In that chapter of the Bible frequently called, “The Love Chapter,” the apostle Paul begins by emphasizing how important love is in the practice of Christianity. An absence of love in the life of a professed disciple mars their usefulness in teaching others about Christ, reduces their value as a follower of Christ down to nothing and removes any reward they might have gained from otherwise sacrificing for Christ (cf. 1 Corinthians 13:1-3; ESV). Christianity without love profits nothing.
Having thus forcefully laid out the importance of love in the life of a Christian, Paul goes on to provide some of the characteristics of godly love, saying, “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. (1 Corinthians 13:4-6; ESV)”
It is notable that the very first hallmark of love given by the inspired apostle is not kindness, but patience. This is not to deemphasize the importance of kindness, but it most certainly stresses the preeminence of patience.
The word the ESV translates as “patience,” is translated as “suffers long,” in the KJV and the NKJV, and longsuffering is an apt expression of the idea being conveyed. The Greek word being translated is a compound word which is most literally rendered as “long-tempered,” meaning to wait a long time before losing one’s temper and giving in to anger. Thayer’s Greek Lexicon provides this helpful quote relative to the word: “to be patient in bearing the offences and injuries of others; to be mild and slow in avenging; to be long-suffering, slow to anger, slow to punish…”
Perhaps one of the reasons Paul chose to list patience first as a defining characteristic of love is because it is a virtue so often neglected, even by those who profess to be practicing love. There is certainly a dearth of patient endurance in the conduct of individuals in the world as they interact with those around them. We tend to want people to agree with us, humor us, give in to us, and otherwise do the things we want when we want them done. We certainly have little to no patience for anyone who might oppose us, harm us, or mistreat us.
Yet patient longsuffering is not able to be expressed in an environment devoid of conflict. In a situation of perfect harmony there is no need for patience. It is exactly when things are not going as planned, when people are being obnoxious, when opponents are themselves being unloving, when those near us are being unthoughtful, when we are being hurt and mistreated… it is in times such as these that patience with others is most needful.
Jesus once asked, “If you love those who love you, what reward have you (Matthew 5:26).” One could reword the question, “If you are only patient with people who are kind and patient to you, what reward have you?”
Likewise when Jesus teaches us, “love your enemy (cf. Matthew 5:44),” He is also saying, “be patiently longsuffering with you enemy.”
Or, when the Word of God teaches us, “love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19:18; cf. Matthew 19:19, 22:39),” it is telling us, “Be as patient with your neighbor’s foibles as you are with your own,” or to paraphrase the golden rule, “be as patiently longsuffering with others as you want them to be with you.”
When you aren’t being patient with others, it is worthwhile to stop and ask yourself if you are truly practicing the love of Christ? Are you fulfilling His command to love one another with the
love He demonstrated? Without patience, it’s not truly His love you are demonstrating; it is something else.
And, to paraphrase Paul… though you might speak as eloquently as an angel, if you don’t have patience with others, you are just a noisy gong. And though your faith were sufficient to move mountains, if you don’t practice patience, you aren’t anything special in the Kingdom. And though you were to give all your goods to others in a fit of charity, or even suffer a martyr’s death, if you don’t treat others with patient consideration, you don’t get a reward (cf. 1 Corinthians 13:1-3).
Jonathan McAnulty is minister of Chapel Hill Church of Christ. Viewpoints expressed in the article are the work of the author.