Have you ever come across a word that you thought you understood completely until, well, you didn’t? Patience is that word for me. In fact, just for fun I asked a few people for a definition of patience. No two definitions agreed. The reason for my contemplation of patience stems from considering this attribute of God. Grasping the patience of God has me questioning my understanding of the word.
Patience seems an elusive word in general, though we toss it about often. I belong to a One Word (2021) group; we share our “word” of the year choices as well as our learning journey through the year. I love the accountability, but I love the idea of sharing the learning journey more. In case you’re wondering, my “word of the year” is NOT patience, it’s “Joy”, and you can read about it HERE. Interestingly, out of 107 current members of the group no one chose “patience” as their “One Word”. That fact adds even more intrigue to my understanding of the word, “patience”.
the problem with patience
My view of patience has always been more of an “endurance” mentality. If you “endure” trying things or circumstances, you are said to have “patience”. Of course the caveat remains that you do so “nicely” without getting upset or angry. I have had the honor of being described as “patient” on many occasions (if they only knew).
This type of understanding implies an element of ‘waiting”, such as waiting in traffic, a long line or waiting for a desired outcome or answer. The problem with this understanding of patience, in connection with grasping the patience of God is those things are never true of God.
We cannot say that God is patient about things, circumstances or waiting for an answer. God has no need of this type of patience; He already knows the beginning from the end. To use the Merriam-Webster definition of patience; “the capacity to accept or tolerate delay, trouble, or suffering without getting angry or upset”, in application to God, simply does not apply. Yet, we as human beings are created in the image of God, therefore if God is patient, we must reflect patience; the same type of patience. Arriving at the conclusion that my understanding of patience did not apply to God, challenged me to understand this attribute of God more fully.
the paradox of patience
Faced with a seeming paradox in my understanding of patience, I started paying closer attention to God’s displays of patience in the Bible. Grasping the patience of God is not about His enduring suffering or hard things, it’s about His long suffering towards people. Whenever God speaks about His patience or others speak about it, in the Old Testament the Hebrew word used is “erek”. We see this translated as “longsuffering”, “patience” or “slow to anger” in numerous Old Testament passages. The Greek word used in the New Testament is “makrothumeo”, seen translated as “longsuffering”, or “patient”. All of these references of the word in both the Old and New Testaments refer to “patience” towards people.
Specifically, God’s patience towards people is demonstrated in His forbearance to execute judgement. We see this first illustrated with Adam and Eve. In the face of their outright rebellion, He could have simply wiped them out and started over. Another illustration of God’s incredible patience met me in Genesis 18:22-33.
A well known passage where God tells Abraham of His intention to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah for their heinous sin. Though read many times, I realized this was after God destroyed the world with a flood due to the evilness of men. Sin did not cease to exist, because as God said, the intentions of our wicked hearts are evil continually. But how evil was the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah that God Himself came to destroy it? Yet, we know the exchange. Abraham besought God six times to spare the city for the sake of a small number of good people. Not only did God bear with Abraham’s repetitive pleas, but He agreed to spare the judgement of the city for ten righteous people.
picturing god’s patience
Honestly, the passage in Genesis 18 so impressed me, I couldn’t get it out of my mind for several days. It compelled me in my search at grasping God’s patience and the implications for my own life. What I didn’t realize was how little I not only understood about patience, but how little I understood God’s patience. As His children, we cannot exhaust His patience, and certainly my lifetime would not suffice to learn all there is about it. But allow me to share with you the blessings of my initial efforts.
God’s Patience is Displayed in His Sovereign Plan & Timing
We can all find verses, quotes and inspirational sayings reminding us about God’s sovereignty and that His plans will always be accomplished “on time”. We talk of God’s Will, and waiting on God’s time. But we express them from our point of view, in that we are “waiting” (patiently) for these things to be revealed. In Romans 9:20-24, we can see God’s patience revealed regarding His sovereign plan and perfect timing.
In verse 22, Paul tells us God has endured with much patience, those (vessels of wrath)who will never believe in Him. He does this as part of His purpose and plan for us, (vessels of mercy) that as Gentiles we might believe and receive salvation in the “fullness of time“. (Galatians 4:4).
God’s Patience Calms His Righteous Anger Resulting in Forgiveness
God’s patience is actually “who He is”. At the end of Exodus 33, Moses asks God to show him His glory. God tells Moses He will pass by Him to proclaim “His name”, hiding Moses in the cleft of a rock. God explained to Moses that no one could see His face and live, but God granted Moses’ request to see His glory. In Exodus 34:6-7, after God has Moses come up to Mt. Sinai for the second time to receive the Ten Commandments, He shows Moses “his glory”.
Remarkably what God reveals about Himself to Moses is that He is gracious, merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, forgiving iniquity and sin. As a result of God’s patience; being “slow to anger” (erek) He is able to offer forgiveness. Remember, this declaration comes after the incident with the golden calf. We see this illustrated again in Nehemiah 9:16-17, where Nehemiah prays for the remnant by acknowledging their rebellion, God’s right to be angry, and quotes this same verse from Exodus.
God’s patience displays His great love for mankind
God’s Patience Distinguishes His Love
Not only is God’s patience displayed in His sovereign plan and timing, it also calms His righteous anger making forgiveness possible. But it equally distinguishes His love for mankind. 1 John 4:8 tells us “God is Love”, what does that look like? 1 Corinthians 13:4 answers that question, “Love is patient, Love is kind. The first thing God tells us about His love, is that it is “patient”, secondly “kind”. The remainder of the description are all “negatives”, this is a unique characteristic of the Greek language. The Greek uses the next 8 attributes in the negative to describe what patient and kind look like.
God’s Patience Draws Repentance
God’s patience or forbearance both with us and those who do not know Him, draws us to Him. Sometimes we wonder why God does not bring immediate justice or judgement when we see evil in this world. At the same time we forget that He is likewise patient with us, in our own sin. Romans 2:4 reminds us that God’s kindness, His “forbearance”, brings us to repentance. In 2 Peter 3:9, God makes it clear His desire is that all should come to repentance.
This does not mean God will not judge sin, it means He chooses to forbear, to demonstrate patience rather than judgement. It is this undeserved forbearance that draws men to Him, both in salvation and repentance. Grasping the patience of God through this window helps us understand His ultimate love for mankind.
Patience as Displayed by God is a Fruit of the Spirit
This type of patience towards people is unnatural; we are not born with the ability for this type of patience. I’m sure we can all testify to the fact that this is an area of great struggle. Perhaps the very reason people don’t choose “patience” as their word of the year! Patience towards things and circumstances, the “waiting” kind of patience is produced by experiencing hard situations. This is illustrated in James 1:2-3 where James tells us to count it all “joy” when we meet temptations and trials for they produce “patience” in our lives.
But patience towards people as God demonstrates must come through the Holy Spirit’s presence and working in our lives. God in us, produces His patience through us.
Grasping the patience of god
Essentially, an attempt at grasping the patience of God gifts us with a glimpse of His heart. His patience demonstrated toward people, towards “us” is rooted in His overwhelming, amazing love for the world. He forbears not just with those who know Him, but those who do not, and may never come to Him.
His interaction with Abraham reminded me how patient He remains with my endless questions, limited knowledge and failures. He is the God of the universe, yet sat in patience allowing Abraham to question Him repetitively, and ultimately changed His plan!
I sit in awe of such love displayed in the patience of God toward sinful man. For truly, patience is love. As I consider the undeserved goodness shown me by God’s patience, how can I not desire that same patience to flow through me to others? May I yield to the transforming work of the Holy Spirit as He conforms me to bear the fruit of patience towards others.