There are certain Bible passages that believers tend to memorize. John 3:16 is probably the most famous of these. Another one might be Psalm 23; perhaps Romans 8:28 is another. Believers also memorize passages that include lists, such as the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22–23.
First Corinthians 13 contains a list, one I memorized long ago. It’s known as the love chapter, for in it Paul describes what love looks like:
“Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (v. 4–7).
Love Is Patient
The version I learned says that love, first of all, is “patient.” When I think of being patient, I think of reminding my kids every day to wash their hands. Or I think about waiting for the nurse to call my name to see the doctor. I think of patience as not getting irritated by little inconveniences or as overlooking weaknesses and idiosyncrasies in others or as learning to wait for things to happen.
But patient might not be the best English word here, at least for how we tend to use the word today. We use the word patient to mean being able to accept delays or problems without getting annoyed. The King James Version uses the phrase suffereth long instead of patient. Long-suffering, in contrast to being patient, means patiently enduring lasting offense or hardship. It is suffering long for the sake of love.
Jonathan Edwards, in his book Charity and Its Fruits: Christian Love as Manifested in the Heart and Life, writes that suffering long has to do with the evil or injury received from others. He writes, “He, therefore, that exercises a Christian long-suffering toward his neighbor, will bear the injuries received from him without revenging or retaliating, either by injurious deeds or bitter words. . . . He will receive all with a calm, undisturbed countenance, and with a soul full of meekness, quietness, and goodness.”
Edwards answers the question, Why is it called long-suffering? “We should persevere and continue in a quiet frame, without ceasing still to love our neighbor, not only when he injures us a little, but when he injures us much, and the injuries he does us are great. . . . We should meekly continue to bear them though they are long continued, even to the end.” He mentions that there are times when we should defend ourselves from someone who has been unkind. In those times, “we are not to do it out of revenge, or to injure him that has injured us, but only for needful self-defense.” Even then, Edwards writes that we do so out of a Christian spirit and for the purpose of peace.
This nuanced view of “love is patient” makes me look at the love I have for others in a new way. It’s easy to love those who treat me well, but what about those who don’t? That’s hard. It’s hard to love those who let me down time and time again, those who disappoint me over and over. It’s hard to love people who fail to encourage me or build me up. In fact, I tend to resist loving people who are not kind to me first. And what about those with whom I have constant ongoing problems and conflicts, especially when they are in the church? As Edwards writes, I am to love them to the end.
Understanding patience as long-suffering helps us to make sense of Colossians 3:12–13: “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive” (emphasis added). The phrase “bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other” makes sense when we look at patience as long-suffering instead of as merely not getting annoyed with one another.
We love others with long-suffering love because that’s how God loves us. In fact, 1 Corinthians 13 is not only an admonition for us to live out, but also a description of Christ’s love for us. Edwards writes:
They that love God will be thankful to him for the abundant long-suffering that he has exercised toward them in particular. They that love God as they ought, will have such a sense of his wonderful long-suffering toward them under the many injuries they have offered to him, that it will seem to them but a small thing to bear with the injuries that have been offered to them by their fellowmen. All the injuries they have ever received from others, in comparison with those they have offered to God, will appear less than a few pence in comparison with ten thousand talents.
That’s what Paul means in Colossians 3 when he writes, “As the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.”
In truth, I considered patience hard enough to practice when I thought of it as not getting annoyed over delays or problems. Understanding patience as suffering long seems almost impossible. But as Edwards points out:
Do you think the injuries you have received from your fellowman are more than you have offered to God? . . . Have his offenses been more heinous or aggravated, or more in number, than yours have been against your Creator, Benefactor, and Redeemer? . . . Do you not hope that God will have mercy upon you, and that Christ will embrace you in his dying love, though you have been such an injurious enemy, and that, through his grace, he will blot out your transgressions and all your offenses against him, and make you eternally his child, and an heir of his kingdom?
God is gracious and has given us the Spirit who is at work in us even now, developing long-suffering love in us: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness” (Gal. 5:22; emphasis added). Long-suffering love does not come naturally to us in our sin nature, but as new creations, we are enabled by the Spirit to love others as our Savior has loved us. United to Christ, we grow in long-suffering love as the Spirit makes us more and more like Him.
So, when we find it hard to love others with long-suffering love, we must remember Christ and His long-suffering love toward us. We must ask, How can we show others the same love that Christ has shown us?
Editor’s Note: This post was first published on June 20, 2018.