It’s nice to say that we must have patience in times of trouble, but how is it that we develop patience in our lives? Certainly, that is not typically an easy task and patience is clearly not a spiritual gift with which we are born. If you question that, spend some time volunteering in the church nursery next week. Patience is something that is learned, but how do we go about learning it?
For Calvin, learning patience took place as one sought the common equity of one’s neighbor. In other words, as you apply the golden rule, seeking to ensure that your neighbor receives just and fair treatment, you will (almost as a byproduct) grow in your ability to be patient both with others and during times of affliction.
Let us suppose, for a moment, one of the classic illustrations of needing patience in western society. When we go to the store to buy a product or some groceries, imagine getting to the check-out counter and being stuck in a line that is moving very slowly. This is something that most westerners can relate to quite easily. Imagine discovering that the reason that the line is backed up is because there is a person who is checking every price as it is registered, arguing a discrepancy as to how coupons are to be rung up, and then counting out pennies to finish paying for their purchase! Then imagine that you have somewhere you are supposed to be in a short amount of time. For many westerners, especially Americans, that is enough to make you want to run up and choke the person.
From Calvin’s perspective, the Christian is to ask himself or herself, “How would I want others to treat me were I that person counting out coupons and pennies? Certainly, I would want people to understand my situation and give me the opportunity to take advantage of any discounts I can get. Certainly, I would also desire to not be rushed and to not have other customers rolling their eyes, grumbling, or otherwise making me feel like a lesser human being. And thus, for Calvin, intentionally treating the other person (your neighbor in a Biblical sense) as you would genuinely like to be treated, that develops patience in your person.
But, how is that supposed to develop patience during times of suffering or persecution? To begin with, when you realize that, for the Christian, times of suffering are designed to strengthen our faith and reliance on God, then you realize the one with whom you are being called to be patient is God himself. And, since you know that the intentions of God are to conform you into Christ’s image, is not the end result a good and benevolent thing? So, shall we not patiently persevere recognizing the equity with which God works and desiring that His ends be done in our lives (isn’t that part of what we pray when we pray the Lord’s Prayer?).
Finally, we often struggle with patience towards self. Yet, do we not wish to be treated equitably by others? If so, shall we not treat ourselves with that same equity? And in doing so, patience, even with self, continues to grow.
In the end, being patient during times of trouble is something we must do — and can do as a result of God’s providential governance of all things. But it is also a Christian virtue in which we must invest time and effort. The old statement, “Give me patience and I want it now,” does not apply here…
The thing that amazes me sometimes (and here I am preaching to myself also!) is how often we are surprised when bad things happen. No, I am not suggesting that people ought always to be looking at things pessimistically or be a “gloomy Gus” all of the time, or become a “nattering nabob of negativism,” but if we look realistically at this fallen and sinful world, what should surprise us are the good times when everything comes together exactly as planned, not the bad times when things seem to be falling apart at the seams. In fact, when we get overly comfortable with the blessings of this life, I fear that we also lose our hope of heaven — we cling to these things and fear that which is to come.
Now, I will freely grant that there is nothing wrong with praying for a peaceful, quiet life — that is a intensely Biblical thing to do. At the same time, the Christian should always understand that times of trouble will come because we are not yet in the glorified world and that it is often during these times of trouble that God shows his most profound grace in comfort…and no, it is not Mother Mary that comes to us…but it is God’s Holy Spirit. But how shall we face such times?
Many times, Christians approach such times, desperately clinging to hope and praying for endurance just so they can get through to the other side. And, to be entirely honest, this is a completely human and normal response. I can’t tell you how many times I have ministered to people, in the midst of a crisis, and the focus is, “Just get me to the other side of this.” And, I must confess, that has been my own reaction at times — endurance is a Biblical virtue.
Yet, Heidelberg presents a somewhat different approach that offers us an overall wisdom that is greater than our natural response. Heidelberg states that because of God’s providence (that he governs all things that take place in this world), our response is to strive for patience in the midst of suffering. And while patience is closely related to endurance, there is a difference between patient endurance and desperately seeking to get to the other side of what it is that you are facing.
The why, as to our patient endurance, is obvious. God has ordained whatsoever has come to pass and he has ordained it for our ultimate good, which is to be conformed into the image of Christ. What may not be as clear is the advantage of this approach to times of trouble. When you are simply focused on “just getting through” then it is the trouble and just the trouble that pretty much consumes your focus. When you approach trouble with patient endurance, you are not so much focused on the trouble as the opportunities within the trouble to point to Christ. One thing that I most commonly pray, when I am praying with people in the hospital, is that God would use this hospital stay to point others toward Christ — whether doctors, nurses, caregivers, staff, or roommates.
There is a residual benefit to this mindset. It makes seeing God’s hand of sustaining mercy to you much easier. And maybe, just maybe, this “residual benefit” is one of the reasons that people prefer to grit their teeth and just get through it. Once we are on the other side of the “just get through” mindset, there sometimes creeps in a notion that we got through because of our own strength. When we face trouble with the patient endurance that only God can grant, and are faced daily (even moment by moment) with the grace of God’s sustaining mercy, it is a humbling experience. And being humbled is most commonly not a pleasant experience — but it is for our good and for our sanctification is it not? For Christ demonstrated the truest humility in coming down and taking on flesh — even the form of a poor servant. Shall we not be willing to do the same? Our opportunity to do so, very often comes in the guise of troubles that we must face with patience.
“Afterwards, Abraham buried Sarah, his wife, in the cave of the field of Makpelah toward Mamre (which is Hebron), in the land of Canaan. The field and the cave which is in it were given up to Abraham as a possession for a grave from the Sons of Cheth.”
And with dignity and with a foretaste of what is to come, Abraham buries Sarah, his wife. Later, Abraham will also be brought to this site for burial. Though Abraham never saw fulfillment of the promise of the land, he did close his life owning a piece of property within the inheritance that God promised him. And in that, he was satisfied.
So much about Abraham’s life is about waiting and anticipating, it is no wonder that he is referred to as the Father of the Faithful (Romans 4:11). And much like Abraham, we too are called by God to wait on Him and upon His timing. How often we grow impatient at waiting for God to fulfill his promises. How often, because of our impatience, we miss the partial fulfillments that God places in our lives. For Abraham, the partial fulfillment took the form of a burial plot for Sarah. For us, our promised inheritance is in heaven, kept free from decay and defilement (1 Peter 1:4-5), but does not God give us little tastes of heaven in the context of Worship? Is not the gathered body of Christ meant to be a foretaste of heaven to come?
How often the worship of God’s people is little more than going through the motions. Beloved, when worship is only about what you are doing, then you will only ever get out of it what you put in…there is a zero sum gain. But when worship is only about God and what he is doing, then you taste his glory, which is a gain of everything and more. If you focus your worship on man, you will only find the walls of man’s own limitations. If your focus is upon God, then walls are broken down and we will come face to face with the transcendent God. For Abraham, his longing was for God himself; for you, what will it be?