This post has been a long time coming! It has been a lesson in patience.
What does it mean to say that patience is a fruit of the Spirit?
This requires more than reflection on what patience is. It also means thinking about what is good about being patient: especially in the face of things that actually should cause us to work urgently for change. How does that connect with patience? And then there is the question of how you get to be patient. How does the Spirit produce this fruit?
Just what do we mean by patience?
In the biblical texts, one of the key ideas seems to be ‘endurance’. Many texts seem to encourage people to endure, waiting for what God has promised—usually in terms of their deliverance from persecution or other suffering. Often the sense is that this delivery may not be within this life. Faithful people patiently live their lives in the hope that their trust in God is not in vain. Either in this life, or in the next, they will be rewarded or fulfilled. So the general idea goes.
But this is not the only meaning of patience. It seems to reduce faith to a kind of stoic endurance, living with gritted teeth.
There are other senses which I find more hopeful, and more creative.
Let me pose the question: If patience is a virtue, can we apply this virtue to God? Is God patient, or is it only humans who are called to be patient?
What would it imply, to attribute patience to God?
First, we face the puzzle that patience seems to imply time: it is about enduring, through time, and with a quality of hopefulness, perhaps tranquility, as opposed to a fretful, anxious attitude to whatever needs to be endured. If we were to apply this idea of patience to God, we imply that God experiences time. Does God feel the passing of time as we do?
This is a really good question to think about, because it drives home the extent to which we think of God in our own image, as if God is a person like us. To say that God feels the passing of time as we do, and that God ‘waits patiently’ (or not) is to speak of God as if God is subject to time, or ‘within’ time—as if time and history happens to God.
Frankly, that is too small an idea of God.
Yet there is a positive sense in which I would like to attribute ‘patience’ to God, and it is this. It seems appropriate to think of God as working creatively towards God’s objectives and purposes, and not being swayed by resistance, the ‘hardness of heart’ or the slowness of people to understand, to grasp the bigger picture and so on. We see this in the Gospels’ depiction of Jesus.
In this sense, we might say that God is patient, working towards creative possibilities, and not always with a short term, ‘quick fix’ approach.
There is another interesting sense in which we might think of God as patient.
The noun ‘patient’ is used today only for people who are clients of medical services. We are called a patient when in hospital, at the doctor’s or the dentist.
There, we usually do a lot of waiting!
But the significant meaning here is that we are attending, waiting, and reaching out for our health, or well-being. To be a patient is to be a person who receives care and who is engaged towards healing or growth, even if that may mean our eventual demise, in the hands of good people caring for us. We are patiently engaging with life, and may do so even as we die.
One of the significant elements of this sense of ‘patient’ is that we allow ourselves to receive, to be subject to the reality of our illness or need, and also allow ourselves to be variously subject to others: sometimes they stick things into us, or cut things out of us, they touch us and in some instances control even our most fundamental activities—our breathing, our heart and brain and so forth. We are in their hands. Daily, my wife puts people to sleep , for surgery, and their lives are in her hands.
Can we think of God as ‘patient’ in this way? Does God submit to, and in some sense attend upon us, the creation, the movement of history, human choices and so on?
Some would say not: one view of God’s sovereignty is that God cannot be subject to what we do, what we decide, and so forth.
Another view holds, in a metaphorical way at least, that God chooses to be subject to our freedom and our choices, and so is in a sense like a patient, waiting upon us, as well as also active and creative, in the ways we have said earlier. (So this is not quite the same as a helpless, bed-ridden patient.)
Just as in an ideal sense doctor and patient co-operate in the healing sought, so we might think of God as both creative healer and, in perhaps a secondary or derivative sense, also like a patient, subject to the co-operation of others.
I do find it helpful to think of the Spirit as patient in this sense. At the beginning of time, in the Genesis account, the Spirit hovered over the waters, the undefined reality and potential of all that is: waiting, attending, becoming. The Spirit is like the waiting woman, whose child is yet to be born. This is one of the very best images of the Spirit and of divine patience. Possibly, more than anything else, this is why an ancient saying suggests that patience a virtue often found in women and not in men.
The Spirit does invite us into creative waiting, and into allowing that we do not control everything: we are subject to what happens, to what others choose, and still we can live and respond with hope, as the Spirit enables patience.