Jesus told a parable about a king who wished to settle accounts with His servants (Matt. 18:23–35). A certain servant was brought to the king with a debt that was virtually incalculable and realistically unpayable. Facing the prospect of being sold into slavery with his whole family, he petitioned the master to have patience with him. And the master, who must have been a man of incredible patience, compassionately forgave all the debt. Sometime later this servant found a fellow-servant who owed him a substantial, but payable, debt. Taking him by the throat, he demanded payment. When that servant fell down and begged, “Have patience with me,” the request fell on deaf ears, and he was thrown into prison.
This parable graphically illustrates the contrast between a wrathful man and a patient man. The master showed large-hearted patience and granted unconditional forgiveness. The forgiven servant, when confronted by a similar, but less serious matter, took things into his own hands and, with wrathful words and actions, showed that he had not learned the lesson of free and generous forgiveness.
The Scriptures instruct us to put off the soul-destroying vice of wrath, like we would put off a garment that is soiled, or doesn’t fit, or is unsuitable (Col. 3:8–9). James tells us that the anger (wrath) of man does not produce the righteousness that God requires (1:20). The English puritan Thomas Manton wrote that “the wrath of man would hinder them from attaining that righteousness and accomplishing that duty which God requireth in his word.” A wrathful man is to be avoided according to Proverbs 22:24. “Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath! Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil” (Ps. 37:8). Sinful wrath leaves damage in its wake; it drives people away, and it surely does not attract people to Christ. Tragically, it gives an opportunity to the adversary, the enemy of our souls — the Devil (Eph. 4:26–27).
In contrast, the godly virtue of patience is to be put on as one of the garments of God’s elect (Col. 3:12). Patience is described by Charles Spurgeon as “a grace as difficult as it is necessary, and as hard to come by as it is precious when it is gained.” Without doubt, it is a difficult fruit of the Spirit to cultivate and grow. Yet, it is an evidence of a true and lively faith and an adornment to sound doctrine (Westminster Confession of Faith, 16.2).
Why is it, then, so hard to come by? Surely one reason is because we look for instant gratification and satisfaction in so many of the involvements of life. We laugh at the prayer: “Lord, I need patience, and I need it now!” But, truth be known, it is perhaps more relevant than we would like to admit — like when we are stuck in traffic, or when we are frustrated by a computer that is not cooperating, and so on. Another reason it is so hard to come by is that we often don’t like the way it comes. Romans 5:3 says, “Suffering produces endurance,” and James 1:3 says, “The testing of your faith produces steadfastness.” In both cases the product is patient endurance — the ability to remain under tremendous weight and pressure without succumbing. That which produces this is the difficult part: suffering, testing, trials. We would prefer an easier way for the fruit to be produced, but this is God’s way!
Few passages focus on patience like James 5:7–11: “Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it…. You also, be patient.” Our lives are filled with areas where patience must be at work: waiting for answers to prayer; waiting for God’s direction; waiting for fruit to be borne (in our lives and in the lives of others); waiting for troubles to end; waiting for a family member or friend to come to Christ, or return to Christ; waiting for Christ to return; waiting for Christ’s image to be stamped perfectly on us.
And, of course, we need patience in dealing with others who are sinners (just like we are!). The greatest incentive to have patience with others is merely to remember how patient God is with us. One of the essential qualities of an artist is patience. Intricate, detailed masterpieces are not produced overnight. Slowly and purposefully the work progresses a brush-stroke at a time. The artist envisions the finished product, and, with painstaking labor, he brings it to pass. The puritans utilized this idea in one of the prayers found in The Valley of Vision:
If traces of Christ’s love-artistry
be upon me, may he work on
with his divine brush until
the complete image be
obtained and I be made a
perfect copy of him, my Master.
May we reflect, in an ever-increasing measure, the patience that God is showing to us every day and every moment of our lives.