Spiritual Patience

Spiritual Patience

by Robert Hamerton-Kelly

July 17, 2005

Scripture: Romans 8:12-25; Matthew 13:24-30,36-43

“But if we hope for what we do not see we wait for it with patience.” –Romans 8:25

Both our readings for today might be seen as lessons in patience and warnings against impatience. The parable told by Jesus calls us to wait until the final judgment before we judge one another – when, of course, the judging will be done not by us but by God, – and Paul tells us to endure our current trials and tribulations in a spirit not of frustration but of hope. The patience in question here is spiritual patience, that is, “big picture” patience, as distinct from the “small picture” patience we all need when we deal with each other day by day. In military terms it is strategic rather than tactical patience. “Big picture” patience encompasses the human condition and the whole world; it is part of the long-term grand strategy of human life. Its opposite, impatience, usually appears as a “righteous indignation” aimed at “those others” who continually mess up the larger canvass of life. Spiritual impatience frets because the picture of the human condition has so many reds and blacks in its composition, so much blood and willful blindness, and wants to take decisive action now to repaint the portrait of humanity in happier colors. Jesus and his apostle Paul warn against this spiritual impatience for very good reason. History shows that it is the single most fruitful cause of cruelty, manipulation and mayhem.

Jesus tells us to leave the weeds growing amongst the wheat because if we try to pull them up before harvest time we shall damage too much of the good crop. And in any case we are not competent to judge, not then, at the end, and certainly not now, before the end; and in any case judgment is the work of God and the angels.
Paul tells us to endure our present sufferings patiently because we have a good and realistic hope that they will end with our victory. The whole universe, he says, groans with us under the present circumstances, and together we are all waiting for the time when the truth will emerge victorious, and we with it.

These are basic teachings of Jesus as well as obvious rules of simple prudence. It is prudent to be patient. The AA prayer of Reinhold Niebuhr is a classic statement of this holy prudence: “God give me the grace to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” That wisdom is the wisdom of prudence, which is a form of patience.

Let us now apply this lesson of Jesus and the Apostle to our present circumstances. Last Friday Doonesbury had the effete journalist Hedley interview a terrorist with a red sack over his head. “Why do you do it Mr. al-Jarazz?” he asks. “Not for the reasons you might expect,” al-Jarazz replies. “Not to expel foreign invaders from Arab lands, not to avenge the deaths of thousands of our men, women and children at American hands, not even for the heavenly rewards I shall receive, but simply because being an evildoer I hate freedom!” “So it’s true!” exclaims Hedley.

The mind that believes this to be the real motivation of the Iraq insurgents and other terrorists is of course dangerously naïve, and is appropriately satirized in the comic strip. It is, however, the reason given from time to time by the deep thinkers in our current administration, beginning from the top, and it is of course risible. It is plausibly a symptom of a common religious way of thinking by means of absolute distinctions. I well remember Sen. McCain’s response to the question why they hate us, “Because we are good and they are evil.”
Setting aside for the moment the delusion of McCain’s claim, by our parable for today Jesus explicitly forbids acting on the basis of such judgments. You might believe you know who are the weeds but you are not to act to uproot them. Many, perhaps most of those who support this kind of absolutist political analysis are zealous Christians, and our administration does not discourage the notion that they are acting for Christ against evildoers, pulling up the weeds so that the wheat may grow better. We, of course are the wheat, and they are the weeds.

So we set out proactively to extirpate the evildoers abroad, and defensively to protect the homeland. Through a series of policy decisions that can only be described as delusional, a word a NYT editorial used to describe the President’s recent speech on staying the course in Iraq, we are now paying 2 billion a week in money and a hundred plus in lives Iraq. Worldwide terrorist acts are at their highest rate ever! It cannot be doubted that our activity in Iraq is achieving the opposite of what our policy intends. We are causing a high level of recruitment and training of terrorists, while last week the Washington budget makers greatly reduced the money available for protection of urban mass transit, and the congress distributes security money on the old pork barrel principle and not according to the objective needs of security.

So while we are agreed that the number one threat is a nuclear device in an urban area our ports do not have technology to sniff out nuclear material in containers, we do not adequately inspect the 6 million containers that come in every year, and there is no money to move ahead to meet those needs, because we are spending too much to create terrorists in Iraq. Instead of going after real weapons of mass destruction patiently, we are wasting our young blood and old treasure on a fool’s errand that began as a chase after bogus wmds and now is a just a fool’s errand per se, while our enemies grow cannier and more motivated.

I believe that the present tragedy in which we are involved, and I use the term precisely to describe a sort of madness that the gods give to those they intend to destroy, is due in large part to a Christian misreading of Christ, especially the kind of teaching in our parable. Our Christian leaders want to uproot tyranny abroad and plant democracy, they want to bring freedom to the peoples of the Middle East, and they are making a gargantuan sacrifice of our lives and resources to do it. They are uprooting the weeds of tyranny so that the wheat of liberty may grow, and they have no regard for the warning of Jesus against such zeal. The result will be dire; Jesus does not usually get it wrong.

Now I don’t want to be caught doing the things I preach against, trying to read politics as a clash of opposites, making the wagers of this foolish war evildoers, weeds that I want to uproot. So far as I am human I do want to do that; so far as I am prudent, prudent enough to listen to Jesus, I am content to offer criticism as my contribution to the communal pot of wisdom in the hope that our nation will sooner or later become wise again. And of course it will. Perhaps 9/11 caused a temporary madness, a spiritual panic? Perhaps it caused us to overreact and set out to change the world when we should simply have acted prudently and patiently to save ourselves. It’s that “changing the world” desire that is so dangerous. There has not been a tyrant in history who did not believe that, regrettably, he had to kill people x or class y in order to make the whole rest of the world safe. What would Jesus say? “Leave the weeds to grow, defend yourself as you have to, and do not be too ambitious. Trust in God.”

I have been talking strategically, in terms of the big picture, and criticizing policies that are too ambitious, that desire too much. Let me bring our reflections to the tactical level so that we may in conclusion see the issue up close. I bet there is not one of us here that is not struggling with one or more chronic afflictions. Only Chet knows how many pills I take each day, and I daresay in that I am not different from most of you. We endure our afflictions patiently and humbly, while we take every legal and rational measure to alleviate our symptoms or even cure them. The latter happens less and less as we get older. We just manage patiently. The world as a whole is like that; its afflictions are chronic, and if we try too hard to cure the disease we kill the patient. Jesus’ parable recognizes that, and blesses our condition.

And this brings me to our Pauline passage on patience and hope in the throes of this patient endurance. I try to live in the supernaturally grounded hope Paul sets forth here, and I hope you will too. “I consider the sufferings of this present time not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us…because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God…For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience (Rom. 8:18-25).”