Patience is a virtue we admire, and even aspire to, from afar. The closer it comes to us, however — the more it invades our schedule, our plans, our comfort — the more uncomfortable it becomes.
Patience exists only in a world of disruption, delays, and disappointment. It grows only on the battlefield. We cannot practice patience unless our circumstances call for it — and the circumstances that call for it are the kinds of circumstances we wouldn’t choose for ourselves. We would choose convenience, speed, efficiency, fulfillment. God often chooses circumstances that call for patience. And he never chooses wrongly.
Impatience grows out of our unwillingness to trust and submit to God’s timing for our lives. Impatience is a war for control. Patience, on the other hand, springs from different soil — from a humble embrace of what we do not know and cannot control, from a deep and abiding trust that God will follow through on all of his promises, from a heart that is profoundly happy to have him.
“The kind of patience that honors God is so hard that we cannot practice it without help from God.”
In other words, the deepest patience comes from a humble and hopeful joy in God above all else. That means that real patience is not only inconvenient, difficult, and wearying, but, humanly speaking, impossible. The kind of patience that honors God is so hard that we cannot practice it without help from God. It grows only where the Spirit lives (Galatians 5:22–23).
Many Shades of Patience
What might we say, then, practically speaking, about real patience in real life? Where could we look in Scripture to see some of the colors and texture of patience in action? One verse, in particular, humbles me and bursts with lessons for everyday patience:
We urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all. (1 Thessalonians 5:14)
The ways we approach each group — the idle, the fainthearted, the weak — are different, but we’re called to patience with them all. Which means we’re likely going to experience temptation to be impatient with them all (and many more besides them). So what might patience look like in each case?
Help the Weak
The weak test our patience because they need more from us than most. Many of us have an impulse, at least in the moment, to step in when we see a weak person in need, whether that person is young, or old, or sick, or emotionally or spiritually vulnerable. But weakness, we all know from personal experience, rarely stays contained within a moment, which means the weak need more than in-the-moment help; they need for-the-long-haul help — and for-the-long-haul help requires patience.
Paul does not charge the church to admonish the weak, but to help them, and the word for help here can also mean to hold firm or be devoted. There’s a tenaciousness in this help, a clinging to the weak, even after months or years of inconvenience and sacrifice. Where does that kind of patience come from? From knowing that “while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly” (Romans 5:6) — in other words, he died for us. And that “God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong” (1 Corinthians 1:27) — in other words, he chose us.
Those who know how painfully and helplessly weak they are apart from God are more ready to endure the weaknesses of others. They don’t resent helping for the hundredth time, because they gladly trust and submit to God’s plans, including the weaknesses he has placed around them.
Encourage the Fainthearted
The fainthearted test our patience because they get more easily discouraged than most. Among the Thessalonians, some were beginning to wither while they grieved the loss of loved ones (1 Thessalonians 4:13–5:11). Discouragement was drying up their spiritual strength and resolve — and so they needed more from others (who were also likely grieving).
The fainthearted lack the strength or stamina others have in relationships and ministry. They bring burdens they cannot carry by themselves. They often despair of their burdens, struggling to see how life will ever be more bearable. And we all already have our own burdens to bear, so regularly speaking grace into someone else’s emotional and spiritual needs can feel especially taxing over time. The ministry of encouragement often requires unusual endurance.
Those who keep walking with the fainthearted, even when the path is slow and winding, demonstrate the strength of a supernatural patience. They have discovered, first for themselves, and then through themselves for others, that
[God] gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might he increases strength. Even youths shall faint and be weary, and young men shall fall exhausted; but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint. (Isaiah 40:29–31)
Anyone who has experienced the gift of strength and renewal longs for other fainthearted people to experience the same. And how much sweeter when God strengthens and renews someone through us?
Every Christian experiences discouragement, which means every Christian needs a steady stream of courage to endure suffering, to reject temptation, to sacrifice in love, to embrace discipline, to persevere in ministry, to trust and obey God. And those streams run low or even dry in churches when we lack the patience needed to persevere in encouraging one another.
Rebuke the Idle
It’s not hard to see how the idle test our patience. In the case of the Thessalonians, it seems, some thought Jesus was returning imminently, and so they started shirking their work and leaving it to others (2 Thessalonians 2:1–2; 3:6).
The idle test our patience because they refuse to take responsibility and initiative. They could do more, help more, carry more, contribute in more significant ways, but they’re content to do just enough (or less), which means someone else has to do more. And when we are that someone, we understandably grow impatient.
But Paul doesn’t let the impatient off the hook, even with the idle. He does say admonish them — warn them, exhort them, wake them up — even if you have to withhold food for a time (2 Thessalonians 3:10–11) or remove them from fellowship (2 Thessalonians 3:6). Nevertheless, he says to do so with patience. Be patient with them all. What might that mean? We don’t usually associate hard words or painful consequences with patience.
Why of Patience
First, we might ask, Why are we patient, even as we admonish the idle? We’re patient with sinners, in part, because we still are one. The idleness of others — or the greed of others, or the lust of others, or the anger of others, or the vanity of others — is never so evil that we cannot see something of their sin in ourselves. It takes very little imagination for us to see that, apart from an undeserved miracle, we would be them — and perhaps far worse.
Impatience with sinners betrays a small view of God’s mercy toward us. The same apostle that says we should rebuke the idle also says,
The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. (1 Timothy 1:15–16)
Even our rebukes should be seasoned with a humble awareness of our own sinfulness — of just how wicked we would be without the grace of God.
How of Patience
Knowing why we are patient, even with those we need to rebuke, how do we rebuke with patience? First, it probably needs to be said that good rebuke itself is an evidence of patience. It’s easy to give up on sinners. It’s easy to lash out and tear down someone who has sinned against us. Those who rebuke well — who aim to restore someone through honest and gentle confrontation and correction — demonstrate that they haven’t given up, and that they still have hope that God will grant conviction, forgiveness, reconciliation, and transformation.
Patience in rebuke, though, will also mean a willingness to wait for change. Sanctification can be painfully, sometimes excruciatingly, slow. We shouldn’t expect the slothful to become immediately diligent — or, for that matter, for the proud to become immediately humble, the angry to become immediately kind, the lustful to become immediately pure. We don’t overlook patterns of sin in those we love, or make excuses for their sin. We go to them, we warn them, we implore them, we even rebuke them sharply, if necessary — and we keep doing so — but we do so knowing, again firsthand, that change often comes slowly. We plant seeds knowing that they may need time to take hold, mature, and eventually blossom.
Patient God for Impatient People
We might welcome the opportunity to rebuke the lazy and negligent, but can we do so with patience? If we can’t, it’s likely because we haven’t meditated enough on the patience of God toward sinners like us — sinners like me.
“God never asks anyone to be patient who hasn’t already received the infinite riches of his patience.”
When Moses pleaded to see God’s glory, what did God reveal about himself? “The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, ‘The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness’” (Exodus 34:6). He has every reason and right to get angry with us, and yet he’s slow to anger. He’s patient with us, 2 Peter 3:9 says, “not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” God never asks anyone to be patient who hasn’t already received the infinite riches of his patience.
That doesn’t mean patience isn’t hard. It is. Whether in traffic on the way to work, or in a season of significant transition or uncertainty, or beside the hospital bed of someone we love, patience can require uncomfortable sacrifice and surrender. In the Father’s patience, after all, he did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us. As it was at the cross, so it is with us. The painfulness of our patience serves its hidden but beautiful purpose: to call attention to the beauty and power of God’s love.