Several weeks ago I was frustrated and driving on a highway when I saw a billboard with an unusual message that said, “Patience is bitter, but its fruit is sweet.” I don’t remember what the advertisement promoted, but it struck me as kind of a counterintuitive message in a world of business that relies on instant gratification. For my part, I took the message as a gentle reminder from God that my complaints and frustrations aren’t justified and I have to focus on what the Lord puts into my life at the present moment. The message did not immediately change my mood, but I found enough courage to pray and thank God for the message and my day.
I know to some of my readers it may sound cheesy to see God’s reminder in a not-so-godly, profit-seeking billboard. But I have no intention of defending myself — although I don’t go out of my way to see God’s signs in everything, I do take it as the Spirit’s reminder if something out of the blue reminds me of God or increases my awareness of Christ’s presence.
But the message on the billboard stuck with me. I thought about it for some time — so much so that I shared with my friends how it brought some of my childhood memories back. My mom taught me a lot about the importance of patience. And I still remember the proverbs she used to that end.
The scripture also sings the praises of patience. So I have decided to write about why “patience is bitter, but its fruit is sweet” and whether that saying corresponds to what the Bible teaches. Now, don’t take this as an in-depth study because it’s not. Think of it as a quick sketch about the billboard message and my reflections on the scriptural teaching.
First, the scripture teaches various things about patience by approaching it from different angles. For example, Proverbs 25:15 says, “With patience a ruler is persuaded, and a soft tongue will break a bone,” which presents patience in terms of what it can do; it is the fruit of patience. Colossians mentions it as part of the new self that a believer should put on, which characterizes patience as a virtue in the identity of a follower. “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” (Col 3:12). In Romans 2:6–7, the highest spiritual fruit of patience is put forward: “He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life.” Eternal life is the fruit of patience that accompanies the seeking process.
The scripture privileges the end and outcome of a process more than its beginning. In fact, the Bible mentions patience with respect to this privileging: “Better is the end of a thing than its beginning, and the patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit” (Ecc. 7:8). That’s why it is worth forbearing the bitterness of patience in order to get to the sweetness of its fruit.
But none of the scriptural teachings change the fact that patience is really bitter, and not many people like to pursue things patiently (like some of the readers of this very post who won’t have the patience to read it to the very end). The bitterness of patience springs from the uncertainty and prolonged waiting that the continual attempts to succeed make worse. This often causes some discomfort, suffering, and pain. As we patiently wait, our investment and interest in success increase, uncertainty slowly becomes more unbearable, and we start fighting our doubts. We also struggle to avoid being imprisoned by our own work because too much involvement makes it difficult to let go at the right time.
But the right kind of patience (when it is not misguided or unreasonable) bears fruit, and in matters that require trusting the Lord, its fruit is always sweeter or dearer to us than whatever we got without any serious effort.
Few Tips on How to Develop Biblical Patience
So is it possible to develop patience? I believe to some extent we can develop patience. Why do I say “to some extent”? Because patience is not purely social or cultural: it has some physiological or psychological elements that are not under our control. I have seen people who tend to be naturally very patient, and I have met people who forbear things after a great deal of effort, which ends up exhausting them. Some people just give up trying to be patient because they naturally tend to be easily agitated, and pouring out their impatience releases the energy that might otherwise eat them from the inside out. So yes, we can develop and learn how to be patient, but you need to determine whether you naturally tend to be patient or not and how much work it will require to become so. Below I list my own habits that I believe will help you develop some patience.
First, praying helps to wait for God to act on his own time or reveal to us his will. I would say prayer is the single most important thing in developing some level of patience. You can pray for all sorts of things and add a request that the Lord give you patience. Prayer assumes asking and waiting, so by definition it paves the way for faithful waiting.
Second, a daily consideration of the blessings you received from God and a focus on what is important in this world for building a deeper intimacy with God also encourage patience. I would suggest that at least twice a week reflect and seriously consider what God called you to do, what the Lord equipped you with, and what really matters for a believer to stand in God’s presence. Reflecting on these matters may urge you to be more patient because most of the things in God-human relationships require waiting, taking things slowly, and being patient. A love of God, letting go of your worldly ambitions, wrestling with sinfulness to resist temptations — all these challenges require time to deal with and sometimes result in painful transformations. Reflecting on these will increase your chance of understanding and becoming patient.
Third, taking up a challenging hobby and sticking with it would develop some forbearance. A hobby that requires painstakingly detailed work or an investment of time in order to develop an appreciation and skill can’t be done without patience. So if you challenge yourself with that kind of hobby, during the process you can learn how to be more patient. My own example here would be learning how to build a website. I have never had an interest in the technical side of website building, but I took up the challenge, read about the subject, and slowly built a website. I remember one time it took a whole day to overcome a particular problem. But through the process, I gained an appreciation for slower work that requires an attention to detail.
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