Patience is a virtue that can improve our relationships with other people. But it’s also an important way of thinking about our relationship with God, says Paul Dafydd Jones, an Associate Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia. Jones is exploring the concept of patience—and its antonym, impatience—as a Christian theological resource for enhancing life. Patience, in this context, can allow people to become transformed by grace, while impatience can motivate them to engage in movements that protest injustice.
Read a blog post by Paul Dafydd Jones about patience, Christian theology, and enhancing life here.
How will patience contribute to the enhancement of life?
First of all, we can think about divine patience: God giving us the time and space to find out who we are and what we should do. Patience in this sense is, quite simply, God’s willingness to wait, God’s willingness to act in a non-coercive way, as God draws us into right relationship with Godself. But we can also think about the human exercise of patience, which involves moving ourselves towards the future and into the new spaces that God provides. Human patience is not inactivity or passivity. It’s a matter of receiving divine activity and being transformed by the divine. That’s important because there are lots of ways in which people can feel that they’re fixed in place by a certain identity. You’re male or female, black or white, gay or straight, a “leader” or a “follower”; and you’re marked as such because you’re sort of ambushed by conventions that you had no hand in establishing. Being patient with God, however, means being susceptible to the possibility that our identities aren’t fixed. It isn’t about just trucking on doggedly; it’s about having the confidence to become vulnerable and to embrace God’s activity as one is transformed.
What about impatience? What role does that have in enhancing life?
If there’s divine patience and human patience, there’s also impatience on both sides. I link divine impatience to the cross: this is the moment when God articulates God’s impatience with sin. Impatience is a less familiar and less loaded word than “punishment,” but it still captures the fury with which God rejects sin. And, crucially, it connects with the idea of Christ’s passion. Patience and passion run together, because Christ voluntarily decides to bear the whole weight of God’s impatience with sin. Human impatience is also important, even though it’s pretty different from divine impatience. It’s about learning to be impatient with injustice; it’s about resisting sin in various forms.
Does that mean that sometimes people need to be impatient with God?
Absolutely. As soon as one says, “this is not the way that things should be!”, one is registering some kind of protest before God. At the same time, expressing impatience with God is itself conditional upon having a patient relationship with God. Impatience with God isn’t an outburst of un-metabolized anger; it’s a measured statement of frustration, offered up to God—a way of saying “I don’t understand, I think this is wrong,” which is followed up by attempts to change things. But you can only do that if you have established a basis for genuine exchange between the human “I” and the divine “Thou.”
What are some of the challenges you’ve encountered during your research?
Especially when it’s constructive, the practice of Christian theology involves stretching words in pretty weird ways. I find myself saying to my five-year-old, “be patient.” All the time. And that’s patience in terms of, “look, it’s going to take a while to build the X-Wing fighter or to set up your Hot Wheels track.” Theological uses of the word “patience” aren’t a gazillion miles away from those everyday uses of patience. But in theology, we play games with language so that the everyday meaning of words is not the final meaning of words. And that’s hard. It’s a balancing act. If the way I use patience is unintelligible, no one will listen to me. But if I shoot too low, I’m just saying things everyone knows.
How can this patience—or impatience—manifest in the world today?
If you learn to manifest impatience well, you can say, “I will bear that, but this I am going to change.” The civil rights movement is a good example. The wager was that African Americans could put up with low-level instances of individual discrimination, but wanted to reject far-reaching, historically entrenched structures of discrimination. That’s not to say that individual instances of discrimination were or are justifiable—obviously not. But since those weren’t going to be removed straightaway, it was important to set about dismantling large-scale barriers to social justice.
The movement for marriage equality and LGBTQI rights is another example of how to think about patience and impatience. One of the key claims here is that social arrangements and family arrangements don’t need to be fixed in place. Being able to think about how individuals and communities are transformed and set in motion toward a future they can’t anticipate is crucial, and it is evident in some of the most important contemporary movements for social change. And I think that theologians need to be able to make sense of what that means.
You don’t spend all of your time doing research and teaching! What’s your favorite place to travel, or the next place you’d like to go?
If I could leave my kids with you or somebody else, my wife and I have been talking about going to Greenland, or maybe the northern parts of Scandinavia. I bet you could do a lot of walking, and it would be quite peaceful.