How Much Patience?
"Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching." 2 Timothy 4:2
I was recently taken aback by the term "complete patience" in this verse. What exactly is meant by complete patience? In the past, I have always pretty much skimmed over this adjective and concluded that by complete patience, Paul simply means a lot of patience, or much patience. That's pretty much the gyst of it, right? Well, as it turns out, I think this text exposes that our understanding of patience is often fundamentally wrong.
We tend to think of patience in one of two ways. First, we think of it as a sort of reservoir that runs dry and needs replenishing every now and then (i.e. "My patience is running low," or "My patience is wearing thin!"). In other words, we regard patience as a resource. Sometimes we have a lot of it stored up, and other times we're empty. Have you ever prayed, "Lord, please give me more patience?" If so, it's likely that this is how you thought of patience. A resource that needed to be replenished.
Second, we think of patience as a sort of emotional barometer that gauges how benevolent we feel like being in a particular moment (i.e. "I am feeling irritable today!"). In this way of thinking, patience is essentially reduced to nothing more than a mood. It could change by the hour. It could change based on your circumstances or for no discernible reason at all.
But neither of these ways of thinking are compatible with how the Scriptures lead us to understand patience. First, if patience is to be thought of as a diminishable resource, then it makes no sense for Paul to command us to have complete patience. The word translated "complete" in this verse is the Greek word "pas," meaning "all, any, every, the whole, thoroughly, whatsoever." Consider this word in the context of the command. How much patience are we to exercise as we reprove, rebuke, exhort, and teach? All the patience. No lack of patience. Any patience that is necessary. The entirety of patience. Whatsoever patience is needed. Clearly, if Paul is commanding us to exercise no lack of patience, then this means our patience cannot be thought of as a reservoir, because a reservoir begins to lack as soon as something is drawn from it. It can only follow then that patience is either a) not a resource, or b) not a diminishable one.
Second, if patience were nothing more than an emotional state, then it would make no sense for God to command it of us. Our emotions can shift a hundred times in a single day, and often for reasons we don't control. God never gives us a command that is contingent upon how we feel in a particular moment. We are not commanded to be patient only when we feel like it. We are commanded to be patient always -- to never grow weary of doing good (Galatians 6:9).
For Paul to command complete patience, patience must be something that God has placed within our realm of obedience. Patience is something that we must resolve to have. It's a committed frame of mind and of heart. Our flesh makes idols of our time, our comfort, and our feelings. But to be patient, we must be determined -- by the power of the Spirit (Romans 8:13) -- to crucify that flesh, and to demolish those idols. If we do not, we will be forever enslaved to them, neglecting the call to glorify Christ by loving the person he has placed in front of us. We must stop thinking of patience as a matter of resources, and begin thinking of it as a matter of obedience.
What can we do to strengthen our resolve to be patient? Meditate on the patience that God has shown us! How many times in our lives, to this very day, would God have been just to cast us away? How righteous God would be to subject us to his perfect wrath because of our sin! We have given him countless opportunities and reasons to judge us (Job 34:23), and yet in his perfect patience -- his complete patience -- he still gives us breath. More than that, as we confess our sins and repent, he picks us up, embraces us as his children, and reassures us of his steadfast love toward us in Christ Jesus -- that we who are in Christ will never be subject to his condemnation (John 5:24, Romans 8:1).
The reservoir of God's patience for us in Christ never runs dry -- therefore it must not be a reservoir at all. It is a spring, ever-flowing! Such is the kind of patience that we ought to resolve to have toward one another.