Patience is that fruit of the Spirit which nearly everyone admits to needing, but which we are all reluctant to develop. “Don’t pray for patience,” people jokingly say. “God will put you in scenarios to grow it.” Our struggle with patience actually reveals our need of divine enablement. Patience is truly a gospel gift for our spiritual growth.
The word Paul uses here can be literally translated as “long-tempered.” We might think of similar ideas like “long-suffering” or “forbearance.” Christopher Wright helps to unpack the term theologically and practically when he offers these suggestions:
The ability to endure for a long time whatever opposition and suffering may come our way, and to show perseverance without wanting retaliation or revenge.
The ability to put up with the weaknesses and foibles of others (including other believers), and to show forbearance toward them, without getting quickly irritated or angry enough to want to fight back. (Cultivating the Fruit of the Spirit, 69)
Patience, then, involves a willingness to endure hardship (at whatever level). It is a “tough” word, says Wright. “It demands strength and stamina” (70).
We can readily think of numerous occasions where patience is required, tried, and often found wanting. Nearly any scenario involving traffic requires patience. Doing math homework with my daughter always tests my patience. Resolving a disagreement surely involves patience. As does learning a new job, teaching your kids to drive, and developing healthy habits. Patience is difficult, in some scenarios it seems downright impossible. Our own internal default setting is towards selfishness. We want things our way, and we want them right away. So, my anger at my kids is often more about my inconvenience than their disobedience. Patience is not a natural setting, it’s a gospel result.
God is our example. Throughout the Old Testament we find God regularly demonstrating His own patience towards sinful humanity. He reveals himself and is referred to as one who is “slow to anger” (Ex. 34:6; Num. 14:18; Neh. 9:17; Ps. 86:15; Ps. 103:8; Ps. 145:8; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2; Nahum 1:3). Contrary to the popular vision of an angry and capricious deity, Yahweh in the Old Testament is regularly long-suffering and patient. Regularly He forgives Israel for her rebellion (Mic. 7:18-19), and He pleads with His people to repent (Jer. 25:3-4). God bears with sinners a long time, in fact this very idea is at the heart of the Old Testament prophet’s description of the Suffering Servant.
Christopher Wright helpfully notes the connection between God’s patience and the Suffering Servant. He describes patience as being able to “bear or carry” the weight of another’s offense. This is literally what God does, and it is what He sends His servant to do in Isaiah 53. There we read:
Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; (v. 4a)
and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (v. 6b)
yet he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors. (v. 12c)
So when God is patient, when God forgives, it is only because God chooses to carry our sins himself, to bear the weight and cost of them on his own shoulders. And that, of course, is precisely what Jesus did for us on the cross. (74)
The patience of God is the gospel.
This applies too in the NT as Jesus fulfills what the OT promised. Peter describes it perfectly in 1 Peter 2:
He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. 23 When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. 24 He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. (v. 22-24)
Jesus demonstrates unappalled patience as he suffers for sinners, enduring their wrath and putting up with their abuse from the cross. Christ is the perfect model of patience, and that’s precisely how Peter sees Him: as our example. So, in verse 21 he states plainly:
21 For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.
We are to emulate the patience of Christ, but that of course will require the work of God’s Spirit in us.
How do we come to emulate the example of Christ’s patience? How do we become people marked by patience? How do we fulfill the call to long-suffering placed upon believers (Eph. 4:1-2; Col. 3:13)? Only by resting in the gospel of grace and the Spirit of power. Patience can only come to us out of the gospel. This fruit of the Spirit is only found in our relation to the Spirit through the saving work of Christ. The gospel is the model and the means of developing this fruit. Where you and I are prone to be quick-tempered, impatient, restless, and irritable we look afresh to example of Jesus and the power granted to us through His death.
If we strive to white knuckle our way towards patient we will easily become more and more irritated. Certainly we must seek to cultivate this fruit in our lives. We can do so by means of serving others, and habituated self-denial. But we cannot give to ourselves the power of patience. The fruit must always be an outworking of the gospel applied to our hearts. I can only emulate Jesus’ patience when my selfish heart has been impacted by His selfless love. It is the gospel which gives us the ability to be patient and so we must return regularly to the cross of Christ.