Pathway to Patience: Practical Steps to Become More Patient
Our Bible passage from Colossians 3:12 encourages us to clothe ourselves with certain dispositions, including patience. Today, I want to talk to you about how you can develop more patience. It’s not an innate trait—either you have it or you don’t. Instead, it’s a discipline you can cultivate and grow over time.
If you are wondering, “Patience? Who has time for that?” This might be a message you should hear.
What is your story of impatience?
The other day, I was in a group of people talking about how things have changed since COVID. In our hurry, hurry world, it seems people are far less patient and, therefore, angrier, ruder, and more abrasive than ever. We see it in checkout lines, the freeway, school board meetings, and social media.
If I asked you to tell me a story about a time you lost your patience, does one pop to mind? Maybe you lost patience with another person and just blew up. Or maybe a situation irked you, and you felt like you weren’t in control of the outcome. When you think about that event, if you were a neutral third party describing you at that moment, what would they say? What was your tone of voice, body language, and vocabulary? In poker, players look for what they call “tells,” which are unconscious physical traits that signal your mood. What are your tells? A bouncing foot, thrumming fingers, sighs, red ears?
We benefit from ancient wisdom in scripture.
It’s never a pretty picture. Maybe that’s why the Bible has so much to say about developing patience. The word for patience in the New Testament is a Greek word that means something like a long fuse, as in it takes a long time before you blow up. Our forerunners in the faith tried to impart their learned wisdom about patience to us in scripture. The way the Bible talks about it, the key to staying sane and flourishing in this crazy world is developing a strong sense of patience. Interestingly in Greek, patience has the same root as other biblical words, such as endurance, perseverance, fortitude, and compassion.
Scripture bustles with stories about the negative consequences of people who lose their patience. We’ve all been there. It’s part of the human condition. The escaped Hebrew slaves lost patience when Moses went up the mountain to receive commandments, so they turned to wickedness and idolatry, fashioning the golden calf. The prodigal son lost patience for his future and wound up sleeping in the stinky pigsty. People in Paul’s first churches lost patience waiting for Jesus’ return, so they turned on each other. There are plenty of stories of impatience getting people in trouble. What trouble has it caused you?
For all the warning stories about impatience, the good news is that scripture indicates that we can grow and develop our sense of patience.
Deciding to Grow
The first step in growing in patience is making the decision grow. We can ask if our lives and those around us would be enriched if we got better at practicing patience. Just think about your story of losing patience. How might things have turned out differently if you had exercised more patience? How would everyone involved in the situation have benefited?
We get better at practicing patience the more we make the conscious decision to act patiently when unpleasant situations arise.
Patience gets a bad reputation.
But that’s a difficult decision because many cringe at the word. As Henri Nouwen in a book titled Compassion, says,
As children, it usually meant waiting—waiting until Mommy and Daddy came home, the bus arrived, the waiter brought the food, school ended, or the rain stopped. And so, the word patience became associated with powerlessness, the inability to act, and a general state of passivity and dependence. It is, therefore, quite understandable that when anyone in authority said, “Just be patient,” we felt belittled and offended.
The time for impatience.
Sometimes, that is precisely what people try to do when they tell us, “Just be patient.” They want to keep power and control. During the Civil Rights movement, folks advised Martin Luther King Jr. to slow down. They said, “Just be patient; justice will evolve naturally.” King replied in his famous Letter from the Birmingham Jail that the time for patience is over—400 years of oppression is long enough! This situation requires impatience that leads to action and transformation.
There is a time and place for impatience. When we look at Jesus, we see times when he grew impatient. For example, in a scene in the Temple courtyard, he turned over the money changers’ tables and drove them away. Sometimes, we must intervene when there is injustice and people are mistreated. Be impatient with oppression, actions that demean and demonize people. Intervene on behalf of people who need help.
Patience isn’t an excuse for inaction.
Sometimes, people will profess to being patient as a virtuous excuse for inaction. “I’m just a patient person; everything always works out in the end.” Yeah, that’s because other people who don’t use patience as an excuse do everything for you. Some things need to be done by people who are not bound by the paralysis of analysis or won’t do anything unless it’s perfect.
But in everyday life, it’s best to be patient. I heard about a study that showed that when we are impatient, cortisol is released in our systems, which can damage our cells, so our constant hurrying to do things shortens our lives.
Loss of control.
If you look at the times you lost your patience, I wonder how many times it is because you didn’t feel like you were in control of what was happening. Someone else’s decisions made you late; someone else has to do the lab work before you know what is happening with your body. Someone else isn’t acting in the way you want.
Psychologists suggest losing patience is part of our built-in fight or flight system when we don’t feel in control. It is a way of putting some distance between us and the situation. When we lose patience, we either shut down or blow up. True patience, Nouwen says, is about countering our impulse for fight or flight and hanging in with it even though it is unpleasant. Far from passive waiting, it is about staying engaged and finding the fullness in the moment, even if it isn’t what you planned. That is, maybe it is okay not to feel like you must always be in control. Much of what we think of as under our control is merely a story we tell ourselves, but life is too big and has too many complex parts to conform to your plans.
I’ve always resonated with the story about the time Jesus was rushing to reach the dying daughter of a synagogue leader. Before he can reach their home, a woman in the crowd touches the hem of his garment, and he turns around to engage her even though the clock is ticking and urgency is called for. He spoke to her and found out her story. He didn’t treat her as an interruption but as part of his mission to be fully present with her.
Whenever I’ve had a student shadow me at work, I start the day with them and plan the day. Here is what we will do—the meetings to attend, the research that needs doing, the emails for reply, etc. After we go through the plan, I challenge them to keep track of anything that interrupts us from what we set out to do for the day. At the end of the day, they are always astonished by the number of interruptions and wonder how anything ever gets done. Then I asked them to reflect on what felt like the most meaningful parts of the day, and without fail, most of the stuff that turned out to be the most meaningful happened in the interruptions.
When the interruptions to your plans come, pay attention to your attitude. Are you getting honked off because your schedule and plans are getting thrown off, or are you paying attention to how you can make that encounter meaningful? So what if it wasn’t according to your plan? When God brings something into your life, paying attention and putting your whole self into the situation might be a good idea.
Sabbath as a prescription.
One of our tradition’s great gifts is the concept of sabbath, or time apart at rest. It’s about not being so overscheduled that you get frustrated if things aren’t going according to your plan. Jesus dealt with all his frustrations because he took time apart when he wasn’t busy every second. As we head into fall, we are reminded that all of nature has cycles, and we need them too. When you practice the sabbath, you become more familiar with being open instead of reactive with fight or flight.
Many people tell me that they love worship here because they can separate themselves from the demands of urgency and having to meet someone else’s expectations. They can be here for an hour and recalibrate their systems. So, congratulations on taking an essential step in developing patience! You are such intelligent people!
And while you are here, you can let go of some of your need to control everything when you remember to pray as Jesus did when he said, “Not my will, but your will be done.” It lessens the stress of having to have everything go your way.
Sometimes, when we get impatient, it reflects an inner spiritual dis-ease. We are not at peace within ourselves. That’s why spiritual practices are so important—they help us feel more centered and grounded. Coming to worship is a spiritual practice, but there are many more you could consider. Everything from art and music to meditation to breathing exercises to contemplative prayer. My suggestion is to find one that engages you and stick with it. The more spiritually connected you are, the more you are at peace and the more patience you can muster.
I came across an excellent resource for a two-week program if you want a more intensive program for a breakthrough in increasing patience.
Look at what triggers you. Keep track of times that your patience is tried. Are there any common conditions? “Yeah,” you may say, “idiots!” Absolutely. But if you let that get to you and cause all the deleterious effects of impatience—high blood pressure, unhealthy releases of cortisol, losing your cool, staying frustrated, you will find it’s not worth the price. Why give an idiot that kind of power over your emotional stability? Instead of impatience, maybe try curiosity. Why are they acting that way? What pressures are they under? Maybe they have motives that you don’t know about. Maybe they are trying the best they can with the resources they have. Try being in wonder instead of judgment.
Also, remember that often what annoys us the most about someone else reminds us of something we don’t like about ourselves. The judgment we project is often displaced.
Sometimes impatience pops its head up when we have some other need that isn’t being met. Maybe it’s something like feeling appreciated, valued, receiving affection, or having a sense of purpose. When there is a basic unmet need, it has a way of coming out one way or another.
I heard one psychologist compare it to geysers. Beneath the surface, tension within us comes to a boil, and that pressure needs to find some way out. If patience is an issue for you, then maybe the problem isn’t so much “idiots” as it is something within that you need to find ways to get that need appropriately met.
So, instead of letting people see the big eruption, we can appropriately deal with our interior lives and clothe ourselves with more attractive things like patience, compassion, humility, and kindness.