Nothing incites my impatience quite like being told to be patient. In the list of helpful hints for the spiritually weary, the phrase “Be patient!” ranks somewhere near the bottom.
Anxiously striving to be patient seems somehow to miss the point.
And yet, patience is an important part of following Christ in ordinary, daily living. We get tangled up about patience (and joy and love kindness and peace and gentleness) because we think of it as an achievement we have to attain.
We’ve all said it. “I ought to be more patient. I don’t measure up. I need to try harder.” It’s only a small step from here to anxiousness. We say to ourselves, “Hurry up and be patient!” And we assume that our thoughts simply echo God’s own expectations.
So long as we think of patience as an achievement, we’ll keep painting ourselves into the same tight, uncomfortable corner. Beneath the idea that patience—or any virtue—is an achievement lies a shaky theology.
That shaky theology has this outline. Life is about soul-making, and the state of my soul is what I make of it. In the end, God judges what I have made of my soul. Since I’m not really sure when the end will get here, I had better hurry up and be patient (and loving and gentle and all the rest).
Now don’t get me wrong. I have responsibility for my spiritual life and I am accountable to God. But at no point am I on my own in what I’m becoming.
Let’s listen to St. Paul for a moment: “By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.” (Galatians 5:22-25)
Patience is a fruit of the Spirit. It is not a personal achievement. Following Jesus Christ results in virtues like patience. When we devote ourselves to walking in his steps, the Holy Spirit molds and shapes us in ways that only God can achieve.
When St. Paul teaches us to be guided by the Spirit, this does not mean that we should simply listen to our inner voices and then decide which of them must be the Holy Spirit. Following this strategy, I would probably identify whatever I’m yearning for the most as the Holy Spirit. Maybe that works for you. My own experience with that approach has not been especially fruitful.
By contrast, Paul’s letters again and again teach us to live in a community of believers. To learn together from the pages of Holy Scripture. To implement that learning as best we can in our daily lives. To test that learning and implementation with each other.
Our faithfulness to Christ is at the center of the Christian life. The virtues we embody over time are not our achievements. They are God’s achievements in us. They are the fruit of our hanging with Christ.
The truth is, we are God’s work in progress. God does remarkable work. And he is not in a hurry.