Ask the apostle Paul what the fruits of the Spirit are, and the first thing he says is love (Galatians 5:22). Paul would say love is the greatest of the fruit of the Spirit, just as he said love was the greatest gift of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 13:13).
Then ask Paul what love is, and what does he say first? “Love is patient” (1 Corinthians 13:4). Now, I don’t assume this necessarily means Paul believed patience is the greatest quality of love. But the fact that he mentions it first in this beautiful description of Christian love must give us pause.
Love Versus Endurance
What did Paul have in mind when he wrote, “Love is patient”? The answer may not be as obvious as it seems.
We use the term patience for a wide variety of things: for instance, putting up with a generally difficult person; not losing our temper in rush hour traffic; financial investing for the long term; not yelling at our child who’s throwing his umpteenth tantrum today or who’s left the milk on the counter for the umpteenth time; working steadily toward that degree; or not thinking (or uttering) a profanity when the software program stalls, requiring a hard shutdown and losing our unsaved work.
But Paul had a specific meaning in mind when he said this. The King James translation gives us a little more linguistic help: “Charity suffereth long.” Looking at the Greek word Paul chose is even more helpful, a version of the word makrothymia.
Sometimes English translators choose to translate the Greek word hypomonē as “patience” (e.g. Luke 8:15; Romans 2:7; 2 Corinthians 12:12; Revelation 2:3). But hypomonē differs from makrothymia. Hypomonē almost always refers to perseverance or endurance in the face of difficult or painful circumstances (think James 1:3). But makrothymia almost always refers to a forbearing, persevering, patient love toward a person. It is a form of self-sacrificial love we extend to someone else.
God’s Longsuffering Love
This word had powerful connotations for Paul. As a Jew, he understood makrothymia — “longsuffering love” — as one of God’s most fundamental character traits. For when God revealed his glory to Moses on the mountain, he proclaimed,
“The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.” (Exodus 34:6)
This description of God is repeated over and over in the Old Testament (e.g. Numbers 14:18; Psalm 86:15; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2). And in the Greek Old Testament (Septuagint), which Paul knew like the back of his hand, the phrase “slow to anger” is captured in one Greek word: a version of makrothymia.
This word is powerful because it describes God’s incredibly patient love toward sinners. God was lovingly slow to anger with the continual sin of the antediluvian peoples for many centuries. He was lovingly slow to anger with horrible and grotesque sins of the Canaanite peoples for many centuries (Genesis 15:16). He was lovingly slow to anger with the idolatrous rebellion of Israel during the period of the judges, and then during the period of the kings for many centuries. And he has been lovingly slow to anger with the wicked world for many centuries since Christ came, “not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).
That’s why Paul used makrothymia in sentences like these:
- Or do you presume on the riches of [God’s] kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? (Romans 2:4)
- What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction? (Romans 9:22)
God, who is love (1 John 4:8), suffers long with sinners. And that’s why those who are born of God and know God also lovingly suffer long with sinners.
Our Longsuffering Love
And so Paul and other New Testament writers frequently use makrothymia, because:
- We are to remember the kind of merciful, gracious, longsuffering, slow-to-anger patience God has shown to us in Christ. (1 Timothy 1:16)
- Therefore, like God, we are to put on “compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience (makrothymia), bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven [us], so [we] also must forgive.” (Colossians 3:12–13; Ephesians 4:2; 1 Thessalonians 5:14; 2 Timothy 4:2)
- And when God orders our paths through pain and difficulty, we are to also extend to him longsuffering, slow-to-anger patience. This isn’t because God wrongs us in ways that require us to forgive him. Rather, we are to recall his redemptive purposes with Abraham, Job, the prophets, and others so that we, like them, will patiently wait (makrothymia) on God to obtain his promises, deliverances, and vindication. (Hebrews 6:15; James 5:10–11)
This is why the first thing Paul said about love in the great Love Chapter of the Bible is that it is patient (1 Corinthians 13:4). He’s not referring to patience with inconveniences (those perhaps fit better under the “love is not irritable” category, 1 Corinthians 13:5). He’s not even referring to longsuffering patience in the midst of affliction (Revelation 14:12). He’s referring to patience toward persons.
And this is a longsuffering patience. God is calling you and me to love the people he has placed in our lives, even though some of them have done or are doing great evil. We are to love them with makrothymia love — longsuffering love.
Makrothymia love is not permissive; it doesn’t tolerate sin, abuse, or injustice in the sense of enabling those things. We are to confront them. But we do so in the spirit of Exodus 34:6 and in the power of the Spirit of 1 Corinthians 13, remembering that love “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” and that “love never ends” (1 Corinthians 13:7–8).
A love that never ends is a love that suffers long.