Is God Patient? (Part 3)
The Greek Definitions of Patience—Endurance as Salvation: makrǒthumia/makrǒthumōs
Found fifteen times in the New Testament, fourteen in the first form and once in the second form (Acts 26:3), this word refers to forbearance or fortitude, to be longsuffering, or to endure.
How is God enduring?
Linked alongside the Hebrew word, ârêk, the Apostle Paul urges the early church in Rome (2:4): “Or do you presume the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead to you repentance [a ‘change of mind’]?” In Romans 9:22-23, Paul goes on to write, “What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels [Greek ‘bodies’] of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory.”
Along with how God waited for Noah to build the ark before flooding the earth as a result of human sin (1 Peter 3:20), Paul’s comments suggest that God is both judge and executioner. It raises the question, in other words, about whether God condemns and destroys and pardons. How are these three actions reconciled?
Here are some possible answers:
- God holds himself in check. His wrath is in constant counter-tension with his grace, his destruction with his renewal, with justice somewhere in the middle. Put another way: God practices self-control.
- God holds an angelic entity (or entities) in check.
- There is a heavenly servant zealous to execute God’s righteous judgment in their absolutely pure service to and love of their Lord. This recalls Jesus’s interaction with his disciples, James and John, the “Sons of Thunder,” as recorded in Luke 9:52-56. Jesus replied to their fervor to destroy an unrepentant city with fire: “You do not know what manner of spirit you are of; for the Son of Man came not to destroy people’s lives but to save them.”
- There is a demonic, hellish force like destruction (Hebrew Abaddon, Greek Apollyon) that readily tries to stir chaos amidst the world, which is sometimes countered, contained, or even allowed—as Paul seems to suggest—by God and/or his heavenly agents (compare Daniel 10:10-14 with 2 Corinthians 12:7).
- God endures or allows the destruction that mankind so readily fosters, both in honor of freewill, but also so that those who Paul calls “the elect” might be drawn to God’s power amidst the hardship.
In contrast to Paul’s verbose style, the apostle Peter perhaps offers a more concise perspective to begin with when addressing this subject. Peter writes, “Count the patience of our Lord as salvation” (2 Peter 3:15a). All right, so how does God’s patience provide salvation? Is it because God does not destroy mankind at the first instance of sin, or because he prevents something else from bringing harm, or because he has chosen to endure the chaos that humanity often embraces and incites?
Those who want a simple answer—such as those who generally emphasize God’s sovereignty to mean that everything happens by his direct decree—will likely favor the first option above. Others may be inclined to adopt a worldview involving the two latter answers or at least option two part b and option three. In part, this leads to a discussion about spiritual warfare, which, though fascinating and important, falls outside this current discussion. If there is room for all aforementioned points to exist together, however, Jesus seems to be the only means to begin understanding that relationship.
Perhaps examining how humankind is to be longsuffering will add more insight to this riddle of how God’s wrath and mercy coexist.
The aspect of patience associated with makrǒthumia commends a Christ-follower’s ministry (2 Corinthians 6:6), or “the calling to which [we] have been called . . . bearing with one another in love . . . eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:1-3). Patience is a product not of our own efforts, but of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). It is how we are meant to engage people (Colossians 1:11, 3:12, 1 Thessalonians 5:14), preach the Gospel (2 Timothy 4:2), and demonstrate our praise for Jesus’s mercy, even as we struggle with pain (1 Timothy 1:16; 2 Timothy 3:10). God’s endurance saves us because, while our endurance can help expand the Kingdom, it is grounded and grows because of what the Son of Man, Jesus, endured. Jesus clarifies what it means to live in endurance. His life exonerates and glorifies the legacy of those who “inherit the promises” of God’s covenant with Abraham (Hebrews 6:12; James 5:10; Hebrews 6:15). It is about worship, about sharing the ultimate abundance that God has provided.
Real Freedom: makrǒthuměō
Found nine times in the New Testament, and similar to the previous set of words, this word differs only in that it includes an aspect of being mild and slow in avenging—slow to anger and slow to punish.
Though affirming man’s call to “Be patient [. . .] until the coming of the Lord [a farming metaphor]” (James 5:7), this word essentially applies to God. This is best demonstrated in Jesus’s parable of the unforgiving servant (Matthew 18:26, 29), one of three instances where the English word “patience” is directly associated with Jesus’s teaching.
The second example, found in Luke 18:7-8, contains two questions. The first is whether, in the end when Jesus returns, God will delay long in giving justice [avenge the persecution of] the “elect, who cry to him day and night.” In this particular discourse, Jesus is affirming that God is indeed responsive, that he hears the cries of the hurting, and will ultimately respond to them. This is not to say, however, that he will necessarily do so right now. This quickly lends itself to a discussion of the so-called “Problem of Evil,” which cannot be adequately addressed here. But part of the answer may reside in what was just outlined concerning makrǒthumia.
This is further complicated by Jesus’s conclusion of this parable with a second question: Will God even find faith on earth? This lends itself to another question (or two): Is God’s help somehow dependent on how much we have allowed or opened ourselves to being helped? Though difficult amidst suffering, is God’s delay in giving justice actually to the benefit of all humankind?
While various Old Testament accounts challenge a sense of God delaying justice—e.g., the Flood, the violence directed against Canaan—complicating the discussion with questions about God’s goodness and consistency, which is yet another discussion related to the theology of the Kingdom, it seems best to once again try to focus on how Jesus informs the broader picture. And let us not forget A.W. Tozer’s helpful definitions of mercy and grace as shared in Part 2 of this series.
Consider 2 Peter 3:9: “The Lord [Greek Kurios = ‘He with the power to decide, the master, the possessor, commonly associated with God, the Messiah’] is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you [on your account], not wishing that any should perish, but that all [Greek Pas = ‘individually, collectively’] should reach repentance.” God desires relationship with each person, yet the freedom that he has breathed into the structure of this world allows us to reject that desire—depending on how one defines, accepts, or rejects the premise of “Irresistible Grace.” Regardless, this inherent freedom is base at best. The pursuit of stimulants like sex, wealth, and/or fame usually proves to be a cheap expression of freedom. As a focus, that kind of worship binds and starves us in its short-term pleasures rather than offering any real long-term peace in satisfaction, which is ultimate freedom. Furthermore, there are clearly ramifications for rejecting God’s mercy and grace.
Opening ourselves to God is about surrendering our freedom to choose anything else as a substitute to meaningful love. Therein resides real freedom. Another paradox: surrendering freedom to gain it. In this transformed bond, it is a freedom that nourishes gifts like sex, wealth, and/or fame with true beauty and meaning—with life.
Life and Wholeness: hupǒmênō
This word, found thirty-one times in the New Testament, is very similar to the previous three words in emphasizing steadfastness, but it also contains a figurative aspect of to undergo (bear) (trials), to suffer.
In patience, we wait and hope for what we do not see (Romans 8:25), our hope being through the encouragement of the Scriptures—by the God of endurance, encouragement, and glorious might (Colossians 1:11; 2 Peter 1:6)—in order that we may live in harmony with fellow Christ-followers, and thus with Jesus; that together we might glorify him (Romans 15:4-5). This steadfast hope rises from the steadfastness of Jesus (1 Thessalonians 1:3; 2 Thessalonians 3:5). As with Job, the purpose of God is extending compassion and mercy to those who are steadfast (James 5:11). Or as Jesus reveals to John in Revelation 3:10: “Because you have kept my word about patient endurance [following the command to not worship false gods and receive their mark, not being swayed by false teaching and materialism], I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world” (see also 1 Timothy 6:11-12; Revelation 2:2-3, 14:12).
We are not only spared God’s wrath, but are offered life [Greek psychas: breath of life, soul] (Luke 21:19; see also Romans 2:7; Hebrews 10:36; Revelation 2:19). True life is meant to bear spiritual fruit. The most noteworthy fruit is relationship. Relationship necessitates perseverance (Luke 8:15). Jesus is our example of this (Hebrews 12:1). We become like him by imitating and adopting his steadfast faith amidst suffering (Romans 5:3; 2 Corinthians 1:5, 6:4; 2 Thessalonians 1:4; 2 Timothy 3:10; Revelation 1:9). His suffering was not only physical, but emotional as his closest friends abandoned him. Even God [somehow] abandoned him. It is written that this kind of steadfast faith makes us “perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:3-4)—a calling to all who follow Jesus (Revelation 13:10), especially meant to be modeled and encouraged in the Church by our elders (Titus 2:2). It is a lofty goal, but it is possible because of Jesus. In it, there is hope for life. In it, there is hope for being whole again.
This is summarized well with the one Scripture passage that uses this word, here meaning the [human] endurance of ill and wrongs:
“And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth” (2 Timothy 2:24). Christians are called to embody living and striving toward a life of peace and wholeness, serving the Holy Spirit in guiding people toward transformation. That is part of the divine romance, which requires community, for only in this kind of community can real maturation and progress occur.
Illuminated Mirrors: ěpiěikēs
This final word, used five times in the New Testament, is defined by the English words suitable, fair, mild, gentle, and moderation.
It applies to God as an attribute of “wisdom from above,” which is heavily associated with being peaceable (James 3:17).
This characteristic of reasonableness and gentleness should apply to disciples of Jesus because it can endear us to others. Whether from a position of authority that contrasts trends like violence, drunkenness, and greed (1 Timothy 3:3), or as a demonstration of our submission to authority (1 Peter 2:18), or our general goodwill (Titus 3:2), acting from gentleness demonstrates the true freedom in which we live, the transformation taking place within our lives. In short, it demonstrates the Holy Spirit of Jesus living in our hearts.
There is meaning in this. There is hope because it is marked by a promise that the peace of God will shelter and fill our hearts and minds. We can mirror this because Jesus’s pure life, his living water, fills our lives—as it can be with all who receive him. Furthermore, it can be illuminated, and thus illuminate. Jesus came. Jesus comes. Soli deo gloria.
There is tension in life. Patience would not be necessary if it were not so. Tension is at the heart of unspeakable pain. Yet it also directs toward some of the most compelling beauty. It empowers movement in muscle fibers producing physical motion. It produces music in the form of stringed instruments. It forms language from the human vocal cords. . . . There is so much heartache and so much beauty in tension. One reaches from the grave while the other pulls it out to live and stand once more.
How can we stand? How can we help others to stand? God is faithful. Therefore, we can be faithful.
“Now faith is being sure of what we hope for, and certain of what we do not see” (Hebrews 11:1). Faith is about following God’s prompting, about surrendering our own desires for the greater vision of the Gospel of the Kingdom. We have hope in following God the Father because he has, and continues to bear, the true burdens of choice. To follow him is to follow his choice, which is to follow Jesus—the answer to waiting for salvation. God shelters us in this mercy and grace; therefore, we do not have to face storms alone and exposed.
Our days on this earth are limited, our influence relatively small; but those days and that influence can be meaningful when they are lifted up and carried by Jesus. He makes life significant. He gives it direction. He gives it hope. Each day is a precious opportunity. Therefore we join the prayer of Psalm 90:12, as quoted by Tozer: “So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.”
So, is God patient?
This question points toward understanding God’s love, and, therefore, the love that we are inspired to offer to others. This inspiration, this living, is a kind of worship.
Why worship? Because God is compassionate and just. He does not default to anger, but allows us to respond. We can find strength in this love to wait for the ultimate fulfillment of His goodness. We can find belonging in joining Jesus’s “Great Campaign” to gather all people into his Kingdom of Heaven. We can find hope in this because Jesus endured the unthinkable—betrayal and abandonment, false accusations and slander, torture and death, and especially separation from God—that the world might know salvation. It is for freedom that he sets us free. In that freedom, we can find peace. In peace, there is life. That life is about transformation. It is about mirroring—about illuminating—Love. It is about something that began over two thousand years ago in a seemingly insignificant town, in a seemingly insignificant shed, on a seemingly insignificant night. Yet, it was a night that changed everything, when insignificance began to be utterly transformed into significance—when what was expected, when what was thought reasonable, suddenly became only the beginning. Jesus, the advent of peace on earth: God’s absolute authority and power manifested in this world as it is in Heaven.
- Original version published on jdgrubb.blogspot.com, December 23, 2013.
- All Greek terms are defined according to The New Strong’s Complete Dictionary of Bible Words (1996).
- From Knowledge of the Holy: “[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.”
- Root word: psuché (see Strong’s Concordance).
Image courtesy of J.D. Grubb Photography