I am incredibly good at being not good at patience. And my lack of patience causes problems. Sometimes, if my wife is telling me about something and I think she’s taking too long, I reflexively twirl my finger, as if to say, “Go ahead and wrap it up.”
Those conversations never end well.
When it comes to patience, we live in a culture that seems to have conspired against us. One-click shopping, for instance, is great. Streaming platforms are way better than the way I watched TV as a kid. (Can you even remember when you had to wait a week—or more!—between episodes?).
We’re more efficient than ever—which is incredibly convenient. But it has some pretty big negative effects.
Dr. Paul Brand, a renowned orthopedic surgeon, said, “People in [technologically advanced] societies live at a greater comfort level—but seem far less equipped to handle suffering, and are far more traumatized by suffering when it comes.” Why?
In short, we lack patience.
Patience is the Greek word makrothumia, which literally means “long-suffering.” Not brief flickers of pain in a mostly charmed life. But seemingly endless seasons of suffering. Our #blessed culture resists long-suffering. But life being life, there’s no real way to avoid it. Some of you are in the thick of this kind of long-suffering right now. It’s difficult. It’s painful. It’s lonely.
Suffering, on its own, doesn’t produce patience. But if we allow God to use it, suffering can make us more patient people. The question is, how?
James tells us: We translate suffering into patience by looking backward, forward, and upward.
James writes, “You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful” (James 5:11 ESV). In other words, you remember how God was faithful in the past. Cling to that in the midst of your painful present.
This wasn’t just for James’ audience, either. We, too, have seen the purpose of the Lord—not merely through the example of Job, but through the cross and resurrection of Jesus.
Though we endure a crucifixion on Friday, there’s a resurrection coming on Sunday. Though weeping lasts for a night, joy comes in the morning. Most of our lives are lived in that middle Saturday, the gap between the suffering and the resurrection. Like the confused and bewildered disciples after Jesus’ crucifixion, we live in the middle space of waiting.
In that middle space, we ask, along with the disciples, “God, where are you? Where is your goodness? It feels like you’re gone.”
But on Sunday morning, the promise was fulfilled and all of heaven and earth rejoiced. God had done what he said he would, at long last. He’ll do the same on your Sunday morning, too.
In our waiting, we look backward to see how God has worked.
In our waiting, we also look forward as we reflect on the coming of the Lord. James 5:8 says, “Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand.”
“Establish” here means to “become fixed,” like concrete, and we become established by reflecting on the future coming of the Lord. Our lives are mere fractions compared to eternity, which means that any suffering—no matter how painful, heartbreaking, or difficult—will one day cease forever. That “forever” puts our little lives in beautiful context.
We should absolutely expect—and ask for—God to move in the here and now. The Psalms are filled with prayers like this. Many of the people in Scripture saw God’s goodness “in the land of the living.” But we should also expect that some things will only be resolved in eternity.
God promises he is working all things in our lives for good, though sometimes we can’t see it. But the coming of the Lord, James says, is at hand. Not far off. Not distant. Jesus’ return is near, and with that return, complete justice and wholeness and healing.
We look backward, forward … and finally, upward, to God in prayer.
Our lives are mere fractions compared to eternity, which means that any suffering—no matter how painful, heartbreaking, or difficult—will one day cease forever. That “forever” puts our little lives in beautiful context.
James closes his book with an appeal to prayer: “Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray” (James 5:13). Whatever else we do in our long-suffering, we must bring it before God. Again and again and again.
In his book Release the Power of Prayer, George Müller tells the story of how he committed to pray for five young men—friends of his sons—to be saved. He prayed for 18 months—over 500 days—before the first one came to faith in Christ. But he didn’t stop praying for the other four.
Five years later, the second came to Christ. He kept praying. Another six years and the third one came to Christ. He kept praying.
Fifty-two years later—that is, 63 years after he had started praying—and a few years after his own death, the final two were saved.
Over his lifetime, Müller kept meticulous prayer journals, cataloging 50,000 answers to prayer. And of those 50,000 answers to prayer, only 5,000 came on the day he asked for them. For 45,000 of them (that’s 90 percent!), he had to persist.
Müller wrote, “Don’t let yesterday’s seemingly unanswered prayers stop you from praying in faith today.” God hears the prayers of the righteous; we merely have to keep looking upward to him.