenience because whatever happens today or tomorrow or next Tuesday, their Treasure is unthreatened in heaven and therefore their joy is secure. Their happiness is not tied to their plans, so when their plans are disrupted, their happiness holds and continues pouring over in love.
Joyfully Accepting Disruption
The same miraculous patience appears in Hebrews 10:32–34:
You endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to reproach and affliction, and sometimes being partners with those so treated. For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one.
They joyfully accepted the plundering of their property. They were not just willing to have their possessions vandalized and stolen because they followed Jesus, but they were glad to suffer for his sake. If we were in the same circumstances, would others be able to say the same of us? Would we so joyfully accept the plundering of our possessions, our homes, our budgets? Do we now joyfully accept the upheaval of our schedules, the derailing of our dreams, the setbacks in our work, the monotony and difficulty of our parenting, the trouble of our lives?
We will if we, like them, know that we have a better possession and an abiding one — if we know that we have God forever, and in him more than enough to endure whatever we’re called to endure for now. Patience flows from a humble embrace of what we do not know and cannot control. It flows from our deep and abiding trust that God will follow through on his promises, however unlikely that may seem at the moment. And it flows from hearts that are profoundly happy to have him as our exceeding joy.