Where are the lines of separation in the continuum that moves from impatience to patience to passivity?
If patience is a virtue to which Christians aspire, then impatience – on one side – and passivity – on the other side – are temptations to which Christians often succumb.
The biblical witness speaks about patience.
Writing about injustice, the Apostle James instructed: “Be patient.”
He was giving advice to early Christians who were oppressed by the wealthy. He charged that the wealthy oppressors had withheld the wages of the day laborers and destroyed the righteous ones. He said the righteous had not resisted harmful actions of the wealthy (James 5:1-8).
To illustrate the discipline of patience, James pointed to the farmer who patiently waited on the rains for his crops. The farmer knew the critical nature of the conditions upon which he depended.
The Bible offers other stories and words about patience.
Jacob patiently waited seven years to marry Rachel (Genesis 29:15-30), while King Saul lost the blessing of establishing his kingdom over Israel because he was impatient (1 Samuel 13:8-14).
The prophet Isaiah said: “They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength” (Isaiah 40:31). Waiting – being patient – had benefits.
If the Bible steers us toward the practice of patience, perhaps a number of contemporary factors direct us toward impatience.
Our culture of instant gratification creates impatience. Some think they ought to have whatever it is they want when they want it.
Our ethos of entitlement fuels impatience. Some think they are so special that they are entitled to say and do whatever they want, regardless of their lack of qualifications and experiences.
Our technology lures us toward impatience. Twitter tempts us to tweet before we think. Facebook, text messaging and e-mail demand and provide platforms for impulsiveness.
Rather than prudently waiting, we click send. Rather than patiently building wealth through hard work, sacrifice and savings, we lurch in the opposite direction toward conspicuous consumption and debt.
Rather than gradually achieving academic success, we take shortcuts. Rather than growing churches in healthy ways, we succumb to gimmicks and entertainment.
Rather than earning the right to leadership, we want to vault to the top. Rather than building a moral case for social justice, we spout off, thinking that ticking off folk is being prophetic.
If impatience pulls against patience on one side, then passivity pulls against patience from another side.
Too often, Christians follow the path of passivity, confusing it with patience. We let untruthfulness stand, hoping others will speak up. We allow injustice to go unchallenged, thinking the time is not right. We ignore wrongdoing, believing in due season correction will occur.
Perhaps at the heart of our passivity is some misguided theology or misused biblical text.
“For everything there is a season” (Ecclesiastes 3:1) is cited to justify inaction. “God’s in control” is another citation for passivity in the face of injustice. “Be subject to the state” is yet another argument for tolerating unjust laws.
Knowing where the line is between patience and passivity is difficult.
Where is the line between active waiting and avoidance? Where is the line between the right time to act and the acceptance of wrong?
On the other hand, where’s the line between patience and impatience? Where is the line between acting in the fullness of time and acting prematurely?
We face a continuum from impatience to patience to passivity. And most of us slide up and down that scale, determined more by circumstances and condition than by moral discernment.
Maybe the first step in practicing discernment is recognizing this continuum.
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics. Follow him on Twitter at RobertParham1 and friend him on Facebook.
Robert M. Parham (1953 – 2017) was the founder and executive director of Baptist Center for Ethics from 1991 to 2017. He served as executive editor of EthicsDaily.com, BCE’s website, from its launch in 2002 until 2017.