For the longest time, I was convinced that Paul the evangelist totally whiffed on one of his most beautiful passages: the one where he emphasizes that love is what really matters, and then lists some of its defining traits. He starts out by saying that love is … patient.
He goes on to list other traits, such as kindness. He also says what it’s not: rude, selfish, snobbish, brooding, quick to give up on someone. And it’s all really good stuff, written with such grace. But I’ve always had a difficult time with that first word.
Patient. Love is patient.
As a writer, you always list the most important things first. That sets the framework for everything that follows. So Paul must have given it a good amount of thought when he decided on the pecking order for love’s qualities. And he chose patience to lead off.
Well, that’s not how I would do it.
Sure, patience is an important part of faith and life. Advent reminds us of how we’re so often challenged to wait. How patience is an important component of all those things that Paul lists.
But first on the list?
Me? I would probably pick kindness first. Love is kind. Or maybe compassionate. Understanding. Forgiving. Hopeful. Joyful. Sacrificial. Persistent. Patience would be on my list, but lower.
Maybe it’s because I have a strained relationship with patience. I can be very patient in some settings. And when I’m in a good mood, I tend to have a lot more patience. But then there are those many other settings and many other moods when, well, I feel like I’m going to explode if I have to wait one more minute.
I can be very understanding toward people, and I can also be very impatient with people. Mainly, I can be very impatient with myself. Not a day goes by when I don’t say: Why did I do that? Shouldn’t I have known better? And before long, self-critical thoughts are romping through my head like a dog trying to bite its tail, wasting a lot of energy while wearing out one spot on the carpet.
Patience is not my strongest point. I’m more of a right-this-very-minute type.
Interestingly, Paul’s passage isn’t the only one that reminds us of the importance of patience. There’s the famous story of the father who gives his son a share of the inheritance and has the patience to let him go off and make his mistakes and learn some lessons in his own way, in his own time. And while the son is away, the father patiently scans the horizon looking for his silhouette, hoping to see his son coming home.
Day after day goes by, and the son is nowhere in sight. But the father doesn’t give up. He doesn’t slide into anger and rejection and resentment and bitterness, which would be so easy to do. Instead, he keeps waiting for the son, even though he knows he’s going to have another heartbreak with each empty horizon.
Finally, the day comes when the father sees his son at a great distance. All of the love in the father’s heart gushes out. He runs to his prodigal son, embraces him, stops him in the middle of a self-serving, quasi apology, and then orders a party.
What enables the father to do this without the slightest trace of rejection or hurt or anger? Maybe it’s his patience. He allowed his heart to be broken by love every day, cracked open so that any anger or bitterness would drain out. Only love would be left.
And maybe that’s the whole point.
Perhaps what Paul is trying to say is that patience is love’s cradle. Only when we’re able to be patient with others and with ourselves do all those other wonderful qualities — kindness and understanding and compassion and forgiveness — become possible.
Patience doesn’t mean sitting back and doing nothing or accepting the status quo. Rather, it’s the attitude we bring to everything that we do. It means putting some staying power into our efforts to work for peace, mend injustices, and love people so that they can grow in their own ways and at their own pace.
Without patience, we give up too soon. We become frustrated by the pace of progress. We lash back. We become unkind. We try to impose our way and our pace. We fail to see that things are happening, just not the way we expected or with the timing we prefer. We lose hope. We become the very things that we’re trying to change. And we stop loving.
Maybe that’s something to think about this Advent — how it's patience that makes passionate and persistent and enduring love possible. For me, that means giving Paul some props.
And working on my patience. First.