A strange kind of patience

In recent years, much has been written about the therapeutic benefit of “mindfulness.” Definitions of the term vary. The basic idea, however, is that we need the ability to notice our thoughts, feelings, and sensations, and to be curious and accepting toward them instead of judgmental.

That doesn’t mean that I suddenly believe that it’s “right,” for example, to be mad at my wife. But it does mean that I won’t truly be able to deal constructively with my anger until I (a) notice that I’m angry, (b) admit and own that this is the fact of what I’m feeling at the moment, (c) stop trying to will the feeling out of existence, and instead, (d) get curious about where it’s coming from and how I might choose to think or respond differently.

Research on mindfulness abounds; there is little doubt that learning to be more mindful is better for our physical and emotional health. But it takes practice to not get carried away by our typical and automatic negative reactions.

Lots of practice.

. . .

There are so many reasons to be upset or angry, so many ways in which the world and our relationships are broken or askew. The ongoing curse of sin and brokenness — ours and everybody else’s — worms its way into every nook, cranny, and crevice of our life together. We’re not always aware of it; we don’t always pay attention. It’s easier to look the other way.

But when we do notice, when the truth of brokenness and injustice crashes upon us, we may lament with the psalmist: How long, God? How long?

As we’ve seen, Psalm 37 tackles head on how we react to the disconnect between what is and what should be. When we see wicked people flourishing and the righteous languishing — especially when we’re in the latter category! — it’s easy to get confused, envious, angry, and resentful. “Don’t fret,” the psalmist says. “Instead, cultivate your trust in God and a delight in his goodness. Strengthen your commitment to his way. Be still, be patient, and wait for God to act.”

But again, how long? Are we supposed to be able to go into a patient, mindful, meditative state with the snap of our fingers? With practice, perhaps. The active cultivation of trust, delight, and commitment would make it easier. But the psalmist’s wisdom is clear-eyed and realistic: I know things seem upside-down and unfair. You fret over it. You want to get mad. But don’t give in to the temptation — it will lead you astray. Stop complaining; still your tongue. Wait patiently.

And as I suggested in the previous post, the kind of patience he’s describing is strange indeed — but eminently relatable.

. . .

The twisting of an oak tree in a mighty storm. The contortions of an animal in labor. This is the word used in both Psalm 29:9 and Psalm 37:7, a word that can also be translated simply as “wait.” It is not a picture of calm and serenity, of meditative stillness. It is not the picture of “patience” that we’ve been taught.

But it can be the reality of what it means to wait for God to act when we’re surrounded with brokenness.

I’m reminded of what Paul wrote in Romans 8. We’re used to hearing verse 28 quoted in the face of life’s difficulties: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (NRSV). Often, the subtext is a kind of spiritual optimism: “So cheer up! Quit moping and get it together; everything’s going to be fine.” But that kind of insistent sunniness seems to fly in the face of what Paul says before:

We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. (Rom 8:22-25)

Again, this seems like an odd kind of patience. We see the brokenness of creation and the “sufferings of this present time” (Rom 8:18), and we groan. True, like a woman in labor, we look forward eagerly to the birth of new life, the revelation of what we hope for but cannot yet see. But labor is labor. There is pain, immense pain. There is writhing. Sometimes, the groaning is such that we can’t even pray. But the astonishing good news is that the Holy Spirit meets us in our groaning, and prays through us and for us, “with sighs too deep for words” (vs. 26).

Patience in the face of all that seems wrong or unfair is not the denial or squelching of our impatience. It is not the top-down imposition of calm — as if such a thing could actually work. We understand why a person whose husband is on the operating table might fret. We empathize with the parent whose teenage daughter is three hours past curfew and not answering her phone. We groan and grit our teeth when we hear yet another story of how the powerful have abused the weak.

It is not faithless to writhe. The gift of hope and patience comes to us in the midst of suffering, in the ability to remember the goodness and beauty of God despite the ugliness of sin and a broken world. We reach out to that God, and we keep reaching.

Wait. Breathe. Wait.