Is patience really a virtue?

“And not only that, but we also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope. Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (Romans 5:3-5 NKJV).

How would you like to spend three days and nights in the cab of a heavy truck on the river bank, waiting for your turn to cross on the ferry? Or to sleep all night sitting in a doorway so as to ensure that you would be able to buy a ticket on the train to go home for the holidays when the counter opened at 9:00 a.m. the next morning?

Such experiences are commonplace in Bangladesh and other densely populated countries of Asia. The vast number of people combined with inadequate infrastructure means that it takes a long time to do almost anything, and waiting one’s turn is simply an inescapable fact of life. Add regular floods that destroy such infrastructure as there is and the problem is magnified even more.

In more developed places, people are often unwilling to wait even a fraction of these times for service. I have known some who would not go to a restaurant that had a waiting time for a table. Others refuse to go to sporting events and similar public gatherings because of congestion at ticket counters and in parking lots. Some will leave events well before the end so as to beat the crowd out of the gates and into the streets.

Patience is one of the primary virtues recommended (actually commanded) to Christians (2 Peter 1:6; Galatians 5:22). It also has become something of a point of contention with many who are no longer so willing to accept biblical authority or the Christian value system. They ask “What is so wonderful about patience?” They see little or no value in wasting time or meekly enduring crowded conditions.

First, let us acknowledge that biblical patience is not usually (if ever) precisely what the modern normally means by the term. In our customary usage, a person is patient if he or she is willing to stand quietly while someone else is served first, or will hold a telephone line with music being played while a live operator is located who can deal with the problem.

The Hebrew and Greek terms formerly often translated “patience” are not primarily concerned with the ability to quietly wait. Most modern translators render them as “perseverance,” “persistence,” or “endurance.” The quality being described is of hardy fortitude that does not readily give in or give up.

This verse in Hebrews illustrates the point very well:

“Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us” (Hebrews 12:1).

There is a great difference between the ability to stand in line for an hour or so and the stamina which enables a marathon runner to finish a 26-mile-long race. It is this persistence to continue in good works, resisting temptation, and overcoming adversity that builds Christian character and produces hope of salvation.

“And let us not grow weary while doing good, for in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart” (Galatians 6:9).

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