Patience is one of God’s perfections. In the Christian, patience is a grace wrought by the work of the Holy Spirit; and it is cultivated and perfected through suffering and sorrow. But in God, patience is an essential attribute of His being, a part of His nature, so perfect that He needs no nurturing of it through some disciplinary process. God is never without patience. He is infinitely patient.
In Exodus 34:6, the LORD Himself proclaimed, “The LORD, The LORD God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth.” Numbers 14:18 says, “The LORD is longsuffering, and of great mercy, forgiving iniquity and transgression, and by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation.” In Nehemiah 9:17, we read, “thou art a God ready to pardon, gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and forsookest them not” (cf. Psalms 86:15; 103:8; 145:8; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2; Nahum 1:3).
How can we define God’s patience? It can be described as God’s restraint of His wrath and power against man’s sins. In other words, it is descriptive of His forbearance of the wicked. As the prophet Nahum wrote, “The LORD is slow to anger and great in power” (Nahum 1:3). Patience denotes the moderation of His provoked justice; His forbearance to revenge immediately the injuries He meets with daily in such a rebellious world.
While explaining the patience of God, Stephen Charnock, the “prince of puritans”, wrote, “Men that are great in the world are quick in passion, and are not so ready to forgive an injury, or bear with an offender, as one of a meaner rank. It is a want of power over that man’s self that makes him do unbecoming things upon a provocation. A prince that can bridle his passions is a king over himself as well as over his subjects. God is slow to anger because He is great in power. He has no less power over Himself than over His creatures.” Puritan writers like Charnock have explained the patience of God as His power over His own passions when dealing with man.
When a person does not have the power to resent an offence or to punish defiance, though he would very much desire to do so, his forbearing is not patience, but simply weakness. That person is merely bound by his frailty. But it is not the case with God’s patience. God is all-powerful; He is always capable of bringing His righteous wrath upon transgressors at any time at His will. He could damn all His enemies in one breath. Yet, He arrests His wrath from instantly destroying men, and that is because He is patient. So, patience is not a weakness in God, but His perfect and powerful virtue. Octavius Winslow, a preacher-friend of Charles Spurgeon, wrote, “The power of God is more manifest in His patience to a multitude of sinners than it could be in creating millions of worlds out of nothing; this was a power over Himself.”
God’s Patience Towards a Provocative Human Race
If we think about the immensity of mankind’s innumerable and despicable sins that provoke God every single moment, we would then have a glimpse of the limitless nature of God’s patience. Man’s provocation of God is great, universal and constant. Every second, billions of people cast themselves into every kind of wicked imaginations, having no reverence for the holy and just God. The more we realize the enormity of humanity’s rebellion, the more we wonder at the immeasurably vast patience of God that restrains His just vengeance against their sins. If not for His patience, the earth would be filled with ruined cities and slain bodies of rebellious people. Psalm 78:38 reminds us, “But he, being full of compassion, forgave their iniquity, and destroyed them not: yea, many a time turned he his anger away, and did not stir up all his wrath.”
Man should be careful not to think of God’s patience that restrains the quick execution of the divine wrath against all his sins as God’s condoning of sins. God hates all sins though He is long-suffering with the sinner. Sooner or later, God’s wrath would fall upon the sinner. So, let the sinner repent while His patience provides him another occasion by the restraining of His holy wrath against his sins.
God’s early warnings of the coming judgment against men’s sins are also a manifestation of His patience. Instead of immediately punishing sinners, God is seen sending a warning to them. The warning is gone forth, but the execution lingers. In this regard, God’s dealing with the city of Nineveh is a good example of His patience. God said about Nineveh that “their wickedness is come up before me” (Jonah 1:2b). So God sent Jonah to that city and told them, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown” (Jonah 3:4b). Instead of sending instant punishment for their sins, God set a forty-day period before He would execute His threat. This was certainly a sign of God’s patience and mercy towards that city. This expression of His patience, through threat or warning of judgment after a period of time, provided Nineveh with an opportunity to repent from its sins. Impenitent sinner! God is giving you space and time to repent, and He expects you to repent lest you perish!
So often, God’s patience also makes His punishment of sinners lighter than His threatening against them. The stroke is made lighter than what the crime deserves by His patience. If God would exhaust the vials of His displeasure upon sinful man, who can bear? His patience towards us has made His punishment less severe than our provocations warrant. The sword of His vengeance is dipped in heaven’s tender mercies and patience, so that we might not quickly be consumed by His wrath.
It is even more wondrous that His patience is still awaiting the repentance of many more gruesome sinners. But for the infinite restraint God puts upon Himself, this fallen world could not exist a moment. Thus the patience of God works for the salvation of man. “…God, willing to shew his wrath, and to make his power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction: and that he might make known the riches of his glory on the vessels of mercy, which he had afore prepared unto glory” (Romans 9:22-23).
Peter spoke of God’s amazing patience towards the transgressors of Noah’s time – “Which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing” (1 Peter 3:20). It is also the case today. Like Noah and his family who embraced the Lord’s enormous patience that manifested in their days, we should also quickly turn away from our sins to the Lord for redemption and sanctification. We will do well if we remember Peter’s words that “the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation” (2 Peter 3:15).
Even though He is aware of all the innumerable provocations of all men, He has been patient with them. Oh, what patience and mercy has He been showing to sinful men! So, sinner, rejoice in His patience and quickly turn from your sin to Christ for forgiveness. Delay no longer!