What Is Patience in the Bible? Exploring the World’s Toughest Virtue
Patience in the Bible is the ability to endure difficult people and situations without giving into anger or giving up hope. Because God continues to show us patience when we are doing disappointing things, we can show others patience when they disappoint us. Is patience the toughest virtue because it’s tough to cultivate—or because it’s stronger and grittier than the vices it comes up against? It’s probably both.
Let’s explore patience as described in the Bible.
Is patience in the Bible basically passivity?
At first glance, patience seems like inaction. After all, patience means that, when someone accidentally annoys you, you don’t act annoyed. When someone hurts you, you don’t take revenge. When life keeps you waiting, you don’t take every conversation as an opportunity to vent.
So, is patience basically not giving in to impatience when you face something difficult? It can look that way because patience means restraint. But to see patience as only something you don’t do is to miss the kinds of powerful things patience can do. Check out what Proverbs 25:15 says patience can do: “Through patience a ruler can be persuaded, and a gentle tongue can break a bone.” Apparently, people with patience wield a lot of power—more power than you would think at first glance.
Patience in the Bible: “Apparently, people with patience wield a lot of power.”
We’ll explore God’s patience more in a minute, but God’s patience toward us is credited with doing something amazing: His patience plays a huge part in a massive miracle (at least when it comes to stubborn people like myself): His patience, along with his kindness, are able to “lead you to repentance” (Rom. 2:4). So, as we explore further how patience in the Bible works, let’s not assume it’s weak or passive. It’s actually as tenacious a virtue as you’ll come across.
Patience is a long word (for having only 2 syllables)
Patience is an English word, but we can learn something about how patience in the Bible works when we look at the Hebrew and Greek words which are translated as “patience” in the Bible.
The Old Testament was written primarily in Hebrew. The Hebrew word ‘erekh ‘appayim is often translated as patience, but it’s really two words meaning “long” and “nostrils.” What in the world does a long nose have to do with having patience? Well, when people are angry, they often breathe quickly and heavily. By contrast, when they are patient, people breathe more deeply and remain calm.
Patience in the Bible: “When they are patient, people breathe more deeply and remain calm.”
The New Testament was written in Greek, and the primary New Testament word for patience is makrothymia. It’s made of two words: makros (“long”) and thumos (“soul, heart”). So, to be patient is to be “long-souled,” in the sense of having the endurance to stay calm and keep doing what you’re supposed to do even when tempted to get frustrated and give up. (A related Greek word in the New Testament is hypomone (“to abide under”), which typically describes patience toward circumstances, whereas makrothymia typically describes patience toward people.)
As we can gather from ‘erekh ‘appayim and makrothymia, if you want to cultivate patience, you’re going to need to think in terms of the long game, not the short-term win. Because of this long-term orientation, patience in the Bible is often called “long-suffering,” and a helpful metaphor for a patient person is to have a “long fuse.” It’s because patient people think long-term that they are able to have endurance not to cave to the pressure of the moment.
A snapshot of patience from the ancient world
Kenny Boles, longtime professor of New Testament Greek at Ozark Christian College, tells a story from the B.C. era which illustrates the long-souled nature of patience. Carthage (North Africa) and Rome (Italy) were battling for control over the Mediterranean world. The Carthaginians would eventually lose, but around 215 B.C., their famed general Hannibal was conquering cities in Italy. One of these cities, Casilinum, impressed Hannibal when he put it under siege and it continued to resist, even though defended with no more than 540 soldiers.
Patience in the Bible: “They expected to hold out long enough to harvest them!”
So full of makrothymia (long-souled-ness) were they that, even during the siege, Hannibal witnessed the citizens of Casilinum planting turnips near the wall. Boles remarks, “They expected to hold out long enough to harvest them!” That’s what it means to be patient in the Bible: to have a resilient soul that plays the long game in the face of major challenges.
What is patience in the Bible? Let’s look at the Old Testament.
The Old Testament presents patience as a wise and virtuous choice we show to people and to God. Proverbs 19:11 explains, “A person’s wisdom yields patience; it is to one’s glory to overlook an offense.” According to Ecclesiastes 7:13, “Patience is better than pride.” Whoever is patient toward people “has great understanding” (Pr. 14:29) and “calms a quarrel” (Pr. 15:18). Proverbs 16:32 goes so far as to say, “Better a patient person than a warrior, one with self-control than one who takes a city.”
Waiting patiently on the Lord is key to living a virtuous life: “Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him; do not fret when people succeed in their ways, when they carry out their wicked schemes” (Ps. 37:7). Having patience toward God pays off: “I waited patiently for the Lord; he turned to me and heard my cry” (Ps. 40:1).
Patience in the Bible: “I waited patiently for the Lord; he turned to me and heard my cry.”
The patience of God’s people toward people and God is rooted in God’s slowness to anger, a characteristic of God mentioned throughout the Old Testament. For example, God describes himself as “the Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion, and sin” (Ex. 34:6-7b). Lest we equate God’s patience with the unconditional, boundless affirmation many progressive Christians paint God as, God follows up this description with, “Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished.”
Here’s a significant summary statement on God’s patience toward his people from toward the end of Old Testament history. The statement not only describes the breadth of his patience but also reminds us that even it has limits: “For many years you were patient with them. By your Spirit you warned them through your prophets. Yet they paid no attention, so you gave them into the hands of the neighboring peoples” (Neh. 9:30).
What is patience in the Bible? Let’s look at the New Testament.
A pattern throughout the New Testament is that what God gives to us, we are to pass on to others. For example, this goes for grace, forgiveness, blessing, and truth—all of which God gives to us for us to give to others. Patience is like this as well.
Patience in the Bible comes to us from God: “[God] is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). It’s because of God’s patience toward us that we are able to be saved from our sins (2 Peter 3:15). Paul personalized it by saying, “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 Tim. 1:16). He not only gives us patience in providing us with salvation, but, once we are saved, he continues to provide us with patience and endurance so that we can live the faithful life (Col. 1:11).
It’s this same patience we must pass onto others. We clothe ourselves with patience (2 Cor. 6:6), patiently bear with one another in love (Eph. 4:2), and instruct people with “great patience and careful instruction” (2 Tim. 4:2). If we truly love people, we’ll be patient with them, since “love is patient” (1 Cor. 13:4).
Patience in the Bible: “If we truly love people, we’ll be patient with them, since ‘love is patient.'”
We show patience to people, but also to God amid troubled circumstances. Faithfulness to God translates into patience in everyday difficulties, knowing that God is using tough times to grow our endurance (James 1:2-4). James 5:7-8 encourages us, “Be patient, then, brothers and sisters, until the Lord’s coming. See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop, patiently waiting for the autumn and spring rains. You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near” (James 5:7-8). We are to “imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised” (Heb. 6:12).
Very importantly (and thankfully), patience in the Bible is one of the virtues that the Holy Spirit grows in our lives as we walk in the Spirit: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience…” (Gal. 5:22, ESV).
What if I don’t cultivate patience?
When it comes to why lives implode, it can often be traced back to a lack of patience. This goes for whether we’re talking about the life of an individual Christian, a church, or a Christian organization. Multiple relational bridges burnt? Probably traces back to a temper as short as a firecracker fuse. A history of spiritual abuse and manipulation? Probably traces back to inflated egos obsessed with quick results. Grumpy Christians wringing their hands until the last drips of joy have fallen? Angry Christians slinging mud at opponents? If they had allowed patience to take root, they could have taken up the noble and beautiful task of 2 Timothy 2:24-26:
“And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will.”
How do I cultivate patience?
When a Christian doesn’t let patience take root and grow, it’s often because of spiritual amnesia. We forget that God has proven himself trustworthy and that we can find rest in his goodness. We forget that the church outlasts godless cultures and that the gospel outshines the devil’s lies. We forget that “our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all” (2 Cor. 4:17).
So, we will grow in patience to the extent that we follow the Holy Spirit’s reminders that we have a loving heavenly Father, and that in all life’s circumstances he “works for the good of those who love him” (Rom. 8:28).