The Problem with Patience

I have a love-hate relationship with patience. Depending on the situation, I will either happily delay gratification and wait, wait, wait for what others would deem an interminably long time, or I will become irritable and antsy and check my watch every 18 seconds.

As a writer, I have become accustomed to waiting, sometimes indefinitely, for responses from editors and publishers. Some months ago, Jo-Ann, my Friday morning telephone prayer partner, would occasionally ask for updates on my latest book. My usual response was something like, “Oh, that? No, no, it’s still in such-and-such stage and I likely won’t hear anything about it for a couple more months.” And her usual reaction to that was, “Really? Still? How can you stand it? I’d never be able to wait that long! Aren’t you anxious to know what’s happening?”

So we had a good laugh one day over an experience I shared with her: I had been to see my rheumatologist a few days earlier for test results. After traveling for an hour on public transit, I ended up waiting over two hours to see the doctor. I was seething by the time he called me into his office. It offended and annoyed me that he had kept me waiting for so long and I thought his secretary was careless for not scheduling his appointments better.

When I told Jo-Ann about this awful injustice I had borne and how, adding insult to injury, the doctor had all but laughed at me for being upset, she said, “Oh, Ann! Really? Just two hours? You found that a long time to wait?” Clearly, she has spent much more time in waiting rooms than I have. Oops.

I realized something later: It’s hard to muster up patience when we don’t understand a situation. Jo-Ann can’t imagine being patient as a writer because she’s not familiar with my everyday conditions and timelines. I have difficulty being patient in a waiting room because I lack experience in that area. But most situations don’t give us enough advance notice to gain the knowledge and insight that will help us be patient, so what’s a girl to do?

Developing the discipline of waiting is crucial. I have noticed that the latest translation of the New International Version has changed the word patience in Galatians 5:22 to forbearance. They’re not exactly the same thing but patience is a form of forbearance, isn’t it? When we don’t see the answers, results or changes we want right now, we need the Holy Spirit to help us endure. We need to be willing to suspend our own desires and expectations while we wait for God to move or to show us what to do.

The Delayed Gratification Trap

Back in the Garden of Eden, when Satan sashayed over to Eve and told her to go ahead and eat the fruit God had made off-limits, he said it would open her eyes and make her like God. How could she refuse? Eve’s mistake was not thinking things through. Her desire for instant gratification was so strong that she believed Satan—not God, who had already given her all she needed—held the secret to her happiness.

We can be equally foolish; we’re so greedy for pleasure that we’re willing to relinquish what’s best for us to have what’s just okay (or worse). We believe the lie that if something feels good, it can’t be wrong or bad for us. In many cases, instant gratification can leave us feeling empty and dissatisfied in the long run. Delaying gratification creates a waiting period that may help us see that what we’re waiting for isn’t what we truly want after all. The temptation that seems irresistible at first may not interest us five minutes later or five days later, so it’s worth disciplining ourselves to hang on for a bit.

However, patience and delaying gratification are not the same thing. Gratification of any kind shouldn’t be the main goal. The whole idea of gratification is going after what we desire. But what if what we want most—what if the gratification we’re willing to wait a long time for—isn’t in God’s plan for us? Just because we’re being patient, it doesn’t mean we’re doing the right thing. Satan doesn’t care if we sin now or later; he just wants us to fail.

Like anyone else, I’ve had dreams and hopes that haven’t materialized. Sometimes I’ve assumed that God was simply delaying my gratification. However, whenever I have let go of my plans and just started living, that is when I have been truly gratified. I’m not anxiously waiting for the day that my dreams will be realized; instead, I’m asking God to lead me wherever He wants me to go, to align my heart’s desires with His and to give me patience while I wait for Him to reveal His will for me.

Whether I’m waiting for an acceptance letter, a harried doctor, a paycheque or a clear answer about my next steps, I can live by the words of this hymn:

“I don’t worry o’er the future, for I know what Jesus said.
And today I’ll walk beside Him, for He knows what is ahead.”

[This article is slightly adapted from one that originally appeared in the May 2014 issue of live magazine.]

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