The Fruit of the Spirit: Patience
The fourth fruit of the Spirit listed in Galatians 5:22 is patience. It is what enables the first three fruits of the Spirit (and really all of them) to continue, and even sometimes grow, during hardship.
Galatians (Geneva Commentaries), John Brown
Galatians (Crossway Classic Commentaries), Martin Luther
Galatians For You, Timothy Keller
However good or hard your life may be, we seem to have an uncanny ability to imagine ways it could be better. You see ways your job could be better, ways your house could be better, ways your city could be better, ways your church could be better, ways your family could be better, and, even ways you could be better. And here’s the catch: You can’t make them all better, at least not immediately, and you’ll never reach a point in this life where any of them are perfect, incapable of being made better. The past 3 Lord’s days we’ve talked about love, joy, and peace. Who doesn’t want those things? But how do you maintain those things in the interim, while things still could be better? Or, take it a step further: How do you maintain those things not only when things could be better, but when things are downright bad? If we’re honest, maintaining love, joy, and peace in such scenarios doesn’t come naturally to us. We feel something in us that just wants the best things right here, right now, that dampens our love, joy, and peace when hardship comes, whether it’s the hardship of ongoing imperfection, or the hardship of more active suffering. Yet as we continue our study on the fruit of the Spirit listed in Galatians 5:22, the next item on our list is patience. The Spirit works patience in Christians, so bear hardship with the patience the Holy Spirit gives you, and to help us do that we’ll ask of patience the same three questions we asked of joy and peace before it: What is patience? Why is it a fruit of the Spirit? And how can we can act on it?
What is patience?
The fourth item on our list of the fruit of the Spirit is patience. The standard Greek lexicon gives for the word here two possible definitions: One is the state of remaining tranquil while awaiting an outcome, while the other is the state of being able to bear up under provocation. Thomas Aquinas helpfully points out a connection between these two ways of thinking about patience: On the one hand, patience must be exercised while we await some good. This corresponds roughly to the first definition of patience: Remaining tranquil while awaiting an outcome, remaining tranquil in the absence of some good, or, as we’ve already talked about, in the presence of some imperfection. But then on the other hand, patience must also be exercised in the presence of some evil, which as Aquinas points out, is also ultimately a lack of good. This corresponds roughly to the second definition: the state of being able to bear up under provocation. Patience is in action when we bear some lack of good while waiting for the good, remembering that God himself is the supreme good. He is the perfection for which we ultimately wait.
My definition, then, of the patience which is a fruit of the Spirit, is the ability to bear ongoing hardship while still manifesting the other fruits of the Spirit in anticipation of future relief from God. We can even just consider this with respect to the first three fruits of the Spirit that we’ve already examined more closely over the past 3 Sundays: Patience is active when hardship comes into our lives, and it is that fruit of the Spirit which enables us to continue acting on the first 3 fruits of the Spirit during that hardship, so that we bear hardship with love, joy, and peace remaining and perhaps even growing through the hardship. It’s one thing for love, joy, and peace to be restored in our lives after hardship passes. So you have an uncomfortable, perhaps even scary interaction with a neighbor, and for a few days your sense of peace and joy are gone. But then a week passes, you don’t have any more such interactions, and your sense of peace and joy returns. That’s not what Galatians 5:22 is talking about; that’s just how the nervous system works. The patience that is a fruit of the Spirit, though, is more like when you continue having such uncomfortable interactions with that neighbor, but you bear them, and all the while they are going on, you still have love, joy, and peace.
Patience is necessary because this world is characterized by hardship, and patience is that by which love, joy, and peace continue under hardship. Paul puts it this way in Romans 8:20 – “The creation was subjected to futility.” God made humans in his image, and appointed us to rule over the earth under his loving rule. But we rejected his loving rule, and so not only we, but the whole creation, incurred God’s curse. And Paul goes on to say in that same passage that even we who have the firstfruits of the Spirit groan inwardly under that curse to which all creation was subjected. In other words, hardships don’t go away when you become a Christian. As long as you are still in that body on this earth, you will face hardship.
So, later in Romans 8, when Paul lists various hardships, he includes famine, nakedness, and death. In this life you may lack food, you may lack shelter, and one day, however easy your life on earth was, it will end. You will die. And, as Christians, we rightly pray against such things. We don’t want to starve, we don’t want to be without shelter, we don’t want to die, and so Jesus even taught us to pray for our daily bread, and we pray for the poor, the homeless, the sick, for God to spare those we love from suffering and death, and even for God to protect us from such things. But what happens when he chooses not to answer those prayers in the time and manner we want? What happens when you’ve prayed for healing from the chronic pain, but it hasn’t gone away yet? What happens when you pray against violent crime in Philadelphia, but the numbers go up? Or, we can think of smaller hardships that nonetheless trouble us: What happens when you fix that one issue on your house, only to discover another? What happens when you complete one big, stressful project at work, only to realize you have another? Patience is that fruit of the Spirit that enables you to keep bearing these things with love, joy, and peace.
We could say those are the kinds of hardships that are more circumstantial; they don’t come because another person is directly inflicting hardship on us. But part of living in a fallen world with other sinful people is that sometimes, it is other people who directly inflict the hardship on us. So in Romans 8, when Paul lists various hardships, in addition to things like famine and nakedness, he lists persecution, danger, and sword. I said earlier that when you become a Christian, hardship doesn’t go away, but there’s a sense in which it not only does not go away, but ordinarily it increases. You’ve been reconciled to God, but the world is still in rebellion against God. So at the very least you should expect to not fit in as well in the world anymore, to be somewhat socially, and perhaps even professionally, marginalized, in many cases to be verbally insulted, and in some cases, to even face threats of violence. But patience is that fruit of the Spirit whereby you bear such things with love, joy, and peace. You love your enemies and rejoice in your sufferings. One of the early Christian writers on patience said Christians would rather suffer evil from others than inflict evil on others. And the early Christian martyrs didn’t just grit their teeth on their way to being fed to lions; they sang songs of praise to God on their way, because patience sustained joy and peace in them even amid persecution.
Persecution from the non-Christian world makes some level of sense given that the world is in rebellion against God, but it doesn’t take long after becoming a Christian to realize that not only will people from outside the Christian community inflict hardship on you, but some of your greatest hardships may come from people inside the Christian community. Recall that seems to be Paul’s big concern for the Galatians in this passage. In verse 15 he warns them: “If you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another.” Remember some of the works of the flesh in verses 19-21: enmity, strife, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions. Remember verse 26: “Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another.” How does provocation, enmity, biting and devouring one another happen in a church community? It happens when we feel wronged by a fellow church member. It happens when you share something hard in your life, and people don’t respond in the most helpful ways. Maybe they fail to respond at all. It happens when you feel like you’re giving and giving in a relationship, but the other person isn’t reciprocating, and in fact even seems to be grumbling about you in response. Patience is that fruit of the Spirit whereby we continue in churches where such things inevitably happen, whereby we continue loving the very people who do such things to us, and whereby we do so with joy and peace.
How is such a thing possible? It’s possible because of the last part of our definition of patience: “in anticipation of future relief from God,” and this is also where we can see the connection between patience and love, which is the fruit of the Spirit. If we love God above all else, then every hardship is worth bearing as long as expect to be with him forever at the end of the hardship. And the promise of being with God forever is only made to those who are willing to suffer with Christ. So Paul says in Romans 8 that we are heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him, in order that we may also be glorified with him (Rom 8:17). Then he says in the very next verse that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. What’s he talking about? He’s talking the day we will see God, and in seeing him, will become like him. He’s talking about the day we are finally and fully conformed to the image of Christ, to live with God in perfect communion forever. That’s what we wait for with patience. And if we love God above all else, that’s worth waiting for, whatever hardships we must endure in this life.
And we could even add that not only do we anticipate seeing God alone one day, but we anticipate seeing him with all his people from every tribe and language and people and nation. Love is not only for God, but for neighbor. The good for which we patiently wait is not only a private vision of God, but the day when we all attain to the unity of the faith together. So we bear persecution with confidence that through our witness, more of those with whom we will spend eternity with will be saved, and we bear hardships inflicted on us by our fellow Christians which threaten our unity, in anticipation of the day when we will be truly and finally one, with no further threats to our unity. John Newton counsels Christians to remembering this when in conflict with one another. He says in such times we should try to imagine being in heaven with the brother or sister with whom we have the conflict, and consider how dear we will be to one another in that day. That’s how every conflict between genuine Christians ends. Then act toward one another now in light of that.
The opposite of such patience is, well…impatience. It is a refusal to wait for the day we will see God together, and an insistence instead on having optimal good here and now. So the flesh inclines us to fight, flee, or fix. When God brings hardship into our lives, we resent him (fight), we distance ourselves from him (flee), or we marginalize him while giving all our energy to fixing the hardship (fix). It’s amazing how much time we can make to research and plan how to fix a hardship in our lives, but we’re “too busy” to pray. When persecution from the non-Christian world is the cause of our hardship, we fight back (they insult us, we insult them), we flee (tone down our Christianity), or we fix (try to change Christianity into something the world will like). When the hardship is inflicted on us by a fellow church member, we fight back (speak hurtful words back to them or about them to others), we flee (leave the church, avoid the person), or we fix (try to change them in a domineering way). All these are attempts to obtain an optimal good in this world. But of course, we can’t obtain optimal good in a world subject to futility, so the fruit such impatience bears is a life of resentment toward God and others. The flesh says I want optimal good now, and God or those people are in the way. Patience says I know my optimal good is in the life to come, so I can bear whatever hardships God or people send my way with love, joy, and peace.
The counterfeit of patience would be bearing hardship, but in a way that lacks love, joy, and peace. So you receive hardship from God, and you still go to church, and you don’t curse him, but your heart is far from him. You bear the hardship your spouse is inflicting on you, and you don’t divorce them, but you kinda give up. You say, “Well I guess that’s just how she is and I’m not going to change her, so I’ll just deal with it.” You remain a member of the church and still say hi to that church member who hurt you, but you’re withholding relationship from them to get back at them. You don’t fight, you don’t flee, you don’t fix, but you also don’t love, you don’t rejoice, and you don’t really restore peace. The counterfeit can also be seen in abusive relationships, where the victim can tell themselves they’re bearing the abuse in a Christ-like way, when in fact they’re avoiding loving the abuser by confronting them with their sin and not allowing it to continue. We may let people hurt us, not because we love God and them, but because we kinda need them to be around for us to feel ok about ourselves. It’s a similar kind of counterfeit patience that Reverend King critiqued in his letter from a Birmingham Jail: true patience compels us to bear our own hardships, but to speak up and fight against offenses to God’s glory and injustice toward our neighbor. So Chrysostom, the 4th century church father said, “it is praiseworthy to be patient under our own wrongs, but to endure God’s wrongs patiently is most wicked.” To endure our own wrongs is patience, but to endure God’s wrongs is to fear people, not to exercise patience.
The opposite and the counterfeit; those are the responses to hardship of which our flesh is capable, but patience is a fruit of the Spirit. So let’s talk about why that’s the case.
Why is it a fruit of the Spirit?
As with the others, we can start answering this question by reflecting on why the flesh cannot produce such patience, and the reason is like the others: Patience springs from love for God, with whom we wait for consummated communion, while the flesh inclines us to love this world and the things in it, the things available here and now. So we’re looking to the world for our optimal good, and therefore when we are deprived of that good in this world by hardship, we have nothing beyond it for which we are waiting. The flesh is a fundamentally “here and now” impulse. And we can see that even in other works of the flesh. Recall that the first works of the flesh listed in verse 19 are sexual immorality, impurity, and sensuality. What are these but an insistence on sexual pleasure here and now, rather than patiently waiting for God to provide it in marriage, or even better, patiently waiting for the greater joy of communion with God forever, even if he never provides marriage?
We can also see that “here and now” impulse of the flesh in the religiosity into which the false teachers who had infected the churches of Galatia were trying to pull the churches of Galatia. In Galatians 5:5 Paul presented the life of faith in contrast to life under the law in this way: “For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness.” When we engage in man-made religion, we’re looking for a way to feel righteous now. Why was the message of getting circumcised and observing the proper days appealing, after all? Because it gives you a way to feel righteous now. But Paul says the life of faith is different. It is one in which we wait for the day God will declare us righteous publicly, and he says we do this “through the Spirit.” The flesh can make you religious, but the flesh can’t make you patient.
But patience is a fruit of the Spirit first because patience is an attribute of God. While we cannot properly say God suffers hardship because it is not possible for God as God to suffer, it is possible for God to be wronged, and in fact, God has been repeatedly wronged by humanity. Yet listen to this description of him from Exodus 34:6, repeated throughout the Old Testament: “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.” And we know God is patient and slow to anger as soon as the first offense against him is recorded in the Bible. When Adam and Eve sin against God in Genesis 3, though God had said that in the day they did so they would surely die, God doesn’t kill them right away! Amazing. At that point, God’s justice did not require any delay on his part, and yet he does in fact delay his judgment. Not only that, but he allows Adam and Eve to be fruitful and multiply, even though we learn very quickly that their children would also sin against God. And here we are today, a room full of people who have sinned against God from the moment we were born, and we aren’t in hell! Not only are we not in hell, we’re alive! Not only are we alive, but God has been good to us! He’s given us families, and food, and shelter, and a lot of other enjoyable things. Given how we’ve sinned against him, how we’ve refused to love him and have instead loved the things he made, how patient must he be to still have woken us up this morning.
So we can see God’s patience in the course of his general providence, where we see that he does continue to do good and to delay the judgment of us who continually sin against him. But nowhere do we see it more clearly than in the gospel. Nowhere do we see it more clearly than when God became man, and as man, took on the ability to suffer like we do. And as man, even he was not spared from the futility to which the creation was subjected. He bore our griefs and carried our sorrows. He came to his own, and his own did not receive him. The world hated him because he testified against it, that its works were evil, and in the end, even his own disciples deserted him. Isaiah 53:3 describes him this way: “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.” Yet listen to this description of his response on 1 Peter 2:22-23 – “He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.” From the cross he even prayed for the very people who put him there: Father, forgive them.
And why did he go through all this? It was not ultimately for our judgment, but for our salvation. As his prayer for his enemies indicates, it was so that we might be forgiven. And so we see in the gospel why God ultimately delayed his judgment. It was not simply so that one day he would pour it out on us. Rather, it was so that one day he would pour it out on Christ. He delayed his judgment in order to send Jesus to bear his judgment, in our place, so that we could be saved from his judgment in the end. He delayed his judgment so that he might send Jesus, not only to die, but to rise again, to guarantee that one day all our hardships would end, when we are resurrected with him. And he delayed his judgment so that in time, he might send his Spirit, to open our eyes and lead us to faith in Christ, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of our sins. If you are here today, God has been incredibly patient with you. Do not presume on his patience any longer. Trust Christ for salvation, and he will save you from the wrath to come. God is slow to anger, but the day of his judgment will come eventually, and his patience is meant to lead you to repentance. You cannot go on indefinitely without making up your mind about Christ.
But when the patience of God has been revealed to you by the Spirit through the gospel, when the patient God himself comes to live in you by his Spirit, he makes you patient. Now you can bear hardship, because you know you deserve far worse hardship from God, but you see how good he’s been to you in saving you, and you know he’s now using those hardships for your good, to conform you to the image of his Son, so that one day you will be with him forever. And now you love him more than anything in this world, so that you can willingly bear the loss of good in this world, whoever it comes from, in anticipation of the day you will enjoy him as your ultimate good. This is the patience the Spirit is working in you if you are in Christ. Let’s close, then, by considering how we can act on patience.
How can we act on patience?
The basic way we act on patience is by bearing hardship, but what does that look like? Psalm 130 gives us a helpful picture of that. It’s written in a context of hardship, and the Psalmist says this in verse 5: “I wait for the LORD, my soul waits, and in his word I hope.” When you go through hardship, you may not feel love, joy, and peace right away. So what do you do? You wait for the LORD. These are fruits of his Spirit, not of your flesh, and so rather than fighting, fleeing, or fixing the hardship, you stay in it, bear it, and wait for the LORD to bring the fruits of his Spirit in it. That said, waiting is not an entirely passive thing either. The Psalmist also says “and in his word I hope.” In other words, the way you bear hardship is by putting your hope in God’s word, the things God has clearly said in scripture. It can be tempting in times of hardship to engage in wishful thinking. I mentioned last week in talking about peace how even secular children’s books encourage kids to tell themselves “it’ll be ok” when feeling afraid, when we don’t actually know whether it will be. Better than that is to think about what you do actually know: Every word of God’s is true, so turn to specific promises from him, specific verses even, and put your hope there as you wait, and from that, in his timing, he will bring the love, joy, and peace.
He may also bring relief from the hardship in this life. Certainly we pray for that, and there are even appropriate ways we may go about trying to “fix” the hardship. Going to a doctor when you are sick, for example, is not contrary to patience. But buying illegal drugs to numb the pain would be. No longer giving your money to God so you can devote it all to fixing your hardship would be. Part of bearing hardship, then, and so acting on patience, looks like resolving to set your hope on God’s word, and refusing to turn to sin to “fix” your hardship. It looks like using only the means God has appointed to fix your hardship, and even then, not setting your hope on those means. It looks a heart posture of, “God, I will not sin against you, and I will hope in your word, even if it means this hardship continues.” Ultimately, though, we know it will not continue, even if it lasts the rest of this life, because ultimately we are waiting for the resurrection of our bodies, when all hardship will be over, and we will be with God forever, our ultimate good.
And when the hardship with which we are dealing is inflicted by others, we also can consider how to act toward them in accordance with patience. First, we must recognize that we often feel wronged when we have not, in fact, been wronged. We may be putting the worst possible spin on people’s actions or words toward us, or we may simply have unreasonable expectations of others. You texted someone and they didn’t reply; well, they don’t necessarily owe you a reply. You want to be someone’s best friend, but they don’t want to be your best friend. Well, they don’t owe you friendship. They owe you love, but that’s not the same thing as doing everything you want them to do. So step one when you feel wronged is to evaluate the wrong biblically: Did the person actually violate God’s law in how they treated you, or did they just fail to meet your expectations? If it’s the latter, then you actually need to repent of your pride in demanding that people meet your expectations.
But, sometimes it is actually a violation of God’s law that someone has committed against you. Even then, though, patience inclines us to overlook smaller offenses, especially those that spring more from weakness than from any intentional effort to inflict pain. So let’s use the example of sharing something hard, and your fellow church members say something dumb and unhelpful in response, or they say nothing at all. Well, they should have done better, but maybe they just didn’t know what to say. Maybe they were trying to love you, but they aren’t very good at it. Don’t hold that against them. Bear with one another’s weaknesses. You may be able to help the weak in such cases: “Hey, I could sense you really were trying to help me, but when you said ___ it made me feel ____. In the future when someone shares something like that, maybe try listening first and pointing them to God, rather than just trying to lighten the situation with positive thinking. I appreciate that you really did want to comfort me in my sadness.” Often, though, patience will incline us to just overlook such things. Similarly, we may notice weaknesses, not so much in individual people, but in our church as a whole. And again, first step here is to evaluate the perceived weakness: Is this actually a way your church falls short of what the Bible says churches ought to be and do, or is this a preference you have that the church doesn’t meet? In that case, you need to first reevaluate your preference biblically and repent of your pride in demanding any church conform to them. But then there are always genuine ways any church falls short of biblical ideals. But patience inclines us to do what we can, in submission to the church’s elders, to move the church toward the biblical ideal, to address those weaknesses, but to do so with love, joy, and peace, knowing that we will never in this life remove all weaknesses from any church. Patience inclines us to bear with one another’s weaknesses.
But, then, there are times people sin against us, and we should not overlook it. We should not overlook it if we recognize the sin is preventing us from true peace, which we talked about last week. An easy test for this is can we happily greet one another? Scripture tells us to greet one another with a holy kiss; if we can’t happily greet one another, that’s an indication there’s work to be done. If you notice you’re distancing yourself from this person in a way you didn’t used to, there’s work to be done, and that work is the work of confrontation. Such work is also necessary when we notice that a sin in someone’s life is serious or habitual. Part of patience, then, bearing with them in love, and not just distancing oneself from them, is engaging them on that issue. We continue moving toward the person, though in this case it must be with patient confrontation, making them aware of their sin and how it’s affecting you, and calling them to repent because of what Jesus has done for them. If private confrontation fails, Matthew 18 lays out a process for involving others in the church in the process we call church discipline. Even that is an act of patience. We don’t give up on people. We keep going with the process Jesus gave us in hope of their repentance, so that they will be saved from the wrath that will upon them if they persist in their sin.
And, finally, when others wrong us, patience inclines us to forgive them. When God has been so patient with us, and has forgiven us of so many more sins, and so much worse sins, than this person has committed against us, how can we then withhold forgiveness from another? Instead of exacting vengeance here and now, we wait for the day when God will right every wrong, and we forgive from the heart, as God has forgiven us from his heart. If you are a Christian, forgiveness is not optional. It is what those of us who have been forgiven so much now must do, and it is this that the Spirit of God is working in us when he works in us patience. God is truly a patient God. Though the day of his wrath is coming, he has been slow to bring it, in order that he might send his Son to save us from that wrath by bearing it in our place, and in order that he might send his Spirit to open our eyes to his patience and believe in his son. Believe in his son, and his Spirit will make you patient. As he does, act on that patience by waiting for God’s deliverance as you hope in his word, by enduring persecution without wavering from the confession of your faith and loving your enemies, by bearing with one another in love, and by forgiving one another as God in Christ has forgiven you.