Galatians 5:22-23 tells us:
Today we consider the fruit of PATIENCE. You might remember that last week I mentioned the word “peace” can be used in two different ways. It can mean “inner tranquility” and it can mean “not in conflict with others.” “Patience” also has two slightly different usages, and those usages can be directly related to the usages of the word “peace.” Having “inner tranquility” is directly related to having patience with circumstances. And “not being in conflict with others” is directly related to having patience with people.
So we can have patience with people, and we can have patience with circumstances. The Bible has something to say about both of these.
This week we’ll consider having patience with other people. It is a character trait in short supply in our world. You can see lack of patience in the halls of our government, on the streets of the world, on the pages of social media, and even within the walls of the church. The Greek word which gets translated as “patience” or “longsuffering” in our Bibles is “makrothumea” which is a compound word made up of “makro” and “thumea.” When we hear the prefix “macro,” we think “large,” so it probably won’t surprise you to know that “makro” means “long.” The one that might be surprising is “thumea,” which means “wrath” or “indignation.”
So patience, if translated literally, word for word, means “long wrath.” And that doesn’t mean “having wrath that lasts a long time.” It means having wrath delayed for a long time. It’s this idea that Peter refers to in 2 Peter 3:8-9 when he writes:
Wow! Imagine that! In essence, Peter says that God’s wrath is so slow that what for us would induce wrath after one day, takes a thousand years to produce the same result in God. We often think of the Old Testament as a time of God’s wrath, and certainly we see that recorded, but in the midst of the wrath we see God’s longsuffering illustrated repeatedly; God withholds judgment from the Ammonites for 400 years, He repeatedly forgives the ancient Israelites for their wayward, “stiff-necked” ways, He refuses to judge Ninevah without sending his stubborn prophet Jonah to call them to repentance, and He allows half a millennium of lawlessness from His people before their captivity in Babylon.
The Psalms are filled with reminders that – far from being swift to anger – God is longsuffering. One of my favorites comes from Psalm 145:
In virtually every passage where the phrase “slow to anger” is used to describe God, it is accompanied by one or more of these words: “gracious,” “loving,” and “merciful.”
In other words, forgiveness and patience toward people are like two sides of the same coin: patience cannot happen without forgiveness, and forgiveness leads directly to patience. So when we talk about patience toward people, we cannot do it without talking about forgiveness.
We might wonder how and why God is so forgiving – even before the coming of our Savior into the world. Psalm 103 gives us a helpful answer to that:
God’s loving forgiveness and longsuffering come for two reasons. First, because He is a father who loves His children. Second, because He understands our weakness and frailty more than we ourselves do. As a father myself, I have some understanding of both reasons. It is not just my love for my children that pushes me toward patience, but also my understanding of their developmental stage. I cannot expect of a two-year-old what I expect of an eight-year-old. If I walk in the room and find my eight-year-old drawing on the walls with a marker, my reaction will be different than if it’s my toddler doing the drawing. Because I understand the development of my children and know what is a reasonable expectation for each of them.
When I lose patience with my children, it is not because my love for them has expired, but because I have forgotten what I should reasonably expect of them. But God never forgets the frailty of His creation. For this, we should all be grateful.
As we consider these twin subjects of patience and forgiveness, let’s take a look at what Jesus had to say about it in Matthew 18:15-35.
I want to focus first on Peter’s question, and the story Jesus tells; afterward we’ll come back to the beginning of the passage and spend a few minutes there.
Peter’s question, in verse 21, is: “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?”
There was an ancient tradition among the Israelites that you needed to forgive someone three times, and after that you didn’t need to forgive any more. So Peter’s question, in which he suggests seven times, indicates that he knows Jesus will have a more challenging expectation than the ancient rabbis.
But Jesus’ answer explodes Peter’s expectation; the number of times you ought to forgive a brother is almost beyond counting. Depending on your translation, you may find it rendered as “seventy and seven” or “seventy times seven.” So either 77 or 490. Either way, Jesus is saying (in essence), “Let’s stop keeping track altogether.”
Then Jesus launches into a parable of a servant who owes the king an absurdly large sum of money, which would be almost impossible for him to repay. He throws himself on the king’s mercy, begging for time to raise the money. Not only does the king have compassion on the servant, but his compassion is so great that instead of giving him time to raise the money, he simply forgives the debt entirely.
In the second part of the parable, the servant goes out and finds a fellow servant who owes him a fairly insignificant amount of money. The scene replays with the second servant begging for mercy, but the first servant has no mercy, and simply has the other fellow tossed into prison.
When word gets to the king, he is outraged, and has the first servant thrown in prison.
In case His listeners haven’t figured out that the king represents God and the servant represents us, Jesus finishes up with these hard words: “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” Another way of saying it: if you are unwilling to forgive someone who has hurt you, you go in the penalty box as far as God is concerned. Your relationship with Him is on hold until you fix what is broken. After all, the gospel is – at its heart – about love and forgiveness, and if we cannot find these in our heart, then the gospel is far from our hearts.
This parable is straightforward to understand: God has forgiven you so much that any debt of forgiveness you owe another is insignificant by comparison. You cannot expect God to wipe out the enormous debt of your wrongdoing and still hold on to grudges for much lesser harms that others have done to you.
How do we extend our patience with others? How do we have merciful longsuffering when others hurt us? We remind ourselves of the great debt we have been forgiven, and we remember the frailty and weakness of the person who has hurt us. Like you, that person is a frail child of dust.
It’s important to note that repeated forgiveness does not cause us to turn a blind eye to injustice. It’s tempting to take the lesson on peace, combine it with the lesson on patience, and say, “the Bible tells me to do everything in my power to live in peace, and it also tells me to patiently forgive. So I will simply swallow whatever hurt has been done to me and avoid confrontation.”
But God also hates injustice, which is why Jesus set up the instructions in the verses we read right before Peter’s question. Matthew 18:15-18 makes it clear that though we are willing to forgive, we also, as a matter of righteousness and justice, expect better of our brother or sister who has hurt us. Jesus sets up appropriate steps to resolve the situation.
Approach the person alone and explain the nature of the harm they brought to you. If they don’t listen, approach them with an unbiased arbiter, and finally, if it cannot be made right, take the matter to the church.
And, of course, if the one who has hurt you is not a member of the church, court systems are an appropriate means to seek redress.
So do not buy into the lie that unity and peace require you to bite your tongue and simply take injustice in silence; sometimes true unity and peace can only come on the other side of confrontation and justice. God’s concern for both justice and righteousness is repeatedly emphasized throughout the Bible. Amos writes:
If we are unwilling to seek justice and righteousness, if we are unwilling to approach those who have hurt us, that becomes an act of injustice in itself. It can drive us to bitterness and eventually to a short-fused wrath, which is precisely the opposite of patience. Appropriately dealing with a hurt can help us to grow in patience and forgiveness.
The key word there is “appropriately.” How do we appropriately approach someone who has harmed us? We approach them with hope, with humility, with an understanding of God’s love for them, with our own love for them, and with an understanding of their frailty and weakness. We will talk more about this when we reach Galatians 6.
Last week we talked about making peace with others; let us be sure that we do the reverse as well – through patience and forgiveness allow others to make peace with us!
Lord, you have been so patient with me, holding off your wrath against me, and pouring out mercy and grace instead. Thank you for that lovingkindness. Re-form me in your image, so I can do the same for those around me. Fill my heart with love and understanding for those around me and give me your thousand-year patience. Amen