The Forgotten Virtue of Patience

The Forgotten Virtue of Patience October 23, 2014

This was originally a sermon that has been converted into a long-form essay. If you are a pastor, feel free to copy and steal any of these ideas.


1917 Ford Model T

One hundred years ago this was the hottest product on the market. What’s the great Henry Ford marketing phrase? You can have it in any color you want (as long as it’s black). 4 cylinders, 20 horsepower, max speed 45 miles per hour, and it would run on gas, kerosene, or ethanol. It wasn’t the best car of its time. In fact it was one of the worst, but the Model T’s success wasn’t about how good the car was. It was about how fast they could make it.

Other cars at that time were made, for the most part, one at a time. The Model T was the first one that was entirely mass-produced. In 1909, the first year of production, they made 7,000 cars, and nobody could believe it. By the end of the decade they had made & sold over 3 million Model T’s. Their secret wasn’t speed of the cars, but speed of manufacturing.

One hundred years later, hottest consumer product on the market is the new iphone. Anybody have the iphone six? (borrow it). This little phone has more processing speed than the entire space program had the day they put a man on the moon. It has more applications than the first 3 computers you ever had. 100 years ago most homes didn’t even have a telephone. Anybody have a party line when you were really young? Shared a phone line with a neighbor? We did.

One hundred years ago the fastest long-distance communication was still the telegraph. If you were in Kansas and wanted to send a message to someone in New York, you had to: ride your horse to the train depot, dictate your message to the clerk, who would transmit that message to the next town down the line. There it would sit in a stack with other messages until the clerk was ready to transmit a group of messages. It would be relayed over and over until it finally got to New York. There it would be typed out on a paper & hand delivered (like a pizza) to the person you were contacting. Depending upon where it originated, this would take up to a day or two. It was so expensive you had to pay per letter, it was their own strategy for 140 characters or less.

Now we have this (iPhone 6)! From microchips, to memory, miniaturization, manufacturing ability (all of it connected to an amazing wireless network)… if you could time-travel someone from one hundred years ago here today & show them this device, they’d call you a witch & burn you. This thing is built for speed. It does everything fast. It’s the Model T of our time.

Just about anything that we’d call a real advance in our culture (more often than not) involves the word faster & the concept of speed. And anything you could describe as having a “wait time” in our world is currently being eliminated. I you can find a way to reduce any kind of wait time in our lives we’ll buy it. And this is changing the human race. We are addicted to fast.

A sociologist named George Ritzer famously called this phenomenon the McDonaldization of society. He says that McDonald’s changed world like no other modern invention. Now, the values of the fast food industry are the values of the culture—efficiency & speed are supreme virtues. We used to say, “Anything worth doing, worth doing RIGHT.” Now, we say, “Anything worth doing, worth doing FAST.”

Faster is always sold as a way to give us more free time. But as technology increased, so did the American workweek. Really, the most profound impact of technology like the iPhone is not the creation of more non-work time. Its biggest impact is the blurring of all meaningful boundaries between work life & non-work life. Our work can now encroach on any part of our lives.

And yet we continue to uncritically accept faster as more desirable. But, what if it’s actually better for us to have to wait on some things? One of the spiritual virtues that all this speed subverts is the virtue of patience. If we never have to wait, we never have to learn patience.

When I think of waiting & patience I immediately think of theme parks. It’s 400 degrees in the shade, you and about a thousand of your best friends, all sweating like pigs, packed into railed-off mazes like laboratory mice, waiting for hours on ride that’ll be over in under three minutes. That’ll teach you some patience, right?

…unless you go to Disney (the quintessential American theme park). There you can actually buy your way out of line (Fast Pass). You can still wait in line & learn patience with all the other suckers. Or you can get your fast pass; and if you’re willing to pay, they’ll pretty much make it so you hardly ever have to stand in line.

If you play your cards right, in today’s world… you might never have to learn patience. Because we are doing our best to eliminate any kind of waiting, and along with it, any chance we have to learn to be patient.

This summer, Suttle’s went to Colorado for my parents’ anniversary. It’s I-70 the whole way, so the speed limit was 75mph. So I’m going my customary 9 miles per hour over… that’s 84mph. the gas tank on our van is huge, so we really only really have to stop once. We were flying.

At some point we hit a construction zone where I have to slow to 55 mph. You would’ve thought we were back to the Model T days. This was apparently just unacceptable to me… I start whining. It has to feel good to know your pastor has issues, right? Then me & Kristin just start laughing at how ludicrous I was. I’m so habituated to FAST, that when I reach for the tiniest bit of patience, it’s not there.

We’re kind of obsessed, as a culture, with eliminating any kind of waiting. Over time our character becomes shaped by this. We’ve all but eliminated waiting from our lives, so we never practice patience. So when we bump up against something that won’t move for us, we really struggle.

Real quickly, I want to try to hazard a definition of what we’re talking about when we say the word patience. The Classic Definition of Patience is: “Waiting without complaint.” That’s the secular-philosophical definition of patience. The theologians have a different take… a better one, I think. They observe that for something to require patience, we must experience some kind of discomfort.

At Universal Studios in Orlando they have this Harry Potter ride, right? It’s a huge deal. The line to this ride winds through a replica of Hogwarts Castle. And it is amazing—the paintings move & look just like the movie, All of the famous rooms & characters are there. Tons of people will go stand in line for the ride & then bail out at the last minute. There’ no discomfort in that kind of waiting. The theologians tell us that for waiting to build patience, there needs to be some kind of discomfort involved.

They also tell us that God’s people have always registered their complaints to God. God doesn’t mind complaint, (he doesn’t like whining), but when we’re faced with brokenness & injustice, we can complain. In fact we have a whole tradition of complaint called lament.

A Lament says 2 things: 1) “How long, O Lord will it be this way? Because this is wrong!” And, 2) “Even so, I will praise & worship you no matter what.” So a more theological view of Patience would be: Enduring discomfort through faithful complaint, and faithful worship.

Just look at that definition and tell me how you think we’re doing as a society… & if you think we’re good, go read Facebook & Twitter for an hour & answer again.

Now think about the impact this has on our spiritual lives; the way that we relate to God, self, others, and world around us in a culture of FAST.

What does it mean for us as Christians, that we don’t know how to be patient given what we
know about the patient character of God?

Take a quick look at this video clip from Dale Ryan, a professor at Fuller Seminary, talking about the impact of speed on the way we view God.

Ryan says something that is stunning to me: “There is a terrible thing that happens when you make a connection between spiritual power and fast.”

When you start to equate speed with spiritual power, then if God doesn’t move at the pace we want, we start to question God’s power. If God doesn’t move on our timetable, we get indignant. We say, “Fix this thing for me, God.” And if God doesn’t do it, we’re apt to say “there is no God.” That is a deep kind of confusion about who we are & who God is.

Dale Ryan says: “If you serve a God that is only capable of doing miracles that happen fast, you have a shadow of the living and true God. The living and true God has no problem with stuff that takes time… God has a long track record of working with people on struggles that take a long time… God is a patient God.”

Do you see the rub? We have equated fast with powerful so completely that we find it hard to believe in a God who is patient. We say, “God please fix this thing in my life, and make it quick!” & if he doesn’t we say, “I knew it. No power.”

But what if the problem isn’t that God lacks power; what if the problem is that we lack patience?

We know that God is a patient God. What if only a patient people can see God at work in our world?

Anything that is deeply meaningful in this life takes time. Only a patient person will have the time to see the presence of God—a God who has no problem with stuff that takes a long time.

God has a long track record of working with people on struggles that take a long time. And the virtue that allows us to participate in that God’s life is patience.

In the OT, there’s the story of Abraham & Sarah. And the whole story began when God called Abraham away from his father’s house. God told Abraham a few things about his future: that he’d be the father of a great nation, his descendants would be as numerous as the stars, he would be blessed to be a blessing to the world, and that his wife would give him a son to carry on his line.

But year, after year, after year it didn’t happen. His wife Sarah left her childbearing years with no children. As time went by she became impatient.

Genesis 16 

Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. But she had an Egyptian slave named Hagar; 2 so she said to Abram, ‘The Lord has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my slave; perhaps I can build a family through her.’ Abram agreed to what Sarai said. 3 So after Abram had been living in Canaan ten years, Sarai his wife took her Egyptian slave Hagar and gave her to her husband to be his wife. 4 He slept with Hagar, and she conceived.

When she knew she was pregnant, she began to despise her mistress. 5 Then Sarai said to Abram, ‘You are responsible for the wrong I am suffering. I put my slave in your arms, and now that she knows she is pregnant, she despises me. May the Lord judge between you and me.’
6 Abram said, ’Your slave is in your hands, do with her whatever you think best.’ Then Sarai ill-treated Hagar; so she fled from her.

7 The angel of the Lord found Hagar near a spring in the desert… 8 And he said, ‘Hagar, slave of Sarai, where have you come from, and where are you going?’ She answered, ‘I’m running away from my mistress Sarai,’ 9 Then the angel of the Lord told her, ‘Go back to your mistress and submit to her.’ 10 The angel added, ‘I will increase your descendants so much that they will be too numerous to count’ … [Hagar is told she’ll have a son, & that she should name him Ishmael, & that God will watch out for him…] 15 So Hagar bore Abram a son, and Abram gave the name Ishmael to the son she had borne. 16 Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore him Ishmael.

So Abraham & Sarah have been promised by God that they’ll have a son, but they get impatient. And they take matters into their own hands.

You know the story from here. Abraham loved Ishmael, he groomed him to lead the family, and then Sarah had a son they named Isaac. And this problem emerged, because Abraham continued to treat Ishmael as the first son & rightful heir instead of Isaac. Sarah couldn’t take it, and she insisted that Abraham kick Hagar & Ishmael out of the family.

This was a brutal thing to do. Think of what that’d do to Ishmael! For years he was the favorite son of head-of-family, but now he’s kicked to the curb. It was a crushing blow for Ishmael. He becomes wild, and lives at odds with everybody.

This story, of course, is the Genesis of two big narratives. The Jewish narrative draws its line to Abraham. The Arab or Muslim narrative draws its line to Ishmael. And it all started with the impatience of Sarah & Abraham. They made the fateful error of equating speed with power (or a lack of speed w/a lack of power). When God didn’t work on their timetable, they stopped believing God would work at all.

They forgot that only those who know how to be patient will have the kind of time it takes to discern the hand of a patient God.

And of course we all do this. We make demands upon God, & if he misses a deadline we get angry, or just take control back from God.

Even churches do this: there’s a pastor I know of that planted a church with this aggressive marketing plan. Part of the plan was to gather church directories from all of the existing churches in the area. Then bombard them with direct mail campaigns specifically designed to lure people away from their churches. How messed up is that? A patient leader would never let that happen.

I don’t think that pastor was a bad person. I just think he lacked patience. He had been taught to say fast equals better, & speed equals power. This is how we are shaped within our culture.
Anything that requires patience, we call a weakness. If God makes us wait & doesn’t meet our deadlines, then we blame God, or we say God’s not really real.

Our impatience moves us to this place where we either try to tell God how to do his job, or we stop believing that God has any power at all. This is deep down for me, this struggle to endure discomfort through faithful complaint & worship. I find this incredibly difficult to do.

I had kind of a rough week. My baby sister had a bad mammogram, went to have a biopsy & found out it is cancer. (She’s 42, & has 4 children). It’s hard to be patient with something like that, you know… and just let my life come to me… to pray to God & rest in God? Because I’ve got a lot of my life connected to her life. I’ve got a timetable; I want a miracle preferably on my own terms.

But it’s like Dale Ryan said: a God that is only capable of doing miracles that happen fast is a shadow of the living and true God. There are just some lines you can’t buy your way out of. You’ve got to find a way to endure. And that takes patience.

The real trouble comes when our lives bump into something that doesn’t move & we find we have no patience. And this fundamental impatience that lives at the root of all human life, is where discomfort morphs into crazy-making pain that can cause us to lose all perspective… And we sacrifice the future for the sake of the short term. That’s the mistake of Abraham & Sarah. In some ways we’re still dealing with the outcome of their impatience.

Ultimately it is the cross that challenges our impatience. Jesus himself calls our impatience into question. He could’ve called down legions of angels to save him, but instead he submitted to the cross… patiently. Showing us that it is possible for us to live lives of patience.

I’ll put it to you the way I put it to myself this week: If Jesus endured the cross with patience (the mother of all injustices), then what makes me think I have the right to demand justice on my terms, right now, with my little sister? Or when I can’t find a good parking spot? For all of us, when our boss treats us poorly, our spouse lets us down, or our bodies let us down? Or when life throws us something we don’t know how to handle?

The cross challenges our impatience, because it was there Jesus patiently absorbed the very worst that the powers of evil could do to him. The patience of Jesus challenges our impatience. We trust that what God did for Jesus, God will one day do for all of us… but for now we need to learn to be patient. In the moment, however, believing is hard for us. Believing is made harder by a culture that equates speed with power, and refuses to wait for anything if it can be helped.

Patience takes a tremendous amount of faith. You have to believe, & trust, & live into the idea that God will have God’s way in the end. In the midst of sorrows and pain and depression, we have to learn to be still & wait. And if it’s cancer, infertility, unemployment, disease, divorce.
racism, addiction, infidelity… it can be extremely difficult.

Those things challenge our ability to deal with the pain of the present moment in resolute trust that God will win out in the end. And it’s not just the big life events; it’s the small ones, too: squirrely kids & fickle friends; critical parents & selfish neighbors. With the big painful life events, or the small everyday things, our lives demand a lot of patience from us. And to be patient takes some courage, and takes some faith.

There’s a line from Victor Hugo, he wrote this in a letter: “Have courage for the great sorrows of life and patience for the small ones; and when you have laboriously accomplished your daily task, go to sleep in peace. God is awake.”
—Victor Hugo

How great is that? Have courage & patience for the sorrows of life & then get back to work… do your daily task. And when you are done “go to sleep in peace. God is awake.” God has you. God will keep your life….

Kristin & I have this dear friend named Sarah we’ve known for 15 years or more, we planted our first church together. I’ve been taking Monday as Sabbath & spending the day with Kristin. The other day we sat down for lunch & saw Sarah sitting at a nearby table. So she joined us, and we spent a long time sitting together, just talking about life & all she had been through.

I don’t know many people who’ve suffered more than Sara over the past ten years. I won’t give you the whole list, but it’s brutal. The chief hurt has been that during high school her daughter began struggling painfully with an eating disorder that dominated her life for over a decade.
Years of denial & lying… she nearly died on many occasions, in & out of hospital, in & out of treatment facilities. It was brutally heart-wrenching to watch.
More than once Sarah thought she had seen her daughter for the last time… I was almost like her little girl was possessed for a decade.

Through all of that I watched Sarah develop this kind of deep down patience that I’ve rarely seen. She made it through with her faith intact. So this week I asked her to reflect on how this happened for her, how was she so patient? And she wrote me this note. This is part of what she said:

“I have been sitting here, trying to think about how it happened. What book did I read, who mentored me, what scriptures did I lean on, to get here. I have a hard time articulating my journey to others. Lord, have mercy on me as I remember and those who might hear this. A potters clay. That is the picture that comes to me. If you’ve ever thrown a pot, you know that it is often formed over and over and over again. Yes.”

And she goes on to describe her daily, weekly, & seasonal routine of retreating, daily prayer, yoga was a big part of it, & 12 step Christianity, (which is a spirituality, a way of connecting to God) based on the 12 steps of AA. She engaged these things for the decade as her daughter spiraled deeper and deeper into her disorder. Sarah, again:

“I was reminded over and over to keep my focus on THIS moment. My heart. My sin. My trust and/or lack of. My rebellion. My pain. My need for deep healing. To look forward or to the past was absolutely too much for me. It was death to my soul. In looking to the past or future I only found  despair, horror, hopelessness, terror- these words don’t come close. I learned, and continue to learn and fight for this moment. This one. This one right here…

So that is the long way around the barn, for me, in patience. Now look, 28 years of marriage to the man who isn’t the same as when I took the vows to live my life on earth with him; patience to see my adult children struggle with their faith and their love, or lack thereof, for the church. But I have no worries. The Potter, my potter is creating. Great works take great time and I am really good to wait. I am in the palm of His great, good, kind, powerful yet tender hands.

If there was one Scripture that has been the ground that I have walked on it is Psalm 34:18  The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit. (now that kind of sounds like clay/pots to me). My commentary on this verse is I don’t have to DO anything. Not ONE thing, but rest in the promise that God is close. He is close. He is saving. I don’t even have to want Him to be close or to want Him to save or to tell Him how to save (that is what I’m best at…..telling God how to be God, not THAT is some funny shit if you really think on it). He just is.

So I ask myself: What can I do right now to surrender? What can I do right now to hold this out to God? (Visual for me is holding my hands out before me with my palms open and wide). How is it between you and me (God)? Right now.”

It took something like a daughter who was out of her mind with an eating disorder & addictions to force Sarah to a place where she had to wait. There was nothing she could do to save her child. Can you imagine? But she still had to get up and go to work. She had to find a way to have joy & peace in the midst of the day.
What she did is engage a pattern of enduring discomfort through faithful complaint, & faithful worship… and it gave her the virtue of patience.

Cultivating patience in our everyday life is a way of training for the big stuff. And the big stuff is coming for all of us. This is unavoidable.

So, my prayer is that even though our culture tries to remove anything that makes us wait, we would all find a way include things in our lives that require patience; that we’ll remember the cross & the patience of Christ; that we’ll be able to see the God that has all the time in the world to sit with us & be with us throughout the ups and downs our lives; that we will “Have courage for the great sorrows of life and patience for the small ones;” and when we have have laboriously accomplished our daily tasks… that God will let us go to sleep in peace knowing that God is awake.”

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