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Patience and Forbearance: Two Traits of an Otherworldly People

Many in the church today feel marginalized by the wider world. Being a Christian often doesn’t have the same cultural capital it once did, and antagonism—even hostility—toward Christianity often puts us on the defensive.

In the United States, those concerned to see biblical principles lived out in public life have a justifiable concern for the state of this nation. But as we respond to the opposition around us, we must make sure that our zeal to “win back” our culture doesn’t excuse us from the clear ethical demands of a Galilean carpenter named Jesus of Nazareth. Ultimately, the church aims to advance a heavenly kingdom, not an earthly one.

When citizens of that otherworldly kingdom are met with hostility, two of the most precious values of Christ’s church that they can uphold are patience and forbearance.

Practicing Patience

If we want to maintain harmony and peace among God’s people and with our neighbors outside the church, we must be a people who practice patience. When the apostle Paul instructed the Thessalonian believers about how to deal with the idle, the fainthearted, and the weak, he said, “Be patient with them all” (1 Thess. 5:14, emphasis added). Similarly, James exhorted his readers, as those living between the inauguration and consummation of God’s kingdom, to “be patient … until the coming of the Lord” (James 5:7, emphasis added).

A Divine Attribute

The word translated “be patient” in these two texts (makrothumeō) was used regularly in the Greek version of the Old Testament as an adjective (makrothumōs) to describe God’s character (Num. 14:18; Neh. 9:17; Pss. 86:15; 103:8; 145:8; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2; Nah. 1:3). This Greek term itself was used to translate a Hebrew idiom that can be rendered “slow to anger” or “longsuffering.” Patience, in short, is a divine attribute.

This aspect of God’s character is declared openly as early as Exodus 34, when, after the people of God have sinned dreadfully by worshiping the golden calf, God proclaims His name to Moses on Mount Sinai:

The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty. (vv. 6–7)

Despite Israel’s flagrant and utter failure, the Lord, Yahweh, reveals Himself as supremely gracious, compassionate, and longsuffering, and He reestablishes His covenant with the people.

The Old Testament is replete with such emphasis. What is God like? Yahweh is compassionate, He is patient, He is abounding in love, He is faithful. Yes, He is also a God of wrath who cannot tolerate sin, and it is sin that required the meting out of God’s judgment on the cross. And yet it is the immensity of God’s patience and grace and love that made Calvary a possibility. In other words, our sin made the death of Jesus a necessity, and God’s patient love made the death of Jesus a wonderful reality for all who believe. As Peter says, “The Lord … is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).

A Christian Virtue

Not only is patience a divine attribute, but it is also to be a Christian virtue. As God’s children, we ought to display to others the same sort of scandalous patience that our Father shows to us.

In Colossians 3:12, the apostle Paul commands, “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.” In other words, as “kids of the kingdom,” we are to wear our “kingdom outfits.” Patience is an explicit command (Rom. 12:12; 1 Thess. 5:14; James 5:7–8), a part of the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22), and a defining quality of love (1 Cor. 13:4).

As God’s children, we ought to display to others the same sort of scandalous patience that our Father shows to us.

Unfortunately, opportunities to test our patience abound. From the aggression or dismissiveness of hostile people to the painstaking stop and go of traffic, we have no shortage of crucibles for patience. We can all have a laugh at such seemingly trivial circumstances (when we’re not in them, of course!), but the challenge they present is very real. They are where the rubber of our theological convictions meets the road of life.

As we face these everyday trials, the people around us—our neighbors, our coworkers, our friends, our children, and especially our enemies—are not going to be impressed by our theological acumen, but they may be impressed by expressions of practical godliness; and it’s hard to pinpoint a more practical expression of godliness than genuine biblical patience.

Fighting to Forbear

During the fledgling years of the church in the first century, Christians often endured devastating persecution. The Roman emperor Nero purportedly used to have people turned into candles in his backyard; they were driven into the ground, covered in wax from their chest to the top of their head, and set ablaze. In cases like these, the situation was not that people were saying a few unkind things about Christians. Rather, the very lives of believers were being swallowed up by hostility.

Such was the environment in which the apostles were ministering and drafting their epistles. Paul admits in 1 Corinthians 4:12–13 that he and his fellow laborers were viewed and treated so poorly that they had become “like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things.” Nevertheless, he says, “When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we entreat.” In Romans 12:17–18, Paul charges the Christians in Rome, “Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”

How is it possible to do what is honorable in the face of evil? Where do we find the resources to return blessing for reviling—to, in the words of Matthew 5:44, love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us?

We can forbear with others and demonstrate patience because ultimately, we leave it to our heavenly Father to set all things aright.

Paul tells us in Romans 12:19, “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’” This is the key to demonstrating patience and love: remembering that there’s going to be a just payday in God’s time. At present, because we live in a fallen world, all kinds of things are out of sorts. But God will work His purpose out according to His plan. We can forbear with others and demonstrate patience because ultimately, we leave it to our heavenly Father to set all things aright.

“As God in Christ Forgave You”

In Matthew 18:23–35, Jesus tells a parable in which a king forgives his servant an astronomical amount of debt. That forgiven servant then goes to a fellow servant who owes him a few months’ wages and viciously demands repayment. The debtor begs for patience, but the first servant—who was just forgiven truckloads of money!—refuses to have mercy.

Every time impatience gets the best of us, we embody that unforgiving servant in Jesus’ parable. We are insisting that our interests are more significant than others’. We are declaring, whether we mean to or not, that we haven’t understood in the smallest degree the immensity of our own need for forgiveness.

However just our cause, whatever hostility we face for Christ, God’s call to His people endures: “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Eph. 4:32). For those of us who follow Christ, God has forgiven a mountain of debt. With lavish grace, He has returned patient blessing for all our offenses. We have no reason to clamor and claw for what we think is owed to us. The righteous Judge is on our side, and He will more than make up for whatever injustice we endure.

This article has been adapted from the sermon “Practicing Patience” by Alistair Begg.

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