Valentine’s Day this year found us in right in the middle of what we might not call our finest days. Nothing catastrophic or excessively horrible, and probably most of it is just due to dark, cloudy, slushy, freezing winter weather (much easier to think the weather is at fault, than that I am). But regardless of the cause, these have been days that have called me to deep meditation on what really might be meant by “love is patient, love is kind.” Charity suffereth long, as the King James so beautifully puts it. The word in Greek is makrothymeo, long-suffering, or what we now call patience.
And I am realizing that I grew up thinking of patience as a weak, insipid sort of thing, like a girl dressed in a pink frilly dress wearing white gloves sitting primly waiting silently for…. something.
And now, as real patience is being required of me, I am coming to know patience as she really is, as a fierce kind of virtue (the word virtue itself comes from a Latin root meaning strong.) A virtue of blood and sweat and tears and rolling up ones sleeves to do very, very hard work.
Patience is actually, I realized, most closely related to the Classical virtue of Courage (or Fortitude, as it is also called). And Courage means: forbearance, strength, endurance. To persist (with dignity and grace) in the most adverse of circumstances. (My first draft of this included a long, long, long digression about the four cardinal virtues, and Plato and Aristotle and Augustine and Jonathan Edwards. I was supposed to be a theologian, and here’s one of the Edwards texts if you’re interested, because it’s lovely, and some day in another life or in twenty years when my babies are grown, I might write a book on the subject.)
At any rate, the Christian word for patience, or long-suffering, as I prefer to call it, comes from a root that means suffering, from a further root, thyo, which means TO KILL OR TO SLAY or TO SACRIFICE. 1 Corinthians 5:7 uses this verb: Christ, the paschal lamb, is thyo for us.
So yes, patience is not a pink frilly thing, or a calm and quiet thing. Patience, at its root, real patience, is (Chesterton was right) a kind of duel to the death. The Christian notion of long-suffering means (from here):
to persevere patiently and bravely in enduring misfortunes and troubles
- to be patient in bearing the offenses and injuries of others
- to be mild and slow in avenging
- to be longsuffering, slow to anger, slow to punish
So. Charity suffereth long. It sounds much better than “love is patient,” which sounds like love is supposed to be daffodils and posies and frolicking through fields on a sunny day.
But also, the kind of long-suffering that charity does is not the kind that is secretly bitter and angry and full of hate. Real long-suffering is also a kind of joy. A hard kind of joy (again, not the frilly lace and rosebuds kind of joy). Charity suffereth long, and is also kind.
And this word for kind (which is related to the word Jesus uses when he says, “My yoke is easy.”) means to act kindly, to be useful, to be mild and gentle. Love suffers long, and acts with kindness.
And I know everyone knows this so I hesitate to repeat it, but all the above means that LOVE IS NOT HAPPY MUSHY FEELINGS TOWARDS SOMEONE. Inherent in the definition of love, according to 1 Corinthians 13, at least (also see 1 John 4:10), is experiencing suffering and pain and still acting with kindness and love towards someone. Real love is behaving in a loving way. When you perhaps might not feel like acting in a loving way because of what the other person has done. That’s why patience is courage. Because acting in kindness, sometimes, feels more like climbing Mount Everest in a blizzard or being on a medieval battlefield being trampled by horses or running a long, long marathon when every bone in your body is weary past belief. Patience is not for the faint of heart.
(VERY IMPORTANT NOTE, WHICH I HOPE IS QUITE OBVIOUS: Long-suffering does not mean staying in an abusive relationship. It ALSO does not mean letting someone do whatever they want with no consequences. It does not mean that ways that you have been hurt do not matter, or have not left very deep and real wounds. If you are in any way wrestling with this, and the related issue of what does forgiveness really mean and look like in cases where you have been hurt, or are being hurt, please, please read Dan Allender’s and Tremper Longman’s excellent book Bold Love. Sometimes real love means packing it up and high-tailing it out until someone gets their act together.
But probably for the majority of cases, our situation is not that requires the fierceness of leaving (as Allender and Tremper explain, out of Love), but the fierceness of staying. And this we can only learn from the truly Patient One. The one who suffered the most out of love, for love. The one who had the most patience with us (because we needed it the most). The one who was kindest. Real patience is learned from him. From the supper he prepared for the ones who would betray him, deny him, fail him, and flee him when he needed it the most. From the dirty feet he washed (with how much tenderness) of those same men. From the quietness and gentleness with which he walked the path to his death amid abandonment, being utterly misunderstood, and being wounded in every imaginable way.
“And where is he who more and more distils
Delicious kindness?—He is patient. Patience fills
His crisp combs, and that comes those ways we know.” (see below)
Further Reading & Listening on Long-Suffering. (If anyone other than my own self is in a relationship and in need of growing in Patience. Or if anyone is single and also in need of Patience of a somewhat different kind.)
HAS EVERYONE ALREADY HEARD THIS ON BEING EPISODE?!?!?! (Ok, caveat, I have only listened to the first 3 minutes. But I think this man is saying everything I wanted to say, only in a British accent, and much more intelligibly, and with fewer etymological digressions, so he wins.) (Ok, I have listened to half of it AND I WANT TO QUOTE THE ENTIRE THING HERE. But I won’t, so just trust me and listen to it.)
This is what Augustine said about the cardinal virtues: “For these four virtues (would that all felt their influence in their minds as they have their names in their mouths!), I should have no hesitation in defining them: that temperance is love giving itself entirely to that which is loved; fortitude is love readily bearing all things for the sake of the loved object; justice is love serving only the loved object, and therefore ruling rightly; prudence is love distinguishing with sagacity between what hinders it and what helps it.” (De moribus eccl., Chap. xv)
A gloriously beautiful poem on patience, by possibly the second greatest poet in the English language, G. M. Hopkins. Who was a Jesuit.:
“Patience, hard thing! the hard thing but to pray,
But bid for, Patience is! Patience who asks
Wants war, wants wounds; weary his times, his tasks;
To do without, take tosses, and obey.
Rare patience roots in these, and, these away,
Nowhere. Natural heart’s ivy, Patience masks
Our ruins of wrecked past purpose. There she basks
Purple eyes and seas of liquid leaves all day.
We hear our hearts grate on themselves: it kills
To bruise them dearer. Yet the rebellious wills
Of us we do bid God bend to him even so.
And where is he who more and more distils
Delicious kindness?—He is patient. Patience fills
His crisp combs, and that comes those ways we know.”
Also by him, Charity and Its Fruits.
A poem: the Country of Marriage. (“the forest is mostly dark, its ways to be made anew day after day, the dark richer than the light, provided we stay brave enough to keep on going in,” italics mine)
A song for the brokenhearted.