I've heard it dozens of times; perhaps you have too. "Don't pray for patience," people say. "You know what happens if you do." The implication is that God will answer a prayer for patience by sending difficulties our way. I'm not so sure. It seems silly to think that we can avoid hardship just by not praying for patience. "In this world you will have trouble," Jesus told his disciples (John 16:33, NIV). Sooner or later, trouble is bound to come our way; it's part of life. Jesus adds, "But take heart! I have overcome the world." Rather than fearing difficulties, we would be better off resting in the sure knowledge that God will use the hardships of this world to make us more like him.
I had occasion to think about these matters recently as I was recovering from surgery. Though the surgery had been successful, I was re-hospitalized a couple weeks later with complications. For the next month, I experienced a good deal of discomfort and could do much less than I had anticipated. I was of course unhappy with the setback. After a while, though, I started focusing more on the ways I might benefit from this reversal than on my immediate affliction. What might God be doing in my life by way of this suffering?
Not surprisingly, the first thing that came to mind was patience. While I was convalescing, I came across an article by Tobias Winright, a professor at St. Louis University, who has been recovering for the past four years from a head injury sustained in a fall. He was initially quite annoyed with the limitations imposed by his injury. He found, though, that patience “is essential to being a patient.” He quotes the early Christian leader Tertullian, who wrote that “patience is God’s nature,” so followers of Christ should likewise display patience. Winright found that he not only became more patient with the slowness of his recovery, but also with the people around him.
I admit that patience wasn't my first response to my setback. With time and prayer, though, I noticed that I was becoming more peaceful, more accepting of whatever pace my recovery assumed. I had a greater difficulty becoming more patient with others, especially when I was in pain. With time, though, I became more understanding of them, remembering that, just as I was going through difficulties, they might be, too.
I also noticed an increase in gratitude. It seemed that, whenever I was tempted to feel sorry for myself, something happened to remind me of what I still was able to do and to enjoy. I could enjoy my food, converse with friends, read, write, walk, and even drive short distances. And, though it had sidelined me longer than expected, the surgery achieved its goal of removing cancer from my body. While I was waiting to heal, it seemed that almost every day I heard of someone with a more serious health condition than what I had. My difficulties seemed smaller and smaller in comparison. Plus, I had received excellent medical care at a very reasonable cost. Given how good I had it, how could I complain?
The next benefit was humility. For decades, I worked hard at taking care of my body. I exercised four days a week, ate plenty of fruits and vegetables, cut down on salt and sweets, and got enough sleep. As a result, I had very few health problems. All that is good. There was a problem, though, with my attitude regarding health and illness. I wasn’t as sympathetic as I might have been with those in poor health who hadn’t made quite the effort at healthy living that I had. I think pride in my own efforts had crept in. Of course I had always been aware that factors outside my control played a significant role in my health, but I needed to be reminded of that. Having seen firsthand how little it takes to become infirm, I'm now less likely to take credit for my health. I’m more humble, for I know that physical well-being, while influenced by what we do, is primarily a gift from God. It's a blessing that we can’t earn.
Finally there’s hope. A couple weeks into my ordeal, I happened to listen to a sermon on the following verses in Romans:
"And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us." (Romans 5:2b-5)
There's little need to persevere when all is going well. When, on the other hand, there are difficulties, we have a choice--we can give up, lapsing into self-pity, or we can decide to stand firm--to persevere. Habitually persevering changes our character, opening the doors of our souls to hope. Hope consists in an expectation of a positive future. Romans 5 promises that such an expectation is not in vain, because we are recipients of God's love. When I was struggling, I realized that for much of my life the hope that I had, though real, was negligible. It was like a light shining at noontime, not making much difference in how I perceived the world. Only when darkness descended did hope become indispensable. In its radiance I could see the glorious future awaiting those whom Christ has redeemed.
What a remarkable harvest had come from the my time of trouble! Our sufferings are not in vain. God uses adversity to shape us into the very likeness of his Son. From now on, I won't hesitate to pray for patience--and ask for gratitude, humility, and hope while I'm at it!
Rev. Joel Vande Werken
Rev. Joel Vande Werken