The best word to describe God’s patience is “longsuffering,” a word found 4 times in the Old Testament and 5 times in the New Testament. Each time it’s used in conjunction with God’s wrath. Someone deserves judgment, but instead of punishing them right away, God waits until they’ve had a chance to repent.
Exodus 34 is the first example. God saves His people out of Egypt by His mighty power and gives them the 10 Commandments as an expression of His holiness. So what do they do? They break the first two commandments by worshiping a golden calf, which means they all deserve to die. But instead of getting wrath, they get mercy. Why? Verse 6 says it’s because God is patient: “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.” But does this mean that our sin no longer makes Him angry? No, for verse 7 immediately adds: “He does not leave the guilty unpunished; He punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.” The point is: God interjects His patience not to eliminate His wrath, but to delay it long enough for us to repent and be saved.
Another example is Paul, the great persecutor of the church, who so despised the name of Christ that he pursued Christians everywhere, dragging them out of their homes, casting them into prison, and putting them to death. But instead of striking him dead and casting him into hell, God was patient with him, not only giving him a chance to repent, but making him the first great missionary of the church. Paul explains why in 1 Timothy 1:15-16, “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners —of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display His immense patience as an example for those who would believe in Him and receive eternal life.” The reason God was patient with Paul was to prove God’s ability to save anyone, even you and me! For no one has ever needed more of God’s patience than Paul.
But the best example of God’s patience is His mercy toward you. Think of all the ways you’ve offended Him, all the times you’ve known the right thing to do and did not do it, and all the chances you had to respond to His mercy and didn’t. But rather than cutting you off the first or second or hundredth time, Christ kept knocking at the door of your heart, giving you another chance to believe. Why? Because He’s a great Savior and patient God! Romans 9:22 asks, “What if God, although choosing to show His wrath and make His power known, bore with great patience the objects of His wrath—prepared for destruction? What if He did this to make the riches of His glory known to the objects of His mercy, whom He prepared in advance for glory?” Paul says God has been patient with us for two reasons: 1) To give us, the objects of His mercy, a chance to be saved; 2) To demonstrate His mercy to everyone, so they’ll realize, “I can be forgiven too!”
Unfortunately, not everyone responds like that. Many interpret God’s patience as an indication that He doesn’t exist or that He’s soft on sin. Solomon warns in Ecclesiastes 8:11, “Because the sentence against an evil deed is not executed speedily, the heart of the children of man is fully set to do evil.” Pastor Joseph Parker shared the example of Robert Ingersoll, the famous skeptic. After giving a speech on the folly of believing in God, Ingersoll pulled a watch from his pocket and said, “According to the Bible, God has struck men dead for blasphemy. I will blaspheme God and give Him 5 minutes to strike me dead and damn my soul.” No one said a word the first minute. Two minutes passed and the crowd grew nervous. Three minutes went by and a woman fainted. Four minutes and Ingersoll began to sneer. At five minutes, he snapped his watch shut, put it back in his pocket, and said, “As I said, there is no God, or He would have taken me at my word.” Later, when asked about it, Dr. Parker replied, “And did the American gentlemen think that he could exhaust the patience of God in 5 minutes?”
A similar story is told about the evangelist, Dwight L. Moody. Walking the streets of Chicago, he saw an atheist standing on the corner ranting and raving against the idea of God. As he listened, the atheist took out his watch and said, “I’ll give God, if there is a God, 60 seconds to knock me to the ground.” This was too much for Moody who took off his coat, walked up to the man, and knocked him to the ground saying, “Never ask God to do something that his humble servant can mighty well take care of himself.” If the story is true, Moody was probably out of line. But his point was well taken. Just because God isn’t judging us this very moment doesn’t mean He won’t judge us at all. For you can only tickle the chin of a sleeping lion so long before he pounces on you.
So don’t be fooled! The fact that God is tolerating your sin today says nothing about what He’ll do tomorrow. For His patience is only intended to delay, not eliminate His wrath. In fact, the very word “longsuffering” implies that it’s only for time and not for eternity. He suffers long, but not forever! Therefore, what’s the best thing for us to do? To turn to Him today while we still have the chance. This is Peter’s closing argument in the letter known by his name. He warns that many will scoff at the promise of Christ’s return because He hasn’t returned yet. But instead of being a reason for disbelief, it’s a reason for repentance. For “do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping His promise, as some understand slowness. Instead He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.”
(Next time the topic will be “God’s Patience as a Father”)