Is God Patient (Part 2)
An introduction to this series can be found at conciliarpost.com/theology-spirituality/is-god-patient/1
The English root word of “patience” is patient, which has two meanings in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary:
“1. Bearing pains or trials calmly or without complaint, 2. manifesting forbearance under provocation or strain, 3. not hasty or impetuous, 4. steadfast despite opposition, difficulty, or adversity, or 5. able or willing to bear.”
To begin with, I was hoping for a simpler definition. To further unpack a few words within the definition:
Forbearance means: “a refraining from the enforcement of something (as a debt, right, or obligation) that is due.” A patient person is marked by this.
Impetuous refers to being marked by “impulsive vehemence or passion (i.e. temperament)” or “force and violence of movement or action (i.e. wind).” A patient person is not marked by this.
“1. a. An individual awaiting or under medical care or treatment, b. the recipient of any of various personal services, or 2. one that is acted upon.”
When examined critically, this only adds further dynamics to an understanding of patience. Perhaps it is with a spark of divine irony that “patience” is such a puzzling idea at a serious glance. Then there are the three Hebrew words and six Greek words that have been translated into some variant of “patience” in English translations of the Bible. Briefly noting their thematic uses offers some further insight.
Compassion and Justice: ârêk
This word2, found in fifteen different Old Testament passages, means long [-suffering, -winged], patient, slow [to anger].
How is this word attributed to God? In Exodus 34:6b-7, Moses writes, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands [or to the thousandth generation], forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and fourth generation” (also referenced in Numbers 14:18 and Nahum 1:3, emphasis added).
There is a paradoxical tension in this passage: forgiving iniquity and visiting iniquity, grace and judgment. A. W. Tozer provides one of the clearest, most succinct explanations of this tension:
“[God] has always dealt in mercy with mankind and will always deal in justice when His mercy is despised. . . As judgment is God’s justice confronting moral inequity, so mercy is the goodness of God confronting human suffering and guilt. . . As mercy is God’s goodness confronting human misery and guilt, so grace is His goodness directed toward human debt and demerit.”3
With further study, it is interesting to note that “slow to anger” is often paired with “steadfast love” or “abundant (or abounding) lovingkindness”, or also often paired with “gracious and merciful (or compassionate)” (see Nehemiah 9:17; Psalms 86:15, 103:8, 145:8; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2; and Romans 2:4), while still retaining some tension with the demand for righteous judgment (Jeremiah 15:15). What is important for now is this sense that God’s patience is defined by love—or love by patience—evident through his compassion, though not without unfulfilled judgment against rebellion.
So, how is this word associated with humans?
Proverbs 15:18 reads, “A hot-tempered man stirs up strife, but he who is slow to anger quiets contention” (emphasis added). When examining other instances of “slow to anger” in Proverbs 14:29, 16:32, or Ecclesiastes 7:8, it seems that human beings are called to be patient because that demonstrates humble wisdom.
Without delving into the theology of the Kingdom of God and how it relates first to ancient Israel and then later to the world, best expressed through the Church, the word ârêk directs us to Jesus being the only hope of mediating the tension between God’s compassion and justice. Mankind is unable to consistently live in wisdom, and thus, is unable to consistently and honorably demonstrate God’s love. In Proverbs, especially, wisdom is personified to the extent that it foreshadows the coming of mankind’s ideal—that is, Jesus Christ. He is the embodiment of patience. He demonstrates it to God for us, and to us as God.
In consideration of the human timeline, from mortal perspective in other words, it would seem that God indeed suffers long in waiting for each of us to respond to his gift of compassion, that is, Jesus. Similarly, in consideration of uncharted eternity—the potential for receiving the just consequences of one’s rejection of him—God is indeed slow to anger. Furthermore, such steadfast love is incredibly humbling when considered alongside one’s own attitude toward others.
Waiting for Good: chûwl
This primitive word is found only once in the Old Testament, and means: to wait carefully (patiently) or hope. It is often associated with twisting or whirling as in a dance, writhing in anguish or fear, or bearing or bringing forth as in childbirth. This is a nuanced word, to say the least. “Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for him; fret not yourself over the one who prospers in his way, over the man who carries out evil devices” (Psalm 37:7, emphasis added).
We are often called to wait for good things, of which Jesus’s ultimate redemption is the greatest. This waiting is not an easy task, especially considering that we live amidst a culture that glamorizes immediate gratification. Yet, as Jesus’s road to the cross attests, there will be pain. To follow after Jesus is not for the fainthearted.
Gathering the Faithful: qâvâh
The final Hebrew root word is found in forty-three Old Testament passages. Like chûwl, it is also primitive, and means to wait, look for, or expect; to collect or bind together.
How is the word used in reference to God? God is interested in gathering (Jeremiah 3:17, Micah 5:7). Such gathering occurs in the end times, but is also used in reference to nature (Genesis 1:9), as in gathering the good harvest in contrast to that which is found to be rotten (Isaiah 5:2, 4, 7). He sometimes does so when we do not expect it (Isaiah 64:3), while at other times it is as a reward to those who are expectant or ready (Lamentations 3:25).
What does it mean for a person to live expectantly? “I wait for your salvation, O Lord” (Genesis 49:18; see also Psalm 25:3a, 5, 37:9, 34; Isaiah 8:17, 25:9, 26:8, 33:2, 49:23, 69:6; Jeremiah 14:22; and Hosea 12:6). As has already been mentioned, Jesus initiates the completion of that waiting period. People long for wounds to be healed, for the chaos to be quelled. People long for hope, for strength, for justice (Psalm 27:14, 39:7, 40:1, 52:9b, 130:5b; and Proverbs 20:22). Jesus tells us to have faith, for “Faith is being sure of what we hope for, and certain of what we do not see” (Hebrews 11:1). Faith in Jesus leads to salvation. “But they who wait [actively trust, have faith] for the LORD shall renew their strength [spiritual transformation]; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint” (Isaiah 40:31). Even nature waits (Isaiah 51:5, 60:9). The conclusion has already begun (Job 3:9, 6:19, 17:13).
Yet it is also important to note that evil is also waiting (Psalm 56:6; 119:95; and Lamentations 2:16). It seeks to devour our lives. While spiritual warfare is its own weighty subject, for now, we remember that the fulfillment of ultimate peace has yet to come. There is still pain. There is still darkness, and there are some hopes unmet that no one can really explain. “But when I hoped [expected] for good, evil came, and when I waited for light, darkness came” (Job 30:26, emphasis added; see also Job 7:2-3; Isaiah 59:9, 11; and Jeremiah 8:15, 13:16, 14:19).
There can be real hope because there is a promise. C.S. Lewis says it well: “Enemy-occupied territory—that is what this world is. Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us to take part in a great campaign of sabotage.”4
Even with such hope in the face of uncertainty and heartache, it takes immense courage to press on. That is why we need to be gathered into community. Or, as Steve Clifford, pastor of WestGate Church in San Jose, CA, says: “Doing the Christian life alone is not just difficult, it’s impossible.”
In the final post of this series, Part 3, I will proceed to examine what the New Testament writers offer to the discussion of patience through a brief study of the Greek root words.
- Originally published on jdgrubb.blogspot.com, December 16, 2013.
- All Hebrew terms are defined according to The New Strong’s Complete Dictionary of Bible Words (1996).
- Tozer, A.W., Knowledge of the Holy.
- Lewis, C.S., Mere Christianity.