First Mennonite Church
August 19, 2018
Patience: A Reflection of God’s Character
Texts: James 5:7-11; Galatians 5:22a, and Exodus 34:1-9
The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience. . . .
Patience is often defined as “waiting without complaint.” But this definition seems to imply that being patient means having a passive posture in the face of adversity. There is not much moral obligation towards anyone if being patient is best achieved through inactivity. Patience according to such definition falls short of being a high virtue.
What then is the biblical definition of patience and who is the primary example of this virtue? In the Exodus we are told that as the Lord passed before Moses, the Lord described himself as “The compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness . . .” (34”6). The phrase “slow to anger” is “makrothumia” in the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible (LXX). God being “makrothumia,” slow to anger, is well illustrated in the situation in which God described himself that way. During the absence of Moses for 40 days when he went up on Mount Sinai to meet with God and to receive the tablets of the Commandments, the people of Israel created and worshipped the golden calf. God’s anger rose to the point of refusing to continue guiding the Israelites on the rest of their exodus journey. Moses’ response to what he saw when he came back did not help matters either. When Moses saw what the Israelites had done and were doing–that is worshipping the golden calf, the angry leader threw the tablet to the ground breaking them.
It was only after Moses had pleaded with God on behalf of the people that God made this statement about his character. “The Lord, the Lord, a God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.” In the first place, makrothumia reflects the virtue of being able to control ones anger even in the middle of the most offensive insult. The Israelites had replaced Yahweh with the golden calf and the worship due to Yahweh for his mighty works of deliverance was attributed to an image crafted with their own hands (Exodus 32:4).
The worse offense someone can bear is to be compared or called the lowest or worst imaginable thing. Just try to understand the heart of Yahweh. He had created a nation out of wondering man named Abraham (Deut. 26:5). He had delivered this man’s descendants through his works of wonders and outstretched arm. He was leading them to land he had promised them. And up to that point in the journey, he had provided them with sustenance and protection in the desert. Yet, the Israelites fashioned a golden calf and called it their deliverer and then celebrated and worshipped their idol. Yahweh as deliverer was not only ignored, but completely forgotten or ignored.
What has been the worse offense you have suffered? Some would prefer not remembering it because it might be extremely painful to remember. Makrothumia—patience is what empowers us to keep the journey along with others and sometimes even with those who might have offend us. Patience is what gives us the necessary grace to stay alongside others despite the challenges of walking and serving together.
As we can see, Makrothumia reflects the willingness to continue on the journey despite the hurtful past. Therefore, implicit in that willingness to stay together is forgiveness. And Yahweh clearly declared it as well. Verse seven reads: Keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin. Patience is demonstrated in the willingness to forgive the one who might offend us. Impatience and lack of forgiveness go hand in hand. The lack of patience and forgiveness has caused many church people to leave their faith communities. It is likely that those who prefer to leave is because they do not want to extend forgiveness to those who might have offended them. Impatience and lack of forgiveness have also splintered many families too. There are parents who cannot get along with their adult children or siblings who prefer not to see each other. In the case of churches, having patience is essential, not only for staying together but for everything necessary for spiritual growth and service. The words of the apostle Paul make that very clear when he wrote to the Colossian church: Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you (Colossians 3:12-13). The glue that keeps us together despite our differences and even interpersonal conflict is patience. Patience is best reflected in our willingness to forgive anyone who might offend us. God’s character of being slow to anger, which is patience, was reflected through his readiness to forgive the Israelites of their grievous offense. In the case of Yahweh, he stuck with Israel in their journey. He forgave their sin and walked with them as he had promised. The apostle Peter interpreted the delay of Jesus’ coming as a sign of his patience towards the unrepentant. Peter writes: The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance (2Peter 3:9).
The apostle James made an exhortation to those he wrote his letter. Be patient, then, brothers and sisters, until the Lord’s coming. James’ community might have started losing heart at what appeared to be a prolonged delay in the Lord’s coming. James called them to take notice of the hardworking farmers. They have to prepare the soil, plant the seeds, and wait for the seasonal rains before they can harvest a crop. Patience is not passive here. James then made the application. He then gave the following exhortation: You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near. Don’t grumble against one another, brothers and sisters, or you will be judged. The Judge is standing at the door! Grumbling is the first sign of impatience. But James reminds us not to grumble against our fellow brothers and sisters. Instead, James calls us to be patient with one another.
The other word found in the New Testament translated patience is hupomone. And James uses these two words next to each other. Hupomone and makrothumia are almost similar in meaning. One good illustration about the meaning of humpone is a rubber ball. If you set a heavy box on top of a rubber ball and then you retrieve the ball, the ball is likely to keep its rounded shape. Hupomone means staying calm, remaining whole in the midst of pain and suffering. But this kind of tranquility in the midst of suffering is not a call to stoicism. We are not called to deny our suffering or to pretend we are not affected by it. This call to remain calm in the midst of pain and suffering is because we know that God is our hope. Patience in this sense is grounded in the immovable hope we have in Jesus. He is our prime example of someone who trusted God even as he confronted his own death. James uses Job to illustrate that kind of patience. Job kept fearing God despite his loss and despite his suffering. Job said,
I know that my redeemer lives,
and that in the end he will stand on the earth.
And after my skin has been destroyed,
yet in my flesh I will see God;
I myself will see him
with my own eyes—I, and not another.
How my heart yearns within me! (Job 19:25-27).
To be patient is a very high calling. And we have that calling. But the good news is that we do not and cannot produce this virtue. Paul reminds us: The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience. . . . The Spirit of the Lord is in you my dear sister and brother. God has put in us his very nature and character. From the very beginning God revealed himself as the God slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness. In Christ we have been given the gift of the Holy Spirit. Let us allow God’s character to shine through us. Our world cannot receive this gift. It’s for you and me. Radiate the character of God. Live the fruit of the Spirit.
Let me close with the words of the apostle Paul, once again: Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. Amen!