This fall, Trinity Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan is studying and discussing the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). I contributed a reflection on the fruit of patience, and wanted to share a version of it here as well.
Today I want reflect on that slow-growing fruit of the spirit, patience. I have had this fruit on my mind a lot lately, trying to understand what it looks and feels like and how I can get out of my own way a little bit in order to let that fruit grow. It’s a tricky one, though, because I can manage to convince myself that I am exhibiting patience when underneath I am just as impatient as ever. I may not be tapping my foot or bouncing my knee with outward impatience, but in my spirit I am straining towards what’s in front of me, trying to just get somewhere quickly, whether that’s a literal or figurative place.
If you wanted to see my impatience in action you could watch me make scrambled eggs. I try so hard to keep the temperature low and give the eggs the time they need, but I often give in to the urge to turn the heat up a little more so the eggs will get done sooner. Of course eggs are sensitive to temperature and time and I as I clean up burnt chunks of eggs from the pan afterward, I often regret having not just waited a little longer to let them cook at their own pace.
That seems to be a big part of patience—being willing to go at someone or something else’s pace, even when our own inclination tugs us to move at our own pace. Think about taking a walk outside with a toddler, and how long it can take to go just one block. Or what it feels like to wait for a reply from a friend you urgently want to hear from. These situations and many others can “try our patience,” but when we align ourselves with the pace they present to us, we often receive unexpected gifts. Like noticing the intricacies of nature that fascinate a toddler and preoccupy him as you try to move along the sidewalk. Suddenly you see the gracefulness of the blades of grass, the way the sun is reflected in a puddle, the bugs diligently making their way along. And waiting for your friend or loved one’s response is an invitation to take stock of that relationship, to remind yourself what it is that you value and hope for in your relationship with that person, to trust that they too are taking the time they need to convey their thoughts to you. Finding patience in that time can produce clarity and a new sense of commitment, while feeling impatient and rushed often breeds irritation and anger. Patience is a fruit that in turn nurtures other forms of fruitfulness.
My yearning for patience has shown me that there are plenty of easy ways to make excuses for impatience. For instance, it’s very tempting to lay the blame for a lack of patience on the circumstances of the culture around us. Our technologically focused society develops an appetite for better, faster, more—all the while making us less willing to wait for any length of time. We adapt to more efficient resources but this makes it harder for us to put up with inefficiencies, and it warps our sense of “fast” and “slow.” But as much as I want to believe that my lack of patience is the fault of society, or of my iPhone, I am confronted by the continuing truths of the message to the early church in Galatia, that where the Spirit is at work, there are unmistakable fruits, and patience is one of them. I am confronted with the reminder that there is a spiritual component to all of the seemingly straightforward aspects of life, and that my impatience with so-called “practical” things is a reflection of a spiritual state. And that spiritual state is one in which I am resistant to surrendering myself to God’s pace and God’s timing.
Honestly, the places where I’m detecting that spiritual state of impatience are hard to admit right now. I’d love to be able to share how I have found deep peace about God’s timing in the midst of my yearning for patience, but in truth I remain rather unsettled about my capacity to accept the pace at which certain aspects of my life are moving. For many years I was impatient to find a spouse—I was 34 when I married my husband last year, and now I can look back and see the great parts of those years of singleness, but during them I often wondered with a heavy heart if my life would ever include the right partner. I wanted to be able to just accept and embrace those years, and they did contain many wonderful features, but at times loneliness would push me to wish that I could just fast-forward to life’s next season. But there was no fast-forward option, nor was there a guarantee that I would ever find myself in a marriage. Today, though, I do believe that my efforts to even try to accept the season that I was in were fruitful; for as much as I was able to relinquish control over timing, I was free to appreciate the many other significant commitments and relationships in my life.
I’d like to say that the years of learning to wait for a spouse have given me a storehouse of patience for subsequent circumstances, but today I think my impatience has simply shifted to new preoccupations. The biggest one of these right now is my eagerness to get done with the doctoral degree I’m working on. I take stock of how far I’ve come and I want to be reassured that the rest will get done in good time too, but yet I still find myself wishing I could just hurry up and write a dissertation—any dissertation—and get it over with! Words from a longtime mentor resound in my mind—“it’s the process, not the product,” and I remember that rushing myself typically leads to shortcuts that shortchange the growth I hope to experience along the way.
Currently I feel stretched by the way that growing the fruit of patience requires me to focus more on being and less on doing. Not that doing is bad or unnecessary—I certainly want to produce something tangible in my work. It’s simply that focusing on productivity as an end in itself, which is what happens when I fixate on doing, can cut me off from doing the valuable work of reflecting on the meaning and purpose of what I’m aiming to do in the first place. Patience, when it settles into my spirit, summons me to relax into a pace that lets me appreciate and evaluate the significance of what I’m trying to accomplish. Likewise, it also helps me see things I can let go of, things which might feel productive but which are relatively purposeless. Patience also invites me to experience a new level of trust, trust that God is at work in the timing of my life even at moments when I feel anxious about what I perceive as a lack of forward momentum.
Sometimes when I’m rushing around and trying to excuse my impatience, I tell myself that I’m just trying to live life to the fullest, that I’m just doing what everyone else is doing, that time is short and life is unpredictable so we better get in as much as we can. But God offers us the gift of patience as an antidote to this mindset. God has something more in mind than efficiency and quick convenience. God isn’t measuring time by how much is produced and consumed, and God invites us to this same freedom. We are invited to let that fruit of patience grow in us by the Spirit’s power; we don’t have to strive to conjure it up on our own. There are practices that help fruit grow, however. For instance, I think Sabbath is tied to the fruit of patience. Sabbath urges us to admit that we can indeed set aside things that feel urgent in order to receive a day of rest and re-creation. It takes trust. But it lets us take stock of the hidden costs of our impatient striving. The creep of our everyday obligations into 24-7 availability makes it hard to justify anything having to wait. But Sabbath calls us to our creatureliness and recalibrates our compulsions, setting us free to appreciate the rhythms for which God created us, rhythms that foster flourishing and not exhaustion. Through Sabbath, prayer, and other practices, we open ourselves to the gifts of God’s pace and presence.