8 The Lord is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. – Psalm 145:8 ESV
18 The Lord is slow to anger and filled with unfailing love, forgiving every kind of sin and rebellion. But he does not excuse the guilty. He lays the sins of the parents upon their children; the entire family is affected—even children in the third and fourth generations. – Numbers 14:18 NLT
9 The Lord isn’t really being slow about his promise, as some people think. No, he is being patient for your sake. He does not want anyone to be destroyed, but wants everyone to repent. 10 But the day of the Lord will come as unexpectedly as a thief. Then the heavens will pass away with a terrible noise, and the very elements themselves will disappear in fire, and the earth and everything on it will be found to deserve judgment. – 2 Peter 3:9-10 NLT
The patience of God. We all desperately depend upon it because, without it, we would be in trouble. Most of us understand the holiness of God and have no trouble recognizing that we are anything but holy. So, we count on God’s longsuffering nature to overlook our many shortcomings. We memorize verses that speak of God’s slowness to get angry. We meditate on those passages that speak of His unfailing love. The doctrines of His mercy and grace become near and dear to us. In fact, Exodus 34:6 combines many of these attributes of God into a single verse.
The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness…
David wrote about these very same characteristics in one of his psalms.
The Lord is merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
He will not always chide,
nor will he keep his anger forever.
He does not deal with us according to our sins,
nor repay us according to our iniquities. – Psalm 103:8-10 ESV
The mercy, grace, and patience of God go hand in hand, but they remain separate and distinct qualities or attributes of God. Wayne Grudem provides us with succinct definitions for each of them.
God’s mercy means God’s goodness toward those in misery and distress
God’s grace means God’s goodness toward those who deserve only punishment
God’s patience means God’s goodness in withholding of punishment toward those who sin over a period of time – Wayne Gruden, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine
All three are expressions of God’s inherent goodness. We know He is good because He is merciful, gracious, and patient. And we regularly find ourselves the undeserving recipients of His mercy, grace, and patience. Yet of these three, His patience is the one we tend to take for granted the most. Notice Gruden’s definition. He specifically states that Go’s patience is His withholding of well-deserved punishment from those who have sinned repeatedly and regularly. Their activity warrants God’s judgment but instead, He responds in patience.
The apostle Paul describes this as God’s forbearance. In chapter 3 of Roman, Paul writes about “Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins” (Romans 3:24-25 ESV). The Greek word Paul used is anochē and it can also be translated as self-restraint or tolerance. It involves a wilful action on God’s part to acknowledge the sins of men while choosing to withhold His divine judgment for a time. It does not mean that God “overlooks” or “excuses” our sin. To do so would be out of character for God. It would go against His very nature. But as Paul states, God was willing to put on hold His condemnation of man’s sin because He knew He was sending His Son as the propitiation or means of providing a satisfactory solution for the problem.
God could have punished all mankind and been totally just in doing so. As Paul states, “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23 NLT), and God, as the righteous judge of the universe, would have been right and just for pronouncing and carrying out judgment upon all humanity. But He showed patience instead. He postponed the inevitable because He was about to do the unimaginable.
God was going to send His own Son as the payment for mankind’s sin debt. And that debt was formidable and well-deserved. Paul describes mankind as…
…full of every kind of wickedness, sin, greed, hate, envy, murder, quarreling, deception, malicious behavior, and gossip. They are backstabbers, haters of God, insolent, proud, and boastful. They invent new ways of sinning, and they disobey their parents. They refuse to understand, break their promises, are heartless, and have no mercy. They know God’s justice requires that those who do these things deserve to die, yet they do them anyway. Worse yet, they encourage others to do them, too. – Romans 1:29-33 NLT
Paul goes on to say that this sad description of mankind’s state was universal and all-inclusive.
…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. – Romans 3:23 NLT
All deserved to die, but God was willing to forego the inevitable until the time came when He could send His Son into the world. And God’s timing was perfect.
When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners. – Romans 6 NLT
Just one verse later, Paul adds, “God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners” (Romans 5:8 NLT). A lot of time had passed since that day on which God made mankind after His own image to the moment when He sent His Son, in the form of a man, but bearing the image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15). And with each passing century, God displayed His divine patience, postponing His right to mete out His wrath upon sinful humanity, in order that He might one day display His love through the sacrifice of His own Son.
Paul reminds us that God “did not spare even his own Son but gave him up for us all” (Romans 8:32 NLT). God’s patience and love are inseparable. God was willing to wait because He wanted to shower His undeserved love on His creation.
For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. God sent his Son into the world not to judge the world, but to save the world through him. – John 3:16-17 NLT
A. W. Tozer describes God’s patience in this way:
The patience of God is that excellency which causes Him to sustain great injuries without immediately avenging Himself. He has a power of patience as well as a power of justice. – A. W. Tozer, The Attributes of God
God has the power to judge. But He also possesses the power to forego judgment for a season. Because of our sin natures, we can end up using any power we possess as a weapon. The evil in our hearts causes power to go to our heads, resulting in injustice and inequity. We become the judge, jury, and executioner, meting out our brand of vigilante justice rather than choosing to show patience, mercy, and grace. Part of the problem is that we lack the strength to control our own power. Unlike God, we do not possess the self-control that would allow us to replace our need for justice with a desire to show loving patience.
In Matthew’s gospel he records a parable by Jesus designed to illustrate the Kingdom of Heaven.
“Therefore, the Kingdom of Heaven can be compared to a king who decided to bring his accounts up to date with servants who had borrowed money from him. In the process, one of his debtors was brought in who owed him millions of dollars. He couldn’t pay, so his master ordered that he be sold—along with his wife, his children, and everything he owned—to pay the debt.
“But the man fell down before his master and begged him, ‘Please, be patient with me, and I will pay it all.’ Then his master was filled with pity for him, and he released him and forgave his debt.” – Matthew 18:23-27 NLT
The servant owed more than he could ever pay, so he begged his master for patience. To his shock and surprise, he received the complete forgiveness of his debt. But the story goes on.
“But when the man left the king, he went to a fellow servant who owed him a few thousand dollars. He grabbed him by the throat and demanded instant payment.
“His fellow servant fell down before him and begged for a little more time. ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it,’ he pleaded. But his creditor wouldn’t wait. He had the man arrested and put in prison until the debt could be paid in full.” – Matthew 18:28-30 NLT
The king, who possessed great power, showed remarkable patience. The servant, who had been the recipient of the king’s undeserved patience, showed his own sinful heart by having his fellow servant thrown into jail. This man had been more than willing to accept the gracious, merciful, and loving gift of the king’s patience and forgiveness. But he was unwilling to pass on the goodness of his master to his fellow servant.
We must never undervalue or overlook the patience of God. It is on display all around us. We are daily the recipients of it. A. W. Tozer reminds us to consider the wonderful reality of the patience of God.
How wondrous is God’s patience with the world today. On every side people are sinning with a high hand. The divine law is trampled underfoot and God Himself openly despised. It is truly amazing that He does not instantly strike dead those who so brazenly defy Him. Why does He not suddenly cut off the haughty infidel and blatant blasphemer, as He did Ananias and Sapphira? Why does He not cause the earth to open its mouth and devour the persecutors of His people, so that, like Dathan and Abiram, they shall go down alive into the Pit? And what of apostate Christendom, where every possible form of sin is now tolerated and practiced under cover of the holy name of Christ? Why does not the righteous wrath of Heaven make an end of such abominations? Only one answer is possible: because God bears with “ much longsuffering the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction.” – A. W. Tozer, The Attributes of God
English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.