We want our food fast—and our downloads faster. We want new smart phones and new computers because new means faster. We want to watch our favorite movies and TV shows “on demand.” We want Amazon and FedEx and UPS to deliver our stuff by the next day—or better yet, today. And the boss needs that report, that spreadsheet, that memo, that project “yesterday.” In short, we are an impatient people living in impatient times.
Yet the Lord asks us, encourages us, invites us to be patient. Some variant of the word is used 43 times in the Bible. The psalmist calls us to “Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him” (37:7). Proverbs 14:29 tells us, “Whoever is patient has great understanding.” In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, he reveals that “Love is patient, love is kind” (v.4). In his letter to the Ephesians, he connects patience with humility and gentleness (4:2). In Colossians, he compares patience to a fine garment that clothes a believer (3:12). In Galatians, he describes patience as a life-giving, life-sustaining fruit for believers (5:22).
But that highly-abbreviated list provides only a partial picture of what the Bible says about patience. There are at least 129 references to “wait” or “waiting” in the Bible. This most passive of actions both requires and produces patience.
Indeed, it’s interesting—and not at all coincidental—that many of the men and women in Scripture who were known for their faith and service were also known for their patience and waiting.
After waiting patiently, Abraham and Sarah received what the Lord had promised: the blessing of a child. Isaac and Rebecca, too, waited for the blessing of children. In his time of waiting, “Isaac prayed to the Lord” to open Rebecca’s barren womb. And the Lord blessed them with twin sons.
Jacob waited seven years before he could take Rachel’s hand in marriage—and then worked another seven years to satisfy the odd, outrageous demands of Rachel’s father.
Moses waited and wandered in the desert for 40 years before he glimpsed the promised land.
Job was patient through unbearable emotional and physical pain.
Many Bible scholars conclude that David waited at least 27 years between when Samuel anointed him king and when he took the throne.
Israel waited 700 years between the time Isaiah shared God’s promises about the Messiah—the virgin birth, the wonderful name Immanuel, the example of suffering and servanthood and sacrifice—and Jesus’ birth in a manger. And 1,500 years would pass between the time Moses wrote about the Passover lamb and when Jesus revealed himself as the Lamb of God.
Paul waited for his sight to be restored. And John was still waiting for Christ’s return when he passed away in his 90s—some 65 years after Christ’s resurrection.
Patience and waiting, it seems, are part of believing.
During times of waiting, the Lord teaches us how to be more like him. Our God is many things—great and good, just and merciful, holy and pure, ageless and ancient, ever new, and patient. He is incredibly, indescribably patient.
Think about it: he waited thousands of years between the Fall and the First Coming, when “at just the right time,” he wrapped himself in human flesh with the sole purpose of dying in our place—to restore and rescue and redeem each of us.
He was patient enough to wait for me and you to answer his salvation call—an invitation written on our hearts and in creation, in his Word, in songs and sermons, in family and friends–an invitation we ignored far too long.
He was patient enough to revive and resuscitate my faith when it went cold, patient enough to keep whittling and chiseling away at the plaque that never stops building up around my heart.
And today, he is patiently waiting for all humankind. The Lord is patient with us, as Peter writes, “not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance . . . our Lord’s patience means salvation” (2 Peter 3:9-15).
Put another way, the longer he puts off his return, the more of the world will hear the Word. “He wants to give us the chance of joining his side freely,” C. S. Lewis observed. “God is holding back to give us that chance. It will not last forever.”
What a good—and patient—God.
But what about the practical side of patience? How can we cultivate patience in our day-to-day lives?
First, we should keep in mind that God is our Abba Father, our “Daddy.” Because of this, he is patient with us, like any good dad is with his child. No matter how many times we ask, “How long?” or “When?” he listens and answers. He is not angered by our questions, by our search, not even by our impatience. But like any good dad, he wants to teach us his ways and share his gifts. Patience is one of those gifts.
Second, we should remember that being patient is a way to be like him. His patience is a sign of his grace, and he has given us more than enough grace to share with others. So, perhaps we should see daily trials as opportunities to grow in faith and grow in patience. In other words, when people try our patience, God invites us to try patience. Instead of sighing and rolling our eyes when our patience is tested, we can pray for the absentminded guy in front of us at the grocery, or the boss who demands patience but never offers it, or the employee who’s overwhelmed by life, or the flustered teenage cashier behind the counter, or the aging bank teller, or the bureaucratic BMV employee, or the slow-motion cable technician, or the mechanic who promises the car is “almost ready.” And instead of saying something we’ll regret or doing something worse, we can remember that love is patient and God is love, which means we should go the extra mile for the friend who never meets us halfway; we should love the child who’s hardest to love; we should be gentle and humble and kind even when our spouse is not—because God has done and been all of these things for us.
Finally, we should remind ourselves that you and I have a proven track record of being patient. Even if you struggle with the fruit of the Spirit known as patience—even if you’re restless and in a hurry—you’ve been patient in one important way. Like Paul and John and all believers, you’ve been waiting for Christ’s return, patently waiting for him to make all things new. He promised us that he would return but he did not tell us when. As Philip Yancey wrote in The Jesus I Never Knew, “What the disciples experienced in small scale—three days in grief over one man who died on a cross—we now live through on cosmic scale. Human history grinds on, between the time of promise and fulfillment.”
This process of waiting is an expression of patience; both the process and the patience are gifts from God.
Alan Dowd writes at the crossroads of faith and public policy.