Webster’s Dictionary simply defines longsuffering as “patiently enduring wrongs or difficulties,” and defines patience as “the capacity to endure hardship, difficulty, or inconvenience without complaint” and “calmness, self-control, and the willingness or ability to tolerate delay.” Our language section on “Longsuffering and Patience” briefly defines the meaning of some of the key biblical words related to this fruit, but these definitions require further expansion if we are to truly understand what it means to be patient and longsuffering.
In the Bible, the Greek word makrothymia refers to being patient and loving in our relations with people. For example, St. Paul tells St. Timothy that he should exhort his congregations “with longsuffering and doctrine” (2 Timothy 4:2). St. Paul further encourages the Christians at Ephesus to exhibit “longsuffering, bearing with one another in love, endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:2–3). As we shall see in the next section, this longsuffering is one of the most significant attitudes that God exhibits toward us.
The Greek word hypomone refers to dealing patiently with things or circumstances. This is the word used by St. Paul in his exhortation to be “patient in tribulation” (Romans 12:12), and to “run with patience [or endurance] the race that is set before us” (Hebrews 12:1).
While we have carefully defined the differences between the two words for patience used in the New Testament, we should also remember that these are not clear-cut and easily distinguishable differences. While we may use hypomone to refer to situations that require patience, we also know that the majority of such situations directly involve other people. Similarly, while makrothymia involves other people, our interactions with these people are what give rise to the situations in which patience is necessary. For this reason, we will in this study use the words “long-suffering” and “patience” somewhat interchangeably.
St. John Chrysostom gives an interesting perspective on the difference between longsuffering and patience, noting that while both involve people, a difference can be the types of people involved: the first involves our relations with other Christians, whereas the latter involves our relations with non-Christians. He writes:
‘Unto all patience and longsuffering’: long-suffering towards one another, patience towards those without. For longsuffering is toward those whom we can requite, but patience toward those whom we cannot. For this reason the term patient is never applied to God, but longsuffering frequently; as this same blessed one saith other where in his writings, ‘Or despisest thou the riches of His goodness, and forbearance, and longsuffering?’ ‘Unto all pleasing.’ Not, one while, and afterwards not so. ‘In all spiritual wisdom,’ he saith, ‘and understanding.’ For otherwise it is not possible to know His will.
This distinction is important. While we must be patient with both Christians and non-Christians, the way in which this patience is manifested may differ according to the people involved. Before continuing, we should note that both Christians and non-Christians can exhibit patience, and it is therefore important to distinguish between Christian patience and simple human patience. Blessed Augustine describes these two kinds of patience.
[There is a] manner of patience, by which the mind doth, not its own sins but any evils so ever from without, patiently endure in itself, while the body remains altogether unhurt. But the other manner of patience is that by which the same mind bears any troubles and grievances whatsoever in the sufferings of the body; not as do foolish or wicked men for the sake of getting vain things or perpetrating crimes; but as is defined by the Lord, ‘for righteousness’ sake.’ In both kinds, the holy Martyrs contended. For both with scornful reproofs of the ungodly were they filled, where, the body remaining intact, the mind hath its own (as it were) blows and wounds, and bears these unbroken: and in their bodies they were bound, imprisoned, vexed with hunger and thirst, tortured, gashed, torn asunder, burned, butchered; and with piety immovable submitted unto God their mind, while they were suffering in the flesh all that exquisite cruelty could devise in its mind.
Understanding Blessed Augustine’s point is vital to bearing spiritual fruit: we can only be truly patient and longsuffering through the graceof God. This is the case because God Himself is patient and longsuffering.
God’s self-description to Moses tells us a great deal about His character: “The LORD, the LORD God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth” (Exodus 34:6). The meaning of longsuffering in this passage is clarified in Psalm 86:15: “You, O Lord, are a God full of compassion, and gracious, Longsuffering and abundant in mercy and truth.”
God’s longsuffering compassion is shown to us in part through the fact that He is “slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Psalm 103:8). One of the central themes of Scripture is that, even though we deserve destruction for our sins, God patiently enables us to return to Him. A particularly poignant example of this can be found in the book of Hosea. God ordered Hosea to marry a prostitute who betrayed and abandoned him; this relationship starkly symbolizes the way in which Israel betrayed and rejected the God Who chose and loves them. Despite this betrayal, Hosea was ordered to continue loving his wife and to bring her back into his home; similarly God, patiently loves His people and welcomes us back despite our betrayal of Him. It is for this reason that St. Peter states, “[The Lord] is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).
God is longsuffering toward us specifically so that we can repent and turn to Him. St. John Chrysostom explains this by using the words and example of St. Paul in 1 Timothy 1:12–16:
Hear in the case of the Apostle Paul, His mercy and truth, Paul who was first Saul the persecutor. He needed mercy, and he has said that it was shown towards him: ‘I who was before a blasphemer, and a persecutor, and injurious: but I obtained mercy, that in me Christ Jesus might show forth all longsuffering towards those who shall believe in Him unto life eternal.’ So that, when Paul received pardon of such great crimes, no one should despair of any sins whatever being forgiven him. Lo! Thou hast Mercy.
The ultimate expression of God’s longsuffering is Christ’s suffering and death on the cross. Blessed Augustine comments on Psalm 86:15 (quoted above):
Wherefore longsuffering and very pitiful, and One who hast compassion? Because hanging on the Cross He said: ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ Whom prayeth He to? for whom doth He pray? Who prayeth? Where prayeth He? The Son prays to the Father, crucified for the ungodly, in the midst of very insults, not of words but of death inflicted, hanging on the Cross; as if for this He had His hands stretched out, that thus He might pray for them, that His ‘prayer might be directed like incense in the sight of the Father, and the lifting up of His hands like an evening sacrifice.’
It is this act, combined with God’s tremendous patience with our sinful rebellion, which inspires Blessed Augustine to say:
That virtue of the mind which is called Patience, is so great a gift of God, that even in Him who bestoweth the same upon us, that, whereby He waiteth for evil men that they may amend, is set forth by the name of Patience, [or long-suffering.] So, although in God there can be no suffering, and ‘patience’ hath its name a patiendo, from suffering, yet a patient God we not only faithfully believe, but also wholesomely confess. But the patience of God, of what kind and how great it is, His, Whom we say to be impassible, yet not impatient, nay even most patient, in words to unfold this who can be able? Ineffable is therefore that patience.
We can take great comfort in the fact that, just as God showed great mercy to Saul the persecutor, it can also be said of us, “Lo! Thou hast Mercy.” At the same time, we should not blithely assume that we can abuse God’s longsuffering nature. St. John, again expounding upon the words of St. Paul (this time from Romans 2:4–5), explains that God’s justice balances His mercy:
Paul bade thee, saying, ‘Despisest thou the riches of His goodness, and forbearance, and longsuffering, not knowing that the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance?’ For therefore, saith he, doth he bear with thee, not that thou mayest become worse, but that thou mayest repent. But if thou wilt not, this longsuffering becomes a cause of thy greater punishment; continuing, as thou dost, impenitent. This, however, is the very thing he means, when he says, ‘But after thy hardness and impenitent heart treasurest up to thyself wrath against the day of wrath, and revelation of the righteous judgment of God. Who will render to every man according to his deeds.’
This article is taken from Be Transformed: An Interactive Study of the Epistle to the Romans by Jason J. Barker. © 2005 Department of Youth Ministry - Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America.