First, I don’t think I’m really as patient as I might appear in public. Or, to put it another way, I fear at times that I fall into one of the snares of ministry—showing more virtue in my public role than I do in private relationships. I’m usually pretty patient, but I’m probably the least patient with those closest to me, and still need to work on that one.
My other protest is that I don’t want people to abuse my patience to get away with things they shouldn’t. Patience isn’t always a good thing, as is evident in the Master’s impatient words above. Sometimes it’s good to be impatient, and what looks like patience can really be complacency. A bumper sticker says something like, “If you’re not outraged, you’re probably not paying attention.” We might paraphrase that to say, “If you’re not impatient, you might be asleep at the wheel.”
We need to be impatient, for example, about injustice. Rabbi Hayyim of Brisk, a great Talmud scholar of a century ago, defined the task of a rabbi: “To redress the grievances of those who are abandoned and alone, to protect the dignity of the poor, and to save the oppressed from the hands of the oppressor.” (Cited in To Heal a Fractured World, by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.) Patience with abandonment, abuse, and oppression is no virtue, and impatience might be just what we need to take righteous action.
Patience is also no virtue when it leads us to take up responsibility that belongs to others. Kofi Annan, the former UN Secretary General, recently resigned as UN special envoy to Syria, because of a lack of response to his peace efforts. “You have to understand:” he said, “As an envoy, I can’t want peace more than the protagonists, more than the Security Council or the international community for that matter.” I haven’t always been a fan of Kofi Annan, but he got this one right. Too much patience, or patience wrongly directed, can lead us to do for others what they really should be doing for themselves, thus feeding their bad behavior. Impatience can prompt us to walk away from a dead-end or manipulative situation.
So, when is patience a virtue? When we’re trying to help someone who is taking genuine responsibility for his or her problem, we can hardly ever be too patient. When we’re working on a challenging project or situation and there’s hope of improvement, however faint, patience can make all the difference. Showing patience in the quiet and private areas of our lives, even if we need some healthy impatience in the public arena, is a virtue too. Yeshua, after he rebuked his followers for their faithlessness, took them aside to explain the power of faith and encourage them to learn it. Indeed, his impatient rebuke—How much longer must I put up with you?—may have helped them learn it. Even with that rebuke, Yeshua showed boundless patience toward his disciples, which would eventually bear abundant fruit. And he left them with words that reflect this patience: “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age" (Matt. 28:20).