Patience Is Love

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One by one, each of my children learned a catechism question that asks, “Have you a soul as well as a body?” And the answer, as it slowly and deliberately arose from tiny toddler lips, always tugged at my heart: “Yes, and my soul will never die.”

Though designed for children, this question and answer trained me as a parent. Whatever frustrations the child had caused me that day — spilled milk, broken toys, incessant questions, delayed naps — couldn’t continue to annoy me when I stopped to remember that the small person in front of me possessed an undying soul.

We become impatient with others when we fail to see that they have significant and lasting value. When they interrupt us, dawdle over their own responsibilities, or require more time and energy than we had planned to allow them, we start to consider them inconveniences. We become so focused on their behaviors in the moment that we don’t consider their value in eternity.

And when we fail to recognize other people as eternally important, we will not love them well. In Paul’s famous love chapter, he begins his list of love’s qualities with this simple declaration: “Love is patient” (1 Corinthians 13:4). In order to love someone, we must value that person’s undying soul more than we value our own temporary convenience.

God Is Patient

This, of course, is how God loves. In his second epistle, Peter writes,

Beloved . . . the Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. (2 Peter 3:8–9)

It seems that some of the members of the first-century church were becoming impatient — with God. Why hadn’t Jesus returned? Why weren’t their persecutors being judged? Why weren’t God’s promises fulfilled immediately? Why was God being so slow? Because, Peter explained, God cares about souls. God knows, much more than we do, the horrors of hell. He knows the dreadful extent of his own wrath. And he wants people to be saved.

God, who could justly destroy the earth at any moment, has chosen to wait. He is “the Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6). He is not bothered by the passing of time — by the minutes and years and millennia that are ticking away — if it means that people will be eternally saved.

“Unlike us, God isn’t focused on the clock. He’s focused on doing good to people’s souls.”

In his saving purposes for his elect people, God doesn’t measure time the way we do: “With the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years is as one day” (2 Peter 3:8). Unlike us, God isn’t focused on the clock. He’s focused on doing good to people’s souls. And if pausing his wrath means that his beloved children will reach repentance, then our God is willing to wait as long as it takes.

Jesus Was Patient

In his earthly ministry, Jesus too expressed love by patience. Mark’s Gospel tells the story of a time when Jesus was leaving for a trip. Just as he was “setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’” (Mark 10:17).

I don’t know about you, but the moment I’m “setting out” — on a trip, for an appointment, to run errands — is the worst possible moment for someone to interrupt me. My car keys are in hand, my agenda is planned, and my GPS has already declared my ETA. I don’t have time to stop and talk, thanks.

But when the rich young man interrupted Jesus, Jesus didn’t count the minutes slipping away. He counted the value of the man’s soul. He stopped. He looked at the man. He asked him a perceptive question, seeking to address the man’s heart: “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone” (Mark 10:18). Jesus recognized the moment as an opportunity for eternity.

And even when the man persisted in his self-righteous narrative, Jesus didn’t give up and head out. He “loved him,” verse 21 says, and kept on talking to him. Jesus noticed what he lacked, he offered him riches beyond earthly worth, and he even invited the stubborn and arrogant man to come along with him. It was only when the man left Jesus that Jesus continued on his way. Our Savior was willing to wait — doing good to people’s souls — as long as it took.

Be Patient with Them All

Since we have been loved by this long-suffering God, and since we are being conformed to the image of this long-suffering Savior, we too must love others by our patience. Just as our Lord was not willing for us to perish, we shouldn’t dismiss the eternal future of the people around us. Our temporary delay may be a gospel opportunity. It certainly will be an opportunity for love.

“Our temporary delay may be a gospel opportunity. It certainly will be an opportunity for love.”

In the concluding words of his letter to the Thessalonians, Paul gives a list of exhortations (1 Thessalonians 5:12–22). Writing to the household of faith, he publicly posts the house rules — explaining to the church how they should live as a family. He wants them to respect their leaders, to be at peace with one another, and to do good to everyone. He also commands them to be patient: “We urge you, brothers and sisters, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all” (1 Thessalonians 5:14).

Paul knew that life in the church is not always easy. The people whom God calls to himself can be immature, ignorant, and troublesome. We are each “being transformed” (2 Corinthians 3:18), but we haven’t arrived at perfect Christlikeness yet. And so Paul calls believers to be patient with one another.

As Long as It Takes

The reason we must be patient with other Christians, according to Paul, is love. In 1 Thessalonians 5:14, he grounds his command to long-suffering in the terms of family affection, identifying the believers as “brothers and sisters.” In the church, we are not mere acquaintances, or even fellow members of the same club; we are family. In the church, Christ’s love for us compels us to love one another (John 13:34).

And in this family — as an expression of our love — we bear with one another’s failings, point one another to Christ, and seek one another’s eternal benefit. Those who are our “brothers and sisters” should experience our patient love most. And those outsiders who are not yet family may be won over by our patient love.

If we can do good to someone, we can afford to be patient. People may cost us valuable minutes, but their souls are worth as long as it takes.

is the managing editor for The Gospel Coalition and the author of five books, including Patience: Waiting with Hope (P&R, 2021). A pastor’s wife and a pastor’s daughter, she lives with her husband and four children in Massachusetts, where they belong to West Springfield Covenant Community Church.