Of the many virtues which Paul lists as being aspects of the Fruit of the Spirit, longsuffering is seldom given priority in our thinking. Love, faith, and joy spring readily to mind but longsuffering is often relegated to a secondary status. Yet longsuffering is an incredibly important facet of the believer’s life in Christ. In his list of the Fruit of the Spirit, Paul divides the various aspects into three triads:
- Duty toward God
- Duty toward others
- Duty toward self
Longsuffering heads the list of the second group of three, that of duty towards others. Longsuffering is key to a peaceful and irenic relationship within family and church contexts as well as with others with whom we have contact. Additionally, this critically important virtue reflects a personal character quality that ensures a life of grace and contentment to the one who practices it.
At times the etymology of a word can give a significant clue as to its meaning and such is the case with longsuffering. The Greek term from which our English word is translated is makrothumia, a compound word consisting of makros (meaning large or distant) and thumos (meaning passion or emotion). The idea is that of being far removed from rage or wrath. It is just the opposite of the individual with a “short fuse.”
The reaction of an older dog to a young puppy provides us with a good illustration of longsuffering. One can imagine a playful young puppy tugging at the ears of a sleepy older dog. The pup may yip and bark at him and perhaps he even nips the older dog’s tail or paws. The older dog could easily retaliate, snapping at or even killing the puppy, but instead it shows remarkable longsuffering and simply frowningly tolerates the intrusions into its slumber.
The very best definition of longsuffering can be found in the example left to us by the Lord Jesus. Peter records Jesus’ longsuffering and forbearing attitude with a heart-stirring description:
just as an oyster may ingest an irritating particle, yet that same irritant eventually produces a beautiful and precious pearl, so an offense against oneself taken with longsuffering produces beautiful character, reflective of the grace of the Lord Jesus.
When He was reviled, did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously. 1 Peter 2:23
Instead of going to the cross, Jesus could have annihilated all of humanity. With a word, He could have destroyed creation and have started afresh. But He willingly chose to not retaliate. Indeed, it is because God Himself is longsuffering that we have been brought to repentance and ultimately salvation in Christ (2 Peter 3:9).
That same forbearance is displayed toward us even today as Jesus patiently works in our lives. In spite of our frequent failings, Christ does not give up on us. His longsuffering is always graciously active. He patiently disciplines and molds His child as He conforms us evermore into His perfect image. The apostle Paul writes: He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ. Philippians 1:6
As mentioned, longsuffering is a virtue which is relational in nature. A Christian walking in the Spirit will be tolerant of other’s shortcomings and accepting of unavoidable circumstances in life. The Christian recognizes that God can use offenses and annoyances for the believer’s good and for his edification. He understands that just as an oyster may ingest an irritating particle, yet that same irritant eventually produces a beautiful and precious pearl, so an offense against oneself taken with longsuffering produces beautiful character, reflective of the grace of the Lord Jesus.
The essential nature of longsuffering in the Christian’s life is illustrated by a story told by Charles Spurgeon concerning a candidate for the mission field. Mr. Spurgeon writes:
A young man desired to go to India as a missionary with London Missionary Society. Mr. Wilks was appointed to consider the young man’s fitness for such a post. He wrote the young man and told him to call on him at six o’clock the next morning.
Although the applicant lived many miles off, he was at the house punctually at six and was ushered into the drawing room. He waited and waited and waited, wonderingly but patiently. Finally, Mr. Wilks entered the room about mid-morning.
Without apology, Mr. Wilks began, “Well, young man, so you want to be a missionary?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Do you love the Lord Jesus Christ?”
“Yes sir, I certainly do!”
“And have you any education?”
“Yes sir, a little.”
“Well now, we’ll try you; can you spell ‘cat’?”
The young man looked confused and hardly knew how to answer so preposterous a question. His mind evidently halted between indignation and submission, but in a moment he replied steadily, “c, a, t, cat.”
“Very good,” said Mr. Wilks. “Can you spell ‘dog’?”
The youthful Job was stunned but replied “d,o,g, dog.”
“Well, that is right; I see you will do in your spelling. And now for arithmetic. How much is two times two?”
The patient youth gave the right reply and was dismissed.
Later Mr. Wilks gave his report at the committee meeting. He said, “I cordially recommend that young man. His testimony and character I have duly examined. I tried his self-denial; he was up here early. I tried his patience by keeping him waiting. I tried his humility and temper by insulting his intelligence. He will do just fine.”
As can be seen by this account, longsuffering is indicative of so many other character qualities: self-control, patience, humility, and gentleness. Rightly it should be regarded as an indispensable aspect of the Fruit of the Spirit. May God give us grace to develop in our lives the critical virtue of longsuffering, to the blessing of others and even ourselves!
Jim Haesemeyer – Renew in Knowledge Core Team Member
Jim Haesemeyer is an elder at FreeWay Bible Chapel at Lubbock, Texas. Jim has served on the mission field in Honduras for nearly thirty years.
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