Years ago I heard a preacher say these words: “Patience is a virtue, and a virtue can’t hurt you.” That little rhyming phrase has stuck with me for at least a decade, especially when I’m prone to be impatient about something.
And there has been a lot to be impatient about in the last decade of my life: waiting to hear if an offer on a house went through, being pregnant and waiting for each of my two sons to arrive, waiting to hear if I got into graduate school, waiting for my husband, Dave, to fix the hole in the wall that he accidentally made while working on a house project. Less weighty circumstances also require waiting: waiting for a friend to call me back to make plans for the weekend, for example, or waiting for a load of clothes to finish in the dryer, or waiting for the drive to Lake Michigan to be over so that I can enjoy a day at the beach.
Waiting is not easy. But it births something in us that is incredibly difficult and astoundingly beautiful: patience. It invites us to trust Jesus—and his impeccable timing—with our thoughts, our time, our relationships, and our resources. And it reminds us that we can’t make anything happen on our own. I can’t make my dryer tumble my laundry more quickly. I couldn’t speed up the application process for graduate school or the process of buying a house. I just had to sit and wait.
And the truth is that we can’t develop patience any other way than by waiting.
In some translations of the Bible, the list of the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-23 uses the word forbearance for patience, which has a bit of a deeper meaning. Forbearance also includes self-control, restraint, and tolerance, implying that we have a choice about how we respond to God and others in our times of waiting.
We can, for example, receive patience as a gift that helps us develop restraint (as in, “I’m not going to obsessively check my phone to see if the company where I applied for a job has gotten back to me,” or “I’m not going to keep refreshing my browser to see if my professor has posted grades yet”). Or we can become resentful and anxious, bucking against the reality that we have very little control over our circumstances (as in, “Forget this. It’s taking too long. I’m just going to escape into something [video games, eating, drinking, shopping] so I don’t have to think about it.”).
While giving in to our impatience can feel good in the moment, it often sends us spiraling downward into frustration—because even if we do send that email to check on the status of a job we applied for or to find out about the grades we’re waiting to be posted, the fact remains that we can’t do much to change the circumstances. We have a choice in moments of impatience: let Jesus cultivate our inner world or escape into destructive behaviors or attitudes.
“Ora et Labora”
So what can we do while we’re waiting to embrace the fruits of patience (self-control, restraint, and tolerance)? Another phrase that has stuck with me over the years is one my former boss Fred used to say: “ora et labora.” From Latin it translates to “pray and work.”
The world doesn’t stop while you’re waiting for something. There are things and people that still need your attention. Your own soul needs your attention too, as does your body. So, while you’re waiting, “ora et labora” by focusing your attention on something you actually do have influence over. Make a date to go bowling with friends, clean your bathroom fastidiously, read a novel, or cook a new food from a different country.
When I’m impatient, I find that menial things like these help me to “ora et labora.” I work on making naan bread and pray with thanks to Jesus for his control of my life and future. I work on cultivating the things I can pay attention to—my relationships with God, family, and friends—and thank God for the people in my life. I work on becoming healthier and not escaping into food or drink to comfort myself (green smoothie, anyone?). And I find that what grows within me as I wait and pray and work is something I’ve desired all along: love for God, myself, and others, along with greater self-control.
Patience is a virtue and a virtue can’t hurt you. So keep waiting. Work on what you can. And pray to Jesus—the one who is at work even while you wait for him to move.