Patience (Greek, makrothumia; Antonym: wrath)

For some of us, patience is a quality we admire, but it is one we don’t necessarily want to live out, especially when we are facing a difficult person or problem. In his satirical book The Devil’s Dictionary, Ambrose Bierce defined patience as “a minor form of despair, disguised as a virtue.” We especially like patience in others, but can also be lenient with ourselves. Patience or makrothumia (Greek) essentially means “long temper” as opposed to a person who is short-tempered. A word I like that is translated in some Bibles for patience is long-suffering—the quality of being to handle difficulty at great length. When the line is really long at the grocery story, I can practice long-suffering. When my child is being disrespectful and belligerent, I can put on long-suffering. When I feel like a good friend has “dropped the ball” in some way, I can be long-suffering.

To start, patience is the characteristic that never gives up, especially in times of adversity. In the opposite, the person who does not exhibit this trait is full of wrath and rage and it may come out at any moment. The impatient person is always giving up. This person does not know how to control their emotions and actions and may often do things which they later regret. An impatient person is never satisfied and can always find something that is wrong (see my own example below). Those who let impatience grow out of control can be people who are difficult to be around, because you never know how they are going to act and may lash out at a moment’s notice.

As with any of the fruit of the Spirit, when we don’t live them out, the consequences that we will experience can be be grievous and painful. The early church father Tertullian (c.160 –225) wrote, that “every sin is to be traced back to impatience.” It is the young woman who desperately wants to get married, and quickly marries a man who will bring her years of broken-heartedness. It is the guy who has to have something that is bigger and better and then after impulsively buying it, soon thereafter realizes he can’t afford it and then experiences the consequences for years to come when the credit card bills come due each month. It’s the parent who has had a long day, but then in the passion of the moment calls their kid “a $#!&% selfish brat” and to this day, their son or daughter still remember those cruel words (sadly, I once had a teen client who said her mom used words like this on occasion). The truth is that impatience often costs us sacred and important things in the future.

A unique characteristic with makrothumia, is that it requires you to not only overlook offenses done to you, but to also not take revenge on the person who has hurt you in some way. The 18th century philosopher Friedrich Schiller captured this aspect well with his words: “Revenge is barren of itself: it is the dreadful food it feeds on; its delight is murder, and its end is despair.” The person who exhibits this type of patience has the capacity to be wronged and not retaliate. The patient person can bear injury without the provocation to avenge themselves. Again, this is what is called long-suffering.  The early church father John Chrysostom (c. 349 − 407) defined it as “the spirit which has the power to take revenge, but never does so.”

When it comes to patience, a common modern phrase we may think of is what we call ‘staying power,’—to have the ability to endure hard events and difficult people in our lives. And this is the final important aspect of makrothumia—to be patient in the most difficult of situations often determines how patient you really are. It is easy to be patient when someone is kind or when facing a situation that does not hold any problems or challenges. Patience, is easily one of the fruit in my life that is not very healthy and at times, is withering on the vine. When things are going well in my life, I am especially patient. However, in some situations, I clearly see that I am not a patient person in the least. As one example, for one reason or the other, when we are packing to go on a long trip, I am extremely short-tempered and just no fun to be around. Nothing can get done quick enough; I am certain we are forgetting something that we will most definitely need; I am just a bundle of nerves. It is in times like these that God shows me really how patient of a person I am.

Questions you can ask yourself: how patient are you when the going gets tough? Look back over the last six months and try to remember especially stressful times—how well did you act and react at these times? Were you calm or were you crazy? Think of people in your life who challenge and frustrate you (e.g., your boss or a co-worker, your children, your spouse, etc.); how patient are you when they are being especially difficult?  To become more patient in your life, what should you do to become more calm in your demeanor? To become more patient, do you need to learn to become more quiet and learn how to be more easy on others, especially those closest to you? What do you need to do to change in your life to become more patient?

In: Spiritual Formation
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