February 21, 2008


Category: Theology :: Permalink

The other day, I was thinking about patience, which led to some thoughts on how we reify virtues.  In plain English, people treat patience as if it were a thing, something which some people have and others lack.”I don’t have a lot of patience for that kind of thing,” people say.  Or they say things like: “My wife has more patience than I do; the kids drive me nuts.”  “I’m running out of patience.”  Or: “If you’re going to take on that project, you’ll need a lot of patience.”

This way of talking doesn’t seem accurate to me.  Is patience something that you have, a quality that you possess somehow?  Or is patience something you display by continuing with a project in spite of all obstacles?  I suspect it’s the latter.  That is, someone can be patience (and thus can display “patience,” which is the quality of being patient), but a person cannot have patience as if it were a thing.  You can’t have patience in advance; you can only be patient in the midst of the project.

When someone says, “My wife has a lot of patience with the kids, but I run out of patience fast,” that makes it sound as if the wife (somehow) has gallons of patience while the speaker himself (somehow) ended up with only a couple tablespoons of it.  He simply has less to start with and so he runs out more quickly.  If only somehow he could get a bigger supply of it in advance.

Put like that, isn’t it obvious that this way of speaking is really an excuse?  The truth is that the guy who’s speaking puts up with the kids to a certain point.  Then they get on his nerves and he tries to control them so that they get off his nerves.  What he tries doesn’t work right away.  He gets impatient, and he allows himself to get angry.

But the very same things may get on his wife’s nerves and yet she perseveres.  She keeps speaking calmly to the children, correcting them gently, and so forth.  She doesn’t blow up.  She doesn’t throw up her hands and storm out of the room.  She remains patient.  What makes the difference?  Not that she isn’t bothered by what the kids are doing.  But also not that she has several gallons more of the substance called “patience” to start with.  The difference is that she keeps going.  She keeps doing what she ought to do.  She keeps parenting the children in spite of the obstacles.

Now by practice, she develops the kind of character that makes this endurance easier, and in our shorthand we call that character trait “patience.”  I suppose that’s okay.  But what we really mean is simply that she stays patient with her kids, whereas her husband doesn’t.  It’s not a difference in how much “patience” they possess.  It’s a difference in how they behave.

The same is true, isn’t it, with love?  People talk as if they possess love: “I have a lot of love to give” or something like that.  But love isn’t a substance you possess at a certain point in time.  Love has to do with how you think and feel and act.  If you’re treating your wife like dirt, you’re not loving her.  You don’t “have love for her.”

The same is true of perseverance, right?  Perseverance isn’t a gift God gives certain people.  It’s not as if the elect get a bunch of graces from God, some of which they share with the non-elect covenant members, but one of which they certainly don’t, namely, the gift of perseverance.  We shouldn’t reify perseverance.  That is, we shouldn’t turn it into a “thing.”  It’s not something you have to begin with (though you can, through exercise, develop traits of stick-to-it-iveness and perseverance in general).  Perseverance is really just persevering.

At least, that’s what I was turning over in my mind the other day.  Thoughts?

Posted by John Barach @ 6:30 pm | Discuss (3)

3 Responses to “Patience”

  1. Rachel U. Says:

    Rev. Barach, Thank you for the thought provoking post. Often I pray for patience, like it’s supposed to come in big box that the Fed-Ex guy will deliver, rather than choosing to be patient in different situations. Don’t know if you’ve seen “Evan Almighty”; but you reminded me of a part where Morgan Freeman’s character “God” is talking to Evan’s wife. He says: “If someone prays for patience, you think God gives them patience? Or does He give them the opportunity to be patient?” Thanks again.

  2. John Says:

    Glad you found these thoughts helpful, Rachel.

    It’s helpful, I think, to recognize that when we pray for patience, what we’re really praying for is that we would be patient.

    I’m trying to train myself to think that way: Patience is not a reservoir full of some substance called patience that I run out of too soon (and whose fault is that?). Patience is being patient. When I’m tested, I don’t need more patience (substance); I need to be patient.

    So I don’t think the Morgan Freeman character is entirely correct. God does more than give us opportunity to be patient. We can ask him to help us be patient.

    But all too often, what we want (at least, what I want) when we pray for patience is a big, deep reservoir of something that will keep us from getting upset when things don’t go our way. When God doesn’t give us that and things do bother us, we then claim that we’ve run out of patience. Which means: We give ourselves permission to be impatient instead of persevering.

    That’s how it seems to me, at least.

  3. Paul Baxter Says:

    Good thoughts.

    I’m not so sure it’s a bad thing to reify virtues per se, but I think people often do so as an excuse. “I already know I don’t have much patience (or courage or whatever), so you can’t expect me to do well in this situation.”

    In Life At The Bottom, Theodore Dalrymple talks about how the many people in Britain behave this way regarding self-control. They claim they just don’t have any and that society is at fault when they commit crimes or do other foolish things. It’s a very interesting read.

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