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The Gentleness and Patience of God

Category Articles
Date February 12, 2010

The gentleness and patience of God continue to amaze me and fill me with a sense of increasingly profound gratitude. At the same time, I grow weary of my own lack of those tender virtues that are so fitting and essential in relationships with other sinners.

It is striking and instructive for us to note how tenderly the Lord deals with sinners and how harshly sinners (even redeemed sinners) deal with other sinners. Consider how God dealt with the first sinners in the world. No one who has ever lived has committed sin that was as heinous in its nature and awful in its consequences as was Adam’s sin. The Neros and Hitlers and Stalins of the world have slain their millions, but Adam, as federal and natural head of the human race, killed himself and caused the death of every human being who ever has lived, does live, or will live on the face of this earth. Even more heinous was the fact that Adam sinned as a man made upright by God and as one who had dominion over the whole world except for the fruit of one tree. He sinned against the God whom he knew to be his maker and in a garden paradise beyond our conception.

How did the God of such lavish goodness and generous provision deal with this man who was truly the greatest of sinners? He approached Adam gently and dealt with him seriously but tenderly. Instead of thundering divine indictments, Adam heard the voice of the Lord posing questions (Where are you? Have you eaten… ?). The Lord spoke in what later would be known as the Socratic method designed graciously to give convicting insight and not to impose condemnation. Once Adam begrudgingly and minimally confessed his sin, the Lord did not impose the death he deserved, but killed animals and fashioned their skins into provisional coverings for the sinful shame of our first parents. The Lord also declared his eternal gospel of salvation to the sinful and fallen Adam and Eve in Genesis 3:15.

This divine dealing with the primeval sinners reveals to us the incredible mercy and loving tenderness of the God against whom our first parents and all of their natural children have sinned. The Lord’s dealing with Adam and Eve also serves as the invariable paradigm for all future divine dealings with sinners prior to the Day of Judgment. God’s prophets may thunder indictments against his sinning people, yet such thunder is always laced with tender appeals and gracious promises (Isa. 1:1-4; 40:1-11). A woman caught in adultery was brought to the holy Son of God, and he does not rail against her, exposing her sin and condemning her, but instead he drives away her accusers, declares that he does not condemn her, and issues a gentle rebuke by telling her to go in a new way of life and sin no more. When our Redeemer experienced the repeated faults and failures of his own disciples’ faith, his response was gently and patiently corrective. He bore with their disappointing but expected actions, knowing that they issued from the weakness and imperfection of their faith that he was lovingly and effectively committed to purifying and strengthening (Luke 22:31, 32). The result of his manner of dealing with his disciples was their increasing apprehension of his grace and their growth in loving devotion to him. Truly, it is the Lord’s gentleness that makes us grow into greatness (Psa. 18:35).

In contrast, there is the impatience, the quick accusations, the uncharitable judgments, and the railing accusations that are too common among the children of such a gracious God. Why is it so? Many factors contribute to our failures to reflect our Lord’s gentleness and patience. Pride can make us treat with contempt those who are as we once were apart from the Lord’s saving grace. Zeal for righteousness that is not tempered by love can make us strident. Also, our relying on our own logic rather than the theologic of Scripture can distort our reckoning so that we think it good and right to put a person’s soul to the fire of judgment even in a day of God’s salvation. Think of Jesus’ disciples wanting to call fire from heaven to consume sinners (Luke 9:54).Our recognizing our impatience and harshness and loathing ourselves for it does little, if anything, to transform such vices into virtues. Still less do attempts to masquerade such vices as the virtues of godly zeal and holy wrath accomplish the loving righteousness of the Lord. The way out of these vices is for us to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord, not so that we can think about or merely talk about godly grace and knowledge to others, but rather so that we may be ourselves increasingly mastered and motivated by the precious mercies of our redeeming Lord and grow in the liberating power of his truth and love.

Patience and gentleness are precious and costly virtues. They therefore will never blossom in the poor, hard soil of hearts that are loveless because they have not known the Lord’s love, and graceless because they have not known his grace, and small because they have not known his magnanimous greatness. There is hope for us all; yet it is not in our trying but in our vital experience of his tender mercies.

William Harrell is Pastor of Immanuel Presbyterian Church, Norfolk, Virginia

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