Last week one of my tweets hit a nerve, in the very best way:
Sometimes I think “God is love” gets taken to mean “love is god.” But the difference between them is like a perfect compass, & a broken one.
— Sharon Hodde Miller (@SHoddeMiller) September 12, 2016
This tweet wasn’t one of those random thoughts that just pops into your head one day. I had been chewing on it for months, trying to understand a strange tension in our faith. On the one hand, love is a big deal to God. It’s all over Scripture. It is the chief end of humanity, to love God and love others. 1 John 4:8 tells us that God IS love. So much of what Jesus calls us to can be boiled down to those things.
And yet, in our zeal to live this love out, I think we can take this truth and break it just a little. We take up the banner of “All you need is love” while quietly shoving God out the back door. As if love itself is compass enough. As if where there is love, there is, always, God.
But as I said in my tweet, love isn’t our North Star. God is. God tells us what real, true, sacrificial, change-the-world love looks like. God anchors love, so that it doesn’t drift toward a “love” that is merely convenience, preference, self-destructiveness, or self-righteousness.
That’s why it’s so important to understand God’s design for love. In a world that has its own notions of love, God wants us to love in an other-worldly way. To do that, we’ve got to know what God designed love to look like.
In that spirit, I am kicking off a new series called “Love is.” I will be drawing off of 1 Corinthians 13, a famous passage in which Paul describes true, godly love. I will spend the next few weeks looking at these different descriptions of love, and today I’m beginning with patience.
“Love is patient”
1 Cor. 13:4
If you were to drop by my house, you would hear the word “patience” a lot. We have a four year-old who, like all 4 year-olds, struggles with waiting. Every day, multiple times a day, I ask him to be patient. I affirm that waiting is hard, but that it’s something we all have to learn.
For better or for worse, I think that’s how we see patience: as something we have to do. Patience is a virtue, and it’s character building, and that’s why we should embrace it. So the logic goes.
But that’s the beauty of 1 Corinthians 13:4–it totally reframes patience, not just as a “good thing,” but as an act of love. According to Scripture, patience isn’t just a virtue, but a mission of love.
The word “patience” comes from the root pati which means to suffer or endure. That root word gives us words like “passion” and “compassion,” while patience refers to the willingness “to bear adversities, calm endurance of misfortune, suffering, etc.”
When I searched for the word “patience” in the Old Testament, I couldn’t find many examples, but what I did find was seven different references to God with this particular pairing: “compassionate and slow to anger” (Psalm 86:15, 103:8, 145:8…) These two descriptions get to the heart of patience, but here’s what is really interesting: every single one of these references is followed by the description “abounding in love.” In other words, the link between patience and love comes from God Himself.
And when we look at God, what do we see? We see long-suffering endurance. We see faithfulness to Israel again and again, even when they were unfaithful. We see a commitment to love and redemption that is so thorough, so eternal, so big picture, that God enters into our suffering with us, by becoming human. All along, God never deserts us and never forsakes us, but patiently waits, like the prodigal’s father, anxious for us to come home.
That is what love looks like. Long-suffering, enduring, waiting. What this means for our relationships, is that patience isn’t just loving, but transformative. If you want to see someone grow and change, don’t push them or pressure them or passive aggressively manipulate them. Wait on them. Give them space while you pray for them, instead of trying to force the right choice. Let them make mistakes, even if it’s painful and you know they might get hurt. Suffer with them, instead of walking away when they don’t take your advice.
Returning to the prodigal’s father, it strikes me that he didn’t follow his son. He didn’t go after him and scold him or even try to win him back. He stayed home and waited. In the event that his son returned home, he wanted to be there, at home, ready to welcome him.
That’s what patience looks like. Making it easier for people to come home. There’s no “I told you so,” but only love and freedom.
If you’ve ever practiced this kind of patience, you know it can be painful, but 1 Corinthians 13 reminds us that patience isn’t passivity. It’s active love. In God’s economy, He works in that space of human helplessness, when we’ve said all we can say and our only option is to wait. God does some of His best work there.
And you know what else? This principle is true in the big waiting and the little waiting. This isn’t just about prodigal children. Patience is an act of love every day, when you are patient with your toddlers, or your husband who can’t remember to put the toilet seat down. Patience is an act of grace, in which God not only transforms the people we love, but transforms us too.
I suppose that’s why I feel so picky about love. God’s love has literally changed the world. It’s that powerful and awesome. The closer we get to practicing it the way He did, the more we can change the world too. So let’s not play at love. Let’s study it, and pursue it, the way Love Incarnate tirelessly and patiently pursues us.