Patience: Natural Heart’s-Ivy
Perhaps this is merely my experience, but I grew up hearing that some prayers were dangerous. The prayers for things such as greater boldness in witnessing, further opportunities to give, or greater love for the person who’s a thorn in your side. These prayers have a way of being answered, or rather, of creating opportunities to outwork the desires apparently behind our prayers. Naturally, these opportunities feel uncomfortable and, at times, even hurt a little. As I’m writing, it has occurred to me that the dangerous discomfort in these prayers stems from the fact that they are requests for sanctification. Killing sin is never painless or easy. However that may be, one of the more famous dangerous prayers in my book is the prayer for patience. Asking for patience is asking for bee stings, extra periods of sitting in traffic, and the absence of Amazon’s Two-Day shipping. The English poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, understood this:
Patience, hard thing! the hard thing but to pray,
But bid for, Patience is! Patience who asks
Wants war, wants wounds; weary his times, his tasks;
To do without, take tosses, and obey.
Rare patience roots in these, and, these away,
Nowhere. Natural heart’s-ivy Patience masks
Our ruins of wrecked past purpose. There she basks
Purple eyes and seas of liquid leaves all day.
We hear our hearts grate on themselves: it kills
To bruise them dearer. Yet the rebellious wills
Of us we do bid God bend to him even so.1
This pain associated with developing patience is expected. Few of us anticipate truly gaining greater patience without the wounds, wearisome tasks, and privation. However, Hopkins identifies a different pain, one that perhaps isn’t always thought of: the pain of loss. Comparing our lives and emotions to a neglected building, Hopkins refers to patience as the “natural heart’s-ivy”, hiding “our ruins of wrecked past purpose.” Ivy is certainly beautiful. Old buildings aren’t the same without it. Neither, in many cases, would the ivy be quite the same without hints of stone or worn siding peeping through the leaves. And, perhaps, that provides a hint into what makes our patience valuable. It isn’t solely the pain we actively suffered and walked through, but the pain for all the things that we haven’t been able to walk through. These things will look different for each of us, but who hasn’t had dreams broken, goals remain unfulfilled, or plans go awry?
As Hopkins goes on to point out, another source of our pain is the death of our sinful desires. It’s not that we are necessarily desiring wrong things. In fact, the odds are that whatever it is that you want is actually rather good. Instead, what is at stake is who gets the final say on how our life plays out. And like Hopkins, I dare say we often need God to bend our wills. At least I know mine doesn’t quietly submit to being crossed.
Behind and under all the pain is the unstated expectation that something good will come from our patience. Surely we didn’t give up our dreams and suffer through pain for nothing! If scripture tells us that “for those who love God all things work together for good,”2 then surely God has been up to something while we’ve been trudging through life, right? Indeed, God has been working, and Hopkins description of his work stops me dead in my tracks each time:
And where is he who more and more distills
Delicious kindness?—He is patient. Patience fills
His crisp combs, and that comes those ways we know.”3
God’s work has been the work of suffering. One is reminded of Isaiah, “He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace; and with his stripes we are healed” (Isaiah 53:3-5).
Paul’s continued exposition in Romans 8 is helpful. By the time we get to verses 31-32, we hear a message similar to Isaiah’s: “What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:32). Between “all things work for good” and “He who did not spare his own Son” though is a key thought. This thought is captured in verses 29-30: “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the first born among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified” (Romans 8:29-30). This is Paul’s explanation for how all things work together for good—our eventual glorification with God. We can say all will work for our good, because we know that we are part of Christ’s Kingdom. The same Christ of whom Paul writes: “Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:9-11). If God will be glorified through Christ’s reign, and if we are going to be part of this Kingdom, then we can say all will work out for our good. God’s glorification leads to our benefit.
Of course, this isn’t the most comforting message to hear. After all, the implication is that our trials and difficulties may never be solved here. When our hope is placed in the world to come, we shouldn’t always expect things to be fixed in our lifetime. That being said, the message isn’t devoid comfort either. It contains the comfort of providence. Christ is not sending us where he has not been. As we learn in Hebrews, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:15-16). In the end, our natural heart’s-ivy has a threefold beauty: The beauty of God’s Kingdom, the beauty of our sanctification, and the beauty of following Christ’s example. And in the midst of our pain, we can rest in the fact that we do not walk the path alone.
Are there points in your life where your patience is being developed?
If so, how do you see the Gospel playing out in these areas?
2. Romans 8:28. Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
3. Hopkins. The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, 102.
Photo Courtesy of Viktor Mogilat