The Patience of God
‘The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance’ (2 Peter 3:9).
We are considering the perfections of God. When the Puritan Stephen Charnock considers the attributes of God he lines up this beautiful string of pearls: God’s eternity, his immutability, his omnipresence, his knowledge, his wisdom, his power, his holiness, his goodness, his dominion, and his patience. There it is – number ten. When George Swinnock builds a tiara of the divine perfections resting on the head of our great king then one diamond is God’s holiness, and the next is his wisdom, then his power, his justice, his knowledge, his faithfulness, his mercy, and his patience. He’s not forgotten it. There it is, number eight in the communicable attributes of God listed by Swinnock. When Arthur Pink considers the perfections of God he makes a jewelled necklace to go around our Lord’s neck, the jewels of his knowledge, his foreknowledge, his supremacy, his sovereignty, his immutability, his holiness, his power, his faithfulness, his goodness, his patience, his grace, his mercy and his love. Many perfections of God and God’s patience is there in the midst of them. I list those attributes of God and think of them as a magnificent breastplate of glorious jewels, sparkling and shining on the chest of the Ancient of Days. How majestic is the King of kings! How overwhelming the sum of his perfections!
I need the tongues of men and angels not to weary you when I display to you the character of God. I remind you of that evangelical lecturer talking to the theologian David Wells of Boston and lamenting to him that as he goes to church his sadness is that he doesn’t hear sermons about God. What a loss! He hears ‘How to . . .’ sermons. ‘How to be happy in Jesus . . . how to have a good marriage . . . how to witness . . . how to pray . . .’ and so on. But God told Isaiah to make a high mountain in Israel his pulpit and speak to the whole people of the Lord Jehovah and cry to them, ‘Behold your God!’ He was to remind the people of who God was.
Today we are going to consider the ‘God of patience‘ as the Authorized Version happily translates Romans 15 and verse 5. I can hardly think of a more needed grace for everyone here, for me especially. It crossed my mind this week that the great Augustine 1600 years ago had said this, that the foundation of all Christian virtues was patience, that the first virtue was patience, and the second was patience, and the third was patience. But when I checked it out I was wrong, but not too wrong. What Augustine actually said was the foundation to all the other Christian virtues was humility, and the second was humility, and the third was humility. But patience and humility are twin graces aren’t they? Humility is essential if we are to be patient people. Humility is the fruit of patience. Who has ever met an impatient, humble man or a humble, impatient man? The humility is going to destroy the impatience or the impatience will destroy the humility.
Now if we are going to grow in patience then the Christian way is that we have to do so in the contemplation of the God of patience – whom believers love with all their hearts and souls and mind and strength. Loving the God of patience is the first and chief commandment isn’t it? We are to imitate God aren’t we? Ephesians chapter 5 and verse one, ‘Copy God!’ When Arthur Pink begins to explain to us this divine perfection he notes that, ‘Far less has been written upon this than the other excellencies of the divine character.’ This is the neglected attribute of God, and so our faith has been impoverished because of this lack. When did we last hear a sermon on the patience of God? When did we mediate upon his patience? We know of his holiness, his power, his love and grace, but here is one of the most wonderful attributes of the Creator and Sustainer of the whole universe, that he is an extraordinarily patient God, and every Christian who gives this a moment’s thought is mighty glad that this is so. He is incomparable in his patience. There is not an angel who is as patient as he is. The Father is infinitely patient. The Son of God is endlessly patient. The Holy Spirit is immeasurably patient. He bears with us; how long did he wait for your repentance and faith in him? He waits for our return as prodigals from the far country. He is slow to anger. He is long-suffering. He waits and waits in order to be gracious to us. Let me try to magnify the patience of God by reminding you of some things about him.
1. GOD HATES SIN
It is the sin-hating God who is yet patient with sinners. Let us turn to Proverbs 6 and verses 16-19 ‘Here are six things the Lord hates, seven that are detestable to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked schemes, feet that are quick to rush into evil, a false witness who pours out lies and a man who stirs up dissension among brothers.’ When God sees a man cutting the head off an innocent man and videoing it and broadcasting the pictures around the world with threats that there are going to be more beheadings of such people, and then shouting out that a false god, Allah, is great, then that is not just something utterly detestable to unregenerate members of parliament, it is detestable to God himself. If God shrugged his shoulders and was quite indifferent to such a murderous cruelty then he would be as bad as the merciless killer himself.
God hates sin. It grieves him. I know that he is so perfect and apart from us that no sin can hurt God, but he is so infinitely pure that all sin is offensive to him. Sin is being contemptuous of the authority of God over our lives. So sin is dishonouring and despising and fighting against God. Sin is an affront to the wisdom of God and so sin is foolishness. Sin is an affront to the justice of God and so sin is unrighteousness. Sin is an affront to God’s truth and so sin is deceit. Sin is an affront to the patience of God, and so sin is despising God’s long-suffering. Sin is taking advantage of the constant mercy of God and so sin is debauchery. So here is this God who is light, in whom is no speck of sin whatsoever, and yet he is patient not only towards his stumbling disobedient children but he is patient towards rebel atheists!
2. GOD SEES SINNERS
The Lord saw and heard Eve and Adam listening to the serpent and weighing up what Satan had said to them. Think of it! Two people made in the image of God, sin-free and they are seriously considering whether the devil might be right and God deceiving them! They took the forbidden fruit and then tried to hide from God behind some bushes. None of us can hide from God; ‘Thou God seest me.’ You can get away with some things because your parents or friends didn’t see what you’d been doing. They didn’t see your carnality or hear your deceit and they loved you because they were ignorant of your actions, but the patience of God towards us is so extraordinary because of the fact that he has seen the whole file on us and yet loves us. Things done when we were alone, things done in darkness, things done when we were on an Open University course in a distant city where nobody knew us – God sees sinners. Nothing has escaped him, not even the imaginations and lusts in our hearts. We are his creatures. He loves us very, very dearly. He blesses us bountifully. He seeks every day to overwhelm us with his kindness. Every day the blessings he gives us are better than the blessings we had the day before. But we take them all and do things our way. We walk according to the course of this world. We can live at peace with the evil god of this world. What compromise between serving God and serving the world! Who are you dealing with? God has the power to judge us immediately. He can speak us into hell. He can look us into hell. He can think us into hell, but, knowing all about us, he is wonderfully patient and gives us decades to come to our senses and turn from our sins, and he gives us wonderful gifts. He gives us the most suitable partners in marriage. He gives us super children. He gives us good jobs and safety and long life and prosperity. That is his patience towards those he knows, who’re not giving him one good thought!
3. MANY PEOPLE PROVOKE THE PATIENCE OF GOD
Let me introduce you to an Old Testament believer whose name was Asaph, and God had been good to him all his life and this man had trusted God, but then Asaph looked at other men and at how well they were doing, their fine lands and clothes and servants and friends and horses and herds of cattle. They weren’t believers but they had it all, while he’d followed the Lord and obeyed the law of God for decades and yet what had he got to show for it? He says in Psalm 73 ‘I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked . . . this is what the wicked are like – always carefree, they increase in wealth. Surely in vain have I kept my heart pure’ (verses 3, 12, 13). How provocative, saying to God that it was very unrewarding in following and serving the Lord! Yet God was patient with Asaph and God restored him. Jeremiah was just the same as we read in chapter 12 of his prophecy; he was envious of the wicked, ‘Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do all the faithless live at ease?’ (verse 1). The answer is because God is being so merciful to them. His goodness to them can lead them to repent of ignoring him and cause them to turn to him. God has never promised us houses and lands and wealth but he has promised us that he would work all things for our good in this world, and glory in the world to come. The wicked are not recipients of such a promise. But he sends them the gospel, and the offer of his mercy, and his love in spite of ignoring and defying him for years.
Some people are patient. Moses is called the meekest man on the earth, yet even his patience with the children of Israel came to an end when he saw some of the things they were doing – they’d made a cow out of gold and worshipped that idol and said that that was the power that brought them out of Egypt. Think of it! And Moses smashed the tablets with the Ten Commandments that God had given him. He was so impatient with them, but God sees all we are and all we do and he still restrains himself and gives us time to repent of our sins. If he were as impatient as we are then there’d be no hope for any of us. We would all be in hell at this moment. But God is incomparable in his patience with such people as King David, and Saul of Tarsus. He doesn’t smite them dead the moment they blaspheme him or when they crucify someone.
You have heard of the famous Victorian atheist Charles Bradlaugh who would give lectures on atheism all over the country and the final stunt in his talk would be his taking a stop-watch out of his pocket and challenge the God whom he rejected. ‘If you exist then smite me dead in the next minute.’ So he would stand with his stop-watch and wait in silence until the 60 seconds had passed and say to his audience, ‘What sort of God is this who can’t smite me down for my anti-god beliefs?’ We have a militant atheist movement in the land today, and writers who challenge and mock any faith in God, but those men live and move and have their being in God and their breath is in his hands and he is showing them wonderful patience and he heaps his blessings on their lives. He gives them many, many opportunities to fall before him and serve him in new life. This is the incomparable patience of God. He shows all manner of patience to the people whose sin he hates, to those he knows and to those who provoke him.
The Apostle Peter has told us clearly that our day is going to be characterized by scoffers. Peter has said it very clearly, ‘First of all, you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. They will say, “Where is this ‘coming’ he promised? Ever since our fathers died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation” . . . But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance’ (2 Pet. 3:4, 8, 9). The sceptics look at the non-return of the Lord Christ and they say, ‘This proves that there is no second coming,’ but Peter says that the delay is proof of God’s patience. Why hasn’t the Lord returned? Because all of his people are not yet saved. He has waited 20 centuries so that you had a chance to be born and to hear of Jesus and his love. God will not give the signal to Christ and all the hosts of heaven to swoop down and consummate the world and set up the throne of judgment and begin the great separation because all his elect are not yet gathered in and God is being patient.
God is patience. God does not have to learn it like we do. He
4. THE LORD JESUS IS INCARNATE PATIENCE
Consider Jesus Christ that he is patience incarnate. If you see him with the eyes of belief than you are seeing God. This is what God is like. Think of Jesus living in a carpenter’s home, sharing a bedroom with his half-brothers, and working hard six days a week on making gates and doors and window frames and fence posts and tables and ploughs and benches and so on for twenty years, working for his father in a one-donkey village on a thorn-bushed hillside with paths joining up the houses. He would get water from the well for his mother, and the great treat was to go to the feasts in Jerusalem several times a year. He did that for decades – he who had built the starry skies. Never once would he have said, ‘Isn’t it boring here! There’s nothing for us to do!’ He was patient waiting the time when he would wave good-bye to them and go to be baptized by John in the Jordan and begin his ministry. What patience!
Or think when the people of the Samaritan village rejected his preaching how that his top leaders said to him, ‘Lord, should we order down fire from heaven to burn them up as Elijah did?’ (Luke 9:51-54). Jesus was far more patient with unbelievers than they were. He spoke soberly to them and he said to his disciples, ‘You don’t know what manner of spirit you are of.’ James and John had heard the invitation of Jesus to follow him and immediately they left everything and followed him, but they had a background in all the Scriptures of the Old Testament, the Samaritans only believed in the first five books of Moses. They had a lot of listening to do to a lot of sermons before they realized who Jesus was and why he had come and why he needed to die on the cross. We need to be patient with people who have the remotest knowledge of the gospel.
Or think again how Jesus could be patient with secret disciples. We get irritated with secret disciples. Why don’t they nail their colours up? Why don’t they tell us that they are Christians? Why don’t they say, ‘I am not ashamed of the gospel of Jesus Christ’? But in the Gospels we meet Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus and they were secret followers of Jesus. Nicodemus waited until it was night to come to Jesus. But they were secretly lovers and admirers of Jesus, and God gave them the priceless privilege of taking Jesus’ body off the cross, getting the pliers and pulling out the nails, and washing his body and covering it with the cloths and the perfumed spices and taking it to the sepulchre and laying it to rest. God was so patient with secret disciples and he rewarded them with that task. Shouldn’t we be patient with people who come to our meetings but haven’t said yet that they are Christians? They go on year after year and we don’t know whether they are followers of Jesus or not.
And wasn’t Jesus patient with his mother who wanted him to come back to Nazareth and not carry on preaching and healing? And wasn’t he patient with Peter when he was scared stiff and denied in an ugly way that he had ever known Jesus? And wasn’t he patient with Thomas who said he couldn’t believe that Jesus could possibly rise from the dead and that he would have to put his fingers into the holes the nails had left and put his hand into the hole in his side. He would want proof like that to believe what they were saying about the impossible resurrection of the dead. Then Jesus came to him and offered him his hand and told him to do what he said he would do. What patience Jesus had. And even with those who crucified him, he put them in the best possible light. He said, ‘They don’t know what they are doing. They don’t know who I am and why I must die like this’ and then he cried to God, ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.’ What patience Jesus had. And even on the hill of ascension Matthew tells us that some of his own disciples were still doubting all they had seen and heard and the promise of the coming of the Holy Spirit. Still he poured out his Spirit on all of them – even the doubters. What patience God shows towards us!
5. RUNNING WITH PATIENCE THE CHRISTIAN RACE
There is a famous exhortation at the beginning of the 12th chapter of the letter to the Hebrews, where we are told that as we are surrounded by a great crowd of fine Christians then we must run with patience the race that is set before us. This is a marathon, and we have developed a blister on the ball of one of our feet; we also have a stitch, and our legs are like lead; we seem to be at the end with the stragglers and we are sorely tempted to give up, but we keep going, keep going, keep going. We have to be patient; we are waiting on God’s help. We can break through a pain barrier. Things can get clearer and you can get stronger.
There was a preacher who was finding the Christian race hard going. He was facing a real trial and he talked to a fellow minister about it. ‘What would you do if you were in my place?’ he asked him. ‘I don’t know,’ his friend replied. ‘I’m not there . . . but neither are you there yet. When have you got to act?’ ‘This Friday,’ he said. ‘Then the way will be perfectly clear on Friday. The Lord won’t let you down’, and so it was he knew what he should do when Friday came. Be patient. Grace is given in time of need, not before the time of need. When the victim of a road accident asked a Christian doctor how long he would have to lie there in hospital she replied to him, ‘Only a day at a time.’
Wait on God. Pray continually, ‘Lord help me!’ Wouldn’t we all say that we needed far more patience than we’ve got, that we are impatient people? Haven’t we all gone to the Lord and confessed our impatience and asked for more? Then why do you think these trials have come into your lives in the past weeks? God is saying to you, ‘But haven’t you asked me to make you a more patient person? This is how I’m answering you. I am exercising and strengthening the grace of patience in your life.’ Every providence, good and bad, that drives us to Jesus Christ is good for us.
I know of a member who went to see his minister. He was very upset because he’d been insulted and he was determined to see the man and he was demanding an apology. The minister said to him, ‘Listen now. An insult is like mud. It will brush off much better when it is dry. Wait a little bit and he and you will have cooled down and the breakdown in the relationship will be much easier mended. If you go now then you’ll quarrel,’ and the young man took the advice and waited and indeed it wasn’t long before the man came to him and asked his forgiveness.
The Christian people we have known who’ve been examples to us in their patience have made a tremendous impression on us. I can remember a woman who hung her clothes on the line and the line broke, and so she laid out the sheets and the pillow cases on the lawn, and then next door’s dog came in, and with his muddy paws he walked all over the nice, clean, white sheets, shirts, and pillow cases. Do you know what she said, and she was smiling? She said, ‘It was really strange . . . he didn’t miss one of them!’ That is a very great Christian woman isn’t it?
I can tell you another story because I want to put some flesh on this virtue of patience – how we need more of it! I want to bring your imagination and emotions to this grace. There is a great department store in Philadelphia called Wanamakers. It is the Harrods or Selfridges of Philly, and I liked to go there especially before Christmas. John Wanamaker who founded the store was an outstanding entrepreneur, and one of the executives, after John Wanamaker had died, told of what had once happened when he was a cash boy starting in the company. After a year this teenager thought he’d discovered a easier way of wrapping small packages. He was a bright, promising boy and so he went into the open plan office where Wanamaker worked – where anyone could go to him. The boy stood at the desk and finally told the great man timidly about this new concept of packaging, and that it was more effective, and it would save money. ‘Let me see it,’ said John Wanamaker. Well, horrors, as he handed over the package his sleeve caught on the ink well and tipped the container of ink all over the desk. He was rooted to the spot, and John Wanamaker looked at him and he said, ‘Now I am going to show you something. If you attack a pool of ink with the edge of a piece of blotting paper, instead of lying the blotter flat down on it, it’s astonishing how quickly the ink disappears. Look . . .’ And he was right, and Wanamaker quickly dried the ink, and then he looked at the package and commented on its design and thanked the boy for bringing it to him. He became a hero to the boy who was to work in Wanamakers for the next fifty years of his life until he was an esteemed executive there. What would have happened if John Wanamaker had exploded in anger? That would have been the end of the relationship. Run with patience . . . run with very much patience the race that is set before each one of us.
Let me close with an illustration of a man who lived and died in successful warfare against the unbelief of impatience. I got it from John Piper though I knew it myself. His name was Charles Simeon. He was a pastor in the Church of England from 1782 to 1836 at Trinity Church in Cambridge for 54 years. I preached there some years ago at the CICCU Christmas Carol Service. Simeon had been appointed to this church by the bishop and it was against the will of the congregation. They opposed him not because he was a bad preacher but because he was an evangelical preacher. In other words, he believed the Bible, and he called for conversion and holiness and evangelism.
For 12 years the people refused to let him give the afternoon Sunday sermon. And during that time they boycotted the Sunday morning service and locked their pews so that no one could sit in them. He preached to people in the aisles for 12 years! How did he last? This is what he wrote:
In this state of things I saw no remedy but faith and patience. [Note the linking of faith and patience!] The passage of Scripture which subdued and controlled my mind was this, ‘The servant of the Lord must not strive.’ [Note: The weapon in the fight for faith and patience was the Word! God is the God of patience and so must his servants be]. It was painful indeed to see the church, with the exception of the aisles, almost forsaken; but I thought that if God would only give a double blessing to the congregation who were attending, there would on the whole do as much good as if the congregation were doubled and the blessing limited to only half the amount. This comforted me many, many times, when without such a reflection, I should have sunk under my burden. (Charles Simeon, by H. C. G. Moule, p. 39)
Where did he get the assurance that if he followed the way of patience, there would be a blessing on his work that would make up for frustrations of having all the pews locked? He got it, no doubt, from texts like Isaiah 30:18, ‘Blessed are all those who wait for the Lord.’ It is the meek who inherit the earth. The Word conquered unbelief and belief conquered impatience.
Fifty-four years later he was dying. It was October 1836. The months dragged on, as they have for many dying saints. The battle with impatience can be very intense on the death bed. On October 21 those by his bed heard him say these words slowly and with long pauses:
Infinite wisdom has arranged the whole with infinite love; and infinite power enables me to rest upon that love. I am in a dear Father’s hands — all is secure. When I look to Him, I see nothing but faithfulness and immutability and truth; and I have the sweetest peace. I cannot have more peace. (Charles Simeon, p. 172)
The reason Simeon could die like that is because he had trained himself for 54 years to go to Scripture and to take hold of the infinite wisdom and love and power of God and use them to conquer the unbelief of impatience.
So there are those Christian people who have influenced you so much, and they have all been people of patience because they knew intimately the God of patience. They were debtors to his patience. You admire and love them very much. So I urge you in the words of Hebrews 6:12, ‘Be imitators of’ them, people like Charles Simeon and of all ‘those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.’
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