Patience (Again)

This current series concerns the examination of a list of nine items people often identify as virtues: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

For my part I consider them to be outcomes; the consequence of things learned which alter our thinking and subsequently our behavior. Such things are acquired by various means, partly by being human. We are – as the saying goes – hardwired towards a cooperative or compliant nature in order to survive within the sanctity of a stable community. More often, I think, we are hardwired to learn from those we love or admire; the family we are born into, the teachers we are assigned to and the friendships we cultivate by either convenience or choice. Pure instinct has its limits.

To the spiritually astute, you will recognize this list as coming from the writings of the Apostle Paul during the early development of the several isolated Christian communities. His surviving text is in the form of a common Greek language of Paul’s day to which I refer as the best way to understand what the apostle meant when compiling his list.

The word at hand is makrothumia, typically translated as patience or steadfastness. In the King James Version of the Bible it is translated as long-suffering. It is a compound word derived from makro meaning long and thumia meaning temper. It was used by the Greeks in reference to those who chose to withstand painful suffering without complaint, endured some displeasure or merely waited, bidding their time instead of actively pursuing instant gratification. No matter which situation was applicable at the time, it was understood by our classic forebears that patience was a choice not an imposition.

I wrote about patience back in October, when I was following an outline about virtue established by Professor Karen Swallow Prior in her book On Reading Well. She took the position that “,,, the virtue of patience entails much more than merely waiting. The essence of patience is the willingness to endure suffering.” I would contend that the classic concept of patience involves the willingness to accept the consequences of our decisions. Suffering maybe, but more often than not it is simply a matter of keeping one’s sense of anxious expectation under control until the desired result is achieved. For this we need to understand that there is no guarantee about duration. Life is open ended that way.

Suffering is something Paul and other early church leaders had in mind as they dealt with the reality of persecution from the ethnic and religious phobias of their day. James, the brother of Jesus, wrote in his letter: Brothers, as an example of patience in the face of suffering, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. As you know, we consider blessed those who have persevered. You have heard of Job’s perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy. (James 5:10-11)

James counseled patience in the face of suffering and his perspective is, admittedly, one of coping with more than a mild inconvenience. What I have underlined, though, is a point which I think is very important for us to remember. We may even find encouragement in it as we await whatever goal launched us on the path of patience to begin with.

We are always being observed and those who watch us make assessments of the situation and our character based on what they see. James notes for us that when we persevere, those around us see what we endure and how we manage any attendant hardships. They may not call us blessed, as that is a rather archaic concept in our post-modern era. But the good people among us will empathize, even when they lack the personal experience to understand the depth of our commitment.

I have seen this in the three friends of mine who have undergone chemotherapy in this past year. All three have done so without complaint despite what one of them calls “rat poison” being introduced into their already fragile systems. The response by us onlookers and well-wishers is universally favorable as we heap praise on them for their patient endurance of the treatment.

If you could sit down and talk to each one of them I think you would find that the patience you see exhibited in how they have handled their respective situations is the outcome of what they have learned since childhood and not a recent addition to their arsenal of stout character. Patience drives their response to these challenges, which cannot be ignored or avoided.

Patience is possible as it directs our attention towards a better day. Patience believes in, relies on hope as should we all.

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