The Virtue of Patience

Waiting without complaining
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While the patience of Christ is exceptional in many respects, the basic features of this virtue are surely the same wherever it appears. Patience involves such things as self-control, humility, and generosity, all of which are themselves virtues. So one might say that patience is a virtue because it's an exercise of several other virtues.

The Varieties of Patience

What are the different contexts in which patience is demonstrated? One way to distinguish types of patience is based upon the nature of the discomfort involved. The following threefold distinction can be made.

The first type is the patience needed when facing a nuisance of some kind. A person or a set of circumstances really irritates you, and you'd love to complain about it, but you hold your tongue, knowing that such a grievance would be petty or simply compound the problem. That person at the office who is so insufferably annoying doesn't, after all, mean to pester you. And what good will it do to moan about those potholes on your street? So you quietly endure these things. Did you know you were being virtuous in doing so?

A second type of patience is called for when facing boredom. Those who fall into a rut at work or at home often experience discomfort over the uneventful routine. To those who don't struggle with boredom, it might seem absurd to suggest it can be a serious trial. But those who endure the plague of drab routine without complaint exhibit the virtue of patience.

A third type of patience is the most serious and significant. It is the patience required when one suffers in some way, either physically or psychologically. If you're struggling with some disease or mental illness, then patience is required of you. Or if you must assist someone else who suffers, a family member or friend, then you are called upon to be patient. Whether you bear the burden of affliction directly or indirectly, your challenge is to endure that discomfort. This doesn't mean you shouldn't cry out in your distress. Scripture, in fact, advises us to do just that, so it's appropriate because the degree of discomfort in some situations warrants complaint. But this raises some important questions: What is a complaint? And which complaints are worthy?

Is It Ever Okay to Complain?

To complain is to make known one's irritation or frustration about some matter. This doesn't necessarily imply that we should say anything out loud. Usually we complain by speaking directly about the circumstance that bothers us. But we also complain in nonverbal ways, with a sigh, a huff, a shake of the head, or a roll of the eyes. Many of us are quite expert at communicating our irritation in subtle ways to those closest to us, through means that most people wouldn't recognize as complaining. But our target complainee (the person we complain to) gets the message, and that's all that matters.

Which complaints, then, are worthy? Certainly it's legitimate to raise objections about conditions that are clearly unjust or impractical and need to be changed. But grumbling over things that are merely annoying or against one's personal wishes is petty. And complaining about things that cannot be changed doesn't qualify as a legitimate protest. So a worthy complaint is one that is neither petty nor pointless.

Complaint to God is inappropriate only when its cause is insignificant. Major physical and psychological afflictions are significant, so patiently enduring them may actually involve complaint. Thus, complaining to God in prayer in such cases is not vicious but virtuous. It is a useful complaint to someone who is sovereign and therefore in control of whatever concerns us. The Psalms feature several examples of godly complaints, such as the following:

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