This sermon is part of the sermon series "Fruit: It Does a Body Good". See series.
So far in our series we've talked about three big ideas—love, joy, and peace. These Christ-like qualities offer a grand vision for our relationships here in the church and beyond. But what would we do in the face of someone who drives us crazy, who disappoints us time and again, and even hurts us sometimes?
These first three qualities are so conceptual—so abstract. What do they look like in real life? How do you preserve love, joy, and peace, when people can be so infuriating, and relationships can be so disappointing? This sermon marks the transition from the big three to the small six—patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control; from the grand to the gritty; from love in the abstract to love in the real world and the real church, in particular. The first of the small six is patience.
Patience is about as daily and gritty as it gets. I was driving to work one day, was running late, and got stuck behind a very slow moving vehicle. There was only one lane at the time, so I was truly stuck behind this guy, and quite frustrated. I tried all the usual tricks to let him know I was in a hurry—driving a little closer than I should have been, glaring through the windshield in case he looked in his rearview mirror, but I had no luck. He just puttered along. Finally I couldn't take it anymore, and I let him have the horn. That got his attention, and he picked it up a little bit. When the road finally opened up to two lanes, I roared past and glared in his direction, only to discover it was a very nice guy who goes to this church. I quickly looked away and pulled ahead, hoping he didn't recognize me and feeling like a creep.
All day long it bothered me. Maybe he didn't see me, but what if he did and he's feeling hurt and disappointed? What if he walks away from the faith because his pastor honked at him? So that night I called him and confessed that I was the obnoxious driver who had honked at him on the road. He said, "Hey, that's okay. I didn't even know it was you!"
Like I said, patience is a virtue for the real world, and if you're like me, it doesn't come easily. We will definitely need the Spirit's help with this one. Let's begin by understanding exactly what this word means.
It turns out there are several words for patience in the Greek language, and each one is nuanced slightly differently. This particular word means "slow to become angry." Older versions of the Bible translated it "longsuffering," meaning you're willing to live with a difficult situation for a long time. The other biblical words for patience generally have to do with difficult circumstances—trials, afflictions, hardships—but the word used here in Galatians 5 is more commonly used in regard to people. It's a relational word, which we've already noted about the other fruits of the Spirit. I think we'd all agree it's easier to be patient with circumstances than to be patient with people. If you're waiting for a table at a restaurant, and you can see the place is jammed, it's frustrating, but you realize there's nothing anyone can do about it, so you wait. But if you're waiting for a table at a restaurant, and you can see there are 3 empty tables that just haven't been cleared yet, you start looking for the manager.
So this patience word means "slow to become angry." It refers to difficult people more than difficult circumstances. But there's a third thing you should know about this word. Of all the words for patience in the original language, this one is the most passive. The other words are often translated "endurance" or "perseverance," because those words imply some degree of push-back. You're not just sitting there and taking it. You're fighting back. But the word used in Galatians 5 is passive. In fact, it often described resignation to a situation or person that wasn't likely to change.
I was disappointed when I discovered that. I was all fired up to tell you that being patient doesn't mean sitting around and waiting for someone to change, it means getting involved, urging each other on, and helping one another grow. But it turns out that sitting around and waiting for each other to change is pretty much what this word means! One definition reads like this: "an unswerving willingness to await events rather than force them." How do you preach that?
Just about the time I was ready to assign someone else to preach this word, I learned something else about it: it's a word often used to describe God's patience with us, like when we read in Scripture that God is "slow to anger and abounding in love." That's this kind of patience. When 2 Peter 3 tells us that God is patient with us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance, this word is used. If God is willing to wait for us, maybe it's not so crazy to suggest that sometimes we need to wait for each other. And while this patience may be passive, it's also purposeful. God waits for us in order that we might recognize his great love and receive his forgiveness and new life. So this kind of patience isn't just waiting, it's "redemptive waiting." It's not sitting around. It's standing by. It's staying with someone, even when they disappoint you or hurt you or drive you crazy.
"Lars and the Real Girl"
One of the most surprising and redemptive movies I've seen in a long time is "Lars and the Real Girl." It's not at all what you'd expect if you read the synopsis on the back of the case (I had originally wanted nothing to do with it), and it turns out to be a story of love, and love's power to change a person's life.
Lars is a gentle young man whose mom died in childbirth. He's painfully shy and socially awkward. He lives in the garage of the family home, while his brother and sister-in-law, Gus and Karen, live in the house. Except for going to work every day and to church on Sunday, Lars spends his days in the garage, alone. Gus and Karen are worried about him, but he rebuffs all of their efforts to build a relationship with him.
One day, to their surprise, he knocks on the door and announces that he has a girlfriend. Gus and Karen are thrilled! He explains that her name is Bianca, he met her on the internet, and she's come for a visit! He explains that she's very religious, as he is, and asks if it'd be okay for her to stay in the house, since it wouldn't be appropriate for them to share the garage. Gus and Karen can hardly believe it, but they happily agree.
That's when things get very strange. It turns out that Bianca's not a real person. She's a doll—a life-sized, plastic doll! But Lars treats her like she's real. He talks to her. He cuts her meat for her at dinner. He tenderly carries her from room to room. Gus and Karen are obviously upset by this turn of events, and afraid for what's happening to Lars, so they get him to see a doctor. Gus and Karen sit in the doctor's office and talk about what this all means: "We need to fix him." Gus asks. "Can you fix him?"
Isn't that what we all want to do with people who drive us crazy—people who disappoint us and refuse to change? But as the doctor explains, people are complicated. They can't always be fixed with medicine or a treatment of some sort. Sometimes they just need to be loved. They need some space. They need some time. What they don't need is to be alone. So we meet them where they are, and stand by them, and wait for them.
That's exactly what Gus and Karen do—they go along with it. As uncomfortable as it is, they treat Bianca like she's real. But it's not just Gus and Karen who participate; the whole town goes along with it! The people at church, his co-workers in the office, even the ladies in the beauty salon where Bianca gets her hair done. And over time, a remarkable thing happens. I'm not going to tell you what exactly, but over time, Lars gets better. And the whole town gets better, too.
What an example of patience. It's redemptive waiting. It's not passive, but it is restrained. It's allowing someone a safe place to face their issues and enough time to move into a better future.
We've talked before about "making space" for God in our lives—clearing away the noise, the activity, the stuff, so that his Spirit could change us from the inside out. We called it, "sacred space." This is a similar idea, but I'm going to call it "relational space." You see, some people aren't ready for that kind of intimacy, honestly, and vulnerability with God. They need to find it first with people. Patience is about offering people that space and time. It's about standing by someone in their foolishness and their fallenness, without trying to fix them. It's about inviting them into some "relational space" where they can begin to experience the transforming love of God.
Years ago I visited one of my kid's pre-school classes. On this particular day, the kids were really excited because the teacher had promised to bring in a real, live rabbit to show them. The kids all gathered on the rug, and she brought in the wire cage, set it down in the middle of the rug, and opened the door so the rabbit could get out. No sooner had she done that then the kids crowded around the cage, started calling for the rabbit to come out, and waved carrots at the opening of the cage. One little guy stuck his fingers through the cage and began poking and prodding the rabbit to move.
Do you think that rabbit came out? Not even close. Then the teacher made a suggestion: "Children, why don't we all back up to the edge of the rug and sit very still and be very quiet and see if the rabbit will come out by himself." Not a chance, I thought to myself. If that rabbit's got half a brain, he'll stay as far back in that cage as he can. But sure enough, after a few minutes of quiet, that rabbit came to opening of the cage, sniffed around a bit, and then hopped right out to the middle of the rug, and even made it's way over to a some of the kids, who this time gently patted and spoke to it.
How many times do we make the same mistake with people? We pounce on them. We talk at them. We try all sorts of things to fix them or to get them to do what we want them to do. But sometimes the best thing we can do is just back off, sit still, be quiet, and wait until they're ready to come out in the open and receive whatever God wants to do in their lives. That's patience. That's redemptive waiting.
Now, I have two words of caution here. Patience is not allowing yourself to be a victim of someone's abusive behavior. If someone is doing damage to your body or spirit, you need to put some distance between the two of you, emotionally and, perhaps, physically, for their sake as well as yours. An abusive spouse, parent, or friend needs limits, not patience. Secondly, patience is not about enabling sinful behavior. It's not about making excuses for people, covering up their mistakes, or taking the blame so they can continue to live foolishly or destructively. Patience is about standing by someone, not following them into their sin.
I went to the gospels, as I'm doing with each of these fruits of the Spirit, looking for when and where Jesus showed patience. It seems most obvious in his relationship with Peter. We don't have time to trace the whole story, but look with me at their first encounter, described in John 1. Andrew had already met Jesus, and he went and got his brother Simon and brought him to Jesus. Jesus looked at Peter and said: "You are Simon son of John. You will be called Cephas (which when translated, is Peter)." Peter means "rock."
Jesus did two things here. The first thing he did was to accept Simon. The text says, "Jesus looked at him." He looked at Simon long enough and closely enough to know him just as he was. He called him by name, expressing a knowledge and acceptance of him. The second thing Jesus did was to create some new space into which Simon could move: "You will be called Peter." No rebuke. No demands. He didn't say, "Simon, you better get your act together if you want to run with me!" He simply invited Simon to consider the possibility that someday he could be a different person—a rock.
At the time, of course, Simon was anything but a rock. He was impulsive, unpredictable, vacillating, and excitable. There were times, on a human level, when Simon must have driven Jesus nuts! He spoke when he should have been quiet. He was quiet when he should have spoken up. He slept when he should have been awake. He acted when he should have sat still. And when it mattered most, Peter failed Jesus. But Jesus never gave up on him. He just kept opening up new relational spaces for Peter to move into. After a long day of ministry, Jesus invited: "Come away with me to a quiet place and get some rest." On a windy night on the Sea of Galilee, Jesus offered: "Step out of the boat and come to me." In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus requested: "Stay here and keep watch with me." And after the resurrection, after his denial, Jesus cooked breakfast for Peter by the Sea of Galilee and offered him a safe place to face his failure and re-affirm his love. Over the course of those years, Simon became Peter, the rock on whom Jesus would build his church.
That's patience. Standing by someone, even when they don't seem to be getting it. Giving them a second chance, and a third, a fourth, a tenth. Being slow to anger, even when you're hurt and upset at how they're acting. Being willing to wait until they're ready to move into the space you and God have opened up for them.
What patience looks like
Our artwork for this fruit is a stained glass piece designed and created by Donna Hastings. Notice on the piece that there are a variety of paths, winding in from all kinds of places. There are all kinds of people on these paths in a variety of conditions. They're making their way towards a space in the center of the frame. In that space we find images that speak of Jesus' work: bread and wine, loaves and fish. The people are moving there because they know that in that space they can find healing, nourishment, and wholeness.
A couple things struck me about this piece. The first thing I noticed is that almost no one is alone. They have people standing by them and traveling with them as they move toward this sacred, healing space. The second thing I noticed is that no one's in a hurry. There's a calmness about the scene; there's no sense of panic or pressure. Some of these people have come a long way, it seems, and it may still take a while for them to get to the center. But you get the sense that however long it takes, Jesus will wait—just like he did for you and me.
Bryan Wilkerson is pastor of Grace Chapel in Lexington, Massachusetts.