Patience, Divine and Human

“Patience, hard thing!” So begins a stirring poem by the great Victorian Jesuit, Gerard Manley Hopkins. Patience: it sure is a hard thing. Here is a brief meditation on a topic I'm waist-deep in these days.

Peter the Apostle knew this hard thing called patience all too well, and in one place he addresses the problem in a form we easily recognize: “where is this ‘coming’ he promised?” (2 Peter 3:4). It’s not Peter’s question, of course; it comes from “scoffers” who reason that, “Hey, everything seems to be moving along just as it has since creation itself.” Peter’s answer gives us the sweeping story of the world in divine perspective, a story with two basic acts. It begins with the world formed by and through water and word and finishes with Noah’s great Flood of cosmic judgment, the destruction of that older world by water, from which a new world emerged.  The world that now exists, says Peter, is by that same word also being stored up for judgment and, on the other side, the real and final new creation in which God will dwell gloriously with his own. To scoffers then and now, Peter’s message is this: look at the end of “that” world and see the certain end of “this” one.

But Peter is not finished yet. A few verses later he turns his attention from the scoffers to the faithful, and offers a comment on how we should read the days and years leading up to the end of “this” world: “And count the patience of the Lord as salvation” (3:15).

The “patience” of the Lord: what a curious expression! It is not how I am accustomed to think about this period of trying delay, but perhaps it should be. After all, the God who is sure to act in the future is even now the God who unfailingly loves and cares for his own. And our struggling, fighting, and thrashing about in the flesh and in “this” world is not lost on him. No, he is not only the Sovereign who orders all things and works out all things in space and time according to his own secret, eternal pleasure (on its own not so comforting a thought). He is also, wonderfully, the God who, as this Sovereign, truly loves his suffering ones. He can accomplish in a moment whatever in his wisdom he knows we truly need, for his infinite power does not run a close second to his love for his own. And no doubt it is precisely because he loves us, so deeply and perfectly loves us, that the period of delay is not only a matter of waiting but of divine patience. What a concept: that the eternal Lord of heaven longs for our relief and glory just as we do, but perfectly. Yes, any old god of the pagans could control the universe, but only a God who loves as he loves, and so “waits” while we wait, can be called patient. His wise, loving patience is our “salvation,” says the Apostle. It is not only a mystery, then; not only a matter of endurance and testing and believing and trusting; it is positive, fruitful, saving. Now read Hopkins’ poem:

PATIENCE, hard thing! the hard thing but to pray,

But bid for, Patience is! Patience who asks

Wants war, wants wounds; weary his times, his tasks;

To do without, take tosses, and obey.

Rare patience roots in these, and, these away,

Nowhere. Natural heart’s ivy, Patience masks

Our ruins of wrecked past purpose. There she basks

Purple eyes and seas of liquid leaves all day.

We hear our hearts grate on themselves: it kills

To bruise them dearer. Yet the rebellious wills

Of us we do bid God bend to him even so.

And where is he who more and more distils

Delicious kindness?—He is patient. Patience fills

His crisp combs, and that comes those ways we know.

An analysis of the poem must await another time, but when we take it in as a whole, don't the words of Hopkins ring baldly true? Isn't this the story of every child of God? Is it not the honest admission of every saint that our wrestling, our thrashing about in the here and now is sometimes as chaotic as those lines, our struggle as gut-wrenching as the heart “grating on itself” and bruised? Do not those words belong to every last one of us?

But note the breathtaking contrast in Hopkins’ resolution. Where is Kindness himself, the “distiller” of “delicious kindness?” This is, as the psalmists testify, the Great Question for Christian sufferers. Hopkins replies: “He is patient.” For Hopkins, it seems impatient chaos on our side contrasts with patient love on his. Who is the God of suffering saints? Neither impotent Kindness, nor patient Unkindness, but patient Kindness. How Petrine.

Maybe, just maybe, our weak faith is not the inevitable effect of the whims of a capricious Ruler who simply chooses not to bring relief when he surely could. Maybe, just maybe, he isn't so capricious after all, so calloused, so unfeeling toward his suffering, waiting children, so hopelessly out of touch with the urgency of a life that sometimes must go without – how long, O Lord! Maybe he’s simply more patient than we are.

A “patient” God: now there’s a thought.