Merriam-Webster defines patience as: the ability to wait for a long time without becoming annoyed or upset; the ability to remain calm and not become annoyed when dealing with problems or with difficult people; the ability to give attention to something for a long time without becoming bored or losing interest. Essentially the gist is that you don't let things get under your skin. It is probably the virtue I am most commonly anointed with by strangers, and the trait I feel most lacking in my own possession. However, I have happened upon a few things that I believe are essential in understanding what patience is, and what it is not.
First, what it is not. Patience is not the ability of a person to spend 1 hour with your small children, never minding the insatiable curiosity or arbitrary repetition that plagues youth. By its very definition it must be exhibited over a LONG TIME. I no longer feel any guilt when friends or loved ones tell me that they have more patience for a certain situation because they aren't around it all the time. That makes them untried, not patient. Patience is also not the misapplication of authority creating an environment devoid of spontaneity or childishness. If I think myself patient while my children are simply squashed cabbage leaves for fear of inciting my anger I am missing the mark.
So, what is it?
Well, we already saw what the literal definition says. It is the uncanny knack or ability to keep the same reaction to your child's 85th question about why blood comes out of their skin when it is cut as their first - especially when the questions are posed during a highly necessarily but poorly timed trip to Costco. It is gently reading the same book, watching the same program, saying the same thing over, and over, and over again.
The assumption that because I have so many children I must be simply oozing patience never fails to amuse me. I believe, actually, quite the opposite is true. You see, your patience isn't tested until you have been at something for a LONG TIME. Remember, that is what patience requires... length in the trial. So, for instance, where other moms might have worked through two, four or maybe six years worth of toddlerhood I have no less than fourteen. Fourteen. To say I am over my fascination with the endless need for crying before peeing in the toilet would be a significant understatement. In fact, I could probably survive without ever hearing another whine, ever again. But that's not my life, so I digress.
Because my home harbors so many opportunities to express patience I began wondering how I could get more of the stuff. I can tell you straight away, willpower won't do it for ya. Trust me. If anyone could white-knuckle their way through parenthood it was me. I tried for years. Tried is the operative word in that sentence since I also failed. And, also contrary to popular opinion, patience doesn't come simply by merit of difficult circumstances. Being in the middle of a snowstorm doesn't necessarily mean you are prepared to effectively handle it; it just means you are surrounded by snow.
Then I stumbled upon a wonderful bible study by Beth Moore called Living Beyond Yourself. It covers the 9 attributes of the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. I was eager, above all, to read the chapter on patience. As a Christian I already knew that these were not optional, or even occasional characteristics required by Christ. If I truly have the Spirit of God living in me than His qualities must pervade me. It is a necessity. So, I snuck a peak at the patience chapter and read this perplexing phrase:
Patience through mercy
Huh. That didn't seem nearly spiritual enough for my way of thinking. Where was all the "just pray for patience" stuff? And I had no idea how Beth Moore was going to connect patience with mercy. The two appeared entirely incongruous in my mind. I somewhat disappointedly went back to the current week, and settled in to wait for the patience lesson to arrive. In hindsight I should have been ecstatic that I didn't peek at that chapter and read the dreaded "just pray for patience" mantra I had so often heard from both inside and outside of my head. I am happy to say that I am quite elated at this point in my journey, and regularly remind myself of the joy that comes from understanding that enigmatic phrase: patience through mercy.
The bottom line is that since I can't make myself feel patient my patience has to come from somewhere other than my feelings. And that it now does. Mercy is defined by Merriam-Webster as, "a blessing that is an act of divine favor or compassion." It essentially means sympathy towards another person's distress with a view to help alleviate it. Sometimes that distress is a consequence of their own foolishness. Sometimes it is not. Come to find out, it apparently doesn't matter whether the person is responsible since we are to act towards others with Christ-like love; and he certainly bears with us through all manner of distress brought about as a direct result of ongoing (often belligerent) actions of great foolishness and disobedience. He sees us for what we are: broken, afraid, and hurting. He responds to us through that truth. He doesn't try to candy-coat our weakness or hide our imperfections. He is never patient with us by burying his head in the sand and pretending we are not, once again, rebelling against his righteousness. He doesn't ignore anything. And neither can I. That was my big hang-up. You see, I thought that in order to have patience, to feel patient, I must simply ignore the things that really drove me nuts. The faults of myself and my loved ones couldn't be genuinely acknowledged, because somehow recognizing their rub was itself an act of impatience. But the bible tells us that the truth will set us free, and that's exactly what patience through mercy sets up for us - a freedom through truth.
When I acknowledge that my child's behavior is taxing, frustrating, juvenile and even perhaps ludicrous I am freed to choose, of my own volition, to bear with that child in mercy. I can bless that child through compassion even though their actions are foolhardy. I am free to recognize my feelings of exasperation even while simultaneously choosing not to allow them to control my choices. Patience is suddenly nothing whatsoever about how I feel in a given moment, but how I choose to respond. I no longer need to strain, grunting and groaning, towards the elusive prize of feeling blissfully ignorant of any irritants that might come my way. Now I can clearly face my day square in the face, and actively walk out:
Patience Through Mercy.