Whenever I’m asked to give advice to young people, I give the same answer: Be patient. What I mainly mean when I say this is: Slow down. Don’t be in a hurry. Life is long. Work hard, and the rewards will come. The dreams—some of them—will come true. The dreams that don’t will be replaced by others, maybe even better ones.
In the context of everyday life, we think of patience in more mundane terms. It’s what we aim for (or fail at) when sitting in traffic, standing in line, or waiting for a table. But the virtue of patience entails much more than merely waiting.
The essence of patience is the willingness to endure suffering.
The essence of patience is the willingness to endure suffering.
In fact, suffering is the meaning of the root word for patience, something made clear by the fact that we also use the word patient to refer to a person under medical care. Interestingly, the root word of patient is the same as for the word passion, which also means suffering. Someone who has a passion—a passion for music, a passion for soccer, a passion for a person—suffers on behalf of the object of passion. And when we speak of “the passion of Christ,” passion literally refers to crucifixion—the suffering of Christ on the cross, on our behalf. Thus in its complete sense, patience is the willingness to endure suffering.
And patience, as they say, is a virtue.
Since suffering is unavoidable in this world, it might seem silly to consider the willingness to endure it as a virtue. Yet, while suffering is inevitable, we can choose how we bear it. To exercise the virtue of patience is to bear suffering well.
I had already begun this article when the Lord saw fit to test how much I actually believed what I’d written. He gave me the chance not only to understand the virtue of patience in the abstract but in the nitty-gritty of my life when, two days after completing my first draft, while walking across a city street, I was literally hit by a bus. And the most terrible physical suffering of my life began.
Yet, having contemplated the virtue of patience so soon before my horrific accident occurred was a great mercy. In fact, I had been rereading the book of Job, one of the most famous examples of virtuous patience in human history. From his story, and his example extolled later in James 5:10-11, comes the old expression “the patience of Job.”
Two days after completing my first draft, while walking across a city street, I was literally hit by a bus.
Lying in the hospital, attached to a multiplicity of tubes—with fractured bones and stitches from crown to toe—I remembered the offer God made to Satan in testing His faithful servant: “He is in your hands; but you must spare his life” (Job 2:6 NIV). As dreadful as my pain and suffering were, my life—like Job’s—had been spared. Gratitude to God came easily to me, even as I writhed in agonizing pain. For I knew that as bad as they were, my injuries could have been much worse. Job’s suffering certainly was far greater. In the test of faith that God permitted for him, Job lost his children, his flocks, his health, and the respect of his wife and friends. Even so, he would not curse God. Job implored, beseeched, begged, and lamented before the Lord, but he did not lose his faith. God’s answers to Job’s cries of distress are words that should humble all who have ears to hear:
“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
Tell me, if you understand.
Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!
Who stretched a measuring line across it?
On what were its footings set,
or who laid its cornerstone—
while the morning stars sang together
and all the angels shouted for joy?” —Job 38:4-7 NIV
Job heard and received these words of the Lord, and then God restored to Job all that he had lost and more.
The moral of this biblical story is not that God will increase our prosperity or end our suffering if we simply keep our faith in Him. Not at all. No matter who we are, where we live, or what we have in this world, we cannot avoid suffering. But if we possess the virtue of patience, we can endure suffering without losing faith or choosing to sin in response.
If we possess the virtue of patience, we can endure suffering without losing faith or choosing to sin in response.
The ancient philosopher Aristotle might be helpful here. He taught that all virtues are the mean between an excess and a deficiency. Patience is the mean between excessive anger and too little care. When faced with suffering, whether through one’s own wrongdoing or the wrongdoing of others, the virtuous person responds with neither heated wrath nor cold stoicism, but with warm patience. Job is a paragon of patience because he neither raged at God nor slunk away in defeat. He accepted his lot but questioned it, too. Job thus provided a powerful example for me to follow in my own suffering as I sought out—and continue to seek—what the Lord would have me learn through it, neither denying my pain nor growing bitter over it.
• • •
One of my favorite literary characters is Jane Eyre. In the novel that bears her name, we encounter Jane as a young orphaned girl living with her cruel aunt and spiteful cousins. Jane suffers in being lonely and unloved, and she lashes out. The family then sends her away to live at a charity school where the students are abused and nearly starved, where the conditions are so poor that some of the girls get sick and die. Through all these circumstances, Jane’s greatest pain comes from her sense of always being an outsider, never being known and loved for who she is. At first, her instinct is to lash out. But over time—and through the influence of good role models—she learns to endure her suffering well.
Jane survives the school and goes on to become a governess for the ward of an eccentric wealthy man who lives on a dreary, isolated estate. Slowly, plain, quiet Jane and her fierce, intimidating employer, Edward Rochester, come to love one another. But when at last Jane believes that her lifelong desire to belong permanently to another person will be fulfilled, her dream is dashed in the most devastating way.
Jane is tempted, in response, to defy God and the Christian principles that have formed her life and her very being. But she does not. She bears her suffering—and oh, how she suffers!—and chooses not to sin in response. Again and again, Jane faces tests of her virtuous patience, and again and again, her patience endures.
When Jane finally wins love and marriage in the end, it is in far better circumstances than they would have been before. Now she enters marriage, not as a subservient beggar for love and belonging, but as a mature and equal partner.
Both Jane and Job find their patience rewarded. Both the biblical and the fictional characters gain more in the end than what they had or even hoped for in the beginning. But we cannot think of virtue in this way. We must exercise patience—along with all the other virtues, such as courage, temperance, kindness, and humility—for its own sake, not in hopes of winning some material or relational prize for our effort. As the old saying expresses it, “Virtue is its own reward.”
Yet suffering is not something most of us do well. It’s certainly not something I do well. My husband, who is the most patient person I know, is a constant reminder to me of just how impatient I am, even in the slightest forms of suffering. I’m a fast walker, a quick tweeter, an impulse buyer, and a constant interrupter. I have a hard time keeping my cool if the wait for my order at the coffee shop is more than three minutes. Our first-world life is filled with such minor “sufferings” that test our patience. Sometimes it is harder to pass these small tests than the bigger ones. I hope the patience I learned to exercise because of my accident and its aftermath will help me practice patience in these less significant things.
Because it is fallen, the world is filled with people who are fallen—but who have the possibility of redemption. Nevertheless, pain, suffering, wrongdoing, and injustice are, because of this fallenness, inevitable. Failure to recognize either the current condition of the world or the promise of its future renewal will lead to either of the vices that patience moderates: wrath owing to an unwillingness to accept this reality of the world, or dispiritedness that results in withdrawal from this reality.
We must exercise patience—along with all the other virtues—for its own sake, not in hopes of winning some material or relational prize for our effort.
Recognizing the true character of the world requires recognition of both the One who made it and His character. The most perfected patience grows out of not only teleology (awareness of God’s design) but eschatology, too. Indeed, the Bible instructs us, “The end of a matter is better than its beginning; patience of spirit is better than haughtiness of spirit. Do not be eager in your heart to be angry, for anger resides in the bosom of fools” (Eccl. 7:8-9).
In his book After You Believe, N. T. Wright says about the virtue of patience:
Those who believe in God and the creator and in the eventual triumph of his good purposes for the world will not be in a hurry to grasp at quick-fix solutions in their own life or in their vocation and mission—though they will not be slow to take God-given opportunities when those arise.
Perhaps no one demonstrated this kind of patience—this belief in God and the eventual triumph of His good purposes, along with the wisdom to distinguish between quick-fix solutions and God-given opportunities—better than Jesus’ mother, Mary.
And perhaps there is no better time than Advent to reflect on the virtue of patience. Advent is a time of waiting; waiting exercises our patience. Advent marks the time in which we await the birth of Jesus, the arrival on earth of the promised Messiah. By remembering Christ’s first coming, we practice the patience we need as we await His second coming.
What patience must have been required of Mary as she watched the prophecy given to her slowly unfold with each passing day and year of her son’s life?
In this waiting, it is illuminating to consider the patience Mary must have had to exercise as the mother of Christ. What waiting she had to endure!
First, Mary had to await the fulfillment of that first message brought to her so unexpectedly and startlingly by the angel Gabriel: The Holy Spirit would come upon her, she would conceive as a virgin, and she would give birth to the Son of the Most High. What must it have been like to wait and see if these strange words would prove true?
Then, once her body made evident the truth of the first part of the message, Mary still had to wait for the rest to be fulfilled, without knowing exactly when or how. After Jesus was born, and the shepherds who came to worship Him began to speak of the things they’d heard and seen, Mary “treasured all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Luke 2:19). What patience must have been required of Mary as she watched the prophecy given to her slowly unfold with each passing day and year of her son’s life?
Of course, the greatest suffering Mary endured was under the cross, watching her son die, not knowing how that sacrifice would end. Yet, she endured this suffering well, the very definition of patience, for she had assented to it 33 years before, when she had told the angel Gabriel, “Let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38 ESV). The patience of Mary gives us an example to follow when we suffer greatly and do not know how or when that suffering will end.
Some of us will endure suffering that does not culminate in a happy ending in this life. Advent reminds us that the patience we practice now foreshadows a future fulfillment. But that fulfillment does begin in the here and now. We can practice today and every day—in obstacles big and small—the patience that is the fruit of the Spirit. For it is in our patience, as Luke 21:19 tells us, that we possess our souls.
Collage by MLC