“Stay angry, Little Meg,” Mrs. Whatsit whispered. “You will need all your anger now.” —Madeleine L’Engle, A Wrinkle in Time
My parents named me “Christopher James,” desiring that I would become a “carrier of Christ” and that I might have “the patience of James.” It’s a little daunting to think of myself ferrying (-pher) Christ around with me—though I suppose that’s true for all of us who follow Jesus Christ. My dad once shared that James’ patience came through in these verses: “Be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires” (James 1:19-20). Patience, marked by a slowness to anger, has become one of the tangible ways of demonstrating that I am carrying Christ with me into my work, my relationships, and other aspects of my daily living.
While I have no doubt that patience is a virtue, and my name notwithstanding, I am also convinced that I am too often guilty of the sin of excessive patience.
Restraint Is Not Enough
Some of the Heidelberg Catechism’s clearest and most pointed teaching comes in response to the Ten Commandments. In particular, I have found that the questions and answers related to “you shall not murder” are prophetically applicable today.
After declaring that keeping this commandment includes “my thoughts, my words, my look and gesture” and that we are not to be party to murdering others through any of these means (Q&A 105), the Catechism teaches that keeping the sixth command requires digging out the “envy, hatred, anger, and vindictiveness” rooted within our hearts (Q&A 106).
That teaching confronts many of the ways we engage on social media, particularly the slander, gossip, demeaning memes, and other ways that we often speak about people who are ethnically different from us or who hold different political views than we do. Those two questions and answers have taught me a lot about my personal responsibility in guarding the dignity of those I talk with and about.
But it’s Q&A 107 that has convicted me the most:
Q. Is it enough then that we do not murder our neighbor in any such way?
A. No. By condemning envy, hatred, and anger God wants us to love our neighbors as ourselves, to be patient, peace-loving, gentle, merciful, and friendly toward them, to protect them from harm as much as we can, and to do good even to our enemies.
The absence of direct personal involvement in harming my neighbors is not enough. Just because I did not gossip with my friends does not mean that I am guiltless. Not sharing a post that slams one politician or another does not mean I’ve kept the sixth commandment. Simply refraining from personally murdering another person’s body or character is not enough.
The Catechism’s teaching calls us to spend ourselves—to do as much as we can—to protect our neighbors and even our enemies from harm.
But what harm does Q&A 107 refer to? Expanding on the previous two Q&A’s, 107 includes all the ways that our neighbors are harmed. We keep the sixth commandment when we protect our neighbors from anything that demeans, diminishes, or threatens the dignity and sanctity of their lives. While the authors of the Heidelberg Catechism did not use today’s language of systemic injustice, their expansion here into a third Q&A on the sixth commandment certainly implies that they saw another layer of harm beyond the personal injuries addressed in the previous two Q&A’s.
While recognizing that I may be ignorant to some personal privileges and prejudices that I need to overcome, the Catechism’s teaching prompts me to wonder about my own hesitancy toward and even resistance to considering how others experience all kinds of harm for systemic reasons:
- How am I doing “all I can” to prevent harm that comes when community members and police view Black men as pre-existing threats that need to be followed while shopping in retail stores, pulled over when driving in the “wrong” neighborhood, or confronted and even shot and killed while walking?
- Am I willing to spend myself, like Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative do, on addressing the harm that comes with unequal access to defense attorneys and with judicial sentencing biases that disproportionately remove Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color (BIPOC) from their families and communities?
- How am I acting to prevent harm being done to children and youth whose vulnerabilities are exposed and exploited at the southern border of the United States?
- Have I done anything substantive to redress the generational poverty among and socioeconomic harm done to the Native American and First Nations communities—harm that can be traced to broken treaties, discriminatory laws, dehumanizing court decisions, church-run residential schools, and violently enforced relocations?
- Am I willing to develop and facilitate church leadership structures that intentionally resist and seek to overcome the emotional and physical harm inflicted by fellow (mostly white) Christians who have repeatedly questioned, doubted, justified, and even blamed our BIPOC siblings for the discrimination and violence committed against them?
Our sisters and brothers aren’t often dying because of what we have personally done, but because of what we continually leave undone. Many of us white Christians in North America have somehow convinced ourselves not to risk our time, energy, reputation, or resources protecting the well-being of others, especially people of color. And the Spirit, through the Catechism’s summary of Scripture, declares us—declares me—guilty of murder for not doing “as much as we can” in response to the harming of our neighbors. Personal restraint from actively killing my neighbors is not enough. Loving our neighbors beckons us to leverage all that we have and all that we are to protect our neighbors from all harm.
With Tempered Impatience
So what can it look like to love our neighbors like this? Our World Belongs to God describes faithful living this way: “With tempered impatience, eager to see injustice ended, we expect the Day of the Lord” (OWBTG, 6).
The presence of injustice calls for the virtue of “tempered impatience.” The adjective ”tempered” is important here. Used in metallurgy and chocolate confectionery, tempering involves heating and cooling an element in order to strengthen it, making it more resilient to future stressors. Steel becomes more durable; chocolate becomes less prone to melting and more likely to hold a molded shape.
When applied to our conversation, an unqualified impatience is messy, tends to lose its form, and is prone to explosions and meltdowns. But a tempered impatience has developed a resiliency that enhances a person’s ability to persevere under trial and to stand strong in response to external stresses.
Essentially, tempering impatience helps remove the internal fault lines in our character that would lead us to respond to a situation out of self-righteousness, contempt, hatred, self-protection, or some other malformed disposition. When left unchecked, these character faults often lead us to respond to injustice by demonizing those who are perpetrating injustice or blaming those who are being treated unjustly while justifying ourselves. Unqualified impatience does not have the capacity to recognize and honor the image of God in another.
While injustice harms victims, perpetrators, and bystanders alike, the biblical narrative consistently reveals God to be one who chooses to come alongside those who are most vulnerable to injustice and to be impatient toward those in authority who harm and commit injustices. Even more, in Jesus Christ, God willingly enters the suffering that unfolds in the midst of overcoming injustice. From this perspective, the process of tempering our impatience is really about the Holy Spirit forming us to be more like Jesus, including growing the character of God’s tempered impatience with all that harms our neighbors. Injustice ought to anger us into action with the Spirit—and all of our anger is needed to protect our neighbors from harm.
But Isn’t Love Patient?
While leaning into anger at injustice, this tempered impatience is not an excuse to be intolerant toward other people, to mistreat those who perpetuate injustice, or to besmirch their character. The Spirit also teaches us: “In your anger do not sin” (Eph. 4:26). Rather, as 1 Corinthians 13 teaches us, love expresses itself through patience and, I would suggest, particularly in patience toward those who commit atrocious, egregious sins. Jesus extends his call to love our neighbors to include loving our enemies, a beckoning that undoubtedly requires a great deal of long-suffering.
But patiently, faithfully loving other people does not dismiss or diminish our need to name, resist, and overcome the means by which they harm our neighbors. We can pray for God to transform a church, government, business, or neighborhood leader while also praying and working for that person’s or agency’s removal from a position where they can continue harming others. Patience with people, including those positioned as our ideological and physical enemies, does not mean we are patient with the harm they inflict. As Jemar Tisby says, “Justice takes sides.”
Confident, Realistic Hope
One final thought: This tempered impatience operates in confident hope, trusting that God is the one who ultimately will bring about a day of reckoning and transformation. God is the only one who can untangle all of us from injustice. Even as we seek to confront injustice, we are called to admit that we, too, have a tendency to harm others. We need God to save us and usher each of us into the whole and holy relationships of the promised new heaven and new earth.
That forward-looking hope does not mean we have the freedom to sit back while injustices are perpetuated here and now. Rather, tempered impatience calls us to “protest and resist all that harms, abuses, or diminishes the gift of life” (Our World Belongs to God, 44). The Belhar Confession testifies that “the church must therefore stand by people in any form of suffering and need, which implies, among other things, that the church must witness against and strive against any form of injustice, so that justice may roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Belhar Confession, Article 4). These discipleship resources make clear that following Jesus Christ faithfully includes actively protesting and resisting injustice in our contexts today, even as we anticipate the coming day when all will flourish together in the new creation.
To this end, tempered impatience cannot merely be a personal response. Rather, it calls for the whole church, with all of its institutional power and influence, to actively participate in resisting “any form of suffering and need” and to “witness against and strive against any form of injustice.” The church—and all who belong within it—does not exist for itself, but has been created and called to be “a sign, instrument, and foretaste,” as missiologist Lesslie Newbigin said, of the righteousness, justice, and shalom of Jesus’ coming kingdom.
Practically Speaking: So Now What?
So what does living with tempered impatience look like? Admittedly, I’m still learning and will be learning for a long time to come. I need the wisdom and experience of others not only to recognize and protest the injustices in the world out there, but also to name, repent of, and overcome the ways that I personally harm others.
Living with tempered impatience will look different in each of our contexts because injustice is so often entrenched in the particular systems and structures of our respective communities. That makes it difficult to provide a universal road map for living justly. But there are people (such as Brenda Salter McNeil, John Perkins, and Soong Chan Rah) and organizations (for example, Equal Justice Initiative and World Renew) from whom we can learn practical steps for acting justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with our God (Mic. 6:8). Listening to voices like theirs helps equip all of us to love our neighbors more fully and more faithfully than we’ve done before.
As I am learning in this season, overcoming the sin of excessive patience and instead seeking justice involves publicly choosing what is good for our neighbors over the advantages we could gain for ourselves. Those of us called by the name of Christ are not invited into a lifestyle of passive comfort and indifference about this world. Rather, we have been given the gift and responsibility of tempered impatience, to protest and resist injustice in every form and to do all that we can to protect our neighbors from harm, even as we cry out, “Come, Lord Jesus. Come quickly.”
- How often have you heard of the distinction between the sins of commission and the sins of omission? How would you describe it, and what examples would you give for it?
- What are some examples of “excessive patience” in your life or that you have observed?
- “Patience with people … does not mean we are patient with the harm they inflict.” How might this distinction be helpful to you?
- How often have you read or heard Christian thinkers or writers who are Black, Indigenous or people of color? What have you, or will you, read?