Texts: 2 Corinthians 6:1-10, Ephesians 4:1-6 4th Lent Midweek
The Fruit of the Spirit: Patience
In the name of him in whom we have been called into one faith by one Baptism, dear friends in Christ: In our continuing series of meditations on the fruit of the Spirit from Galatians chapter five, last week we looked at the spiritual fruit of peace. And as we did, we considered two aspects of the biblical concept of peace. One had to do with being in a state of reconciled friendship with God through Christ. We weren’t always that way. Because of our sin we were God’s enemies and under sentence of eternal condemnation. But Jesus intervened on our behalf and took the punishment we deserved upon himself when he suffered and died on the cross. Now, because of his sacrifice, God’s anger against us is appeased and we who are in Christ through baptism and faith, are received once again into God’s fellowship and family. So we have peace with God through Christ. We’re no longer under any condemnation – all our sins forgiven and forgotten by the Lord. And too, this peace we have with God overflows into reconciled relationships with others who are members of the body of Christ. So that’s one aspect of peace: these reconciled relationships both vertically with God and horizontally with all the other members of his family. The other concept peace conveys is being in a state of stable tranquility. When you have this peace you are safe in the certainty that God is on his throne and all is well with the world. Nothing’s lacking. There are no cares or worries because we know that in Christ our heavenly Father loves us and has everything under control. It’s the idea of having perfect peace of mind.
And hopefully you can see how the two ideas are complimentary. I mean, if I’m reconciled to God through Jesus, and also to all my brothers and sisters in the faith, then I rather expect everything else to be taken care of by the Lord. Life is going to be as good as it gets. Ahhhhhh! I am at peace. Yes; but what I failed to mention last week because I was saving it for this evening, is that as this wonderful fruit of peace that we enjoy with God continues to grow, it’s going to mean that more and more we are the enemies of the forces that are arrayed against the Lord and his rule – yes, that nasty old trio: the devil, the world, and the sinful flesh. Peace with God means war with them. So it’s not like now that we have peace we’ll be able to just sit back on tropical beaches sunning ourselves and sipping exotic drinks from coconut shells while we wait for the end to come. Quite the contrary: it’s time for combat. There’s a reason we call the church on earth the church militant. We’re at war.
And to help us fight this war, the Lord is equipping us with the next fruit of the Sprit, which is patience. And what’s interesting is that there are four or five different Greek words used in the New Testament that can be translated into English as “patience”. Each one has its own particular flavor or nuance. The one used in Galatians five is makroqumia, which is a combination of the prefix “macro” that means “big” and “thumia” that means “passion” or “feeling” – so together the word means something like “big feeling” or “great passion”.
Now, sometimes this word is used in a general sense, and when it is it means the perseverance to hang tough in adversity. It’s the “stick-to-it-iveness” to cheerfully endure life’s trials and not give up when you face setbacks and losses. The person with the fruit of patience says to himself, “Yes, I’m in a fight with some very dangerous and deadly enemies, and sometimes the going is awfully difficult; but I know whose side I’m on. And I know who wins in the end. I also know what’s waiting for me at the finish line, so I can put up with whatever the enemy throws at me and for as long as he throws it at me – because Jesus is my Savior, and he is my strength, and I know that he’s going to bring me safely through.” The fruit of patience is the sense of persistence that refuses to lose heart, and that resists the urge to grumble or complain or to become angry when the going is long and hard.
It comes through loud and clear in the first reading we heard. There Paul writes, “Here we are in troubles, hardships and distresses; in beatings, imprisonments, and facing riots; in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger – and yet we continue in purity, with understanding, and exercising patience and kindness …armed with the power of God, and in both hands the weapons of righteousness; though glory and dishonor, bad report and good report; genuine, but regarded as fakes; known, yet treated as strangers; dying, yet we live on; beaten, yet not killed; sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything.” You get the sense that even though he’s getting clobbered from every side and Satan is attacking him in every way imaginable, nothing can shake him. He’s patiently enduring it all and even already counting himself victorious.
The Lord is working in us to achieve the same fruit of patience – and the way he does it is to put us in the same sort of difficult situations that cause us to turn from our own pathetic strength to rely on him. Patience grows when he gives us things we have to be patient about. So rather than expecting our lives in Christ to be perpetually smooth and easy, we should rather anticipate that we’re going to have crosses to bear. Or as Jesus elsewhere said, if a branch is bearing fruit, my Father prunes it so that it bears more fruit. And yes, the pruning hurts; but by it we bear more fruit – including the fruit of patience.
That’s how we understand the fruit of patience in the general sense; but the word that’s used in the list of the fruit of the Spirit has a more specific sense as well. It has to do with our attitude toward other people, especially with regard to how we respond to the sins and offenses they do against us. And to illustrate exactly what it means, it’s the same word used to describe patience in the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant. You remember him. He’s the guy who is brought before the king owing ten thousand talents. It’s an astronomical figure. A single talent is roughly equivalent to what a working man would earn (gross income) in two years time – and this guy owes ten thousand of them. Not in a hundred lifetimes could he earn that much money. So the king orders that the servant’s assets be liquidated, and that he and his family be sold into slavery to recover a tiny fraction of the debt (or maybe it’s just to stop losing so much money on the guy). But the servant falls to his knees and begs, “Be patient with me and I will pay you all I owe.” Now, the very thought is ridiculous. There’s no way he’ll ever be able to pay; but the king is patient with him indeed. So patient that he cancels the entire debt. He decides to bear the entire loss himself and let the guy go scot free.
Well, then that same servant goes out and finds a fellow servant who owes him one hundred denarii. It’s the equivalent of about four month’s wages. It’s tiny compared to what he owed the king; but still, in today’s terms we’re talking about something upwards of ten thousand dollars. And I don’t know about you; but to me that’s still a lot of money. Anyway, the recently forgiven servant grabs the fellow by the throat and demands immediate payment. The poor guy doesn’t have it and says the same thing: “Be patient with me and I will repay you all.” But he isn’t patient. He hauls the guy off to be confined in a debtor’s prison until such time as his family and friends can raise the cash to buy him out.
When the king finds out what the servant has done he’s furious. He has him dragged back in before him and tells him, “You wicked servant! I cancelled that huge debt of yours. Why couldn’t you have shown a just little of the same mercy to your fellow servant?” He then orders that the original debt be reapplied, and that he be placed under torture until he repays every penny. It’s not a very pretty prospect, is it?
And of course the point of the parable is that because of our sin we are the guy who owed more than he could possibly pay; and the King in his patient mercy has already cancelled our debt. So patience used in this sense means “forbearance” or “letting go” of whatever loss has been incurred or choosing to forget about whatever injury has been suffered. The spiritual fruit of patience is seen in our freely forgiving those who sin against us. It means that we cancel those debts – or to be more precise, patience is shown in never running a ledger of debts to begin with. With regard to sins that are committed against us, we don’t keep score. We don’t hold grudges. In fact, patience suggests that we not even acknowledge the vast majority of offenses that are committed against us.
And I don’t want to be misunderstood. Obviously some sins can destroy relationships between people, and they have to be dealt with. But so often we go about with thin skins just looking for reasons to be offended by other people’s behavior. Every move some one makes is taken as a slight; every word and facial expression is carefully analyzed to see if it might be understood as an insult. Part of patience in this sense means growing a really thick skin. You just don’t let it get to you. We live among sinners. It’s no surprise that they sin. When they do, you let it go.
Now someone’s probably thinking, “Wait a minute here. Doesn’t someone who sinned against me have to come ask for my forgiveness before I release them?” The short answer is: no, they don’t. Now certainly that step may be a necessary part of restoring a relationship broken by sin; but the idea is that through the exercise of your patient forbearance they ought to be forgiven as far as you’re concerned already – the moment they sin against you. If they need to hear that they’ve been forgiven, that’s for their benefit, not yours. And if that doesn’t make sense, let me ask, when did the Lord forgive you? Did it happen when you asked for his forgiveness? Or did it happen when his Son died on the cross for your sin? It’s the latter, of course. That’s when your debt was cancelled. That’s when he himself patiently bore the cost and pain of your sin. So it’s not like he’s angry with you until you come begging for his pardon. No. He’s more like the father of the prodigal son who’s already borne the pain of his son’s rebellion and the cost of his sinful excesses. The father is not standing there with his arms crossed waiting for the kid to admit his stupid mistakes before he’ll announce that he’s been forgiven. No, instead he’s just aching for the boy to return. He forgave the kid before he left on his foolhardy quest. He just wants their fellowship restored.
That’s how the Lord is patient, forbearing, and long-suffering with us. He’s already accepted the losses we cost him; he’s borne our insults, suffered our abuses, put up with our hate and rebellion, and he’s endured our temper tantrums – all through his divine patience. And that’s the same patience he’s working through his Spirit to bring to maturity in us: both the persistence to endure in faith and hope in times of trial, and the forbearance to forgive and forget sins committed against us as freely and completely as we ourselves have been forgiven.
And if that seems like an impossibly grand goal, you’re right. It is as long as we try to work it in ourselves. But recognizing how far short of the goal we fall, each day we return to our Baptism through contrition and repentance. We drown that weak, sinful nature in us that gives up so easily and that wants to brood over hurts we’ve suffered due to the sins of others. We drown it again so that it dies with Christ. And then we rise up again with Christ to live a new life in the power his Spirit who works divine patience in our hearts. Knowing that this is the Lord’s goal for us, let’s make it ours too. And let’s trust him to make it grow. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Soli Deo Gloria!