The witness of patience

For certain tasks I often work in cafes. I find the gentle hum of noise in a café is just what I need to bunker down and get really focused on what I’m doing. But on a recent visit to my favourite café it didn’t quite go to plan.

On this particular morning as I walked into the café I noticed it was really busy. That’s ok, I thought, I’m not in a huge rush. But not everyone in the café was quite so content with the situation.

About ten minutes into my work I suddenly realised there was someone talking very loudly behind me. That gentle hum of noise had been broken. It was one of those moments where you quickly realise someone is making a scene so you don’t want to turn around and stare. In this particular case it was a woman who’d been waiting a while for her order. I later noticed she was dressed in corporate clothes, obviously grabbing breakfast before work. Over the hum of the café noise I heard her angrily complain, “I’ve been waiting so long. No it’s not my problem – it’s yours!”

An impatient society

You’re likely familiar with the kind of situation I’m talking about. A busy café, a long queue at the shops, a crowd at a train station, and someone loses their cool. In those situations I find myself awkwardly trying to keep my head down so as not to get drawn into it. Although I must also confess that on occasions that person making the scene has been me.

Patience is in short supply in our society today. It can be very hard to find, perhaps especially in the workplace. Fast food is ordered in advance so it’s ready to pick up when we arrive. We tap and go to pay so we don’t have wait. And no longer do we simply watch television – we binge watch all 12 episodes of our favourite season now!

When it comes to the workplace there is the same drive to have it now. Deadlines get shorter, clients expect faster and faster turnarounds of their work, and the email I just sent you, why haven’t you replied already!

Patience is in short supply in our society today.

A fruit of our busyness

Why is that? There are likely numerous reasons. But when I asked a number of my friends they all gave me the exact same answer. “I get impatient when I’m tired, and busy and under pressure”. Given that “busy” is so often the answer that we give people today when they ask how we’re going, is it any wonder that one of the fruits of our busyness is an impatient society.

This is why when we encounter genuine patience it is profoundly counter-cultural. It’s distinct. It’s different. And I might add, it’s attractive. I think of a previous boss who seemed to always have time for my questions. That kind of patience isn’t quickly forgotten.

Patience was also a hallmark of the very first Christians. In his book The Patient Ferment of the Early Church Alan Kreider explores the historical data around what the early church was like and why it grew. There were numerous factors, but Kreider focuses on a neglected one – patience. Krieder makes the case that patience was a distinctive characteristic of the early church. A church under threat, on the edges of society, acted with patience, especially towards those opposed to them, and it got noticed. The early Christian author Tertullian explained it like this: “Patience…attracts the heathen, recommends the slave to his master…It adorns a woman, perfects a man. It is loved in a child, praised in a youth, esteemed in the aged. In both man and woman, at every age of life, it is exceedingly attractive”. [1]

The patience of the first Christians was a key factor in drawing people to consider the Christian faith. In culture where patience is in short supply, might it also be again today?

Where does patience come from?

This of course raises a question: where does patience come from? The short answer is, primarily from gazing afresh upon the patience of God.

One writer reflects that the patience of God is a “neglected divine attribute”. [2] I’ll admit that it’s not an aspect of God I think about often. And yet patience is at the heart of how God deals with us. And yet His patience pervades the whole Bible. It is included in one of the clearest statements about God’s character in the Old Testament, in Exodus 34:6 where God describes Himself to Moses: “The LORD, the LORD, compassionate & gracious God, slow to anger”. “Slow to anger” is an attribute of God that is mentioned numerous times in the Old Testament (Numbers 14:18, Nehemiah 9:17, Psalm 86:15, Psalm 103:8). It is an attribute that speaks of His patience, in particular towards humanity.

And it’s an attribute that gets to the heart of what patience actually is. The word patience is sometimes translated in our Bibles as “longsuffering”. It’s a word which has the idea of “taking a long time to boil”, which is a wonderful image for helping us understand patience. God’s anger towards humanity should rightly boil quickly – He has every right. Yet He is slow in His anger, He is patient, He takes a long time to boil.

Why? The New Testament makes that wonderfully clear. In Romans 2:4 where the Apostle Paul explains that God’s patience is “meant to lead you to repentance” (see also 2 Peter 3:9, 15). God takes a long time to boil because He wants all people to embrace His love, kindness and grace.

But such is His patience that He extends it even to those that He sovereignly knows will never accept it. In Romans 9:22 Paul says God is patient even to those who will face His wrath eternally. People who God knows will not repent and ever receive His gift of grace, to these people God is still slow to boil.

Is it any wonder the that Paul – so keenly aware of his rebellion against God and persecution of His people – should describe God’s treatment of him like this: “I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life” (1 Timothy 1:16). Paul is a first hand recipient of the immense patience of God.

God’s patience towards you…and me

Indeed all of us are. Even those of us who, unlike Paul, don’t really know a time without God in our lives. For those of us, like myself, who might have grown up in a Christian home it might be easy to look at the ‘Paul’s’ of the Christian faith and understand how they could appreciate God’s patience, but find it harder to do so for ourselves.

However as I have meditated on the patience of God what has struck me has been the nature of His ongoing patience towards me when I continue to sin. There are some sins that I continue to commit over and over again, some of them for years.

As a father I get impatient when my children do the same wrong thing over, and over, and over again. What parent hasn’t said, “How many times have I told you…”.

So how much more our heavenly Father? “Andrew how many times have I told you to not be anxious? How many times have I told you not to be proud? How many times have I told you to act with self-control?” And yet He is so patient with me, gently correcting me, sometimes over several years. He is slow to boil with me.

Put things right NOW

I recently had an expensive road bike stolen from my office, and one of my many reactions was “I want justice quickly”. I want the police to come straight away and review the CCTV footage – what could be more pressing at the moment for them than my stolen bike! I want the insurers to move quickly and pay out any claim. If the bike is being resold online I want it found quickly and returned to me straight away. In short, I wanted things to be put right as quickly as possible.

So how much more God? Each day He causes the sun to rise. He bestows blessing upon blessing upon His creation. Yet He is ignored and ridiculed, and killed on a bloody Roman cross. And He could put things right as quickly as possible. But He patiently waits, He is slow to boil, such is His love for His creation, not wanting anyone to perish but everyone to come to repentance. It is in gazing afresh upon this patience of God towards each one of us that we will find ourselves moved to patience in response.

Patience and the workplace

So how does this apply itself to the workplace? Let me make three suggestions:

  • Firstly, be slow to get angry

That is, be slow to boil, especially towards that in the workplace which tests your patience, whether that’s people or processes. When colleagues frustrate and annoy us, when they take longer than we want to get their side of a job done, be slow to get angry with them. Be patient.

Or when workplace systems seem to only hinder efficiency, when processes mean everything takes ten times longer than it should, when communication breaks down between head office and local teams, be slow to get angry about this. Be patient.

Of course if someone has been given a deadline they need to be encouraged to be responsible in sticking to it. And if processes could be more efficient then we should speak up about it. But in doing this let us move slowly, act gently, act patiently.

Being slow to get angry, especially with those we don’t like, is precisely how God acts patiently towards His creation. So when we act this way gives taste test of what God’s patience is like, which is what Paul said should be the case: “I was shown mercy so that in me Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example”. This is the patience of God displayed in Paul’s life. And the patience of God displayed in our own lives.

  • Secondly, work patiently

Patience in the workplace will mean taking the time to offer to help those colleagues who might be struggling to meet a deadline. It will mean not giving short answers to someone who asks for help. And it will mean not interrupting others – you’ll wait to speak.

And patience should be displayed in the very work itself that we do. When people receive our reports, open our emails, inspect the finished product, the fingerprints of patience should be evident upon it. It should be evident that corners haven’t been cut, that the necessary time has been spent hearing from relevant parties, and that there is a willingness to go back and work on any suggestions.

  • Thirdly, be less busy

If it is the case as I argued at the beginning of this piece that impatience is a fruit of our busyness then we can only hope to become more patient if put less in our diary. We need to have margins in our days that can be filled if necessary when people need us to be slower with them and give them more of our time than we planned.

It is very hard to be patient with colleagues, clients or customers if your diary is filled with back to back appointments or tasks. You can’t sit and be present with someone if you’ve got your eye on the clock because you need to race to next thing. If you have been on the receiving end of this kind of impatience then you’ll know how profoundly counter-cultural it would be to experience the opposite.

Time to talk

Recently I was back in that same café I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, working on this article. I go to this café regularly, so all the staff know me by name. As I had my head buried deep in my laptop writing this final section one of the staff came up to me and quietly said, “Are you busy?” My first thought was, “Yes I’m busy, I’m trying to finish writing an article about patience!” But I paused, looked up said to this staff member, “No I’m not busy, I’ve got time to talk”.

We went on to have a lovely conversation about each other’s lives, and a discussion about the busyness of our society today and that people don’t have time to do what we were doing just now. Indeed patience is counter-cultural, it is distinct, and it is attractive. And when we’re less busy we can actually take time when it arises to have conversations with our work colleagues about the reason for the hope that we have.

 

[1] Quoted in Kreider, The Patient Ferment of the Early Church.

[2] thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justin-taylor/have-you-considered-gods-patience