Of all the fruits of the Spirit, patience seems to be the one that many, if not most people, find it difficult to supply on their own. Left to our own devices, we fret and sweat and fume and sputter. This really should come as no surprise to anyone living in an American culture that not only embraces a fast food mentality, but also ideas like instant karma. The truth of the matter is, fast food and great food don’t go together, and if you want instant karma you might remember the saying that karma is a bitch. How instant do you want that?
Of course, Paul is referring to patience in people who had no idea what fast food is, and who really had no concept of karma. Very few things happened quickly in the ancient world, and most that did were not desirable things – like crucifixion. So, what exactly was it that the people of the 1st century were so impatient about?
Elsewhere in his writings, Paul refers to those who are slow to come to Christ, who are doubtful and reticent. You may have seen a blinding light and been instantly transposed into a sacred being, but for many people, then as now, the process might be slower, with a lot of wrong turns and moments of hesitation. Being impatient for someone’s lack of faithfulness is like being impatient with someone’s lack of food. For the most part, followers of Christ don’t “make” disciples so much as they “grow” disciples. Disciple-making is less like manufacturing and more like gardening, an art that as every gardener knows, requires patience.
The Fruit of the Spirit is a list of common, everyday virtues. In other words, the nine fruits listed in Galatians aren’t some lofty goals that require extraordinary discipline and training to achieve. In fact, Paul sees them as evidence of the Holy Spirit at work within a person rather than as a personal achievement. To “acquire” the Fruit of the Spirit, one needs to acquiesce to the Holy Spirit – to relax, open up, and trust. Being impatient for the expected results of this acquiescence works against the openness that is required in the first place. Patience is perhaps the only fruit that precedes itself: be patient, and the Holy Spirit will grant you patience.
Another active venue for impatience in the 1st century was being impatient for the 2nd coming of Christ. Many believers thought Christ’s return was imminent, but as days and weeks and years went by, some followers used the lack of the 2nd coming as an excuse to fall away from the faith. Even as an everyday virtue, Paul urges Christ’s followers to patiently wait for the Lord. By this he means be active in faith, exercise the other Fruit of the Spirit, and learn to live fully and faithfully while still retaining faith in Christ’s return, whenever it may come.
The New Revised Standard Version of the Bible uses the word “patience,” but the King James Version uses the term “longsuffering.” Patience is seen not simply as the opposite of impatience, but as a mark of endurance. Many early Christians were persecuted in ways that now seem unimaginable to us: from social ostracization to torture and crucifixion. Sadly, all forms of persecution of Christians are still in play across the world today. The idea of patience as longsuffering may not mean so much to a Christian in America, but it may have a very deep and personal relevance to some in other places around the globe.
The ability to endure in one’s faith in the face of unspeakable hardships is indeed a gift of the Spirit, but only if we have faith in what we are enduring for. Here is where the suffering of Christ – the longsuffering of Christ – brings meaning to the idea of our own patience. For from Christ’s suffering sprang the release from sin and the prize of salvation. Things that are definitely worth waiting for!
The Fruit of the Spirit is not a checklist, it is a way of being, a way of living. We do not create the Fruit of the Spirit, rather, it emanates from us as we become agents for the Holy Spirit. Our faith journey is one of nurturing these fruit, both in times of comfort and times of hardship. When we lose patience with God’s timetable – when we expect the fruit to ripen according to our will – we not only become irritated, but we also lose contact with the Holy Spirit. We block the channels within us that the Holy Spirit uses to use us to impact both our inner world and the outer world. Yet patience has never meant sitting around being satisfied with doing nothing. The Holy Spirit calls us to garden diligently but leave the outcomes to God.