The Ultimate Meaning of Patience

True patience is anchored in hope, and our hope is verified in the much witnessed life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and in the promise of His coming. 

The 1955 play Waiting For Godot by Irish playwright and existentialist, Samuel Beckett, is considered by some literary critics to be the defining play of the twentieth century.  It features two individuals who are waiting for an apparently important but unidentified person named Godot who eventually never shows.  The characters idle their time away musing over the apparent meaninglessness of human existence.  And the fact that the awaited individual never comes is fitting.  At the end of the first act, one of the characters says, “Well, shall we go?”  The other assents.  But as the act drop descends, they are seen not moving—still waiting.  This philosophical drama is a picture of the despair of a humanity that merely exists—one without meaning or purpose.  This, of course, is the primary conclusion of the philosophy of existentialism popular in the fifties—and more or less foundational to current postmodernism.

Though the whole play is about waiting, no one would characterize the behavior of the two characters as patience.  True patience involves waiting, but it is not just waiting; it’s waiting on purpose.  While Beckett claimed that the “Godot” waited for in his play did not symbolize God, the universal core of existentialism is uncertainty about the existence of God.  Patience, on the other hand, is at its heart faith in the existence, the compassion, and the promises of God.  From the first book to the last, the Bible offers us glimpses of faithful patience—waiting for God—by people who trusted Him and His Word and determined that they would persevere, that they would endure to the end because He is there and He is good.

Both the Old and New Testaments words for patience and examples of patience indicate that this virtue has two legs—endurance and perseverance.  These aspects reflect two important realities about patience.  Patience will in some instances stand still with firm resolve to hold on to the truth.  Such patient endurance marked the life of the apostle Paul.  Numerous times Paul was imprisoned for his beliefs and for his preaching (see Acts 16), and in those times he could really do little but wait in faith for God to act.

Yet Paul also had the other leg of patience, that of perseverance.  Perseverance is patience on the move.  It marks those who actively continue on in a work they’re convinced, like Paul, is God’s calling.  Perhaps even more significant, however, is persevering in a mundane work that seems on the surface to have little godly purpose.  It’s a faithful going on with life trusting that if you do your work honestly and well with a good attitude and gentle spirit that you are indeed serving your God.

A prime biblical example of such patience is the patriarch Joseph (Genesis 37–50).  The story of Joseph is one of the longest and most dramatic narratives of the Bible.  After being sold into slavery by his cruel and conspiring brothers, he was transported to Egypt where he suffered, like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.”  If anyone had a reason to become bitter, to harbor hatred, to lose faith in God, Joseph certainly did.  One could indeed picture Joseph delivering the famous existential “to be or not to be” soliloquy of Hamlet in which the troubled Dane ponders whether or not to kill himself because of the “whips and scorns of time.”  Hamlet enumerates the very difficulties suffered by Joseph: “the oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s [insults], law’s delay, the insolence of office, and the spurns” that unworthily come upon one who must just bear it all patiently.

The beauty of the story of Joseph is that, unlike Hamlet, it is true.  Unlike Hamlet, Joseph didn’t lose heart.  Unlike Hamlet, he did not resolve to seek vengeance.  He didn’t deny his faith in Jehovah and resign himself to a miserable fate bemoaning his misfortune.  He did not fall into depression, nor resign his life to despair, but offered it up to God, trusting his heavenly Father to use his life in the cause of goodness, compassion, integrity, and dedicated service to his earthly rulers and to their people.  And God blessed him for it in ways that Joseph never could have imagined: the eventual salvation of his entire family and the perpetuation of God’s promise to Abraham to make of him a great nation that would bless the nations of the world.

Think of it.  One young man’s practice of patient perseverance in seemingly impossible circumstances, some 3,000 years ago, ultimately blessed you and me.  His hope is now our hope.   Joseph is ultimately honored in the hall of faith found in Hebrews 11, a list of the saints of God who persevered and endured with patience just about every trial imaginable—because they had hope.  They knew, as some were instructed to pray, that God’s kingdom would come and His will would be done “on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).  The full meaning of their exemplary lives was summarized by the writer of Hebrews shortly after he set before us his list of the faithful:

Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance [patience] the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God (Hebrews 12:1-2).

True patience is anchored in hope, and our hope is verified in the much witnessed life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and in the promise of His coming.  French philosopher Vauvenargues stated it simply: “Patience is the art of hoping.” This truth was elegantly put by another English writer my high school literature teacher introduced us to: nineteenth-century novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton, who said, “There is one form of hope which is never unwise, and which certainly does not diminish with the increase of knowledge.  In that form it changes its name, and we call it patience.” [The New Dictionary of Thoughts, Standard Book Company, 1966, p.296]. The writer of the letter to the Hebrews gives us the essence of that hope:

For God is not unjust to forget your work and labor of love which you have shown toward His name, in that you have ministered to the saints, and do minister. And we desire that each one of you show the same diligence to the full assurance of hope until the end, that you do not become sluggish, but imitate those who through faith and patience inherit the promises. For when God made a promise to Abraham, because He could swear by no one greater, He swore by Himself, saying, ‘Surely blessing I will bless you, and multiplying I will multiply you.’ And so, after he had patiently endured, he obtained the promise. For men indeed swear by the greater, and an oath for confirmation is for them an end of all dispute. Thus God, determining to show more abundantly to the heirs of promise the immutability of His counsel, confirmed it by an oath, that by two immutable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we might have strong consolation, who have fled for refuge to lay hold of the hope set before us. This hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and steadfast, and which enters the Presence behind the veil, where the forerunner has entered for us, even Jesus” (Hebrews 6:10-20).

The apostle James also emphasized the hope in Christ that is the underpinning of our faith and the reason for our patience: “Be patient, brethren, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, waiting patiently for it until it receives the early and latter rain. You also be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand” (James 5:7-8)

Because they had personally met the Son of God, received bread and wine from His hands, experienced His sacrificial compassion, touched His wounds, and seen the biblical prophecies fulfilled, these early Christians were not left in an existential quandary about the One they expectantly looked for.  It was not Godot they awaited; it was God in the flesh, the One who is coming for the “restoration of all things” (Acts 3:19-21).  Patience is not a desperate waiting in doubt, but a hopeful waiting in confidence.