There are two key aspects to the idea behind God’s patience:
- Slowness to just anger
- Long-suffering under injustice and sin
The language of being “slow to anger” is, particularly, the Old Testament’s way of describing God’s patience. There is a beautiful description of it in Exodus 34:6 (see also Numbers 14:18, Psalm 86:15, Psalm 103:8, John 4:2, Joel 2:13, Nahum 1:3).
The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children's children, to the third and the fourth generation.” (ESV)
However, this verse leaves us with, what I have heard Mark Dever refer to it as, the “Riddle of the Old Testament.” That is, how can God be merciful and gracious and slow to anger (thus, patient) while at the same time not letting the guilty ones go free? How will he perform both mercy and punishment at the same time and remain just?
The way the New Testament speaks of patience is, particularly, in terms of “long-suffering.” It is critical to note that the idea of suffering is central to a correct understanding of what it means to be patient. You can’t be patient without taking on some form of suffering.
One of the most helpful texts in the New Testament is 2 Peter 3:9. Peter encourages the readers to not be discouraged by the seeming lack of justice and judgment from God. The readers may have been wondering whether God’s promises had failed as scoffers mock God’s promises (vs 4). Peter replies that “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient [long-suffering] toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (vs. 9).
Slowness in God’s anger can appear to be slowness in keeping His promises and being just. But Peter tells us that God’s slow anger and seemingly slow justice is actually His merciful patience. And God’s patience exists for our salvation! God’s patience is that which enables mercy to flow instead of swift and just judgment.
PATIENCE & THE GOSPEL
So how is the “Riddle of the Old Testament” resolved? It is resolved in Christ bearing the suffering, pain, and hurt we deserve in order that He might be patient toward us, in justice. “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18).
God the Father was slow to (just) anger toward us by directing His just wrath toward God the Son, Jesus, who suffered for our sin.
OUR OWN PATIENCE & DESIRE FOR JUSTICE
One of the great contradictions in life is how God’s patience can appear to be a lack justice as we see so many injustices around us that only incite more evil in the hearts of humanity (see Ecclesiastes 8:11). So what are you to do?
- When you pray for justice, be thankful that He was slow to anger towards you. Prayers for justice are both good and Biblical but they must be measured with the reality that God’s slowness, not swiftness, is why we are able to stand before Him without being destroyed.
- Remember that vengeance and retribution always belong to God, not us.
- Consider that patience with others means actually bearing real suffering, pain, and hurt from them at times, the very things they might deserve themselves. (This moves the category of patience out of the realm of elementary annoyances like getting cut off in traffic.)
- Remember that all the patience that we experience and that God grants to us falls within the umbrella of God’s current patience over us. When God reconciles all things and executes final justice, patience will end. Patience is a time period in which we live now for our own salvation and good but will not last forever. So, wait for God as He is waiting patiently on others and on us right now. Your experience of suffering or injustice in life might just be for the sake of another person. You might be being used as an instrument of God’s patience and long-suffering towards another!
God's seeming absence in the midst of injustice and evil is not carelessness or apathy but rather His patience - that being, His long-suffering under injustice and slow anger towards evil for a greater good, namely our salvation. Living in the midst of injustice is the realm in which we receive God's merciful patience.