I once heard a story about a father who boarded a plane with his infant son. If you’ve ever flown with a young child you know it isn’t for the faint-hearted! No sooner did the plane leave the runway than the infant started screaming. Not crying, screaming. The father tried everything…pacifier, bottle, burping…but nothing worked. There was nothing for that father to do but put his son on his shoulder and pat his little back. And as he did he soothingly said, “It’s OK Albert. Be calm Albert. You’ll be alright Albert.” After a few minutes a gracious older woman sitting across the aisle, wanting to encourage the father said, “You’re such a good dad. How old is little Albert?” To which the father replied. “My son’s name is Robert. I’m Albert.”
Can you relate? If patience is a virtue many of us struggle to be more virtuous. And that’s not a modern problem. Patience must have been a challenge in the first century too, or Paul wouldn’t have added it to the fruit basket of the Spirit’s work in us (Galatians 5:22-23). And the fact that patience is Spirit-work is good news because most of us have figured out that while we would love to be more patient we can’t produce patience in ourselves. But that doesn’t mean that there’s nothing for us to do.
In Romans 5 St. Paul wrote “We boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us….” That word, endurance, means patience. So, there’s good news and bad news in this verse. The good news is that God is at work producing more patience in us. The bad news is that the pathway to more patience is through suffering and hard times.
Here are three practices that we can do while the Spirit does what only the Spirit can do:
First, mentally reframe challenges as growth opportunities. That’s what Paul is saying in the verse above. Rather than seeing circumstances and people who test our patience as roadblocks, annoyances or problems, choose to see them as opportunities for growth in patience and character, because that’s what they are. When I lived in the Chicago area I had a friend who commuted each day from the northern suburbs to the city, a trip that could easily take up to two hours each way given the frequent traffic jams on Chicago’s highways. I once asked him, “How do you do it? How do you not just rip your hair out?” His response was, “I decided that when traffic slows or stops I can get mad and be miserable, or I can see it as an opportunity to look at the cars and the people around me and pray for each one. It’s transformed my commute.” I thought that was stunning, and brilliant! He chose to see things differently. Next time there’s an obstacle on your pathway choose to see it as an opportunity for growth.
Second, trust that God is at work in your challenging circumstances. This is why reframing challenges into opportunities is more than a mind game; it’s a faith perspective. As Christ-followers we trust that God’s Spirit is at work in every moment of our lives. As Paul puts it in Romans 8, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” That verse does not say that God causes bad things to happen to us so that we can grow. What it says is that we trust that God is at work in all circumstances, which is why we can reframe challenges as opportunities. We believe that God is at work pouring his love into our hearts and is moving us day by day in the direction of greater wholeness. So, every challenge along the way can be a stepping stone in that direction.
Finally, don’t just do something; stand there. When I’m feeling frustrated because things aren’t going my way or they aren’t happening as fast as I want them to I’m wired to move to do something, anything, to change things. But I’ve learned that there’s real wisdom in pausing and praying and waiting rather than impatiently plowing ahead. Listen to these powerful words from Psalm 130, “I pray to God—my life a prayer— and wait for what he’ll say and do. My life’s on the line before God, my Lord, waiting and watching till morning, waiting and watching till morning.” Often, when I pause and live in the tension between stillness and reaction, God reveals a third way of wisdom and grace.
Patience is both a gift and a skill, and like every skill it takes practice. And life will provide more than enough opportunities for practice!
What situations cause you to lose your patience? What has helped to go grow in patience?
Jeff Marian is lead pastor at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Burnsville, MN.