Many of the most common troubles in the Christian life come from relating to God as if he were like us — as if his kindness were as slight as our kindness, his forgiveness as reluctant as our forgiveness, his patience as fleeting as our patience. Under impressions such as these, we walk uneasily through the Christian life, insecurity rumbling like distant thunder.
John Owen (1616–1683) goes so far as to say,
Want of a due consideration of him with whom we have to do, measuring him by that line of our own imaginations, bringing him down unto our thoughts and our ways, is the cause of all our disquietments. (Works of John Owen, 6:500)
If we were God in heaven, we would have grown impatient with people like us long ago. Our anger rises quickly in the face of personal offense. Our frustration boils over. Our judgments readily fire. And apart from the daily renewal of our minds, we can easily measure God “by that line of our own imaginations,” as if his thoughts matched our thoughts, and his ways our ways.
Thank God, they do not. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:9). Our human nature has no ruler to measure God’s goodness; our natural imaginations cannot grasp his heights. His kindness is not like our kindness, his forgiveness not like our forgiveness — and his patience not like our patience.
‘Slow to Anger’
The God we meet in Scripture is a relentlessly patient God. He usually accomplishes his plans along the winding path. He fulfills his promises without haste. He compares his kingdom to a mustard seed.
The greatest displays of God’s patience, however, appear in response to our sin. “God is patient” means not mainly that God waits a long time, but that God shows longsuffering kindness to sinners (Romans 2:4). As God declares to Moses on Mount Sinai, he is not just “slow,” but “slow to anger” (Exodus 34:6).
Consider the context of that famous declaration. Israel has just left slavery, redeemed by God’s mighty hand. They have watched the Red Sea swallow Egypt’s army. They have stood before a mountain wrapped in smoke and lightning, the entourage of the Almighty. They have been covered by the blood of the covenant. And then, in some of their first moments of freedom, they exchange the glory of the living God for a cow (Exodus 32:1–6).
Judgment follows (Exodus 32:25–29, 35) — striking yet restrained, tempered by a mysterious mercy. God does not destroy them; he does not forsake them. Instead, he reveals his glorious, incomparable name, like an unexpected dawn in an all-black sky:
The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness. (Exodus 34:6)
Why does full judgment tarry and mercy beckon? Because, unlike us, God is “slow to anger.” His wrath visits the unrepentant (Exodus 34:7), but only after taking the slow path. Meanwhile, his mercy stands ready to run.
Here on the slopes of Mount Sinai began a song that would be sung by Israel’s prophets and psalmists, sages and kings, even under the nation’s darkest nights (Nehemiah 9:17; Psalm 86:15; Joel 2:13). The living God is a patient God. And in the shadow of his patience we find hope.
Patience Toward His Enemies
God’s patience, like his love, has special significance for his chosen people — the slow-to-anger God of Exodus 34:6 is none other than “the Lord,” Yahweh, the God Israel knows by covenant (Exodus 3:13–15). And yet, amazingly, the record of God’s dealings in Scripture reveals a marked slowness to anger not only toward his covenant people, but toward those who hate and oppose him.
The most forceful examples of God’s wrath, for instance, begin as examples of his patience. The flood waters swallowed the earth only after “God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared” (1 Peter 3:20). God lingered for four generations before cleansing Canaan of its idolatry, for, he told Abraham, “the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete” (Genesis 15:16). And nine warning plagues fell on Egypt before the devastating blow to the firstborn (Exodus 11:4–8).
God’s wrath may be “quickly kindled” when the time for judgment comes (Psalm 2:12), but until then, he warns and invites (Psalm 2:10–11). God’s patience toward his enemies extends so far, Owen observes, that his people sometimes cry out, perplexed, “How long before you will judge?” (Revelation 6:10; Psalm 94:3). And still he patiently waits.
God, the patient potter, bears with the rebellious clay of his creation. He endures vessels of wrath with “much patience” (Romans 9:22), Paul tells us. How much more, then, does he deal patiently with vessels of mercy?
Patience Toward His People
When Paul rehearsed his testimony to Timothy, he framed it as a story of God’s patience:
The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. (1 Timothy 1:15–16)
God saved this “blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent” (1 Timothy 1:13) so that no humble, broken sinner would think he’s out-sinned the patience of God. The God and Father of our Lord Jesus is patient toward his people — perfectly patient. As patient as the prodigal’s father, waiting on the porch (Luke 15:20).
Nor does his patience end when former rebels like us heed his summons and become his sons. As Israel’s faithful celebrated again and again, God not only “was” slow to anger; he “is” slow to anger (Psalm 103:8). His patience, like his love, endures forever (Psalm 136). To what else can we ascribe his ongoing kindness, his every-morning mercies, his present help, and his ready forgiveness, through all the fluctuations of our souls? Today and every day, “He does not deal with us according to our sins” (Psalm 103:10), but according to his great patience.
“In Christ, your life tells a story of divine patience.”
In Christ, your life, like Paul’s, tells a story of divine patience. God was patient with you as you wandered from him — scorning his Son, treasuring sin, scarcely giving him or his gospel a thought. He is patient with you now, as you daily find need for forgiveness. And he will be patient with you tomorrow, and the next day, and until the day of Jesus Christ, when he finally finishes the good work he’s begun (Philippians 1:6).
And why? Because, some several centuries after Moses, God once again revealed his slow-to-anger name. This time in flesh and blood.
In Jesus, the God-man, the song of God’s slowness to anger swells to its crescendo.
Jesus’s ministry was one of patience, for to be with us was to bear with us (Luke 9:41). He lived here as light among darkness, sinlessness among sin, the straight among the crooked — as the unrivaled prince of patience. We occasionally see the pain of his patience, as when he says, “O faithless and twisted generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you?” (Matthew 17:17). But he mostly kept the cost hidden, pouring out his soul to his Father (Luke 5:16), and receiving from his Father the patience needed as his enemies slandered him, his neighbors rejected him, his disciples misunderstood him, and the crowds tried to use him.
And thus he also died. Though twelve legions of angels stood ready for his summons (Matthew 26:53), he never called. Instead, Patience incarnate took the lashes, the thorns, the nails, allowing his creatures to mock him with the breath he gave, all while pleading for their forgiveness (Luke 23:34).
In the cross of Jesus, we see not only that God is patient, but how God can be so patient. How could he, “in his divine forbearance,” pass over former sins (Romans 3:25) — and how can he, in his divine forbearance, continue to show us mercy? Because the patience of God, in the person of Christ, purchased our forgiveness (Romans 3:23–24). God’s patience rests on the passion of his Son. And therefore, his patience will last as long as our resurrected Christ pleads the merits of his blood (Hebrews 7:25) — which is to say, forever.
Let Us Return
English pastor Jeremy Taylor (1613–1667) once prayed, “Teach me . . . to read my duty in the lines of your mercy.” And what duty do we read in the lines of God’s merciful patience? In the words of Isaiah, “Return to the Lord” (Isaiah 55:7).
“Whoever and wherever we are, God’s patience invites our repentance.”
The patience of God is a beckoning hand, an open door, a pathway home. It comes to us as Jesus came to Matthew at the tax booth: not to condemn us, and not to comfort us in our sins either, but rather to turn us again to “seek the Lord while he may be found” (Isaiah 55:6), whether after a miserable lapse or simply a regrettable moment. Whoever and wherever we are, God’s patience invites our repentance.
And what do we find when we return to him, confessing and forsaking our sins? We find a Father running to meet us (Luke 15:20). We find a Savior who has already been knocking (Revelation 3:20). We find a God who abundantly pardons and plentifully redeems (Isaiah 55:7; Psalm 130:7). We find a Lord whose patience is perfect (1 Timothy 1:16).
One day, we will stumble and sin no more; the good work begun at our conversion finally will be complete (Philippians 1:6). But until then, the patience of God is not bound to the measure of our weak imaginations. It is not the pinched, passing, shallow patience we so commonly find among men, and within ourselves. His patience, like his peace, surpasses all understanding (Philippians 4:7). Return to him, then, now and forever, and in returning find rest.
Scott Hubbard is an editor for Desiring God, a pastor at All Peoples Church, and a graduate of Bethlehem College & Seminary. He and his wife, Bethany, live with their two sons in Minneapolis.