There’s a common saying among Christians: “Don’t pray for God to teach you patience–you won’t like what he’ll put you through to learn it!”
I don’t think much of that saying. It makes God look like a nasty schoolmaster, for one thing. It’s also the wrong reason. That is, I agree with the advice, “Don’t pray for patience.” I just think there’s a far better reason for it.
Lessons from experience
I think I have a bit of background from which to speak about this, and not just this blog item. As regular readers here know (and they’ve been patient with me talking about it!), for almost four years I’ve been unable to walk without pain and a limp. For most of those four years the doctors and therapists have been telling me I’m about six to eight weeks from full recovery.
Obviously it’s turned out to be a lot more complicated than that. Obviously, too, I’ve been waiting and waiting for that recovery, which has remained firmly and consistently just out of sight around the corner. It would have been easier just to have known how long it was going to take from the start, instead of dealing with the repeated disappointment of unsuccessful treatments all this time.
Yesterday, in my first physical therapy appointment since surgery number four (which was six weeks ago) I got the word: I’ll probably see gradual improvement this time. It isn’t that the surgery wasn’t any less successful; quite the opposite, actually. It’s that months of inactivity have weakened and stiffened my lower leg quite seriously. Progress, they’re telling me, won’t be measurable day by day or even week by week, but month by month. I should be back to full speed in a year or so.
That sounds like a long time to me.
The first surgery was kind of a pain, and the second and third were disappointing, but I made it through in pretty good spiritual and emotional condition. This time I’ve had more trouble with it. It’s been rough. That’s the main reason you’re not seeing me write as much as usual here: I’ve had real trouble pushing through the emotional barriers: the pain, the fatigue, the effects of lost sleep, and the discouragement that’s been lurking at the edge of my consciousness and sometimes pushing its way right in. I’m tired, I’m feeling a lot of loss, and I’m simply feeling sad a lot of the time.
Patience? So what?
Here’s another way to look at what I just said. I did fine with this, emotionally and spiritually, for a long time. That was patience in action. I would go so far as to say it shows I practiced patience to a fairly high degree, which means that somehow I must have learned patience to a fairly high degree. Sure, I could use more of it in traffic, and sometimes also in conversation with my family members (okay, not just sometimes), but still most people would agree, I’m no slouch at this patience thing.
I think that’s all true. I think it all leads to an important question: So what?
Several other important questions follow after that one. Why does patience matter? What’s it good for? It’s a mark of a mature character, one might say. So why does that matter?
God didn’t create us to be great at toughing things out
I was thinking about all these things earlier today–a lot earlier, in fact, at about 3:15 or 3:30 this morning, when I would rather have been sleeping. It was worth being awake, though, because that’s when I realize that patience wasn’t the point. God didn’t create me to become great at toughing things out. He created me as someone to love. He created me to love him. And he created me to live in loving relationship with others.
Yes, Scripture speaks often about growing in patience, learning endurance, and so on, but patience itself isn’t the point. Rather, patience reflects our trust in God and supports our relationship with others.
Patience is for relationships
It’s not hard to see how patience supports our relationships with others. If everyone would just do what I want them to do, the way I want and when I want, I’d never need to be patient with them. Conversely, if I would quit harboring the desire that they would be that way, they’d have a lot less need for patience with me. Impatient relationships are self-centered relationships. I’m not loving you if I expect you to operate on my agenda and my schedule.
When it comes to relationships, love is the point. The apostle Paul didn’t write, “and now abide faith, hope, and patience, these three; but the greatest of these is patience.” He identified love as the greatest virtue (1 Cor. 13:13). Patience counts interpersonally precisely because it is a way of loving.
Patience is the emotional fruit of trust in God
In relationship with God, patience is a way of trusting. This is what really struck me while lying in bed this morning. Impatience is a way of telling God I don’t think he’s doing his job right. It’s an expression of distrust toward God’s wisdom, his goodness, and his timing.
I distinguish impatience from dissatisfaction, which I can illustrate again with the story of my foot. I can be dissatisfied with its current atrophied condition and let that drive me to do the physical therapy I’ve been prescribed, while trusting God to be loving me and doing good for me regardless of the condition of my foot. On another scale, my unhappiness with the state of the world can drive me to pitch and do my part to help.
The difference between godly patience and impatience isn’t (as some might think) that patience waits while impatience acts. Patience could be very quiet or very active; either one is possible. Either way, patience trusts God to be taking care of me today and my work’s outcome tomorrow—or my prayers’ outcome, or my relationship efforts’ outcome, or my waiting’s outcome….
Patience is therefore the emotional fruit of active trust in God’s goodness and love.
So early this morning, while lying in bed, I told God, This is a really long road you’re asking me to walk (or limp) along. Right now I want to tell you I love you, and I’m going to quiet my heart and let you love me.
Don’t pray for patience, pray for love and trust instead.
Patience isn’t the point, love and trust are. Patience matters, yes, but it matters because it is an expression of what really counts: my love and my trust. It’s an observable measure of how much we love and trust, too.
So now you can see why I don’t think much of the usual advice about praying for patience. My advice instead would be, Don’t pray for God to teach you patience. Pray that he would teach you to love more and trust more.
While you’re at it, would you pray the same for me? I could use a lot more of both!