Character Traits of the Spiritual Life: Patience

Character Traits of the Spiritual Life:


Richard Hollerman

Most devoted people say that they would like to have patience, but few of them attain this virtue.  Even secular people look on patience as a desirable trait.  It seems to run counter to our rushed lifestyle and also counter to the exasperation that people have when people or things aggravate them.  God knows that we need patience and gives much instruction on the subject.  Patience is one of the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) and we should do all we can to grow into deeper levels of this heavenly quality.

The Greek noun is makrothumeo, meaning “forbearance, patience, longsuffering.”  It comes from macros, “long,” and thumos, “temper,” thus “long tempered.”  It would be the opposite of our term, “short-tempered.”  The verb is makrothume, meaning “to be patient, longsuffering, to bear with.”[i][i]  Hogg and Vine discuss patience in this way:

Longsuffering is that quality of self-restraint in the face of provocation which does not hastily retaliate or promptly punish; it is the opposite of anger, and is associated with mercy, and is used of God, Exodus 34:6 (Sept.); Romans 2:4; 1 Peter 3:20.  Patience is the quality that does not surrender to circumstances or succumb under trial; it is the opposite of despondency and is associated with hope. . . .[ii][ii]

Richards explains the term in this way: “The Greek word group . . . focuses our attention on restraint; that capacity for self-control despite circumstances that might arouse the passions or cause agitation.  In personal relationships, patience is forbearance. . . . patience also has to do without reaction to the troubles we experience in life.”[iii][iii]  T. K. Abbott says that patience is “the self-restraint which does not hastily retaliate a wrong.”  Plummer the commentator says that it is “the forbearance which endures injuries and evil deeds without being provoked to anger or revenge.”[iv][iv]  The Greek combines several different ideas:

The Greek term translated “longsuffering” speaks of endurance despite the taunts and injuries inflicted by others.  It contains the ideas of patience, tolerance, forbearance, and restraint—mainly in the midst of painful or irritating trials.[v][v]

The Lord is a patient God.  He is “slow to anger” (Exodus 34:6; Nehemiah 9:17; Psalm 103:8; 86:15; 145:8).  At first Jonah tried to escape the Lord’s command to call Nineveh to repent, for he said, “You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, and one who relents concerning calamity” (Jonah 4:2).  Yahweh was a patient God.

The New Testament brings out this aspect of God’s character quite clearly.  We are to “regard the patience of our Lord as salvation” (2 Peter 3:15).  Scripture refers to “the riches of His kindness and tolerance and patience” (Romans 2:4). Peter says that “the patience of God kept waiting in the days of Noah, during the construction of the ark,” so that the world of the disobedient might repent and be saved (1 Peter 3:20).

Paul recounts his coming to Christ by saying, “I found mercy, so that in me as the foremost, Jesus Christ might demonstrate His perfect patience as an example for those who would believe in Him for eternal life” (1 Timothy 1:16).  Often people have taken hope in their own condition as they remember how patient Christ was to Paul even though he was a violent aggressor of the early Christians (1 Timothy 1:13). If he could be saved, then we also can be.  Why does God withhold his judgment and not return to consummate world history?  Because of His patience!  “The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).  You may be saved today because of the Savior’s great patience!

The Word of God urges us to be patient with others and our trying circumstances.  We are to have “patience, showing tolerance for one another in love” (Ephesians 4:2; cf. 2 Corinthians 6:6).  As Paul describes the varied aspects and expressions of love, he began, “Love is patient” (1 Corinthians 13:4).  If we have a genuine, outgoing, caring love for another person, we will be patient with him.  The apostle even says for us to “be patient with everyone” (1 Thessalonians 5:14).  He tells Timothy, his young “son” in the faith, “Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction” (2 Timothy 4:2; cf. 3:10).  He prays that the Colossian saints will attain “all steadfastness and patience” (1:11).

The Hebrew writer says that Abraham “patiently waited” and thus “obtained the promise” of God (6:15).  We also are to have this attitude: “. . . so that you will not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises” (6:12). Barclay observes, “It may be that the hardest lesson of all to learn is how to wait, how to wait when nothing seems to be happening, and when all the circumstances seem calculated to bring nothing but discouragement.”[vi][vi]  This is when we must have “faith and patience” and so “inherit the promises.”

How will this patience be manifested?  If we have patience, we will show tolerance for one another in love (Ephesians 4:2; Colossians 3:12).  The patient person will be slow to anger (Proverbs 19:11), and those who are slow to anger “calms a dispute” (15:18).  Barclay comments, “The man whose temper is on a hair-trigger destroys friendship and fellowship; the man whose temper is under control cements fellowship, and refuses to allow strife to arise.”[vii][vii]  A patient man will bring peace to a situation, for we read, “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (15:1).  Again, notice how patience deals with impatience and anger: “He who is slow to anger has great understanding, but he who is quick-tempered exalts folly” (14:29).

If we are patient, we also will face adverse circumstances in a right way.  It has been said that “patience is accepting a difficult situation from God without giving Him a deadline to remove it. . . . Patience is a reward for properly responding to trials and tribulations.”[viii][viii]  We find “favor with God” if we “do what is right and suffer for it” and then “patiently endure it” (1 Peter 2:20).  Are we willing to be “patient” when we are harmed or when people take advantage of us?  Are we “patient” when we are restricted in some way?  How do we handle those who are slow when we want to do something quickly?  How do we handle someone who drives before us slowly when we want to drive faster?  How do we deal with a child who is a slow learner when we really would like him to learn quickly and well?  Do we accept changes of circumstances from the Lord and broken dreams without becoming frustrated and angry?  Do we “patiently endure” such disappointments, restrictions, and changes of plans?  How patient are you?

During your daily life, how do you handle unwanted circumstances?  Do you react against them or respond to them?  How do you handle waiting in a long line at the supermarket?  What do you think when you must wait at least two hours to have a prescription filled at the pharmacy?  Do you handle well a two-minute delay at the red light?  Do you become perturbed when you must take a two mile detour from your normal drive to work?  How do you handle a ten-minute delay at the railroad tracks?  What do you think when you must remain on “hold” for seven minutes when you want to get through?  How do you handle a one-hour delay at the doctor’s office?  Patience is needed in our everyday life situations and it is there that the Holy Spirit’s work in our character will be revealed.


[i][i] W. E. Vine, Expository Dictionary. See also William Barclay, Flesh and Spirit (London: SCM Press, 1962), p. 91

[ii][ii] From Notes on Thessalonians, quoted in W. E. Vine, Expository Dictionary.

[iii][iii] Expository Dictionary.

[iv][iv] Quoted by Barclay, Flesh and Spirit, pp. 91-92.

[v][v] MacArthur, The Quest for Character, p. 90.

[vi][vi] Barclay, Flesh and Spirit, p. 96.

[vii][vii] Ibid., p. 93.

[viii][viii] The Power of True Success, p. 141.



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