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An often forgotten attribute of God that takes the fear out of the spiritual life


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Anna O'Neil - published on 06/08/18

Thanks to this, I can start to move away from my “all or nothing” way of thinking ...

We’ve been told that the day of judgment will come like a thief in the night. “Keep watch,” Christ warns, “because you do not know the day or the hour.”

This basic truth always makes me a little bit frantic. There’s so much to do! I still have this mess of bad habits that need to be dealt with. And yikes, what about all those sins I haven’t even noticed yet?

You ever have those stress dreams where you’re packing up the house to move, but you have too few suitcases, too little time, and mountains of stuff to sort through? That’s the feeling. I know I need to be ready, but good grief, I have to be ready now?

There’s a very real theme of urgency throughout the Gospels, and we need to take that seriously. But I’ve noticed another theme emphasized, which balances out the panic: God’s tremendous patience.

“Slow to anger, and of great kindness is the Lord.” The refrain comes up again and again, especially in the Old Testament, before the Incarnation, when Christ came to show us in the flesh that he meant it. Right after God gives the Israelites the Ten Commandments, he proclaims the phrase in the same breath as his own holy name. “And [God] passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, ‘The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness.'”

What does it mean for us, if we have a God who is “slow to anger”? I think partly, it means that God is patient.

As a fairly new parent, I’m learning a lot about compromise. You don’t want your kids to watch even more TV, but dinner is burning, and at least two people are having a tantrum, so you do a little cost-benefit analysis. Neither situation is perfect, and a little screen time is better than the alternative, you figure, and that’s a legitimate choice. You know you can’t 100 percent achieve your vision for your life, at least not on that particular Tuesday afternoon, so you settle for what you can do right then to bring everyone a little peace.

I think there’s a lot of authentic “settling” that we need to be doing on our journey to heaven–which would never be okay, except for the astounding reality that God is patient with us.

For years, my spiritual life oscillated between despondency, and a slightly hysterical attitude of over-the-top zeal. (“Brace yourself God, because things are about to get ten thousand times holier around here!”) That’s partly because I didn’t really believe that God could be patient with my growth. I thought he needed me to be ready for heaven–right this very second.

God’s patience means I can start to move away from my “all or nothing” way of thinking, even while remembering that I have no idea when I am going to die. Of course, it doesn’t mean I don’t need to take my sins seriously, or that I should give myself time off from living out my faith. It’s not supposed to be an excuse.

It does mean, I hope, that it’s okay for me to take my personal growth in bite-sized pieces. After all, talking as if it’s strictly my personal growth is already silly. Every good thing comes through grace. Apart from God, we can literally, actually, do nothing. Any progress, any love or virtue that is in me, isn’t really my own, it’s God. It’s his work, just done with my (usually grudging) consent.

God didn’t make human beings to have infinite attention spans, or unlimited multitasking ability. So I guess he can’t really be asking me to work on literally all of my problems at the same time. It’s honestly not something my brain can do. He didn’t make me that way. My willpower, which I’d like to be much stronger, is going to take time to grow too. I can’t force that process, and God knows that.

I guess I need to remember that there is always going to be progress I need to make, and I can’t force the process. God is walking with me through my life, and that is all I really need.

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