Every day brings us an array of things that try our patience. You buy something that needs to be assembled and the instructions don't make sense. You're out on a golf course and you hit a straight drive; but when you get to where it ought to be lying, it's not there. You toss 16 socks into a clothes dryer and you get only 15 back.
As God's chosen ones, says Paul, clothe yourselves with patience. When we are clothed with patience we can absorb nuisances. We can absorb them without fussing over them. We can absorb them the way a good cotton shirt absorbs a few drops of water from a sprinkler.
But how about persons who annoy us? Well, we have to absorb some of them, too. Some are strangers. Pokey drivers in the left lane. People who let their dogs bark all night. Or the person ahead of us in the 15-item express line at the supermarket. This person puts 19 items on the belt, chats with the checkout clerk, fishes for a checkbook only after everything has been rung up, and then wants to review the bill.
Strangers try our patience in lots of little ways, but they're no match for members of our own family. The prime cases of annoyance are domestic. "When two humans have lived together for a while," says C. S. Lewis, "it usually happens that each has facial expressions and tones of voice that are almost unendurable to the other."
I think we understand. It's not that your family member does anything wrong, exactly. It's just that once in a while she lifts her eyebrows in a certain way that drives you nuts. It's just that he whines even when he's not complaining.
As God's chosen ones, says Paul, bear with one another. Clothe yourselves with patience. We need this piece of clothing, don't we? We need it to absorb the little drizzles of acid rain, the ordinary fallout of working and living together. We need patience in order to manage annoyances and the low-level anger that accompanies them.
A big part of good spiritual hygiene has to do with controlling our anger. Have you ever noticed that when Paul wants to describe life outside of Christ, he often describes an angry life? What do you find out there, out beyond the reach of Christ? Paul says you find anger, wrath, slander, abusive talk. You find envy, quarreling, gossip, hostility, factions, and strife. You find war and rumors of war. You find split churches, broken marriages, fractured friendships. Everybody is so angry!
That's life outside of Christ, and some of that life is in our churches and in our homes. It's angry life. It's angry politics and hostile sports and vengeful movies. It's angry talk shows and music with an attitude. It's "hired guns with law degrees," as somebody once put it—bright people who go to law school because they are permanently teed off and want to get their anger licensed.
Put it away, says Paul. Put it to death. Take off all those angry old clothes and put on compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. As God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with patience.
Patience means anger control. It means having a long fuse and a short memory where irritants are concerned. Patient people are hard to provoke. Their temper can absorb a lot before they "lose it."
The Greek word for patience here, makrothymia, suggests having a large capacity for absorbing irritants without letting them paralyze you. Here's a way to think about it: patience is like good motor oil. It doesn't remove all the contaminants. It just puts them into suspension so they don't get into your works and seize them up. Patient people have, so to speak, a large crankcase. They can put a lot of irritants into suspension.
Suppose the person behind you keeps cracking his knuckles. You put your annoyance into suspension. Suppose you can't find your keys and you feel a little scuffed up. Put it into suspension. Suppose somebody is late for your meeting and you feel your anger start to rise. Into the crankcase it goes.
Patient people have makrothymia. They've got a big capacity for absorbing irritants without seizing up. They get annoyed, but they have a place to put their annoyance.
I think it's important to add that patient people are not necessarily nave, and they surely aren't stoic. They get indignant at abuse and injustice, just as they should. It is sometimes right to be angry. Holy people can get good and angry, just as Jesus did. If your child is abused, or your church slandered, or your spouse insulted, or your God blasphemed, you ought to be angry. If someone cheats you out of your job or your good reputation, you have a right to be indignant. Righteous anger, says Lewis Smedes, is "the executive power of human decency."
But we need patience even for these big angers, even for big abuses. Nuisances can go into suspension, and we can forget about them. But big angers have to go there, too, for a while. Because when we have been seriously offended, we have to stop and think about the right way to respond. Maybe we will have to rebuke the offender, but rebuke is delicate surgery that we can't do when we've got a storm in our innards and when our hands are shaking. Rebuke needs to be patient rebuke.
The same goes for forgiveness. You may be able to forgive a person who has hurt you, but it will take time. And when the day comes that you forgive, what you will do is to kill your anger against the offender. As Robert Roberts says, that's the main move in forgiveness; it is a move against our anger.
But when you go to kill your anger, where will you find it? If you are a patient person, you will find your anger in suspension where it belongs until you figure out what to do with it. Christian forgiveness is patient forgiveness.
Or maybe your righteous anger will prompt you to seek justice. But justice takes time and it takes cool heads. That is why in court we have all those rules—a time to stand up and a time to sit down, a time to speak and a time to keep still, a prescribed courtesy in our address to the judge. A lot of this is about anger control. The idea is that everybody's anger has to go into suspension while we wait for the wheels of justice to turn.
In the filmed version of Harper Lee's novel To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), Gregory Peck plays Atticus Finch, a stalwart attorney of clean hands and pure heart. Atticus Finch does his best to defend Tom Robinson, a black man falsely accused of rape in Alabama in the 1930s. Atticus is eloquent and passionate about Tom Robinson's innocence, and he is right about it; but a racist jury convicts Tom anyway. What is so striking as you watch Atticus at work in the courtroom is the strength of his character.
What is it about Atticus Finch? He is just and he is kind. But what you see in the courtroom is the strength of his patience. Do you remember the courtroom scenes? Can you picture Atticus there? He is angry. You can read anger in his eyes and in the way his facial muscles work beneath their skin. You can hear anger in his voice. You can see it in the way he moves. But he's got a governor on his anger, and the reason is that a terrible injustice is moving through the courtroom and Atticus's job is to try to stop it. He can't let his anger get in the way. He has to defend Tom Robinson. And that means that he needs to put his anger into suspension and do his job.
As God's chosen ones, clothe yourselves with patience.
Spiritually mature people are not doormats. They know what it is to be angry. But they also know a lot about anger control. They are as patient as Atticus Finch—which means they are very strong people. Patience takes spiritual muscle.
If you have been raised with Christ (Col. 3:1); that is, if you have been baptized into the Christian community and publicly identified with Jesus Christ; if you live in the shadow of Christ, and in the world of Christ, and under the influence of Christ—that is, if you are a Christian, then clothe yourself with patience. Pull it over you like a garment.
Okay, but how? How do you get it?
Suppose that patience, like all virtues, is partly a fruit of the Holy Spirit and partly a calling; what can we do to answer the calling? What's our end?
Four brief counsels:
One, following some good advice of Carolyn Simon, we can look at annoying people with the eye of imaginative love. Suppose you get behind a pokey driver in the left lane. Instead of trying to punish this person by tailgating him or her, try to deliberately imagine this person as somebody's grandparent. A good grandparent. One of the really good ones. And, of course, you don't tailgate people's grandparents. You don't push grandfathers or grandmothers. You protect them. One of the reasons love is patient and kind (1 Cor. 13) is that love is imaginative.
Two, we can set our hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. This means enlarging our perspective and raising our hopes. God's kingdom will come, and God's will is going to get done. In that big frame, a traffic delay doesn't really matter. The same goes for snubs, and for children's crankiness, and for the irritating habits of some of our friends. These things are like lost golf balls. In the long run, they really don't matter.
As for big offenses against our personhood, against our dignity—they do matter. They matter a lot. So maybe we will rebuke them. Maybe we will forgive them. Maybe we will seek justice for them. And maybe we will get justice.
But maybe not. Maybe not till God's day of judgment. Till that day we need a place to put our anger.
Three, we can apprentice ourselves to patient people (see James 5:7-11, esp. 10-11). There are some around, wonderful people with huge crankcases. We can watch them, listen to them, learn some patient moves from them. If you have ever been dealt with by a truly patient person, you will never forget. This is a person who might be angry with you, but he puts his anger into suspension. He looks past everything about you that is irritating; he looks past these things into your core, your very essence —the part of you that shows you have come from the shop of a master.
We can learn from people who treat us this way. Learning patience is like learning a musical instrument. You need a good teacher or two. And then you need a lot of practice.
Four, patience fits people who have died and risen with Christ. To receive patience as a fruit of the Spirit of Christ and to adopt patience in imitation of Christ means that we will keep our eyes on him, not just on our own self-improvement program. We get to be Christlike not by looking at ourselves but by looking at him. And what do we see when we look at Christ with patience on our mind? We see passion and death in which Jesus absorbed not just nuisances or single instances of injustice. Jesus Christ absorbed the evil of the whole world: he absorbed maximum evil without passing it on, thus cutting the loop of vengeance in which an angry world is so terribly trapped. To look at Christ staggering along the way to Golgotha, knees buckling under the weight of the cross, is to lose interest in life's nuisances. They don't seem cross-sized. They don't seem worth dying for. And the big injustices? They have been died for, and so we may release some of our anger to the Christ whose hunger for justice is infinitely greater than ours, and whose judgment of the world—including us—will be altogether righteous.
Patience is part of the uniform of Christ.
As God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with patience. Patience fits people who have died and risen with Christ. Patience is part of the family uniform for the people of God.
Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., is dean of the chapel at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan.
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