Growing up in the Adventist Church, I frequently heard of members citing the words “patience of the saints”. I later came to realise this expression was a reference to Revelation 14:12: an eschatological description of the end time, and a window to the experience of God’s people before the return of Jesus. I’ve also heard others respectfully referencing the “patience of Job” (James 5:11) when processing challenging situations in their own lives. But what is “patience” anyway?
The New Testament usage of the word suggests that patience is a quality given to the believer by God to stay the course and remain steadfast despite the many challenges of life. This understanding of the term is conveyed in Galatians 5:22-24 where patience is listed as a virtue, an expression and manifestation of the fruit of the Spirit in the life of a follower of Jesus Christ. In this context, patience is presented as the work of God’s Spirit. In other words, patience is God-generated; it happens not because of me, but because of God working in me. This emphasis on patience as something given to us by God is important because it corresponds with our understanding of the gospel and sanctification as the work of God in us and for us.
I should state, however, that the Bible uses other synonyms to convey the same ideas about patience: perseverance, endurance, steadfastness and longsuffering. As a noun, patience is defined as “the ability to stay and accept a delay or something annoying without complaining” (Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary). Let’s explore this view of patience as accepting “something annoying without complaining”.
In his letter to God’s people in the first century, James, the leader of the church in Jerusalem, encouraged Christians to endure trials with joy, “knowing that the testing of [their] faith produces patience” (James 1:2,3). From a human perspective, trials are difficult situations and unpleasant experiences that we don’t normally go looking for, because they slow us down and very often, frustrate us to the core. Yet, James is calling for Christians to accept these hurdles and challenges, that are sometimes beyond our control, as something good to treasure and value. Moreover, James pleads with his readers to allow patience to do its work under these trying circumstances because it will result in spiritual growth, wholeness and Christian maturity (James 1:4).
A significant dimension of “patience” as described in this passage is the notion that this human experience of endurance is not passive. The picture portrayed here by the Greek word hupomone, is of a person who is under the strain of a heavy load but keeps pressing forward. This is active endurance; a quality and state of mind that sets great marathon runners like Eliud Kipchoge apart.
But what about the idea of patience as accepting “a delay without complaining?” This perspective is presented well in the book of Hebrews. For example, in Hebrews 10, Christian believers are called to persevere in their faith in Jesus even if persecuted because of the surety of His death and the confidence in His priestly ministry in heaven (Hebrews 10:19-22). Furthermore, the faithful are encouraged to maintain fellowship and community with one another because the day of Christ’s appearing is near (Heb 10:24,25, 35,36). In other words, the waiting is warranted because of the final outcome–Jesus will come.
This emphasis on endurance and perseverance is again projected in the “race” analogy in Hebrews 12:1,2. The significance for Christians is the reminder to constantly focus on Jesus from the starting point to the very end of the journey of faith.
Patience is a quality given to us by God because of His grace, to enable us to deal with the reality of life on this side of the second coming and to help us to maintain our focus on Him daily.
Erika Puni is a Lecturer at the Avondale University College seminary.