The fourth character quality growing on the tree in the Spirit’s garden is—well, it depends on whom you ask. The KJV calls it “longsuffering”; the NIV, “forbearance”; and the other major English translations, “patience.”
Hardly anybody uses the word “longsuffering” anymore—at least, outside of church. Same with “forbearance.” But “patience” we understand.
It’s not losing your temper. It’s not letting the fact that you’re in a hurry turn you into a jerk. It’s taking a deep breath and just waiting your turn.
Interestingly, this word seems to be used particularly of how we interact with people. There’s a different word, “endurance,” for bearing up under difficult circumstances. This one’s about people.
In the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew/Aramaic Old Testament, this word is reliably used to translate a Hebrew word that means, literally, “long of nostrils”—that is, someone whose nose is so long that it takes a long time for it to get red with anger.
And if the concept strikes us as a little comical, it really shouldn’t; God himself claims it as one of his central attributes:
“The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; 7 who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations” (Ex 34.6-7).
I’ve written a series of posts on this passage in the past. Spoiler alert: God controls himself perfectly and infinitely, allowing 4 generations of descendants to feel the natural consequences of their forebears’ sins, but extending mercy for 1,000 generations—in human terms, forever—because he is “slow to anger”: the end of his nose doesn’t quickly get red.
And as God enables us, through the work of his Spirit, to follow his example in this regard, we should consider what that looks like: God, who is, like us, an emotional being, is revulsed by the pervasive and persistent sins of his creatures, those who bear his image and wallow in his common grace, but does not lose his temper, does not strike out in frustration, does not become the servant rather than the master of his wrath. Though the anger is righteous, and deserved by those creatures, God persists in grace and mercy and forgiveness, for thousands of years, until the day—the right day, the perfect day—when all that anger is unleashed in the only place, and in the only way, and on the only person, by which righteousness and deliverance could be accomplished.
Our anger, such as it is, should look like that. It should be rightly motivated, controlled, and purposeful.
That’s hard for us, because we get frustrated.
Has it ever occurred to you why that is?
It’s because things are not perfectly under our control; we’re not sovereign.
God is sovereign. He never gets frustrated, because he has no meaningful obstacles.
Frustration is a sign and consequence of our limitations—limitations we’ll have until the day we die, and some of which we’ll have even after that.
But as we grow in the Spirit, he enables us to see past our limitations to God’s sovereignty—to trust the wisdom and goodness of his plans for us, and to learn to trust his time scale rather than imposing our own. He’s not in a hurry, because he doesn’t have to be.
If I have a choice between trusting somebody who’s calmly and purposefully moving pieces on a chessboard, or somebody who’s beating himself over the head with the same chessboard, I’m going with the calm one every time.
For most of my life I’ve been a very aggressive driver—and I have the citations to prove it. (For a while I considered trying to get one in every state. I did get citations from two different countries in Africa; I’m an internationally renowned citationist.) As I age, I find that I’m getting less aggressive. It’s not that I’m not in a hurry anymore—my schedule nowadays is as busy as ever—but I’ve come to realize that in past years I’ve almost never needed to be in hurry; I just always was. There’s great joy in letting someone else go ahead of you and getting “the wave.” There’s joy in enjoying the ride and not having white knuckles when you get there.
Is that the Spirit’s work? Well, I’m not inclined to think that the tendency comes from inside me.