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God Is Not Like Montgomery Burns

Matt Groening

Rebecca Ryskind Teti - published on 08/04/14

On the elusive and painfully-won virtue of patience.

I’m in the get-ready phase of the annual family road trip and contemplating patience. It’s not a flashy virtue. The balladeers sing of courage and the poets sing of love, or sometimes faith or hope, but no one writes poems about patience.

Well, there’s a bit of doggerel I learned from a wise and humorous Irish friend:

"Patience is a virtue;
Have it if you can.
Rarely in a woman;
Never in a man."

Gerard Manley Hopkins actually did manage an ode to patience, but his Patience, Hard Thing! doesn’t exactly sell the product if you know what I mean. Who asks for patience he says:

Wants war, wants wounds; weary his times, his tasks;
To do without, take tosses, and obey.

Which is to say: never pray for patience, because God is not like the fairy godmother. He’s not going to wave a wand and transform you painlessly. If you ask to be patient, he’ll send you the circumstances you need to build your character.

Do any of us actually want patience, anyway? I feel ashamed and ask forgiveness when I’m impatient with my kids. I hate seeing the ugly in myself, and I wish I were more patient, but what I really wish is that they’d quit bugging me when I’m in the middle of something—like writing a column about patience. 

Kathleen von Schaijik recently observed, “In every age, and in various ways, we are tempted to reject the freedom given to us in the Holy Spirit, and place ourselves under laws of our own making. We resist authentic freedom…”

She was writing in a completely different context, but her observation strikes me as true for the way we consider the virtues, too. We tend to reduce them to the rules we must follow, losing sight of the grandeur and purpose that would make what we must do more attractive to us—and because more attractive, more easily put into practice.

The purpose of patience, for example, is joy. It flows from the cardinal virtue of fortitude and helps us to bear sufferings of any kind without sadness of spirit or dejection of heart. We cannot have joy without patience, in fact. Which is interesting, since we tend to think exactly the reverse: I would have joy if you people would quit trying my patience!

Scripture tells us that God himself is patient to a specific end. The book of Wisdom says:

"though you are master of might, you judge with clemency, and with much lenience you govern us; … And you taught your people, by these deeds, that those who are just must be kind; and you gave your children good ground for hope that you would permit repentance for their sins."
Or again in 2 Peter we read: “the Lord does not delay His promise, as some regard ‘delay,’ but He is patient with you, not wishing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.”
God’s patience then flows from his love and his mercy. He wants to save every one of us. When he allows the weeds to grow up among the wheat, he’s not merely protecting the good who might be pulled up accidentally. Nor is he biding his time like cartoonish Montgomery Burns because “revenge is a dish best served cold.” The purpose of patience is holding off condemnation in the hopes of repentance and salvation.

One of the best men I ever knew was the late Herbert Romerstein, a Jew who had been a Communist but later repented. I’ll never forget something he said when my mom asked him the source of his incredible patience and good humor with his ideological enemies—some of whom literally conspired to kill him as FBI sources would reveal. He seemed rather embarrassed by the praise, shrugged and said simply, “I always remembered that I was an ex-Communist and anyone I spoke to could also be an ex-Communist.”

That humble remembering of who we are and where we’ve come from that gives us hope for others is the motivation for patience, too. It’s not the virtue of repression of desires, but rather the ability to want the good for another person and to remember that he or she is my brother or sister in Christ, at least in potential.

We are to be patient because we want all men to be saved, and so we think of them, speak to them and interact with them in ways that reflect that truth. Perhaps that is why the great hymn to love in Corinthians 13 lists patience as the first quality of charity. Patience is the virtue of the lover who rejoices in the existence of the other.

Rebecca Ryskind Tetiis a wife & mother, and director of women’s programs at Our Lady of Bethesda Retreat Center in Bethesda, MD.

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