What is patience?

What is God’s definition of patient? Patience is considered a virtue and it is a fruit of the Spirit, but how patient do we have to be in order for God to consider us patient?

Genesis 18 tells us about an occasion when Yahweh appeared to Abraham and waited several hours for something to eat. His patience in that situation is an illustration to us of the Biblical concept of patience. Let’s look at this event to see what we learn about patience, but before we get into the text, let me mention a textual detail.

In the NASB and ESV translations, any time the word “LORD” is in all uppercase letters, the Hebrew word that was used there is “Yahweh”, God’s personal name. When the word “Lord” is in all lowercase letters or a mixture of upper and lower case letters, the Hebrew word that was used is a word that means master or sir.

The word “lord” appears twice in the following verses. In verse 1 it is in all uppercase letters. This tells us that it was Yahweh Himself, the one and only true God, who appeared to Abraham. In verse 3, the word “Lord” is a mixture of upper and lower case letters because it is a translation of the Hebrew word “adon” which means master. Abraham used “adon” to refer to three men because it was a term of respect, similar to how we use the word “sir” in our culture. As you read these verses, be aware that the pronouns “he” and “him” refer to Abraham.

Gen. 18:1 ¶ Now the LORD appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre, while he was sitting at the tent door in the heat of the day.

Gen. 18:2 When he lifted up his eyes and looked, behold, three men were standing opposite him; and when he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them and bowed himself to the earth,

Gen. 18:3 and said, “My Lord, if now I have found favor in Your sight, please do not pass Your servant by.

Gen. 18:4 “Please let a little water be brought and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree;

Gen. 18:5 and I will bring a piece of bread, that you may refresh yourselves; after that you may go on, since you have visited your servant.” And they said, “So do, as you have said.”

Picture of bedouin tents

Abraham lived in tents. The lifestyle represented by this bedouin tent located in the Israeli wilderness may be similar to the lifestyle that Abraham lived.

Abraham was being hospitable and offered to give the three men something to eat. In our culture, if you stop by someone’s house and they offer you something to eat, how long would you wait for food before you would get impatient? An hour, two hours? As you are waiting, would you expect to be entertained? As you read the following verses, notice the words “hurried” and “quickly”, but calculate how long it actually took Abraham to give the men some food and ask yourself if you would get impatient if you had to wait that long. Also, think about what the three men might have been doing while they waited.

Gen. 18:6 So Abraham hurried into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Quickly, prepare three measures of fine flour, knead it and make bread cakes.”

Gen. 18:7 Abraham also ran to the herd, and took a tender and choice calf and gave it to the servant, and he hurried to prepare it.

Gen. 18:8 He took curds and milk and the calf which he had prepared, and placed it before them; and he was standing by them under the tree as they ate.

Abraham and Sarah were hurrying, but it still took them hours to prepare the food. Sarah had to grind the flour, knead it and bake it. This would have taken several hours. Also, the calf had to be slaughtered, butchered, and cooked. This also would have taken several hours. So after Abraham offered the men some food, the men waited hours before they were presented with something to eat. What did the men do while they were waiting? How did they pass the time? They didn’t have TV to entertain them like we do. Did the men get impatient?

Technology enables us to do things at a speed that is unprecedented in human history, but this ability to do things fast has distorted our concept of patience. In Biblical times, the length of time needed to perform the basic tasks of daily life would have made them much more patient than we are. What we consider patient may in fact be very impatient by Biblical standards. As we go about our lives and strive to live the fruits of the Spirit, let’s remember that the Biblical definition of patience is much different than ours, and achieving God’s standard of patience requires much more patience than is normal for our society.


Further Reading

Is Yahweh worthy of our allegiance?

What is the proper perspective to have about ourselves?


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“Scripture quotations taken from the NASB.”