“We’ve been patient long enough.” “It is time to make a decision.” These statements echo through our denomination. Yet, into this kind of environment, John Wesley lifts up the word “patience.” If we are to truly find a way forward, it may be very important that we let this virtue get through to our anxious hearts.
Wesley makes it clear that patience is so more than “waiting.” It is certainly more than fear-ridden fretfulness, where we bury our heads in the sand, hoping a problem will go away. Patience is a “gracious temper,” a fruit of the Holy Spirit. Patience holds the “middle way,” he says, staying in between the extremes. Even as we advocate for opinions and positions, Christians behave in the middle, staying connected to all with respect, humility, and compassion. Standing on the solid rock of God’s love, we avoid “impatience with contradictions,” to use a phrase from Wesley. We honor diversity of opinion as those who see in a “mirror dimly.” We listen and learn. We embrace our differences as opportunity to learn how to love more fully and truly glorify God. In this way Wesley characterizes patience as the “manifestation of the perfect love of God.” That’s how important this virtue is. It is our witness to the world.
And now for the deep theological reason for placing patience at the heart of how we engage one another – instantaneous entire sanctification! It’s not a phrase we hear every day, but it was key for Wesley.
Why be patient with ourselves and others? Because we are new creations in Christ. From the moment our hearts were first opened to the saving love of Christ, a transformation happened and is happening. Deep within, we have already been transformed “from inward sinfulness to inward holiness.” Deep within, our “pride and haughtiness” have been transformed into virtue of true holiness – “calmness, meekness, and gentleness.” With deep theological insight, Wesley warns against undervaluing what happens in justification. Justification is so much more than a forensic pardon or act of blind grace — as in “oh yeah, you’re forgiven or “You have a ticket to heaven” — but with no real expectation of change. In Christ, we are sanctified! And yet, from our vantage point, this sanctification comes in degrees, much like the growth of a child into maturity. The key insight for Wesley is that we grow “into” this sanctification, not “towards” it. Our life becomes a journey of living into our new identity as “born again” children of God.
And so, we can truly be patient, with ourselves and others, because of what God has already done and will do. We honor that! With holy patience, we learn to “not be angry at those who differ from [our] opinion, nor entertain hard thoughts concerning them.” We can give thanks for the way God is working in them, even if it is different from our desired timeframe or perspective. Our focus is ONLY this: to see that this transformation “is wrought in our own soul, if we desire to dwell with God in glory.”
Wesley builds his sermon “On Patience” upon the words, “Count it as a joy knowing that the trails of your faith teach patience.” (James 1:4). He points out that we are not saved from temptation. In fact, we can count temptation as a gift. God works through patience to bring us to maturity in faith, where we learn that we cannot return evil for evil, barrier for barrier, or attempts to divide with more division. In Christ, we find ways to bless even in the midst of such tension.
Impatience with others, or with the church, is a sure sign that we are off track in our journey. It is possibly a sign that we have reverted back to spiritual childhood, often accompanied with spiritual temper tantrums. We must be patient with even this, yet when we are in this state it is probably wise of the church to not give us a gavel.