Throughout 20 years of pastoral ministry, I’ve heard a number of people say something to this effect: “Don’t pray for patience. If you do, God will give you a difficult experience to teach you.”
I’ve always found this to be an odd comment to make.
One problem is that this attitude reveals a terrible image of a God who would essentially punish us for taking our faith more seriously. Another problem is that patience is a fruit of the Spirit described by Paul in Galatians 5:22-23, and I’ve never heard people talk about the other qualities in that list (love, joy, peace, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control) in the same way.
What is it about patience that makes something God intends for good seem so bad?
A quick search of the Bible reveals 15-30 occurrences of the word “patience” (depending on the translation) and these primarily fall into two broad categories: God’s patience so that persons might be saved, and patience as our response to difficulty or suffering. This article focuses on the second category, using Colossians 1:9-14 for our study.
“Give me patience, and give it to me now!”
Part of our reluctance to desire patience could be that our attitude toward it is overly shaped by the nuisances of life that are simply common to us all. It is difficult to see any spiritual benefit emerging from being stuck in traffic, or dealing with an underachieving child, or trying to hold our tongue when someone is being rude. As frustrating as these situations can be, however, they might be better seen as requiring self-control—a related, but not identical, Christian virtue.
Other discussions of patience tend to focus on things like uncertain job situations or challenging medical diagnoses. If, for instance, we lost our job and weren’t sure how we would provide for our family, would we compromise our faith in order to obtain some money? If we or someone we loved were to experience a debilitating injury or illness, would we maintain our faith in God? Or is our faith dependent on life basically working out for us?
Circumstances like these that tempt us to compromise or abandon our faith get closer to what Paul has in mind in our passage from Colossians. It is clear from the opening verses of the epistle that the Christians in this congregation are doing well. Paul reports with great enthusiasm that he has “heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints” (v. 4), and assures the Colossians that they have been “transferred . . . into the kingdom of his beloved Son” (v. 14). Their faith is both strong and growing, and this is evident to all who know them.
But their faith was not lived in isolation from the demands Roman culture placed upon them, especially when it came to pledging loyalty to the empire. Being a Christian in the New Testament era was not without risk, and so part of Paul’s prayer is that they will “endure everything with patience” (v. 11). What might “everything” refer to? Quite possibly situations like those already mentioned. But it could also refer to situations where Roman culture demanded an allegiance from them that their Christian faith would not allow—like confessing Caesar as Lord or accepting required military service.
The “kingdom” of Rome remained on display all around them, and its presence raised a serious question: If life in Christ became risky, which kingdom would they trust more—the kingdom of Rome or the kingdom of God? How would they patiently endure suffering that might come for remaining loyal to Christ and the church?
Pray for patience anyway
If we have determined to allow our faith in Jesus to dictate the manner of our living, patience might become as difficult a virtue as those who view it with skepticism suspect, but for different reasons. Patience isn’t undesirable because God will cause something bad to happen to us as a lesson; patience is how we will encounter the faith-challenging experiences of life with the values of the kingdom of God. Like the Colossians, we too live in the kingdom of God even as our physical residence is in the “kingdom” of America. One way we encounter a tension between these kingdoms is in our attitude toward violence. The values of our day teach us that there are only two ways to respond to violence: fight or flight. But Brethren have come to understand a third way, a way described by Catholic peacemaker John Dear as “meticulous nonviolence toward all others” (The Nonviolent Life, p. 66).
So when, for instance, we are faced with how to respond to enemies, we could attack others with harmful words, or defend ourselves with a gun we’ve chosen to carry, or assume the military offers the only means of protecting our nation. But the third way of living in God’s kingdom involves “consciously cultivating an attitude of nonviolence toward everyone on the planet” (p. 67). This requires patience, because the nonviolence of God’s kingdom is hard and slow.
As Stuart Murray writes,
[As] followers of Jesus, the Prince of Peace, we choose to believe that his way of nonviolent love is ultimately more realistic than embracing violence. Whether or not nonviolent alternatives are more effective in the short term, or even the medium term, peace churches are signs of the coming kingdom of God. We choose to align ourselves with the future to which God is leading history
(The Naked Anabaptist, p. 129).
Patience is not only a passive quality that enables us to quietly endure annoying or difficult circumstances; it is a means by which we give active witness to another way of living. Patience shapes us for living in the kingdom of God even as the values of the kingdoms of this world compete for our allegiance, and even when these other options seem to offer more compelling solutions to the challenges of living. Patience allows us to work with people and circumstances over the long haul, trusting that “the future to which God is leading history” is worth investing in today.
So go ahead, pray for patience.
For further reading
The Naked Anabaptist: The Bare Essentials of a Radical Faith, by Stuart Murray. A challenging and helpful analysis of core anabaptist beliefs, including how peacemaking is a vital faith practice of today’s church.
The Nonviolent Life. More than just another book on peacemaking, this book by John Dear challenges us to be transformed persons who practice nonviolence toward all people, all creatures, and all creation.
Tim Harvey is pastor of Oak Grove Church of the Brethren in Roanoke, Va. He was moderator of the 2012 Annual Conference.