We have now reached the fourth of the apostle Paul’s list of the fruit of the Spirit: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, Meekness, temperance: against such there is no law” (Galatians 5.22-23).
The Greek word μακροθυμία, makrothumia (Strong’s Concordance, Greek Dictionary, number 3115), has been well translated by the English compound word longsuffering. The English word patience is also sometimes used to translate makrothumia, but longsuffering brings out more of the meaning in the Greek word.1 The word has two components: μακρος, makros (Greek 3117) meaning long, tall, or far; θυμός, thumos (Greek 2372)2 meaning a hard exhalation (producing vapour or smoke), and is used with the sense of having spirit, courage, anger, or fierceness—for any reason depending on context. The idea conveyed by makrothumia is that of patient endurance, humble waiting, bearing with someone or putting up with something for a long time before losing one’s temper or even letting out a sigh. In a word, longsuffering.
In Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians, he urged Christians to likewise “walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called” (Ephesians 4.1)—“With all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love” (v.2). Walking worthy of the Lord’s calling, as a true Christian, involves the kind of longsuffering that comes from “all lowliness and meekness”—not thinking of yourself too highly, but esteeming others better than yourself; the longsuffering that manifests in a forbearing or forgiving spirit that mercifully accommodates the failings of other Christians, and also toward people who (for all you know) may become Christians in the future. Longsuffering toward the Lord’s as-yet imperfect people is a fruit, or we could say a jewel, of the heart that loves and trusts the Lord in whatever circumstances he causes us to walk though in this world (cf. Luke 23.39; Acts 7.60).
Writing to the Christians at Colosse, Paul makes it known that he unceasingly prays to God for these “saints and faithful brethren.” In his petition to God he asks that they “might be filled with the knowledge of his will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding” (Colossians 1.2,9). Acquiring this knowledge of God’s will comes from a proper, Holy Spirit-taught study of God’s special revelation—the Holy Scriptures. By this same wisdom and spiritual understanding we too “might walk worthy of the Lord unto all pleasing, being fruitful in every good work, and increasing in the knowledge of God; Strengthened with all might, according to his glorious power, unto all patience3 and longsuffering with joyfulness; Giving thanks unto the Father, which hath made us meet to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light: Who hath delivered us from the power of darkness, and hath translated us into the kingdom of his dear Son…” (vv.10-13).
Our longsuffering toward Christian brothers and sisters involves love for our neighbor (according to our Lord’s second great commandment) and a forbearing spirit (Ephesians 4.2). Whereas our longsuffering toward God involves learning his word and ways, and it is accompanied by a love for God (Christ’s great commandment) and a trusting joy in his outworking purposes of salvation (Colossians 1.10-13). (For these commandments see Matthew 22.35-40.) Christians do not turn against God when they have difficulties in their life and relationships, but their God-glorifying lowliness and meekness manifests in their continued longsuffering—both toward God and toward the people in their life (e.g. Acts 20.19).
In Paul’s teaching in Colossians, notice that there is a virtuous upward spiral in the Christian life: learning God’s word, living God’s word, learning more of God’s word, and living God’s word even more. Longsuffering, in which the Christian remains Christian and increases in his or her personal Christianity, is an integral part of the Christian life that grows from their inner strengthening by the Holy Spirit, so that they persevere in the life of faith and obedience to God’s word. This longsuffering life, if we walk in it as we are commanded, is the fruit of the Holy Spirit within us. It is a mark of God’s grace in our experience.
Paul circles back later in his epistle to give more instruction on how the Christian’s longsuffering manifests outwardly toward fellow Christians (he also taught the Colossians the same things as he taught the Ephesians): “Put on therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, longsuffering; Forbearing one another, and forgiving one another, if any man have a quarrel against any: even as Christ forgave you, so also do ye. And above all these things put on charity, which is the bond of perfectness. And let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to the which also ye are called in one body; and be ye thankful” (3.12-15).
Christian, your love for your God and your neighbour—this “bond of perfectness”—may often require longsuffering. Or, as Paul explained it to the Corinthians using the same Greek word: “charity suffereth long” (1 Corinthians 13.4).
Continuing with Colossians, in chapter 3 we see that the apostle spirals up to another cycle of intense study of God’s word, leading to further advances in the Christian life: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord. And whatsoever ye do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God and the Father by him” (Colossians 3.16-17). Following this dwelling richly in the word of Christ, the Book of Psalms, Paul immediately mentions several applications for practical Christian living: “whatsoever ye do.” In all these, Paul explains and exemplifies what this love, including longsuffering, can involve: wives submitting to their husbands; husbands loving their wives; children obeying their parents; household, company, and civil servants working for their employers with more than mere “eyeservice” (v.18 ff.)
The Bible often speaks of God’s longsuffering (makrothumia) toward his people. The apostle Peter speaks of how it was with longsuffering that God waited in the days of Noah while the massive ark was being built, and the preacher of righteousness preached to his family and to the ungodly mockers who came to see him while he was building, up until the animals migrated in and the door was shut (1 Peter 3.20 with 2 Peter 2.5). We also read in 2 Peter that “The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance” (3.9). “And account that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation; even as our beloved brother Paul also according to the wisdom given unto him hath written unto you” (3.15).
Following Peter’s lead, we look to our beloved brother Paul’s writings on how the longsuffering of the Lord is salvation. Paul writes about how God waits for sinners to turn to him in repentance: “Or despisest thou the riches of his goodness and forbearance and longsuffering; not knowing that the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance?” (Romans 2.4). We should all be astounded and humbled and truly thankful for the goodness and forbearance and longsuffering that God has already shown toward us, even in his doing so much good to us in his providence before we responded to his gospel call (see also where Paul preached the same in Acts 14.17; 17.24-28). And let us ever be mindful about how God is dealing with us even at this moment!
Where Paul writes about God’s longsuffering and salvation later in Romans, he is responding to those men who speak against God and blame him for their sins. No, says Paul, that’s not the way it is. But while God continues this present age in his providence, and while sinners keep on going in their wicked ways, God is still calling his elect to himself out of every nation by the gospel. “What if God, willing to shew his wrath, and to make his power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction: And that he might make known the riches of his glory on the vessels of mercy, which he had afore prepared unto glory, Even us, whom he hath called, not of the Jews only, but also of the Gentiles?” (Romans 9.22-24).
All these New Testament scriptures should remind us of how God’s attribute of longsuffering4 is revealed in the Old Testament. God showed himself to Moses to be the God of longsuffering toward his people: “And the LORD passed by before him, and proclaimed, The LORD, The LORD God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth” (Exodus 34.6). “The LORD is longsuffering, and of great mercy, forgiving iniquity and transgression, and by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation” (Numbers 14.18). The Psalmist also knew the God of longsuffering: “But thou, O Lord, art a God full of compassion, and gracious, longsuffering, and plenteous in mercy and truth” (Psalms 86.15). And so did the prophet Jeremiah: “O LORD, thou knowest: remember me, and visit me, and revenge me of my persecutors; take me not away in thy longsuffering: know that for thy sake I have suffered rebuke” (Jeremiah 15.15).
Where the fruit of the Holy Spirit, longsuffering, grows in the Christian heart, there our impatience withers and falls away. We may often struggle with such questions as “Why does God allow a-b-c?” or “Why does God not prevent x-y-z?” When we do so, we know that we should turn to God and humbly pray “How long?” (Psalms 6.3; 13.2; 35.7; 80.4; 89.6; 90.13; 94.3). Then, when we rest in the Lord (Matthew 11.28; Psalms 23.1-3) and trust in his promises that we shall not perish, and that he will never leave us, and that he will work all things together for our good (John 3.16; Hebrews 13.5; Romans 8.28)—and especially when our trusting in God culminates in our praying, “Thy will be done” Matthew 6.10; cf. Luke 22.42; Acts 21.14)—in all this our spiritual fruit of longsuffering is manifested.
And the fortieth Psalm becomes our heart and life: “I waited patiently for the LORD; and he inclined unto me, and heard my cry. He brought me up also out of an horrible pit, out of the miry clay, and set my feet upon a rock, and established my goings. And he hath put a new song in my mouth, even praise unto our God: many shall see it, and fear, and shall trust in the LORD” (Psalms 40.1-6).
The word patience was available to William Tyndale when he translated from the New Testament Greek to the English, and he translated it that way elsewhere, but in Galatians 5.22 he opted to use the compound word longsuffering. Later, in the KJV (AV), makrothumia is more often translated as “longsuffering,” but a few times it remains as “patience” or “long patience.” ↩︎
It is interesting to compare how thumos is used in other Greek words, and how these are translated in our Bible: ἀθυμέω, athumeo (Greek 120): lose heart, disheartened, discouraged (e.g. Colossians 3.21); εὔθυμος, euthumos (Greek 2115): in fine spirit, cheerful, encouraged (Acts 24.10; 27.36); ἐνθυμέομαι, enthumeomai (Greek 1760): (something) in mind, reflecting upon, pondering (Matthew 1.20); ἐπιθυμέω, epithumeo (Greek 1937): set the heart upon, covet, desire, crave, lust after (Matthew 5:28; 13:17); ὁμοθυμαδόν, homothumadon (Greek 3661): one mind, one accord (e.g. Acts 1.14); προθυμία, prothumia (Greek 4288): readiness of mind, predisposition, willingness (2 Corinthians 8.11). ↩︎
This translates the New Testament’s other word for patience: ὑπομονή, hupomone, meaning endurance, steadfastness (Strong’s Concordance, Greek Dictionary, number 5281). ↩︎
The Hebrew words translated “longsuffering” in these verses are אָרֵךְ (arek) meaning long or slow (Strong’s Concordance, Hebrew Dictionary, number 750), and אַף (aph) meaning nostril, nose, face, or anger (Hebrew 639). This word is also translated “slow to anger” in e.g. Psalms 103.8; 145.8; Joel. 2.13; Nahum 1.3. We note with interest that the meaning of the Greek word μακροθυμία is patterned after the Hebrew—and so also is the English word longsuffering. ↩︎