Practicing Patient Persistence

This week many Methodists in the United States are struggling with their denomination’s latest reaffirmation of opposition to same-sex marriage and openly gay clergy.  For many this will feel like the last straw, the final push to leave the Methodist fold.  Whether to stay and fight the good fight or seek a church community that more closely shares our convictions is a complicated and difficult decision.  But the decision to stay and persist in the struggle for inclusion and equality can be seen as a virtuous one, consistent with both Christian forbearance and the righteous struggle for justice.  In Forbearance: A Theological Ethic for a Disagreeable Church, I wrote this about persistence as an expression of Christian patience:

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus tells the parable of a woman who had a legal claim for restitution, which she takes to the local judge.  The judge, whom Jesus describes as respecting neither God nor other people, dismisses her without listening and sends her home for the day.  Undeterred, the woman returns to the judge’s home the next day to make her appeal.  Rebuffed by the magistrate, she leaves only to return the next day, and the next day, and the next.  Finally the judge is so exhausted by the woman’s dogged pursuit of her claim that he throws up his hands: “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming” (Luke 18:4–5).  Luke frames the story by telling us that it is a parable about the “need to pray always and not to lose heart” (18:1).  If that is the moral of the story, surely a corollary is that there is virtue to be found in speaking and laboring for the things that are most meaningful to us.  If this parable is any indication, Jesus considered persistence to be an admirable trait.

To my mind, persistence is not the opposite of patience, but derives from the virtue of patience.  We said that patience represented the character necessary to endure hard circumstances with perseverance, a positive attitude, and a commitment to the long view of God’s future.  If this enduring attitude affords us the luxury of time to wait on God and better understand (and love) our fellow Christians, it also gives us the energy to sustain our commitment to our convictions.  The perseverance that patient character cultivates gives us the drive to labor for what is right day after day, whether progress is clearly evident or frustratingly absent.  The positive attitude that comes from a patient heart sustains us, especially through difficult times.  And the long view of God’s time gives us hope that God’s truth and justice will prevail, despite the limited success we may experience in the present.  Persistence, the dogged commitment to what we believe is right in God’s eyes, clearly depends on patient hope for its energy.

Such persistence is completely compatible with the larger project of forbearance.  As we have said already and will explore more deeply later, forbearance does not necessarily ask us to temper our enthusiasm for our beliefs.  It does not ask us to stop pushing for what we believe to be right or true.  Persistence in our convictions can be a righteous display of Christian piety, when the patient hope that animates it partners with other virtues that forbearance requires—humility, trust, courage, wisdom, and a commitment to the unity of the Body of Christ through the maintenance of friendship with others.  When the persistent pursuit of our beliefs takes its shape from all of the virtues of forbearance, Christian conviction can be a righteous and respectful expression of patient hope.

The apostle Paul tried to embody Christian patience, but that did not mean that he shied away from calling out colleagues in the early church’s leadership who he thought misunderstood some of the implications of the gospel—even up to Peter![1]  In doing so, Paul illustrated a persistence that was completely compatible with his commendation of patience as a virtue.  Sometimes when we are exercising patience, we endure what disappoints or frustrates us by peacefully maintaining community through that disappointment.  Sometimes, though, we exercise patience by refusing to give up the cause, by respectfully showing up day after day to make the case for why our understanding of the gospel represents the path to righteousness for Christ’s church.  Sometimes patience expresses itself through the aggressive maintenance of conviction, even in an environment that shows little evidence of progress.

Some might argue, though, that persistence is precisely what is killing our churches.  Within and beyond the church, people are tired of the fighting between Christians, factions forever arguing over the same issues.  Persistence, however, is not the same thing as fighting without yield.  The conflict fatigue that plagues our denominations and turns people off from church affiliation comes not from strong beliefs but from advocating for those beliefs in destructive ways.  When persistence is embraced as part of the larger practice of forbearance, when it is exercised with respect and love for others as brothers and sisters in Christ and with a concern for the health of the Body of Christ, then persistent advocacy for what we think is right and true takes on an entirely different character than we often see in our churches, and the nature of our disagreements becomes starkly different.  When done in a spirit of forbearance, persistent conviction brings with it an equally strong willingness to listen to others.  It advocates for its vision with respect for others and their views.  It takes seriously the responsibility to distinguish the moments to press its case from moments when the struggle needs to rest and intentional community-building needs to happen.  Persistent conviction in the spirit of forbearance keeps its aim on the cultivation of Christian friendship, and in doing so contributes to, rather than threatens, the health of the church.

Admittedly, it is not always easy to know when is a good time to listen and when is the right moment to voice our sense of the right and good as we understand it.  In chapters to follow, we will consider the Christian duty to speak the truth and insist on justice, and how our commitment to those ideals might be reshaped through the practice of forbearance.  We will explore the Christian pursuit of wisdom, including the discernment necessary to know when silence or prophetic witness is the more virtuous course.  At this point, though, I want to repeat that forbearance does not ask us to categorically stand down from our vision of what is right and good for God’s church.  Without debate over the things that divide us, we end up with nothing but unproductive stalemates or an unhealthy denial of conflict.  Patient hope infuses health into our disagreement, but it does not ask us to pretend that there is consensus where none exists.  Instead, patient hope invites us to give our differences the gift of time.  Anger and disappointment do not go away with a commitment to patience, but patience makes room for everyone to share the source of their disappointment, thus making our conversations more inclusive.  The cultivation of patience also increases the chance we might hear something different in the long investment in dialogue and relationship, and that in turn increases the chance we might learn something in the process.

Ultimately, a church with patient character exhibits a willingness to invest in the long-term hard labor of paving the way for God’s kingdom to break through, to commit to that task and to each other.  The commitment of time is counter-cultural; it flies in the face of conventional demand for quick satisfaction so prevalent in contemporary American society.  When we choose to be patient instead, we honor God’s time by investing in relationships and the project of community over the long haul. As an ingredient to the practice of forbearance, patient hope compels us to put in the effort to be church, even, or especially, when we encounter people or circumstances that make us uncomfortable, frustrated, or disappointed.  Cultivating hopeful patience does not mean that we necessarily allow time to paralyze us.  It does not eliminate hard decisions.  Hopeful, patient forbearance does mean that while we are collectively pondering our responsibilities as church, while we are debating and discussing and deciding on all kinds of issues, we listen to and stick with each other.  We entrust the dialogue and decisions of the present to the greater hope we have in God’s future, even if with sorrow and regret over what is happening now.  For by doing so, we yield the pace of the kingdom to the God who reigns.

[1] See Galatians 2.