Worship opened today with Psalm 40 (I waited patiently for the Lord. who inclined to me and heard my prayer...), and the first hymn was How Great Thou Art. The scripture reading was Hebrews 6:9-15, followed by the hymn Take Time to Be Holy. The message was on Patience, the fourth in a nine-sermon series on the Fruit of the Spirit.
Here is a video of the complete worship service (click on "read more"), beneath which is a transcript of today's sermon.
Fruit of the Spirit 4: Patience
And thus Abraham, having patiently endured, obtained the promise.
Introduction: Unsung Hero
There are nine fruits of the Spirit. And of all of them, I think the real unsung hero is patience. We know full well what it is, but sometimes I think we’re more likely to joke about it than to strive for it. As an example, one of my favorite prayers—as effective as it is long: God grant me patience. Now!
So as I begin my sermon on patience this morning, I want to spend a little time on its two most important meanings in the Bible, which aren’t what I think Paul is talking about in Galatians 5—and which aren’t, therefore, the point of this sermon.
I. God’s Patience with Us
The first meaning of patience in the Bible is the way God deals with us. This is one of the principle themes of the scriptures from beginning to end. I think contemporary Christians are much more inclined to believe in a kind and patient God than were many of our ancestors. And if I were to ask you if the God you believe in is more of an Old Testament or a New Testament God, I think most of you would quickly answer New Testament. The God of the New Testament, we think, is kinder and more loving—more a God of grace. It’s a popular belief among Christians—especially modern ones—that the God of the Old Testament is angrier, more vengeful, and a lot more judgmental.
To this, I would say, Yes and No. Yes, there are more stories of the wrath of God in the Hebrew Bible. But that doesn’t mean God’s vengeance is missing from the New Testament. For example, there’s Ananias and Sapphira who cheated the church in the Book of Acts. When they were caught lying about it, they were struck dead on the spot—not exactly a story we might expect to hear about the God of grace.
And while there are more such stories in the Old Testament, there are also many more stories of God’s patience. God’s people turned to idols again and again. But God never stopped loving them, forgiving them, freeing them, restoring them. We read about it in Genesis and Habakkuk and just about every book in between. God loved Israel—no matter what they did, God’s love never ceased. If we call the God of the Hebrew Bible a vengeful God, then we are being unjust: The Old Testament God is an infinitely patient God.
II. Our Patience with God
But there’s another kind of patience that I think is much more clear in the Old Testament, and that is human patience for God. The 40th Psalm is one of the most memorable places where we find it: I waited patiently for the Lord, who inclined to me and heard my prayer. An even more well-known verse of scripture comes at the end of the 40th chapter of Isaiah: But those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint. There are dozens of passages that explicitly tell us to wait for God, or have patience for God. There are probably hundreds more where it’s implied.
If God did not have patience with us, then we pay a much bigger price for our mistakes—and not only because of divine wrath, but simply because we wouldn’t see a way out of whatever mess we’re in. But what if we didn’t have patience with God? What if we didn’t need to have patience with God? What if everything we wanted we got as soon as we asked for it? What if everything we wanted to happen happened as soon as we say Amen?
I remember a song from way back—like over thirty years ago now. It was by Garth Brooks, and it was called Unanswered Prayers. It started out at a high school football game, where a guy introduces his wife to his old high school crush…
She was the one that I'd wanted for all times
and each night I'd spend prayin' that God would make her mine.
And if he'd only grant me this wish I wished back then,
I'd never ask for anything again.
Sometimes I thank God for unanswered prayers.
Remember when you're talkin' to the man upstairs,
that just because he doesn't answer doesn't mean he don't care.
Some of God's greatest gifts are unanswered prayers. 
Sometimes we have to wait for the answer. And sometimes, after waiting, we discover that the answer is No. But what if the answer was always Yes? What if our prayers were more like wishes, and God was more like a genie? Not only is patience a wonderful gift, but the need for patience is one of God’s greatest gifts.
And so this is the kind of patience that Abraham and Sarah had as they waited for the fulfillment of God’s promises in their own lives. The wait wasn’t short, the result wasn’t necessarily what they expected, and patience didn’t make them perfect. But this is the patience that changed the world.
III. Our Patience with Each Other
So patience is part of God’s nature. And wholeness for us comes with waiting patiently for God—not just because it’s good for us, but mostly because we’re creatures made in God’s image: true wholeness comes to us when we reflect the light of God. But it’s important to remember that we don’t just reflect God’s light back to God. God doesn’t need it. What God wants us to do is to learn patience in our prayers, and then to show it in our dealings with other people.
I know it’s not interesting to everybody to hear the New Testament Greek word that I’m talking about, but you have to give me a break, since I’m literally just talking about one word in each of the sermons in this series. And today’s word in the original language is more interesting that most. It’s μακροθυμία. Did you hear the first part of that word? I hope you recognized it. I know you know what micro- means. It’s a prefix meaning small. So I think you know what macro- means, too—it means large. The second part of the word (which I don’t expect you to know) means soul. It’s the seat of human emotion and thought. And so the root meaning of patience in New Testament Greek is, literally, greatness of soul.
There’s a sense in which patience is a gift of God. But it’s also something we can cultivate in our lives. And I think we learn it in the school of prayer. And so, when we talk about patience as a fruit of the Spirit, we’re talking about God calling us to greatness of soul. That’s what we’re doing when we treat each other with patience: we’re giving them greatness of soul. That meaning is even present in English. If the soul is the seat of our feelings, the seat of our passion, and macro- means big, or long, then that’s why in some older translations, we see patience translated as long-suffering.
Like love, joy, and peace, patience is a choice. It’s a goal we work toward, and it’s impossible to reach it without the other fruits of the Spirit. But despite the way they all dovetail, we can easily identify those times and places when it’s patience that’s specifically called for. To be patient with someone is to demonstrate the size of your soul, to extend your feelings to them.
To be patient is to make your heart big enough for others, and to give others’ souls enough room to be who they are when they’re in your presence. I hope this is the message our congregation sends out into the community and out into the universe. But that’s only possible if that’s the message that we, the members of this church, reflect God’s light through our patience with each other and the world around us.
Conclusion: The Foundation
One Bible scholar I read a couple of weeks ago said that “patience, when allowed to accomplish its goal, brings about maturity and wholeness. [It] is nothing less than the foundation upon which all Christian character is built and maintained” . So when Paul wrote what he did in Galatians 5:22-23, he wasn’t just tossing a bunch of random words onto a page. The fruit of the Spirit are things that matter in the life of every Christian, and they’re things that make a difference in the world.
Just like with the others, patience is a choice. We can be patient with others, even when we aren’t feeling charitable. Creating that space in a relationship or in our incidental communication really does bring something positive into a negative world. No less than love and joy and peace, patience overcomes evil with good. So let us be patient. Let us shine the light of God onto others by showing them the grace we have received and extending to them the very patience that helped us to know God.
—©2022 Sam L. Greening Jr.
1. Garth Brooks, Unanswered Prayers, from No Fences (Capitol Nashville) 1990.
2. James E. West, Patience, in The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. 4, Katharine Doob Sakenfeld, ed., (Nashville: Abingdon, 2009) p. 396