There are certain Bible verses believers tend to memorize. John 3:16 is the most famous. Another one might be Psalm 23; Romans 8:28 another. Believers also memorize passages that include lists, such as the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22.
1 Corinthians 13 contains a list, one I memorized long ago. It's known as the love chapter for in it, Paul describes what love looks like:
"Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things" (vs. 4-7).
The version I learned listed the first quality of love as “patient.” When I think of being patient, I think of reminding my kids every day to wash their hands. Or I think about waiting for the nurse to call my name to see the doctor. I think of patience as not getting irritated by little inconveniences or overlooking weaknesses and idiosyncrasies in others or learning to wait for things to happen.
To begin with, patience might not be the best word to use, at least for how we tend to use the word today. We use the word patience to mean being able to accept delays or problems without getting annoyed. The King James uses the phrase "suffereth long" instead of patience. Long-suffering, in contrast to patience, means patiently enduring lasting offense or hardship. It is suffering long for the sake of love.
Jonathan Edwards wrote that suffering long has to do with the evil or injury received from others. He wrote, "he, therefore, that exercises a Christian long-suffering toward his neighbor, will bear the injuries received from him without revenging or retaliating, either by injurious deeds or bitter words...He will receive all with a calm, undisturbed countenance, and with a soul full of meekness, quietness, and goodness."
In this sermon, Edwards answers the question, "Why is it called long-suffering?" "We should persevere and continue in a quiet frame, without ceasing still to love our neighbor, not only when he injures us a little, but when he injures us much, and the injuries he does us are great...We should meekly continue to bear them though they are long continued, even to the end." He mentions that there are times when we need to defend ourselves from someone who has been unkind, in those times, "we are not to do it out of revenge, or to injure him that has injured us, but only for needful self-defense." Even then, Edwards wrote that we do so out of a Christian spirit and for the purposes of peace. (To be honest, that sounds like something I've said to my kids during their conflicts with one another!).
This nuance or deeper meaning to "Love is patient" makes me look at the love I have for others in a new way. It's easy to love those who treat me well, but those who don't? That's hard. It's hard to love those who let me down time and time again. Those who disappoint me over and over. It's hard to love people who fail to encourage me or build me up. In fact, I tend to resist loving people who are not kind to me first. And what about those with whom I have constant ongoing problems and conflicts? Especially those in the church? I am to love them to the end.
Understanding patience as long-suffering makes Colossians 3:12-13 make sense: "Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive" (italics mine). The phrase, "bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other" makes sense when we look at patience as long-suffering, instead of merely not getting annoyed with one another.
In fact, we love others with long-suffering love because that's how God loves us. Edwards wrote, "they that love God will be thankful to him for the abundant long-suffering that he has exercised toward them in particular. They that love God as they ought, will have such a sense of his wonderful long-suffering toward them under the many injuries they have offered to him, that it will seem to them but a small thing to bear with the injuries that have been offered to them by their fellowmen. All the injuries they have ever received from others, in comparison with those they have offered to God, will appear less than a few pence in comparison with ten thousand talents." That's what it means in Colossians 3, "as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive."
Jonathan Edwards points out that a main root of long-suffering is humility. When we love God, it tends to lower our estimation of ourselves because we—like Isaiah who stood before the throne and cried out "Woe is me!"—see the truth of our sinfulness in comparison to a perfect, holy, and righteous God. To love God is to have humility. And Edwards wrote that "humility is always found connected with long-suffering."
John Calvin agreed. In his commentary on Ephesians 4:2 ("with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love") he pointed out that humility is listed first; we need humility before we can give long-suffering love to others. "Let us carefully observe the order and arrangement of these exhortations. It will be to no purpose that we inculcate forbearance till the natural fierceness has been subdued, and mildness acquired; and it will be equally vain to discourse of meekness, till we have begun with humility."
In truth, I considered patience hard enough to practice when I thought of it as not getting annoyed over delays or problems! Understanding patience as suffering long seems near impossible. But as Edwards points out, "do you think the injuries you have received from your fellowman are more than you have offered to God?..Have his offenses been more heinous or aggravated, or more in number, than yours have been against your Creator, Benefactor, and Redeemer?.. Do you not hope that God will have mercy upon you, and that Christ will embrace you in his dying love, though you have been such an injurious enemy, and that, through his grace, he will blot out your transgressions and all your offenses against him, and make you eternally his child, and an heir of his kingdom?"
God is gracious and has given us the Spirit who is at work in us even now, developing long-suffering love in us, "But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness" (Galatians 5:22, italics mine). Long-suffering does not come naturally to us in our sin nature, but as new creations, the Spirit enables us to love as our Savior has loved us.
So when I find it hard to love with long-suffering, I must remember Christ and his long-suffering love toward me. How can I do no less than what Christ has done?