Patience

Edited by Phillip Hanson

By Natalia Dahlgren

    11 min. Read Time

Published January 1st, 2021

            At the close of 2020, Christians are perfectly positioned to enact Gospel communication through Christian virtue. Chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, patience, kindness, and humility were all assaulted with opportunities to choose their opposites. Political division, social unrest, cries for justice, and the effects of a global pandemic created a perfect storm of events for the seven vices to become a justifiable default for anyone living in these times. In sharp contrast, Christians must choose to yield to the inner working of the Holy Spirit, who is actively producing the fruit of His nature as believers abide. In this hour of isolation and loss, which would seem to warrant envy, gluttony, lust, wrath, greed, and apathy, the deepening dark is but a backdrop for the glory of the Lord to be revealed. 
            Consistent character is not often what comes first to mind in initial reflections on Christian testimony to the world. Yet for the church fathers, patience was given a position of preeminence in discussions on godliness and Gospel declaration. Tertullian, Cyprian, and Augustine all wrote short works on patience—De Patientia, De Bono Patientiae, and De Patientia, respectively. 

The Necessity of Patience

            These men could not have conceived of the convenience-based, consumer-driven culture that their works are currently read in. To give context to the world they wrote to, it is crucial to remember the pastoral and personal challenges they faced. Tertullian of Carthage was born in 150 AD and was converted at the age of forty. He lived in a time where one could speak to the children and grandchildren of the first martyrs. He was well aware of the harsh persecution that faced his disciples and wrote boldly against the Roman emperors. Born around 200, Cyprian earned a law degree and made a practice for himself in Carthage before converting at the age of 46. He ministered during the same era of persecution as Tertullian and gave up a life of wealth and comfort to serve the church. Cyprian experienced exile, the loss of congregants to persecution, and strife within the church all before his execution by Roman authorities in 258. [1] Lastly, another son of Carthage, Augustine delivered a sermon on patience just twelve years before his death in 430. During the last years of his life, Augustine was occupied with decrying Pelagianism, a “Christianized Stoicism,” which bred heresy in the church.[2] 
            To Tertullian, Augustine, and Cyprian, patience is not merely waiting for one’s turn or trying to outlast a difficult circumstance. Their understanding of “patience” is best reflected in the word’s derivation. Its oldest known etymological ancestor is the Latin patientia meaning, “the quality of suffering or enduring; submission.”[3] Tertullian and Cyprian wrote for congregations faced with threats of death for following Jesus. They were compelled to exhort their disciples to continue to follow Jesus boldly and to endure steadfastly, even if this meant abuse, torture, or execution. Augustine wrote to a church divided by a heresy which subtlety imitated Christian values and principles. Patience was a gold standard for the Pelagians, who believed that man’s willpower was sufficient for salvation. For these men, true patience was a necessary virtue for believers to be distinguished from unbelievers. 
            However, what is the mark of a child of God who endures versus a person who suffers without the Holy Spirit? All who live on this broken earth will be faced with suffering. Cyprian himself addresses this in section 12 of his address. He points out that all who occupy “the inn of this world” are in sorrow and groaning by necessity because of the curse.[4] Yet, Christian patience is distinguished by its source and its motivations. 

The First Mark of Christian Patience: Source and Vision in God  

            Godly patience is rooted in God Himself. All His attributes are in accordance with one another such that His patience is perfected by and doesn’t compete with His love, kindness, holiness, power, generosity, justice, and truth. This patience is not mere endurance but has a touch of the holy. Therefore, it cannot be produced by humans independent of him. Attempts at true patience are but shoddy imitations of a much nobler virtue. Thus, the source of patience and vision for patience are found in God. 
            Augustine asserts this truth in the second half of his address. In Christian history, Augustine is remembered as one of the foremost proponents of the necessity of grace for salvation. He uses this doctrine as the foundational distinction between Christian and non-Christian patience. Patience that is of God must originate with God by a dispensation of His grace. To place this assertion in Scripture, Augustine compares worldly wisdom to worldly patience; both “sensual, earthly, demonic.”[5] Cyprian agrees and asks, “For whence can he be either wise or patient, who has neither known the wisdom nor the patience of God?”[6]  Cyprian quotes 1 Corinthians 3:19 in support, “For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God.” 
            Humans are not able to produce true patience in and of themselves but must yield to the work of the Spirit. Patience exists first in God and comes only from God. Based on the idea that patience is suffering, Tertullian and Cyprian point to man’s fall as the first instance of God’s suffering. God restrains His just wrath to offer humans salvation. He enacts curses for man, woman, and serpent alike, but withholds His full retribution and instead promises a Savior. The only one perfect, just, and true, chooses delayed justice in response to human rebellion. This patience is displayed continually in redemption history on both micro and macro levels. Despite the willful idolatry of mankind, God sends rain on the just and the unjust.[7] 
            Cyprian and Tertullian pause to revel in the goodness of God’s patience. Both take time to quote Scriptures explaining that God suffers mankind’s insurrection in the hope of redeeming His creation.[8] God’s patience is motivated by self-giving, hopeful love, “Or do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and restraint and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance?”[9] God submits Himself to suffering out of love for His creation. 
In this hope and out of this patience, God sends Jesus, and so Augustine rejoins our conversation. While he does not agree that the Father is capable of suffering, Augustine cannot deny that Jesus suffered willingly. Tertullian, Cyprian, and Augustine all include extended descriptions of Jesus’ endurance, both in bearing the suffering of becoming human and in His Passion. These church fathers exhort their listeners to take comfort in Christ’s sufferings and to follow His example as the source of and vision for patience. Tertullian describes submissive suffering being embodied in Jesus: 

“God suffers Himself to be conceived in a mother’s womb and awaits the time for birth; and when born, bears the delay of growing up; and, when grown up, is not eager to be recognized, but is furthermore contumelious to Himself, and is baptized by his own servant…He did not strive; He did not cry aloud; nor did any hear His voice in the streets. He did not break the bruised reed; the smoking flax He did not quench: for the prophet—nay, the attestation of God Himself, placing His own Spirit, together with patience in its entirety, in His Son—had not falsely spoken.”[10]

This excerpt is but his introduction. Each time I read Tertullian’s account, I am convicted more deeply of my lack of patience, humility, and love. Jesus was the fullness of the Father’s patience. He did not suffer with resigned despair but endured, full of faith. He was not only patient with wrongs suffered against Him but suffered with the broken and the bruised. Jesus “for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame and has sat down at the right hand of God.”[11] Jesus was patient because He shared hope for human salvation, for the restoration of communion, with the Father. 
            True patience mirrors this hopefulness. It is not a casual resignation but full of eschatological expectation. The patience that comes from above is rooted in the love of God, which He dispenses within believers.[12] It cannot be produced by human effort. Just as with the other fruits of the Spirit, patience is not a result of man-powered striving but grows in connection to the vine. Patience comes in the sweet communion that Jesus gave His life to restore. So Tertullian exhorts his audience, “[L]et us repay to Him the patience which He has paid down for us! Let us offer to Him the patience of the spirit, the patience of the flesh, believing as we do in the resurrection of the flesh and spirit.”[13] Christian patience comes from God and is moving towards God in a better embodiment of His patience. 

The Second Mark of Christian Patience: Love of Self and World  

            In comparing worldly and godly patience, Augustine and Tertullian offer robbers as examples of fleshly endurance. Driven by avarice, men will suffer the dark, cold damp of ditches near roads just to rob those traveling at night. These men are committed to their own welfare and their patience begins and ends with self-seeking. Even if not directed to harm others, Augustine cites this selfishness as the root of human resolve to be patient. He quotes James 3:15 in support, drawing a parallel between James’ contrast of worldly and godly wisdom and his distinction between worldly and godly patience. James calls the wisdom from below jealous and full of selfish ambition.[14] It is this commitment to egotistical self-protection that defines fleshly endurance.
            The patience that comes from above is rooted in the love of God, which He dispenses within believers.[15] Augustine quotes 1 Corinthians 13 in support, “love is patient, love is kind” and “it endures all things.”[16] Love is characterized by patience, just as patience is characterized by love. All of God’s perfections both define and perfect one another. These are not human qualities but revelations of the Father. It is the love of God and love for God that counteracts human selfishness. Though Augustine does not include this quote, 1 Corinthians 13 spells out the dissimilarity of fleshly and godly patience, “It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.”[17] One is rooted in the love of self and the other is rooted in love for God. 
            Cyprian offers another dynamic of human loves—the love of the world versus the love of God. This is a quandary that has both present and eschatological implications. If we believe that God is our Good in both this world in the next, then we can suffer all things for His sake. If we consider like Moses that “the reproach of Christ [to be] greater riches than the treasures of Egypt,” then we will be able to deny ourselves these passing temptations.[18] Cyprian writes, “if we who have renounced the devil and the world, suffer the tribulations and mischiefs of the devil and the world with more frequency and violence, how much more ought we to keep patience, wherewith as our helper and ally, we may bear all mischievous things.”[19] Our renouncement of this world’s pleasures is the foundation for our endurance in it. John writes in his first epistle that the love of God and the love of the world are not compatible, for the things in the world are not from God.[20] Godly patience is birthed in this love, which is convinced that true pleasure lies not in this world but the next. True patience comes from hope in God. 

 

Final Thought

            Patience in the Western church today may not take the same form as it did for the audiences addressed in the sermons above, but the way patience is distinguished from worldly endurance still rings true. Patience is a quiet declaration of trust in God’s sovereignty whereby we surrender our agency and submit our urgency to the outworking of His will. It is by no means inaction or weak-willed drudgery. The passivity of worldly patience is born in self-protective fear and apathy. But patience is a bold choice to have faith that God binds up the broken-hearted, lifts the lowly, and makes His strength perfect in our weaknesses.[21] This patience comes from above, from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning.[22] As such, true patience is founded in the belief that God’s unchangingness enables us to persist faithfully despite ever-changing circumstances. The patience that originates with God is born in faith, enacted in love, and motivated by hope. This is the patience that shines brightly in contrast to dull imitations, and its source can only be found in God. This is the patience that we must carry as light in a dying world to provoke questions and conversations that might lead to the Gospel being proclaimed.

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Footnotes:

            [1] Roger E. Olson, The Story of Christian Theology (Downers Grove, IVP Academic, 1999), 90-91, 116.
            [2] Sister Roselyn Radle, St. Augustine’s Patentia: A Translation with Introduction and Commentary (Villanova College: A Thesis Presented to the Faculty of the Department of Latin, 1950) 4. 
            [3] Douglas Harper, “Patience.” Online Etymology Dictionary (Online). Accessed Dec. 28, 2020: https://www.etymonline.com/word/patience. Accessed 15 December 2020. 
            [4] Cyprian of Carthage, De Bono Patientiae. In The Early Church Fathers, Edited by Alexander Robert, James Donaldson, and Henry Wace (Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 1995) EWTN Global Catholic Television, https://www.ewtn.com/catholicism/library/on-the-advantage-of-patience-de-bono-patientiae-11414.
            [5] James 3.15
            [6] Cyprian, sect. 2.  
            [7] Tertullian, De Patientia, In Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian, by Allan Menzies (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1885), 1226. 
            [8] Tertullian, 1230; Cyprian, sect. 4.
            [9] Rom. 2.5 
            [10] Tertullian, 1227.
            [11] Heb. 12.2 
            [12] Augustine quotes Rom. 5.5 
            [13] Tertullian, 1245. 
            [14] James 5.14-17
            [15] Augustine quotes Rom. 5.5 
            [16] 1 Cor. 13.4, 7
            [17] 1 Cor. 13. 5, 6
            [18] Heb. 11.26
            [19] Cyprian, sect. 12.
            [20] 1 Jn. 2.15, 16
            [21] Ps. 147.3; Job 5.11; 2 Cor. 12.9 
            [22] James 1.17

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