The most excellent way (part 3): Patience and kindness

Love is patient, love is kind. — 1 Cor 13:4a

In 1 Corinthians 13:8, Paul declares that “Love never fails.”  We mortals, unfortunately, know all too well the failures of love: the many ways and instances in which we have failed to love others; the many hurts and disappointments we bear because of those who have not loved us truly.  But Paul can say this, of course, because whatever the ups and downs of human love, and specifically of Christian love, all true love has its origin in God.  It is God’s love that never fails.

Thus, as Paul launches his mini-sermon on love, it’s entirely appropriate to begin at the beginning, with God’s love for us.  True, Paul doesn’t say directly, “Let’s start by thinking about how God loves us poor sinners.”  But we would be remiss to jump straight to ruminating about our own patience and kindness without first hearing the echoes of the character of God, without being reminded of what we owe to his unfailing love.

In Paul’s Greek, “patient” and “kind” are actually verbs rather than adjectives (the same is true for the rest of the passage).  They describe not simply what love is, but what it does.  The King James renders the verb form of “patient” nicely by saying that love “suffereth long.”  Using more modern imagery, we might say that love has “a long fuse.”  The adjective meaning “kind” when applied to people can also be applied to “pleasant” things.  But only here in all of the New Testament is it used as a verb (English has no equivalent): love entails the active expression of kindness to others.

These are not two randomly selected words for niceness; they often appear together.  The Old Testament frequently describes the longsuffering and mercy of a holy God who is patient with his people’s sin.  It’s no surprise, then, that in Romans 2:4 Paul mentions divine patience and kindness together when warning Christians not to be so quick to pass judgment on each other: God is patient and kind with you, so don’t be such a hypocrite!

Patience and kindness are also mentioned together as expressions of the fruit of God’s Spirit in a believer’s life (Gal 5:22).  Similarly, Paul reminds his readers that he and other apostles show patience and kindness in their own lives as a result of the ministry of the Spirit, even in the face of great suffering (1 Cor 6:6).

Taken together, such texts suggest that Paul wants to begin by reminding us of God’s disposition toward us.  It is because of this that we are to be patient and kind toward one another: one might say that the fruit of the Spirit is the proper context for expressing the gifts of the Spirit.

We deserve the wrath of God, but receive his patience and kindness instead.  It might be worth meditating on that fact whenever we find ourselves lacking in patience and kindness toward others.