Patience: What is It?
by Susan Ridgell, PhD.
What does it mean to be patient? This question kept ringing in my head when I first looked at the Epistle reading for Advent III (James 5.7-10).
James advises us: “Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord.”
When we consider being patient, we usually think that it’s a way to be. Grammatically speaking, we read it as an adjective. It’s a how – how will my manner be? How will my pace, my expectations be? How will my attitude be? We might think of it as being something when we’d rather be something else. Be patient and wait, because you’re not where you’d like to be yet.
“Patience is a virtue.” No doubt. And we recall hearing this: “Don’t ask to receive patience, or you’ll get circumstances to build it!” The implication is that patience is difficult. Hard to accomplish. Hopefully temporary.
Then we turn it around, thanks to the complexities of our English language, and see that “patient” is also a noun, differing from its adjective status. I visit my doctor as a patient. I’m in the hospital as a patient. Or maybe it’s not so different from being patient as an adjective. As a patient waiting for test results from the lab, having patience is helpful. As a patient, I receive medical attention, and it might feel passive, like being patient. As we’ve progressed in relationships with our physicians, we participate more actively in our own health decisions. And yet – the doc is still in charge, and we’re patients.
James gives us something more than a way to be. James gives us something to do.
Preparation during this Advent season and being patient aren’t passive. They’re active. Now we’re seeing verbs instead of adjectives or nouns.
James tells us what not to do: “Do not grumble against one another, brothers …”
And he tells us what to do: “Establish our hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand.”
When we meditate on, focus on, work on establishing our hearts for the Lord to dwell with us, we reduce time spent grumbling. In my work as an industrial psychologist, I often advise clients about building desired behavioral habits in their work relationships. Improving listening skills is a popular example. Sometimes people tell me, “I know I need to stop interrupting others. It’s a terrible habit, so that’s my goal: stop interrupting.”
It’s not a bad goal, but it’s only part of the solution. What are we doing while we’re not interrupting? Thinking about not interrupting? Wishing the other person would stop talking? A more productive goal – to build relationships – is to focus on the other person’s message as they’re talking. To actively be interested in their view. With this goal, we add other tools to listen better, and we focus on what to do rather than what not to do.
That’s James’ guidance: to establish our hearts. Feel our Father’s love for us, let it guide our hearts, be gentle and generous with others when we disagree with them, see others through God’s love for them. Establish our hearts to receive the Lord. Change our hearts to want you, Lord. Instead of patience being a place we tolerate, establishing our hearts becomes a place for Him, a place we build to love Him.
We might look with new eyes at a Taize chorus we sing during Advent. It recommends active patience by reminding us to give thanks and pray as we establish our hearts for Him.
Wait for the Lord, whose day is near.
Wait for the Lord, be strong, take heart.
Wait for the Lord, who comes to reign.
Wait for the Lord, give thanks and pray.