Between 1962 and 1967, Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan served as the second president of India. It's said that on one occasion, addressing his community, he challenged the Christians who were listening by commenting, “You claim that Jesus Christ is your Savior. But you do not appear to be more saved than anyone else.” In other words, “I hear your story, but I’m not seeing the evidence.”
A little poem raises the same issue:
You are writing a gospel, a chapter each day,
By the deeds that you do, by the words that you say.
Men read what you write, whether faithless or true.
Say, what is the gospel according to you?1
Radhakrishnan’s statement and this poem both point out that one of the places the impact of the good news of Jesus is most evident is in and through the lives of those who embody its message. If our confession of faith is accompanied by a life of love when relationships are tough, joy when sorrow runs deep, peace when turmoil invades, and patience when times try us, that often causes people to wonder about and to be attracted to the hope that is in us (1 Peter 3:15).
The impact of the good news of Jesus is most evident is in and through the lives of those who embody its message.
In our consideration of the fruit of the Spirit, we have arrived at patience, which is arguably one of its most frequently tested facets. In a hurried culture, hardly a moment goes by when our patience isn’t tested by a crisis, interruption, or bump in the road. To aid us in our understanding of patience as the fruit of the Spirit, we will consider together (1) how patience is defined, (2) how patience is developed, and (3) how patience demonstrated.
How Patience Is Defined
While the Oxford English Dictionary could offer us a fine definition of the word patience, we are really better off beginning with God and His revelation of Himself. Let’s consider, then, how the Bible treats the concept of patience.
The Old Testament
When God reveals Himself to His people in the Old Testament, He consistently does so in terms that point us to His wondrous patience. For example, when God reveals Himself to Moses after He reinscribes the Ten Commandments, this is His self-proclamation:
The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation. (Ex. 34:6–7)
This self-revelation of God, shades of which are often repeated throughout the Old Testament, tells us of God’s tremendous patience toward us. Indeed, the story of Israel, the unfolding drama of the Bible, is one of His great mercy, forbearance, and kindness.
We see another example of God’s patience in Jonah. There, as we know, after God calls Jonah to preach to Nineveh, the prophet gets himself in a whale of a problem. But when he is finally spat up and reconfigured, he finally does what God told him to do—and miraculously, the people respond, and many of them repent. But how does Jonah respond?
O LORD, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. (Jonah 4:2)
In other words, Jonah knew that God would have patient mercy on people who didn’t deserve it. Perhaps Jonah, along with us, would have done well to ponder what we all really deserve from God. And yet God is still patient beyond anything we can fathom.
The prophets restate the patience motif again and again. At one point, for example, Isaiah, speaking from God, confronts the people and points out the foolishness of their rebellion:
They are a rebellious people,
children unwilling to hear
the instruction of the LORD. (30:9)
Against such disobedience, you might expect that God, in His justice, would enact immediate judgment and punishment. But here is what He says:
Therefore the LORD waits to be gracious to you,
and therefore he exalts himself to show mercy to you.
For the LORD is a God of justice;
blessed are all those who wait for him. (30:18)
Certainly, there are times when God must judge—and severely, at that. In this case, however, His justice is paired with and demonstrated by His matchless patience.
The New Testament
The New Testament adds even more clarity to the picture of God’s patience for us—especially as Jesus Christ, the very embodiment of patience itself, steps enfleshed into history.
The apostle Peter clues us in to the fact that some may be prone to mistake the Lord’s patience for inability or indifference: “Where is the promise of his coming?” he imagines them asking (2 Peter 3:4). But then he provides us the answer: “The Lord is . . . patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” What may appear to some as slowness is actually abundant grace, mercy, and love for the least deserving.
God has perfect patience for imperfect sinners.
Similarly, when the apostle Paul tells his testimony, he admits to his sordid past, identifying himself as a “blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent” of the gospel (1 Tim. 1:13). Yet he also testifies to the Lord’s bountiful patience: “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 Tim. 1:16).
In short, the New Testament affirms the glorious truth that God has perfect patience for imperfect sinners.
How Patience Is Developed
If our heavenly Father dispenses such patience to us, then He rightly expects us to share His patience with others too. So how can we go about putting on or clothing ourselves with patience, as God calls us to? Our patience won’t be perfect like His, of course. But we ought still to reflect some measure of the gifts He has poured out on us.
James opens his epistle with these words regarding faith and hardship: “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness” (1:2–3). The word rendered “steadfastness” in the ESV could also be translated “patience,” as it is in the KJV. So, according to James, it is actually life’s friction—the testing of our faith—that produces patience. He goes on to say that this trial-by-fire sort of patience causes us to be “lacking in nothing” (v. 4).
But the benefit we receive from trials and difficulties still depends on how we look at and handle them. In and of themselves, trials can’t form patience in us. It is God’s Spirit who increasingly produces that patience within us, and it’s the same Spirit who enables us to “put to death” our sinful tendencies (Rom. 8:13) and “walk in a manner worthy of the Lord” (Col. 1:10).
Since God grants forgiveness to the truly penitent, one of the evidences of being truly penitent is the ability to show a forgiving spirit to others—especially those who have offended us.
To show us how patience is formed, Charles Spurgeon once preached a sermon that used the picture of a ruggedly handsome, weather-beaten sailor:
You look at the weather-beaten sailor, the man who is at home on the sea: he has a bronzed face and mahogany-coloured flesh, he looks as tough as heart of oak, and as hardy as if he were made of iron. How different from us poor landsmen. How did the man become so inured to hardships, so able to breast the storm, so that he does not care whether the wind blows south-west or north-west? He can go out to sea in any kind of weather; he has his sea legs on: how did he come to this strength? By doing business in great waters. He could not have become a hardy seaman by tarrying on shore. Now, trial works in the saints that spiritual hardihood which cannot be learned in ease. You may go to school for ever, but you cannot learn endurance there: you may colour your cheek with paint, but you cannot give it that ingrained brown which comes of stormy seas and howling winds. Strong faith and brave patience come of trouble, and a few men in the church who have thus been prepared are worth anything in time of tempest. To reach that condition of firm endurance and sacred hardihood is worth all the expense of all the heaped-up troubles that ever come upon us from above or from beneath. When trial worketh patience we are incalculably enriched.2
How Patience Is Demonstrated
Once the wind and waves begin to shape us a bit, how do we demonstrate patience in real life? There are countless ways for us to extend God’s patience to others, but here’s an easy place to begin: since God grants forgiveness to the truly penitent, one of the evidences of being truly penitent is the ability to show a forgiving spirit to others—especially those who have offended us.
How often are we like the unforgiving servant who chokes his fellow servant, demanding what he’s owed even after the master had forgiven him an incalculable debt (Matt. 18:23–35)? How many of us would say all too readily with Margaret Thatcher, “I am extraordinarily patient, provided I get my own way in the end”? May it not be so for us.
Our Lord Jesus Christ had “perfect patience” on us (1 Tim. 1:16), even though we were stone-cold “dead in our trespasses” (Eph. 2:5). We will never match such patience, no question. But in the power of the Spirit, we can build up a surplus of patience that overflows to other undeserving sinners and saints, pointing them to our gracious God in times of hardship and need as well as in the midst of the mundane.
1 Commonly attributed to Paul Gilbert.
2 C. H. Spurgeon, “All Joy in All Trials,” The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit 29, no. 1704, 82.