Longsuffering is no longer an everyday word, but it is a virtue needed more than ever when impatience, intolerance, oversensitivity and impulsive anger are so prevalent.
Anger and animosity can be the result of many negative influences. The evil influence we all are infected with is our own selfish nature. And our human abilities to make major improvements are pitifully weak. We need God's help!
In Galatians 5:19-21, the apostle Paul refers to our human nature as "the flesh" and our selfish tendencies as the "works of the flesh." These include "hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, envy, murders"!
Clearly we need the antidote for these traits, which is God's Spirit!
Paul went on to say, "But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control" (Galatians 5:22-23, emphasis added throughout). What an amazing contrast!
All these beautiful virtues work together and support each other. Think about how longsuffering relates to the other attributes.
Two important words
Listed fourth among the fruit of the Spirit is a wonderful quality translated "longsuffering" in some Bible versions and "patience" in others.
Those two English words are closely related, both associated with endurance. More important and fascinating is learning about the two corresponding Greek words in the New Testament.
One Greek word—humpomonee—is translated "patience" in almost all Bible versions and implies patient endurance.
The other Greek word is even more interesting. It is makrothumia, translated "patience" in some Bible versions but more accurately as "longsuffering" in others.
The Greek word makro (which gives us the English prefix macro) means "large" or "long." The root word thumos means "temper." Therefore makrothumia literally means long-tempered, the opposite of short-tempered or having a short fuse.
Without makrothumia, we human beings tend to be temperamental—having an irritable temperament and bad temper. We tend to "lose patience" and "lose our cool" and even "blow up" (like an impatiens plant).
We'll focus primarily on makrothumia since it is the word used in Galatians 5:22. However, please keep in mind how these two words overlap in meaning and are both important to our spiritual understanding and growth.
Longsuffering and love vs. anger and hate
Longsuffering is virtually the opposite of anger, especially of "outbursts of wrath" (2 Corinthians 12:20).
When a traffic light turns green, some drivers will impatiently honk their horns if the car ahead doesn't start moving within two seconds! No longsuffering there! Even worse is the epidemic of road rage with cursing and actual violence.
Many people tend to overreact. They quickly get on the defensive, interpret remarks as attacks and then strike back. Many people carry a lot of inner anger from their past. Every small hurt or annoyance adds to the storehouse of anger. The slightest provocation brings the anger to the surface and into the open.
Anger usually involves a spiteful attitude of retaliation and revenge. But God forbids this: "Bless those who persecute you . . . Repay no one evil for evil . . . do not avenge yourselves" (Romans 12:14; Romans 12:17; Romans 12:19). The Bible teaches mercy and forgiveness.
People tend to excuse their anger, but most human anger is self-centered and sinful. "The wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God" (James 1:20).
Hardly anyone will admit to hating people. But the Bible defines love and hatred largely by people's actions. Love is expressed through helping people, while hate is demonstrated through harming people (see Romans 13:10).
Paul described the behavior of love: "Love suffers long and is kind . . . [It] does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil" (1 Corinthians 13:4-5). The New International Version renders his words this way: "Love is patient, love is kind . . . It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs."
Our thoughts and attitudes are likewise important, as they are the source of our actions and words: "A good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth good; and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart brings forth evil. For out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks" (Luke 6:45).
Therefore we should honestly examine our attitudes. Each of us should ask: Am I motivated by love, respect, patience and compassion, or am I motivated by resentment, contempt, intolerance and hardness of heart?
Slow to anger, quick to forgive
"The Lord is gracious and full of compassion, slow to anger and great in mercy" (Psalm 145:8). That's the way He expects us to be!
Consider carefully these wise words about being "long-tempered": "He who is slow to wrath has great understanding, but he who is impulsive exalts folly" (Proverbs 14:29). "A wrathful man stirs up strife, but he who is slow to anger allays contention" (Proverbs 15:18). "The discretion of a man makes him slow to anger, and his glory is to overlook a transgression" (Proverbs 19:11).
James wrote, "So then, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath" (James 1:19). Then if and when appropriate anger is expressed, it will likely be under control.
You have probably heard the good advice of "stop and count to 10" and "take some deep breaths" rather than lashing out with words you'll regret—words that will escalate conflict rather than make peace.
Truly the first step of longsuffering is to exercise restraint and do nothing. We must think first! What does God want me to say or do?
If your feelings are hurt and you feel the need to immediately say something, speak softly and don't say anything to hurt back. "A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger" (Proverbs 15:1).
Then take as much time as you need to pray and plan regarding the wise and constructive way to approach the other person. Your goal is to act lovingly rather than reacting hatefully.
When a person is too concerned about winning an argument, he can end up losing a friend. Don't be too concerned about who is right or demanding your rights. Learn to be agreeable even when you disagree. Pray for God's help with this.
Solution to impatience, short tempers
Even without God's help, people can learn to be calm and patient much of the time because they see the advantages.
But these good intentions and good habits are not nearly as powerful as God's supernatural gift of longsuffering. Good interpersonal relationships depend on you doing your best plus trusting God with the rest. We human beings are pitifully incomplete without God's Spirit.
How does one obtain the Holy Spirit? The apostle Peter briefly explained in Acts 2:38, "Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit."
To truly be "sons of God" we must be "led by the Spirit of God" (Romans 8:14).
In Colossians 3:12-13, Paul describes the nature of someone who is led by God's Spirit: "Therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering; bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another; even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do." (He states something very similar in Ephesians 4:1-3.)
Notice how these qualities tie together and give us an expanded view of longsuffering. We need to patiently "bear with one another" rather than allow ourselves to get irritated!
Longsuffering and eternal life
Waiting for others is a test of our patience and an opportunity to build patience. And the Bible has much to say about our need to wait on God. We want God to solve all our problems right now, but God knows the best timing. He often tests our patience and perseverance before answering our prayers.
When the Bible mentions waiting, patience, perseverance or longsuffering, it is often in connection with trusting in God to intervene for us in our need, as He assuredly will: "But those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint" (Isaiah 40:31).
This patient waiting is ultimately focused on the second coming of Jesus Christ: "To those who eagerly wait for Him He will appear a second time, apart from sin, for salvation" (Hebrews 9:28).
Only those who remain faithful to death or to Christ's coming will be rewarded in His Kingdom. After warning about end-time persecution of Christians, Jesus said, "But he who endures to the end will be saved" (Matthew 10:22).
"Endures" means continuing to be led by God's Spirit and continuing to bear the fruit of His Spirit to the end of your life or the second coming of Christ, whichever comes first.
As James 5:7-8 exhorts us: "Therefore be patient [literally, longsuffering], brethren, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, waiting patiently for it until it receives the early and latter rain. You also be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand."