Lord, grant me…patients?

Imagine the physician with that prayer hanging on his or her office wall…!

Many (many!) years ago, when I began training as a therapist, I was taught never to refer to a counselee as a “patient.” The politically correct term was “client.” It still is.

Mostly, we have the late Carl Rogers to thank for that shift. Much of therapy at the time was practiced by MDs, and Rogers wanted to get away from the paternalism typically associated with the doctor-patient relationship. The language of counselor and client helped level the playing field.

I appreciate the intent. But in changing the language, we’ve lost something important.

The word “client” conveys the image of a fee-for-service professional relationship. One person has the expertise, the other pays for it. And there is an implied contractual relationship: we expect to get what we pay for.

But is that really the image therapists want?

I understand that the word “patient” has its own negative associations, particularly for those who have been treated by doctors who only saw them as clusters of symptoms and not people. At its root, the word refers to someone who suffers, one to whom things happen or to whom things are done. Anyone who’s had to spend time as a “patient” in a hospital knows how that feels.

By extension, then, one who is patient (now as an adjective instead of a noun) is able to endure suffering.

For all the people around me who are struggling with long-term medical conditions, patience is definitely a virtue. Wait to get an appointment with a doctor. Arrive at your appointment and wait for the doctor. Submit to tests. Wait for a diagnosis. Try some treatment. And go through the whole routine again, possibly multiple times, before finding something that works.

If anything works.

I’m grateful for what doctors are able to do. I’m grateful for their knowledge and expertise. I’m grateful to my surgeon, who dealt with one setback after another while I lay on the table for eight hours. Because of his dedication, my own chronic condition is almost 100% better than it was before.

But medicine is an inexact science, and there is much that doctors still don’t know and can’t do. Patients continue to suffer. Either they learn to endure, or their impatience will add to their suffering.

When a diagnosis is clear and treatment possible, we want doctors with expert knowledge, even if they lack a little something in their bedside manner. But we always want doctors who will walk with us in our suffering, who can help us endure. It’s one thing to be passive patients; it’s another to actively cultivate patience.

And we’re not just talking about medicine, but life.

At some point in our human relationships — at least in the ones that matter — we will suffer and will cause others to suffer. That’s true even of the relationships between believers. The indignities and offenses may be small or large, easily forgotten or the center of endless rumination.

But Jesus calls his followers to love one another (John 13:34-35). By adding that love is patient (1 Cor 13:4), Paul forces us to stop and consider: what are we willing to suffer for the sake of a higher good? And how can we cultivate that kind of love in our attitude and behavior?

We can at least start with this: we can remember that we worship and serve a patient God who was willing to suffer the worst treatment imaginable — for our good.