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Patience: The longsuffering fruit of the Spirit

Given a choice about which of the Galatians 5 fruit of the Spirit to write about, I suppose I chose patience because that virtue has been on my mind. We’ve had a long season of COVID-19 protocols. We’ve also been guiding our eldest son through the college application process. (He’s going to Presbyterian-related Davidson College in the fall. Go Wildcats!) Patience sounds like a pretty good place to start.

Almost three decades ago I committed Galatians 5:22-23 to heart as some of my first memory verses, trying to get all of those fruit (not fruits) of the Spirit in the right order. Back then I memorized the King James Version, so the word was “longsuffering.” Several years later I switched to the New International Version, where the word is “forbearance.” Now the New Revised Standard Version is my normal fare, so the word is “patience.” And of course, in weddings over all these years, as both an attendee and an officiant, the chosen Scripture passage for many couples has been 1 Corinthians 13, where we read that “love is patient.” When we think of patience, we think of endurance, of waiting.

But Galatians 5:22 and 1 Corinthians 13 are not about endurance and waiting at all. They are not about the patience of waiting in traffic, the patience of waiting for a phone call from the doctor for your test result, the patience of sitting through the sixth hour of a committee meeting. The Greek New Testament has a word for that kind of patience: hupomene (ὑπομονή). That kind of patience, used 32 times in the New Testament in such places as Luke 8:15 (“patient endurance”) or 1 Thessalonians 1:3 (“steadfastness of hope”), literally means “remain under.” When I do hospice visits, consoling family members in their loved one’s final hours, I sometimes read, recite or pray Psalm 27:14, “Wait for the Lord; be strong and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!” There the Septuagint translates the Aramaic with the Greek hupomeinon (ὑπόμεινον).

The patience in Galatians 5:22, like the patience in 1 Corinthians 13:4, is of a different kind. It is the Greek word makrothumia (μακροθυμία), which combines two word concepts: great distance and passionate fierceness. In short, ferocity — or, as the King James Version says, “longsuffering.” This is the patience of someone who is ferociously wronged, terribly sinned or trespassed against, and who has both the reason, the right, the ability, the opportunity and the power to avenge the wrong, but doesn’t do it. That’s the patience of the fruit of the Spirit.

The list of fruit in Galatians 5 is singular and not plural – “fruit” and not “fruits” – because all of them are interrelated. In order to have the makrothumia version of patience, you need the love of God and the God of love. And when makrothumia patience is exhibited, that is self-control, that is kindness, there is peace in relationships, and there is goodness. It’s not that we can pick and choose which fruit of the Spirit we will do today or in that one moment, though perhaps that would be a possibility if they were “fruits.” But when the fruit of the Spirit work together as a single package, they exhibit dimensions of the Spirit’s work in our lives — the force, power and character of Jesus Christ for us and in us.

That makrothumia kind of patience presents a dilemma for us as individual people of faith, as worshipping communities, as a church. First of all, the fruit of the Spirit is communal, so it is addressed to the whole community and not you or me alone. We understand ourselves in relation to the whole community of God’s people.

But what about seeking the death penalty for a child’s killer? What about turning the tables on a white supremacist? What about when transgressors get what they deserve? We see that kind of fruit all the time — in churches, communities, families and politics. We see a desire for revenge. But the practice of makrothumia directs us to go the other way. It is countercultural, counterintuitive and counter to what we are naturally inclined to do. Makrothumia is, in fact, the opposite of what Paul calls the “works of the flesh” in Galatians 5:19.

The Lord knows your heart and my heart so well. Of course, we want revenge. Of course, we feel entitled to make transgressors feel the pain we have felt, the agony we have endured, the heartache they have caused us. Paul has no illusions about what he writes. The makrothumia kind of patience is not a concept or fancy philosophy dreamt up on a mountain in the absence of real-life stuff. Instead, it’s the very stuff of real life because we are people who live with 7 billion other people and the legacies of billions more. We are all bound to get wounded, and we inevitably want an outlet to channel that anger, sadness, grief and ferocious passion to others. Forgive the “Star Wars” example, but we want to throw the Emperor and Darth Vader into the Death Star and unleash all of our anger.

But note where and from whom Paul anchors the fruit of the Spirit. The letter to the Galatians begins with these words (Galatians 1:1-5):

Paul an apostle — sent neither by human commission nor from human authorities, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead — and all the members of God’s family who are with me,

To the churches of Galatia:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.

The fruit of the Spirit is anchored to God and Jesus Christ. Of all the people, of all the beings in the entire universe who should see us get our just desserts for our countless violence, abuse, injustice, wars, envy, strife, malice and other transgressions too numerous to name — God could be justified in being the one crying for justice. Even Jesus’ plaintive cry on Golgotha pleads our case: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”

But God’s longsuffering, God’s makrothumia patience toward us, is expressed in our communal prayer that Jesus prays with us: “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” Could God have rained down judgment, wrath and all the things that fiery preachers of old used to bellow out with fierceness? Should God have done so? Perhaps. But God’s way was and is different. God’s longsuffering emerges from love. God’s freedom to love freely is God’s prerogative to exhibit what to us looks like patience, but as a matter of God’s character it is at the core about love — love that restores, saves, reconciles, transforms.

When we internalize what makrothumia patience calls for – self-restraint instead of revenge – we are right to say, “That’s impossible.” And that is why it is called “fruit of the Spirit.” None of the fruit are things that we manufacture, strategize or muster up enough strength to do. This is the work of the Spirit of Christ in our lives. We dare not control the Spirit, but we defer to the leading and prompting of the Spirit. The Spirit is the Spirit of Christ whose character is shaping and forming our own, so our lives exhibit the life of Christ in what we do and say.

Imagine our communities, our households and our world when we as followers of Jesus Christ learn to exhibit makrothumia patience. It’s connected to love, joy, peace, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control. It assumes that exacting revenge is not the default, that the law of retaliation gives way to the law of love. Indeed, when we sense a collective anger percolating inside us to give evil-doers what they deserve, we think we are seeking justice. Yet we know that Scripture says that justice is linked to righteousness, and so it turns us back to the God who rights wrongs, who the just Judge and who is our Advocate.

The consequences of makrothumia patience highlight the call to the Galatians and to us as people of God in the 21st century. To live out makrothumia patience takes on a more arduous, longsuffering, fruitful way for our neighbors and for strangers alike. It takes more work, more effort, more prayer. Thanks be to God, it’s a call incumbent upon us as a community, empowered by the Spirit in the name of Jesus Christ.

Makrothumia patience says: Instead of the course you were planning to take, follow this other course for the sake of Christ and God’s love for the world.

Instead of the quickness of the death penalty, extinguishing the life of one who took someone else’s life, what if the church were to pray for the transformation of the murderer, working for restorative justice? Or for the others on death row who were convicted on doubtful evidence, what if the church were to partner with advocacy and community groups to explore legal options for re-examining cases? What if the church were to advocate for prisoners and victims alike?

Instead of the quickness of an election, in which those who hold a temporary majority lord it over those who are temporarily in the minority, what if the church were to help both sides reckon with the truth and confess their sin? What if the church worked across political lines to help disclose ugly truths about systemic and institutional racism, and then helped neighbors who are struggling with fears and hatreds, and with the wounds and scars of many generations?

Instead of washing their hands of divorcing parents who are undergoing ugly child custody disagreements, what if the church were to embrace both sets of parents, enfolding the whole family, including the child, in tender care and love? What if the church focused on the child caught in the middle, and nurtured the splintered parents
as well?

Makrothumia patience is a call not to dream, but to live into what the Spirit of Christ is already doing in us and among us. We just have to pay attention and follow.

Neal D. Presa is a pastor, visiting professor, and ecumenist serving in the San Diego Presbytery. He is the board chair of the Presbyterian Foundation and the past moderator of the 220th General Assembly (2012).

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