It’s taken me a long time but I’ve finally had to admit something I never imagined: I am frequently an impatient person. ‘Frequently’ because I am not impatient in every situation. (I’ve just finished a book it took me twelve years of bits and pieces of time in between other things – I think that probably counts as patience… or at least durability…) However, frequently I find my blood pressure rising as someone takes longer to do something than I think it should take, and I think ‘hurry up please, just get on with it!’. I always imagined that I was a patient person – people told me I was laid back; I only comparatively rarely seem to get riled by work situations. Of all the virtues listed in Paul’s letter to the Galatians, I thought, patience was the one which came easiest. What has finally brought me up short is the experience of being a parent. My children work on their own time-scales and trying to get them to move on from whatever task they are currently engrossed in demands mammoth reserves of patience – which too often for my liking I find I do not have. (I do not think they are at all unusual in this respect, according to friends who are also parents of young children!). I began to realise that perhaps in my pre-parenting existence I had not actually been patient but had merely successfully avoided most of the things that were likely to make me impatient (e.g, by getting a job in which my work was largely self-directed), and (because I dislike conflict) chose to let slip by other things that might otherwise have irritated me. This isn’t patience at all, but merely avoidance. This also made me reflect on that verse from Galatians which lists the qualities in which Christians are supposed to grow – love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, faithfulness, humility and self-control. We sometimes (and I sometimes) have treated these as a kind of ticklist of moral effort; things which we are supposed to strive to attain. (I once read that U.S. founding father Benjamin Franklin took one per year to work on). Indeed, we’re not excused from seeking to cultivate these things in our lives, and it would certainly not go amiss if I paid a bit more systematic attention to each of them. However, not for nothing does the passage refer to these as ‘the fruits of the Spirit’ – they are qualities which grow in us as we are receptive to God’s Spirit, and through the work of the Spirit. So whilst we can’t sit back and just wait for them to grow, their growth does not by any means relate solely to our own efforts. My awareness of the need for greater patience makes me wonder how many other areas of my life work similarly – that I have succeeded in making a positive impression simply by having avoided sources of struggle and conflict rather than by having developed genuine positive qualities by persevering and growing through times of challenge.
All that said, I think as with anger, there are good and bad forms of impatience (perhaps we could call holy impatience ‘urgency’). Certainly in history the times at which the church (as God’s people) were at their most transformationally positive were preceeded by a sense of urgency – that the good could not wait, and that the time for action was now. How, I wonder, do we distinguish between helpful and unhelpful forms of impatience? I need to think on this further, but I wonder if it is partly about attitude and partly about end-goal. Destructive impatience tends to be self-centred (things are not happening according to my agenda) whilst holy impatience has a kingdom perspective, one which urgently desires that things should be better for the good of all. Destructive impatience destroys the heart, whilst holy impatience expresses itself in ‘good fruit’ and positive change. Destructive impatience does not value the source of the exasperation (seeing people or things as merely instruments to be deployed) whilst holy impatience contains a strong grain of continuing to value the person or thing for itself (as an artefact of God’s creation to be stewarded rather than subdued, as a person made in the image of God with their own wants and needs and feelings). So perhaps the challenge is not to root out impatience as such, or seek to cultivate a disposition of endlessly making allowances, but to develop a sense of urgency for the things that matter, and mercy in the things that don’t?