There is a virtue that has quickly become endangered in our practice of discipleship today. Few might notice the decline of this species, and it certainly hasn’t happened overnight. Slowly but surely, patience, our grandparents's virtues, has become virtually extinct from our modern mindset regarding discipleship. This virtue is a mark of Holy Spirit vitality in a church and in a people. And it’s something I am not. What I am is an impatient person. Ask people who know me well and they will confess to you that waiting, enduring, and sticking at something long-term is a chore for me. I would prefer instant gratification in regards to just about everything. When it comes to spiritual transformation in myself and in the lives of others I like to say I’m eager for change. The reality is however, that I am impatient. Somewhere in the back of my mind I believe our churches should grow faster, we should see more missional communities develop, and that lost people should get saved right now. Christians should get over their besetting sins today not tomorrow and certainly not next month. Unbelievers on our street should come to Jesus right now, next week is too late.
Pastors are clever and cloak this lack of patience in what we call “urgency.” Somehow the spiritual fruit of urgency is more valuable than the spiritual fruit of patience. Yet only one of those two qualities made the list of spiritual fruits in Galatians 5:22, and urgency isn’t it. Patience is the endangered species we desperately need to recapture in our talk and practice of discipleship.
The Fruit of the Spirit Belongs to the Church
There are countless articles, books, and materials in publication these days on what constitutes a healthy church. Many of these resources are helpful for thinking through the functions and practices of the local church. I have yet to see one, however, that measures the health of the local church on the vitality of the Spirit’s fruit in our midst. Instead of measuring our church health and growth in terms of physical numbers, dollars, and downloads, shouldn’t we look to the biblical paradigm for health? Could it be that we have failed to understand what makes us healthy and vibrant, and exchanged the Spirit’s work among us for what we can largely manufacture and measure ourselves?
It’s my belief that the list known as “the fruit of the Spirit” in Galatians 5 is more than just a personal checklist of character traits for the Christian. These qualities should not just be embodied by individuals that make up the church, but are the very qualities the church, as a communal entity, should embody. When we look at the local church, as a whole, we should see a people of love, joy, peace, patience, etc. Things like love, joy, and patience should be prominent traits in healthy missional communities and healthy churches.
To truly say there is a movement of the Spirit among us, we must look for the signs of the Spirit. Those signs are not necessarily rapid growth, large budgets, and cultural influence. We can grow things and call them “spiritual” and understand that the Spirit had nothing to do with them. Nor can we look at small bastions of fundamentalism and “holiness” and concur that they are spiritually healthy either. Chances are that many of these groups are just as deeply mired in the “works of the flesh” that Paul speaks of (like divisiveness) before unpacking the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:19-21). What we must look at as a real measure of true Spirit-led, Spirit-filled healthy churches are the fruit of the Spirit. Do we see love, joy, and so forth as growing and evident as a culture in our churches? This is how we know the Spirit of God is actively at work in our midst.
Patience As Gospel
So what is this thing we call "patience?" Our modern notions of patience often revolve around waiting, delaying gratification, and boredom. Patience is passé if not downright dull. With conveniences like fast food (or quick-service, if you prefer), instant digital downloads, pre-approved loans, and express checkout at your nearest grocery store, the concept of patience is almost foreign to our world. Who wants to wait for a church to grow? We are far too prone to believe that practicing the right methods will convince God to bring in the masses by the thousands. If that doesn’t happen in our church we can become depressed and wonder if we haven’t done it right. We don’t like to wait.
Patience is more than waiting. I like the word that some of the older English translations use for this concept of patience: longsuffering. It is the idea of bearing with someone, enduring the hurt and pain of their failure and sin. Longsuffering calls us to take some hits, get messied-up with failure, endure disappointment. It calls for a long-term commitment. This isn’t our weekend life-improvement project that resolves itself at 6pm on Sunday evening before we head back into a routine week. This is the day-in, day-out grind of shared-life. Longsuffering calls for endurance. We can’t give up at the first failure. We stick with it, we endure the sin, we pray for change, we love the offender.
If anything, patience is a picture of the gospel. The holy God who created all things for his glory has an incredibly long-term view on humanity. Over six-thousand years of the recorded history of grace is evidence of God’s concept of longsuffering. From our first parents' initial rebellion in the garden God has been enduring our mess of sin, failure, rejection, rebellion, and apostasy. And he has suffered because of it. Jesus, the eternal Son of God took on flesh and was patient with humanity day-by-day as they misunderstood, rejected, and failed him.
He was patient with sinners to the point of enduring the suffering of death on the cross. And as the resurrected King he is longsuffering now. Where scoffers would mock his coming and say, “God has forgotten you,” they misunderstand his slowness for what it really is--longsuffering so that they will repent (2 Peter 3:8-9). The gospel is good news of a patient God who is longsuffering with his rebellious people, to the point of actual suffering and death so that we might be restored and rescued from our impending doom.
Patience As a Corporate Culture
If the gospel is a gospel of patience, and the spiritual vitality of a church and people is measured not necessarily by their numerical size but by Holy Spirit fruitfulness, then what place does patience have in our communities? Patience is a corporate culture we’ve largely ignored and forgotten about. We need a perspective change, and I am thankful that the Scriptures give us that change. Where the church in America is commonly compared to or envisioned as a business model, we need to look at farming to understand spiritual vitality.
Last summer my wife and daughter planted a garden in our back yard. They purchased some seeds and starter plants for tomatoes, peppers, carrots, and strawberries. After planting them and initially watering them, my then three-year old wanted to know when we could eat the strawberries. I had to explain that it takes time for these to grow. She was frustrated. She had done all the right things; planted in good soil, watered, fertilized, but the results were not immediate. Even the first “crop” of strawberries were small and not really tasty. Yet as the summer moved on and the plants continued to be watered, nourished, and given proper care, the harvest was good. Even James uses the imagery of the farmer to describe patience (James 5:7-12).
So what does this look like for the church? Practically the idea of patience bears itself out in how long we will endure sinners. I don’t use the term sinners in the sense of “everyone is a sinner.” I mean how long will you, your church, your community group put up with someone who is sinning against you? How long will you bear the blows of a sinner against your life? How long will you endure the frustration of someone who “just doesn’t get it?” How long will you continue to invite over, hang out with, and witness to your unbelieving neighbor before you give up on them and move on to another personal evangelism project? How long will you pray for your spouse to change and grow before you decide they are beyond the effort of grace? How long will you be kind to and love the grumpy elderly man who frumps around at your church gatherings each week? How long will your community group love and serve someone who continues to lose their job and, by the world’s standard, is a social failure? How long will you as church leaders call and pray and meet with the sinner in your body before you give them a letter of dismissal and never see them again?
We need patience as a church in evangelism. We need patience as a church in discipleship. We need patience as a church in repentance and discipline. We need patience in our preaching. We need patience in our giving. More than anything we need patience in our expectations of the pace of justification and sanctification in the lives of other people.
Pastors, let us not put patience on the back burner of spiritual growth and love for the false idols of urgency and influence. Let us love our people well with longsuffering. Christians, let us not treat unbelievers as evangelism projects that expire at the end of thirty days, but let us be longsuffering evangelists to them. Churches, let us not drink from the broken well of immediate gratification and think that only twelve-week programs are discipleship. Let us take the long road of shared-life and endure the sins and offenses of life-on-life because this is what our Savior has done for us.
Is patience endangered in your life? Is it rare and hard to find within your church and missional community? We need the Holy Spirit to produce what he says he will. We need to measure health in our lives and churches by the things the Holy Spirit says are healthy. Patience is the fruit of a Spirit-led, spiritually vital church. Let’s ask God to give us that, and not the modern gruel of fast-food discipleship.
Jeremy Writebol is the husband of Stephanie, daddy of Allison and Ethan, and lives and works in Wichita, KS as the Community Pastor at Journey the Way. He is the director of Porterbrook Kansas and writes at jwritebol.net.
To go deeper into living a life filled with the Holy Spirit, read Holy Spirit by Winfield Bevins.